Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Justin Robinson's FIFTY FEET OF TROUBLE

The best Halloween present a pulp/noir/monster fiction fan could possibly get is a new Justin Robinson novel, and that is exactly what happened this year.* A sequel to his almost-illegally-too-fun City of Devils, it's Fifty Feet of Trouble.

Once again, our guide through the madness is Nick Moss, the last human private eye in Los Angeles, finder of missing persons, encounterer (sure, that's a word. Now.) of the titular trouble.** Which starts off in sort of the same vein as last novel, but has with it a whole weight of emotional baggage that you just don't have to deal with when a doppelganger of no previous acquaintance asks you to find her missing mummy husband.

This time around, Nick's quarry is human (Still. We Hope.), but not only is she human, she is a little girl, and not only is she a little girl, but she is the daughter of two close and dear friends who fought with him in the Night War (the conflict after WWII when the Monsters Took Over), and not only are they his close and dear friends but they already lost a child to the monsters and... see where this is going? There are several sub-plots that tie into this main one, but the missing little girl quest is the armature on which all of the other stuff hangs like a fifty-foot [REDACTED] off a giant floating stone [REDACTED]. 

So where City of Devils was mostly a slapstick romp with some moments of hilarious danger, there is a mature and emotionally powerful undertone to our hero's quest this time around. Be assured, though: this doesn't detract from the fun of reading it; it enhances it. And yes, there's still silly monster stuff. For instance, one of Nick's other assignments is finding a magical missing toad, so a witch friend of his can continue casting spells.

So, as I said on GoodReads, I wasn't expecting this to be Justin Robinson's best novel yet, but it's his best novel yet. The comedy and tragedy set each other off to perfection (a paragraph after a line that makes you howl with laughter and want to read pages aloud to some hapless stranger, there's a gut punch ready to knock you out cold), the new characters are beautifully realized, and the new over-the-top villains are used with admirable and judicious restraint,*** and no plot thread is left dangling. Like Nick and not-his-lady-friend off a giant floating stone [REDACTED].

So, if you're anything like me, you'll want to set aside a block of time to just utterly devote to this novel. Have some snacks ready. And some holy water. And some garlic. And some silver. And some salt. And a camera. And a bullhorn. Useful things, bullhorns. You just never know when you'll have to talk down a giant rampaging [REDACTED].

And, psst, best of all, Nick Moss has more adventures coming Not Soon Enough. Werewolf Confidential. Okay.

*What. Halloween presents are totally a thing. Where have you been? Well, yes, this first time I did have to buy it for myself, but I trust that this won't always be the case. Right? RIGHT?

**Now that I know Justin better -- he even blurbed my upcoming book -- I know exactly how much he loves words like "titular."

***You'll be glad of this. Reverend Bobo. I need a brandy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Christopher Bulis' CITY AT WORLD'S END

I'm not a huge fan of the First Doctor, on television or in prose, so my enthusiasm was on the low side as I started City At World's End, though the premise looked good: the TARDIS crew land on a planet that is doomed to utter destruction when its moon, recently knocked out of its proper orbit by a passing asteroid, crashes right into it. It looks superficially like the world's inhabitants are prepared. Superficially.

All is not as it seems, of course, as if ever the case in a Doctor Who story. The city, Arkhaven (nudge nudge nudge NUDGE NUDGE NUDGE NUDGE), has indeed built a giant spacecraft that can take a huge number of people to safety, and there seems to be an orderly evacuation plan, BUT, as the Doctor quickly susses out from his unfortunate position as an internee in a refugee camp, there's an awful lot about this situation that doesn't make sense. At all.

Wait, refugee camp? Yes. Wait, you didn't think they were going to evacuate the entire planet, did you? Save everybody? Give everyone an equal chance? Ha ha ha ha ha ha, then why would the Doctor be there?

For this doomed planet is hopelessly class-ridden, in so many ways. There's a hereditary aristocracy. There is a seriously powerful religious institution. There have been terrible wars that have driven the population to drastic measures that made for refugees even before the meteor showers began to randomly devastate huge swathes of the planet. And there are nasty secrets. All over the place.

So this is a perfect early Doctor Who-era story. Even the rocket as described just screams 1960s sci-fi. The social criticism, too, is of its era: no concerns about racism, sexism or ableism, just about how the Elites and the Church are so myopically concerned about preserving their privilege that they're hampering the technocrats' efforts to save the human race.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS crew. Of course they get split up early, so that Susan can get borderline fridged (but only for a little while) and Barbara can get put through hell. This launches both of them into pretty admirable Self-Rescuing Princess routines (though Barbara's is unquestionably the harder road) while the Doctor harumphingly Consults with the rocket builders and Discovers Secrets and Ian, well, to Ian's credit, at least this time around (unlike in the first First Doctor novel I read, Byzantium!) he spends most of his time trying to rescue one of the women (whom this novel persists in referring to as girls, I guess because history, or something?).

Like a lot of Doctor Who stories of any era, this one suffers a bit from just having too many adversaries/complications stirred into its plot. A setting of inherent jeopardy and difficulty, which is already hiding layers and layers of secrets, is also stalked by a weird monster called The Creeper, AND there is a weird but ultimately satisfying sub-plot around Susan's fridging, which sub-plot winds up being what propelled me through some of this novel's duller bits in the middle. Kudos to author Christopher Bulis for pulling that off! This lands him just above the middle in the Arbitrary & Mercurial authors list:

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
James Goss
Christopher Bulis
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

As for the Doctors, no change. The First Doctor is going to have to show me something more before he budges ahead of the Fifth. Or the Fifth is going to have to really tick me off. Time will tell (hee hee).

Doctors:

Twelfth
Ninth
Sixth
Eleventh
Third
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

And the answer I know you've all been waiting for, did Ian redeem himself out of last place? And the answer is, yes, to a degree. It's good that he actually went looking for Barbara (and later, Susan), but before he had that to do he was useless and really kind of a worry-wart spoil-sport, but that's not enough to leave him below Perpigilliam. In fact, he nudges ahead of Rose, Adric and Vicki! Woo! As for Susan, she didn't get to show me a whole lot, but what she did was pretty excellent, so she debuts on the list right after to Barbara, whom I picture emerging from the storm sewers and rubble with her fantastic 60s helmet hair perfectly unmussed and just the mandatory artful smudge of dirt marring her fantastic 60s make-up, because Barbara.

Companions:

Ace
Amy
Romana II
Rory
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Susan
Clara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Ian
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri

Friday, October 28, 2016

Winston Graham's THE ANGRY TIDE

As I joked recently on Twitter, I can always tell when a new batch of episodes of Poldark hits American or British TV because all of a sudden the page views for all of my prior Poldark book reviews shoot back up into the stratosphere (well, for this blog). I still haven't seen any of the latest series that is just now airing on PBS in the States, so I can't speak to how it compares to the books yet, but I figured the least I could do was take a break from all the Doctor Who and Gene Wolfe and give the Poldarkies something new to look at here at Kate of Mind.

The Angry Tide, the seventh "Novel of Cornwall" in the Poldark saga, starts earning its title right away. As is always the case in these books, the state of the sea reflects the emotional state of the characters living near it, and there's plenty of tempestuous wave action and passionate melodrama in and around Nampara, where our hero and heroine, whose marriage took another near-fatal blow last novel, reside.

And   they're getting used to other changes as well, are Ross and Demelza; last novel saw Ross getting elected to replace adversary George Warleggan as a Member of Parliament, and so has to spend at least some of his time in London now. A bit awkward, that, because of course last novel also saw wife Demelza tempted strongly to have an adulterous affair, and everybody knows that the best way to patch things up after a conflict like that is to put a few hundred miles between husband and wife.

But this is Demelza, though a very subdued and somewhat uncertain Demelza, who has learned some lessons since back in the day when she meddled freely in other people's love lives. She got mostly good results, granted, but at the cost of more than a little pain and awkwardness, so she's not so eager to plunge into that again, except....

Except her poor brothers! Both of them are in love with girls who seem pretty much perfect for them, but Sam's girl is intimidated by the prospect of marrying such a very ardent Methodist when she herself has a bit of a jolly past, and Drake, Drake's beloved was way above his social station and was pretty much forced into a marriage within her class but to a truly odious garbage person.

The course of this marriage, between Morwenna Chynoweth (a cousin of Ross' first love, Elizabeth, who is herself now married to that troublesome George Warleggan but went into said marriage with open eyes and strength) and local vicar Ossie Whitworth, is a big topic in the first half of The Angry Tide, though for most of the first half it's the one plot that doesn't have a lot of ebb and flow to it. Morwenna is a "plain girl with a beautiful body" as her husband thinks of her, while Ossie is your standard puffy, self-righteous C of E man who is also more than a bit of a lecher, and starts trying to manipulate the local medical community into agreeing with him that if Morwenna doesn't want to sleep with him (and she really, really, really doesn't, especially after reluctantly having a son by him), it MUST mean she's insane and should be put away somewhere so that Ossie can get on with his proper churchman's life with the help of, say, a reasonably attractive "housekeeper" to attend to his "needs."

Pardon me while I go and shower now.

Seriously, if you don't hate Ossie already (assuming you've read these books or seen the 1970s era Poldark TV adaptation or something), I'm not sure we can be friends, you guys.

Fortunately, there's the second half of the book, largely concerned with Demelza's first visit to London, its causes and consequences. As I mentioned before, Demelza has changed over the course of these books; there is very little of the poor miner's scraggly, boyish daughter left in her. So her time in London is not merely spent gawping and wide-eyed as once she was intimidated by a house party among the local gentry in Cornwall. She's still not entirely sure exactly how to behave, but she's learned to trust her instincts, and actually makes fewer mistakes than Ross.

She also gets a chance to shine at home, when a banking crisis forces quick thinking and quicker action while Ross is away. We've always known that Demelza is quite intelligent, but here we see that she has become shrewd. It's truly wonderful to see, especially when she is contrasted with the Chynoweth women, who are born to higher stations but who never really develop beyond that. You're not going to see, at any rate, a Novel of Cornwall named after any of them; Demelza's name was on the very second book!

As for the rest of The Angry Tide, well, it's a Poldark novel. Lots more political/military issues come to the fore as we are now contemporaneous with Napoleon's capture of Alexandria and Cairo and with Admiral Horatio Nelson's famous defeat of Napoleon at the famous Battle of the Nile (where, of course, our beloved Captain Jack Aubrey of Patrick O'Brian fame got his medal). There's lots more stuff to make fans of Blackadder the Third smile as George Warleggan strives to acquire a "robber botton" of his very own, and the prose continues to a delight. Seriously, you guys, if all you're doing is watching the new TV adaptation (or the original one, in which the guy who occasionally cameos as Dr. Halsey in the new show played Poldark) (but mostly kept his shirt on, admittedly), you're missing out. These novels are absolutely delightful, and they only get more so as the story moves on beyond what's been covered in (to date) either TV adaptation. Most of them are now available as ebooks; I'm sure eventually all will be as the new TV show creates new fans.

Here's hoping!

For now, I'm almost into dead tree reading, which I have difficulty doing due to chronic hand/arm/shoulder problems, but I'M GOING TO SUCK IT UP when the time comes, because these books are worth it!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS: The Claw of the Conciliator: Chapters 21 - 25


Has Severian yet received a shock as great as this? Entrusted with a vital message from his "hero"* Vodalus to the rebels' inside man at the House Absolute, he finds the Autarch himself in possession of the password!

As Chapter 21 opens, before Severian can decide what to do about this -- has the Autarch found the true contact and gotten the password out of him or her as a trap, maybe? -- Appian goes on to pretty much prove that he's the true contact and has taken the message, which Severian has kind of involuntarily pulled out of his murse, to read, saying that he had a feeling Severian was the one he'd been waiting for.

He doesn't let Severian see what the message contains as he puts the weird little piece of metal Vodalus encoded it onto, onto a sort of microfiche reader or something to read, but on reading it decides to entrust Severian with a singular sight. He has Severian fetch a gigantic "book" with "mirror" pages -- this is some kind of computer communications device with hologram technology, as is made clear when, as Severian looks at it, it projects a singular sight: a humanoid female form with butterfly wings, bright and glowing and obviously of a size that dwarfs anything on Urth, so that a flap of her wings disturbs the very substance of the universe itself.**

This sight, which is Severian's first of Tzadkiel, it's pretty generally understood by BotNS wonks, is so profound and shattering that it causes the blood vessels in Severian's forehead to burst, and prompts him to ask if the message from Vodalus told the recipient to kill the messenger. Appian kind of laughs this off, but then...

But then he's on about Severian's future plans. After his blood-sweating look at Tzadkiel, Severian has declared that he will henceforth be Appian's man, and reminds us that he wasn't really all that interested in serving Vodalus and...

But so, what's going on with Appian and Vodalus? It's pretty apparent that Vodalus doesn't know his contact in the palace is (now) Appian, but really -- is this Appian subverting the rebel movement? Or did he, like Wilford in Snowpiercer, somehow conspire in the rebellion's very creation? Possibly just as a delaying tactic to stave off what he knows is coming?


Rumble rumble, rattle, rattle, I don't wanna die


Dude, is my forehead still bleeding?

Dude, don't ask me; I'm way too old to be Vodalus

Appian alludes to this directly next, when he orders Severian to proceed with his original mission to Thrax (remember Thrax?), but to also strongly consider a side-quest to return the Claw to the Pelerines.

Well, of course the Autarch of the Commonwealth knows that Severian has the Claw.

Not that he's admitting to being the Autarch at this point. He apparently does not know that Severian has Head-Thecla, who recognized him immediately. No, he's still talking like he's just some schmoe with access to the Secret House (because I'm sure there are just dozens of those, right?) when he says "The Autarch is here, but long before you reach Thrax he will be in the north too, with the army. If he comes near Thrax, you are able to go to him. In time you will discover the way in which you must take his life."

Whoa!

But that remark of his barely has time to land before a hooded figure appears on the scene -- clues and patterns of presentation strongly hint that this is Father Inire himself in one of his many disguises -- and Appian has him escort Severian out of the House Absolute and off to rejoin the theatrical troupe.

On the way out, Severian has his first encounter with the Vatic Fountain, a water feature that foretells, somewhat obliquely, the querent's future if he or she chucks in a coin. What Severian sees is thus:

A sword. That seemed clear enough. I would continue a torturer. A rose then, and beneath it a river. I would climb Gyoll as I had planned, since that was the road to Thrax. Now angry waves, becoming soon a long, sullen swell. The sea, perhaps, but one could not reach the sea, I thought, by climbing toward the source of the river. A rod, a chair, a multitude of towers, and I began to think the oracular powers of the fountain, in which I had never greatly believed, to be wholly false. I turned away, but as I turned, I glimpsed a many pointed star, growing ever larger.

I'll buy the sword as signalling he'll keep on being a torturer for a while, sure, but what about all the other stuff? The rose is a symbol of the Conciliator, so that tracks; Severian carrying around a thorn from an ancient rose bush that is known in his day as the Claw of the Conciliator (and of course, through the timey-wimeyness of Tzadkiel's ship, he's got a destiny in the distant past of becoming the Conciliator). The river might as well be Gyoll, but he's got a date with Juturna soon on a sandbar in a tributary of Gyoll, too. The "long, sullen swell" of the sea is doubtless the great deluge that will swamp Urth and turn it into Ushas when Severian succeeds in re-igniting the sun. The rod and the chair probably allude to his future as the Autarch (and the Vatic Fountain once told Thecla she would one day seat a throne, which she certainly didn't do in her actual lifetime but totes does as Head-Thecla). The multitude of towers could just be a vision of the Citadel/Nessus, but might also be a vision of Tzadkiel's incredible ship. As for the star, well, duh.

So everything tracks pretty simply. For once. I'm sure there's more but not even Robert Borski has devoted too much time to puzzling out what that more might be, so I'm certainly not going to, because it's reunion time!

Dr. Talos, Jolenta, Baldanders and Dorcas are camped out in a pleasant clearing within the garden, awaiting the time when they are supposed to perform Talos' now-infamous play, "Eschatology and Genesis" for the House Absolute crowd (this time minus the "scare away the rubes and collect the dropsies bit" one might presume, but, uh, yeah, about that...).

Severian has a curious interaction with Baldanders straight off. We've understood to this point that only Jonas had managed to stick with Severian in the chaos at the Piteous Gate at the end of Shadow of the Torturer, but here's Severian asking him “why he had left me in the forest beyond the Piteous Gate.” So, um, yeah. Baldanders was along for a bit of the post-Gate adventure, but not much. And Baldanders isn't too forthcoming about this, saying “I was not with you. I was with my Dr. Talos.”***

But of course, for a little while, he wasn't, if Talos/Jolenta/Dorcas were separated from Severian/Jonas/Baldanders. And presumably there was some time when Baldanders wasn't with either, for an unknown length of time. This lacuna Robert Borski argues was spent getting it on with Juturna and her sisters, still searching for their Max to help them get free of Immortan Joe Abaia.

Hey, do we know for sure that Baldanders *doesn't* eat people?

I see nothing particularly compelling about his argument for this, but don't see anything wrong with it, either. The Brides are systematically interviewing candidates for the New Sun and Baldanders is one of them, and they've got to have seen him some time. Why not now?

Meanwhile, Dorcas. Dorcas is more interested in telling Severian what's been going on since Gate-gate, which chiefly involves her horrible, horrible dreams. In them, she has what seems like normal interactions with townspeople, shopping, eating, etc., but has a powerful sense that they regard her as unclean and horrifying. Severian tries to reassure her over and over again that she is none of those things, and they fall to conversing about how Dr. Talos calls them “Death and Innocence”, which Dorcas says she doesn't like because it feels like Talos is accusing Severian of something when he calls him “Death.”

But what about my little joke a couple of entries ago that it could be the reverse that is meant, that Dorcas is Death and Severian is Innocence? Dorcas is the one who's come back from the dead, after all, and Severian, at least as he portrays himself in his narration to us, is kind of blunderingly clueless most of the time.

Furthermore, I'd refer the really interested to this thread on Urth.net, in which members speculate about how Dorcas might actually be a vampire, or at least associated with them. She might have been an undead, unclean monster long before her original death back when she was young and married to the unnamed boatman who was searching the Lake of Birds for her corpse, which, the Lake of Birds is a somewhat unusual place to stash a corpse in this culture, which generally buries bodies in a cemetery, hence the first scenes of BotNS. Whether you buy this particular set of arguments or not, there's something a bit weird and uncanny about Dorcas, quite apart from the notion that she's actually Severian's grandmother.

And then there's Jolenta. Beautiful, sexy, voluptuous Jolenta, who draws hordes of admirers wherever she goes, and the gardens of the House Absolute are no exception. Surrounded by a bunch of performers from other shows, she is unceremoniously dragged away by Dr. Talos, who beats her. Severian points out that this is hardly her fault, but Talos doesn't care. He's just interested in order, I guess.

Poor Jolenta. As Severian observes, she's kind of all alone even within their troupe: “Dorcas and I had each other, Baldanders and the doctor their crooked friendship, and we came together in the performance of the play. Jolenta had only herself, the incessant performance whose sole goal was to garner admiration.”

This is a pretty crappy projection onto her on Severian's part, but it's going to get much worse. Jolenta, tired of all the hounding admirers and uninterested in/unable to (much is made of how her voluptuous fleshiness makes her unsuitable for any kind of actual work; her breasts are too big, her hips too wide, her round thighs chafe, etc.) help with setting up the stage and scenes for the performance, she talks Severian into going for a walk with her. She complains to him a lot about how it's not just men, but women, too, who hound her (the women usually offering her advice and protection from the men in suffocating ways, but they really, too, just want to sleep with her), and Severian just sort of clucks his tongue at her and then they wind up in a boat, with Severian rowing and Jolenta just kind of going to sleep because all that walking and complaining is fatiguing, and then... Yeah. One of the ickiest scenes in the whole series is this boat ride, because even as Severian muses about all of the nicer feelings he has for all of the other women in his life, his impulse towards Jolenta is to treat her like crap.

Jolenta's desire was no more than the desire to be desired, so that I wished, not to comfort her loneliness as I had wished to comfort Valeria's, nor to find expression for an aching love like the love I had for felt for Thecla, nor to protect her as I wished to protect Dorcas, but to shame and punish her, to destroy her self-possession, to fill her eyes with tears and tear her hair as one burns the hair of corpses to torment the ghosts that have fled them.
Yuck. There is just so much wrong with that passage. So much. More than any other bit of this whole series, that passage makes me doubt every single relationship Severian claims to have had with women, whom, let's recall, he pretty much always portrays as throwing themselves at him.

Believe me, I have the best memory. Really infallible memory. 
I remember everything. And I'm going to sue Jolenta. She's so fat, she's yuge.

Anyway, the question of whether it is or is not rape is not addressed by Severian, but I can't imagine this was exactly what Jolenta, who is actually in love with Dr. Talos, wanted out of this little excursion. Yuck.****

And of course, depending on how one is choosing to perceive Dorcas (and I must confess I kind of like the vampire theory), this interlude likely has even worse implications for Jolenta's future, for Dorcas, upon Severian's and Jolenta's rejoining the group, perceives what has happens and weeps with jealousy (according to Severian).

Then it's play time. Chapter 24 finally presents the text of “Eschatology and Genesis,” which is basically a hologram/puzzle of Severian's mission as the New Sun and its consequences. I skip it a lot, when re-reading, because I find it tiresome, its few illuminating bits just as well illuminated by other things in the novels, and I'm just not interested in going over it here. Besides, there's this bit, which feels an awful lot like Wolfe making fun of enterprises like mine:
There were conversations in the audience, and I could here those as well -- one about the play, which discovered in it significances I had never guessed and which Dr. Talos, I would say, had never intended.
Suffice it to say that it's performed, and performed pretty much the way they've been doing it for the rubes in the countryside, even to Baldanders' feigned psychotic break and attack on the audience, which wasn't supposed to happen this time; there's a whole fifth act to the play that they were going to do here. But nope.

The punters of the House Absolute, however, don't scare so easily. Many are armed, and fight back as Baldanders rampages through the audience. And someone “possessed that rarest of all weapons, a dream” which is flung at Baldanders, and envelops him, putting on a peculiar show as he stands there. “It seemed then that he stood wrapped in all that was past and much that had never been: a gray-haired woman sprouted from his side, a fishing boat hovered just over his head, and a cold wind whipped the flames that wreathed him.”

It's largely this imagery that convinces Borski that Baldanders has recently had a tryst with one or more of the Brides, under the sea, or at least deep in a river, about which, more next time.

The dream doesn't faze Baldanders a bit, though, and he keeps on smashing his way through the audience, some of whom are revealed to be – not human! Yes indeed, here there be some aliens, very likely ones we're going to get to know later on, namely the hierodules Famulimus, Barbatus and Ossipago, and Severian's first glimpse of them grosses him out but good. And in the chaos, he loses track of Dorcas, whom he takes off to locate while burdening us with his profound thoughts about the nature of men's love for women and the actual extent of the House Absolute as he blunders around in the dark overnight, encountering nature (including a monkey that some think is, somehow, yet another guise of Father Inire, because his face is described as “simian” and he sometimes carries a staff with a mummified monkey head on it) and finally giving up and going to sleep, where we shall leave him for now.

*I put "hero" in scare quotes because, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Severian's hero-worship of Vodalus makes no sense. I re-read the first chapter of Shadow of the Torturer a few times recently (because I'm still puzzling over who Vodalus and Thea were digging up when Severian came to their rescue), and Severian's explanation for how Vodalus captured his loyalty is circular and silly, even for a Severian explanation. First he says that Thea appears precious to him because of how fierce Vodalus is about protecting her, then he says that he finds Vodalus admirable for so fiercely protecting Thea. Bah. But when you factor in the presence of Head-Thecla (though yes, she wasn't there in his head at the time of his first meeting with Vodalus), whose influence is at times overt and at times quite subtle, a reason for becoming devoted to Vodalus emerges. Thecla's emotions and memories and loyalties are coloring Severian's memories of this first encounter, so he tells it as though he was instantly thunderstruck by the rebel leader. More likely, in Severian's usual way, he allowed himself passively to be maneuvered into a situation in which he sort of had to give Vodalus his loyalty, as he'd hit a point of no return in saving the man's life.

**Insert your own lame butterfly effect joke here.

***I love how he says “my Dr. Talos” here, as though Talos were his dog or something. The implication, of course, is not far wrong; we'll learn later on (and the idea has already been presented to us in “The Tale of the Student and His Son”) that Baldanders, far from being just a big dumb lump of muscle and bone, is a master of some weird knowledge, including the making of homunculi (models of humans that can be animated “magically”), and that Dr. Talos is, in fact, one of his creations – which is why Talos never takes a share of the money the troupe earns, and, presumably, why he is the only being on Urth who doesn't want to bone Jolenta.

****And if that's not yuck enough for you yet, this might also have been twincest, as Jolenta is a favorite candidate for Severian's missing twin sister, if such a sister actually exists.





Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Doctor Doctor: George Mann's DOCTOR WHO: ENGINES OF WAR

While I'm never now, thanks to Justin Robinson, going to be able to look at the War Doctor without thinking of the kind of old man who has definitely bought alcohol for a teenager at some point in his life (it's the fauxhawk), I loves me some War Doctor. His appearances have been slight -- one and a 100th of a TV episode, some great Big Finish audio stories, and now this novel -- but he's distinctively awesome, and not just because he's portrayed by the great John Hurt.

So I went into Engines of War with a bit of trepidation, because I just wasn't going to be able to bear it if it wasn't awesome.*

I needn't have worried.

A War Doctor story that's not just going to be another Doctor Who story that happens to feature this incarnation is a tall order, if it's going to be done at all decently. Where the 50th anniversary TV special that is still the only thing most people have encountered the War Doctor in went horribly wrong was in portraying the Time War as a shooting conflict seemingly taking place on just one planet. But this is supposed to be war on an unbelievably massive scale, in which "all of time and space are burning." How the hell do you portray that?

George Mann did a better job of it than the TV writers did, at least.**

The novel opens with a terrific battle scene, in which a giant fleet of "battle TARDISes" (think of a TARDIS with guns, basically) dukes it out with a Dalek stealth fleet that has been quietly waiting to ambush anything that passes through its part of the Vortex, and actually, to a certain degree, uses those battle TARDISes as TARDISes! Meaning time travel is a bit of a factor in the skirmish. Cool.

The War Doctor is the field commander for this conflict, more or less, but in the process he takes a hit and crashes onto a planet that is... Kind of special. Modox is one of a dozen or so human-colonized worlds in a system dominated by a strange-but-beautiful space-time anomaly referred to as the Eye of Tantalus, and the Daleks wanted it very badly.

Soon our man is exploring its secrets with the help of a don't-you-dare-call-her-plucky young Dalek hunter named Cinder (who is the most badass teenage girl in the history of ever, and a more than suitable companion for him, and even tougher than he has become) and what he finds is terrifying, gross and has huge implications for the Time War.

Which means, alas, we end up spending a good chunk of the novel on Gallifrey, which you know I find a tiresome proposition at best, but there you go. Borusa, a former teacher of the Doctor's who later made an ill-advised power play and got trapped for eternity as an embellishment on the tomb of Time Lord founder Rassilon, makes his third appearance in my personal novel-reading time line (he was also in Divided Loyalties and The Eight Doctors), but at least this time he's interesting. Ish.

Look, I find the Time Lords kind of one-dimensional and tedious, and think it's a mistake to base too much of a story on their society, politics or deliberations, but I get why we had to do it, here; it's nice to actually see them through the War Doctor's eyes and see that they more than live up to the hindsight glimpses we've had of them in wartime via the Doctor's later incarnations. As this novel's tag line says, war changes everything, even the Doctor. But, well, the Time Lords don't seem all that different to me, except in that they are now talking about deploying some truly heinous weapons and wreaking destruction on a truly heinous scale. Because Delenda est Carthago the Daleks must be stopped or the whole universe yada yada.

But still no Nightmare Child, etc. Which is both smart, in that they could never live up to the build-up those things get when the Tenth Doctor rants about them on TV, but also a tiny bit disappointing.***

What does get deployed, though, is fully timey-wimey, as is the way the Doctor deals with it, which is very, very satisfying.

And so, ultimately, is this book, Gallifrey scenes aside. And even those Gallifrey scenes? Way better than those in The Day of the Doctor.

As for my Arbitrary and Mercurial rankings, they're maybe not living up to that second adjective so much, for little changes.

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
James Goss
George Mann
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

Doctors:

Twelfth
Ninth
Sixth
Eleventh
Third
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Amy
Romana II
Rory
Jamie
Cinder
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Clara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian

Next time: another First Doctor novel! Can Ian possibly redeem himself enough to at least move ahead of Peri in my companion rankings? Where will Susan land on this list? And what about the First Doctor, whom I always want to like but who always annoys me and lets me down? Stay tuned.

*And because author George Mann has written more Torchwood fiction than anything else. Torchwood! I mean come on, except for Children of Earth, that's just foolishness!

**I know, I know, he's got the unfair advantage that all novelists have over makers of  film and TV, an unlimited special effects budget. But still.

***Though it lets me hang on to my pet theory that that creepy and tantalizing phrase, The Nightmare Child, might actually be a reference to the Doctor in this incarnation. I thought maybe it would be a new appellation for him bestowed by the Daleks, for instance. But the one used by them in this novel is fine.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: James Goss' THE BLOOD CELL

And so now my first cycle through the extant Doctors as of this writing is complete with this, The Blood Cell, a novel featuring the Twelfth Doctor (hooray!) and Clara (eh). Do please pardon me while I have some feelings.

OK.

The Blood Cell, part of an early spate of novels featuring this duo -- officially published in September 2014, it appears to have hit NetGalley before most of us had even seen a full episode with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. And yet author James Goss had figured out exactly what the Twelfth Doctor was going to be like, and did so long before the TV writers seem to have done! And this is not to say that Goss just binged on episodes of In the Loop and projected Malcolm Effing Tucker onto the character of the Doctor; he got a lot more right, too, as I'll discuss in a moment.

Nor is this the only thing to admire about The Blood Cell, which also features two other things that I just love when they are done well: a locked room mystery, and an unreliable narrator. I mean, who's been peeking at my Christmas list, right?

The Blood Cell opens in an extremely high security prison, wherein a prison official is interrogating the newest inmate. There is some nice ambiguity in the first page or so as to which of them might be the Doctor, and I'm going to try really hard not to spoil that for you, but...

One of the things that really makes the Twelfth Doctor shine is his perfect self-assurance, which is so perfect that the man genuinely has nothing left to prove. He so absolutely does not care what anyone else thinks of him that he is perfectly free to disappear into the roles he assumes, with utter conviction, even if they are the lowliest of figures (yes, I'm thinking of "The Caretaker" here). He doesn't mind being completely misunderstood, even reviled, and that aspect of his character, which I tend to think is unique to this iteration of the Doctor (but am willing to discuss*) really shines in this novel. Everybody but Clara (and this is a fairly Clara-lite story, though the bits that do have her are way less annoying than I'd ever have suspected they would be) is working under the misapprehension that the Doctor is a truly reprehensible figure, with a past not so much checkered as nearly completely black. And he just rolls with it.

Meanwhile, of course, mysterious stuff is happening. Dead and broken bodies start turning up while the prison -- which is on an asteroid at the edge of a star system -- and its cobbled-together-by-the-lowest-bidders operating systems start going on the fritz in ways big and small. What's behind it? Who's hiding secrets? Who's to blame for all the chaos? Is it the same person or persons to blame for the bodies?

Some of the answers are telegraphed from the very beginning, but there are still some nifty surprises, and the final act is genuinely horrifying, making The Blood Cell yet another great page-turner of a Doctor Who novel.

And so the Aribtrary & Mercurials do shift a bit, with, for instance, Clara debuting on the companion list at a much higher spot than she might have otherwise. When she's good, she's very very good, and she's at her best -- challenging, a bit mysterious, no-nonsense, executing her tasks perfectly -- here.

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
James Goss
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

Doctors:

Twelfth
Ninth
Sixth
Eleventh
Third
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Amy
Romana II
Rory
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Clara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian

Next, I'm reading one of the "extras" -- in this case, the War Doctor novel I mentioned last time. Will he hold on to his place just above the universally beloved Fourth Doctor in my A&M rankings? Tune in soon....

*But really, can you see the First Doctor, say, cleaning up vomit with that pink sawdust stuff? The Tenth? The Seventh? Any of them? No.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS: The Claw of the Conciliator, 16 - 20


We rejoin Severian, Jonas and the resident/visitors in the Antechamber as they are recovering from the strange attack of blue "lightning" (how Severian interprets electricity throughout these books), green flashes, giant saucer-eyed faces, and laughing women. As we learn going into Chapter 16, this is rather a common occurrence, more or less, in the Antechamber, because like privileged young jerks throughout time and space, there's a bunch of young Exultants who think it's fun to go into the Antechamber late at night and whack away at its denizens with electrical whips. Head-Thecla reveals that she was once part of such parties, and doesn't seem particularly remorseful about it.

But more importantly, Jonas. This section of the novel is mostly concerned with Jonas, who was already having a rough time of it once he realized that it's very likely that lots of the people in the Antechamber are descended from a shipmate of his, if not of Jonas himself -- and that they're up to about nine generations removed from said shipmate. Timey wimey, yo. I'd wig, too.

So Jonas is now in full-on fugue state, and his dialogue makes much more sense to us than it does to Severian. "We must get power to the compressors before the air goes bad." "I feel weight!" "It must be only the lights." He's flashing back to his time as the crew of a spaceship, most likely from way, way, way back in Urth's past, at the beginning of the Great and Bountiful Human Empire, as it were, but maybe somewhat also on Tzadkiel's ship (which we'll get to when we get to Urth of the New Sun, of course, but it's the main reason for all the timey-wimey-ness of this here story).

Severian, meanwhile, is taking this opportunity to discover a thing or two about how Jonas is put together, as he tries, surreptitiously, to heal him with the Claw, which only helps a little bit because, well, because Jonas. Severian has long realized that Jonas has metal parts, most notably an entire hand of metal, and I've been referring to Jonas as a cyborg, but here we finally see that Jonas is mostly metal, and, once he's calmed down a bit, he tells Severian about the spaceship crash that landed him on Urth, in which at least one Urthbound human died, and Jonas was badly damaged. There weren't any spare parts to fix him, so he, uh, had to use the biological parts at hand. There's a great bit later in this section when Severian, watching Jonas working with one "regular" and one "prosthetic" hand, realizes that the flesh and blood hand is the prosthetic hand. That always just makes me chuckle.

Jonas more or less seen to for now, Severian starts looking around, and finds a peach-colored scarf with a very lovely scent, and is stashing it away to keep when a little girl (we learn three novels later that her name is most likely Oringa*) tells him that not only is it bad luck to keep what one finds (says who?), but that probably the Exultant jerk force is going to come back for it at some point and it wouldn't be much fun for the guy who has it. In the way of little girls, she quickly changes the subject and wants to know about Severian's own clothes, and he is very frank with her about who he is and why he wears black. She then describes to him an old-fashioned funeral scene that is a story told and retold in the Antechamber, and that Robert Borski et al have decided must be a description of John F. Kennedy's funeral, because Baby Boomer narratives are the most important ever, as well we know, and so of course they'd still be told millennia later.**


Anyway, then Jonas wakes up and finally figures out where and when he actually is, and, furthermore, that he may have pieced together more about the where than anyone has for a long time. This big room used to be lots of little rooms, and has a dropped ceiling, and ok, this is as good a time as any for me to play around with an idea I've had about what Nessus, or at least the Citadel, actually is.

It's elementary Wolfeiana to notice that the Matachin Tower that houses the Guild of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence was originally a spaceship. But perhaps the entire Citadel is, too? The way it's partly underground, the way it seems to be so many spaces at the same time (kind of like China Mieville's two conurbations in the same space in The City & The City), the Archives that melt into the House Absolute (as we discover a bit later in this section, when Severian is blundering around looking for his sword and meets the curator/painting cleaner Rudesind again) that connect to the Matachin Tower and might at least be partially beneath the city of Nessus... Being the Alastair Reynolds fan I am, I always love the idea of a giant spaceship crashing onto a planet and being repurposed into a human habitat. What if the Citadel is a repurposed future/past/whatever version of Tzadkiel's ship? Or, if not Tzadkiel's, then whatever ship Jonas crashed in, and/or whatever vessel brought the enormous aliens, Abaia and Erebus and Scylla, to Urth?

Anyway.

Jonas is quickly on to other topics, like feudal politics as he learned about them from a book on one of the ships he's traveled on. At first the reader might think it was some kind of dry history, but then he more or less directly quotes a line from very early on in Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll's second Alice book. "The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly, as the king's notebook told him." In Through the Looking Glass, Alice wrote this, counterfeiting the White King's handwriting, in his little memorandum book, just for fun, her way of maybe imposing her will, for a moment, on the narrative? Recall, too, that the White Knight is depicted as having a big and bushy white mustache, kind of, maybe, like Gene Wolfe's own... is this maybe a reference to the storyteller maybe not always being who we think it is? Possibly as a way of reminding us that some of the narrative we're getting is from Thecla's point of view, buried in Severian's? But meanwhile, Jonas has moved on to babbling about the founding of the Hapsburg dynasty and then we're interrupted for mealtime!

As the Antechamber residents are gobbling their pastries and coffee (that's the kind of fare they get, because this isn't a prison, but a waiting room, Nicarete reminds us), the guards shove in a new "guest" and it's Hethor. The Antechamberians soon carry him off to get his life story out of him, and Severian and Jonas sit down to eat... and Jonas starts wigging out again. This time, to calm him, Severian pulls out the Brown Book (I think this is Tales of Urth and Sky), which he kept from the collection he'd fetched for Thecla back when she was a living prisoner, and picks a story from it "at random" to read from.

This, "The Tale of the Student and His Son" is a mash-up of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Circular Ruins" and the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The monster is a narrative stand-in for Abaia, and triples the roles of King Minos, Daedalus and the Minotaur. A princess, his rebelling daughter, plays the Ariadne role and probably is meant to point us to Juturna and the rebel undines.*** Anyway, the story does the job of calming everybody down, and everybody decides to get some shut eye, except for Severian, who starts thinking about insomnia in various ways and eventually Thecla's thoughts on the subject surface but then "she" realizes where they are and next thing we know, hey, Severian knows where the Exultant Jerk Squad's secret door is and "soon" Severian and Jonas are off to explore other bits of the House Absolute.

After lots of wandering and discussion of Jonas' nature, which I've already talked about above, they find a strange room, which proves to be Father Inire's chamber of "mirrors" (though, as Severian observes, they reflect and bend, not just light, but reality) and Jonas uses it to disappear, perhaps never to return, though I'm going to be looking for him among the chems on the Long Sun Whorl, and a sort of amalgamated version of him is going to rejoin Severian later on in the form of the resurrected solider, Miles. But that's later.

Severian then wanders around some more, alone, hoping to find Dr. Talos et al (whom he saw in passing just as he and Jonas were being captured, so he knows there here at the House Absolute somewhere!) encountering the khabit version of Thea (last seen in the brothel "The House Azure" where prostitutes "resembling" (or maybe sometimes "being") famous exultant women are there for paying customers' entertainment, spends quite a lot of time (with the "help" of Odilo the Steward) searching for the disused closet where the praetorians stashed Terminus Est when he was captured, and then blunders into Rudesind, still cleaning paintings and insisting he's doing so in the same place where Severian first met him long, long ago. Severian protests it was in the archives, this is the House Absolute. To-may-to, to-mah-to, Rudesind basically says, and while he goes back to work, Severian blunders into a painting! Sort of!

See, it turns out that when the House Absolute was built, Father Inire had the walls cunningly fashioned to hold and hide very shallow, dimensionally weird extra rooms, amounting to a whole "Second House," as a strange, androgynous and weirdly familiar person he encounters in the shallow side-room explains to him. Who is this person? Why, it's the pimp from the House Azure! And thus, Severian has met Autarch Appian for a third time.

And Appian has a doozy of a segue. When Severian asks the way back to the garden where he is pretty sure Dr. Talos et al are, "Even supposing that I knew the way, why would I reveal it to you? Many will seek to flee by that road if the pelagic argosy sights land."

DRAMA BUTTON!

*The saint she's named for was a traveling miracle worker in 14th century Italy. She doesn't work any miracles here, unless you consider getting Severian to explain himself a little to be a miracle, or somehow seeing Thecla in his place for a moment to be a miracle, so this is one of those characters that I'm always wondering maybe turns up "in disguise" somewhere else later on? Or that we've already met? Kind of like the dark haired woman in the pale gown whom Vodalus and Thea were harvesting from the graveyard the night Severian saved them. Too early to be Thecla, who at that point was still at large and not even a prisoner of the Torturers, but... are they just pulling random bodies out to have for their alzabo-feasts, or is that someone important? No one seems to have any good suggestions for who that is, either. This kind of stuff just drives me nuts.

**Though as these people are likely descended from the survivors of a timey-wimey spaceship crash, this funeral cortege might not be quite so old a story for them; those original survivors might have been members of my own generation, say, or Millennials -- kids who grew up with Boomer parents who imposed these narratives on them first hand.

***Which, speaking of the rebel undines, I've developed a new theory about them, too. They aren't necessarily interested in the larger issues of the New Sun and the redemption of humanity or any of that nonsense; what if instead they are simply sick of Abaia's shit, don't want their babies to be warlords, and just want to go do their own thing? That's right: Undines: Fury Road, bitches.

Hey, Abaia, looking for this?

But of course, oh shit, that means that...


Max is Severian -- he starts off his adventure in a big ugly mask! -- and Furiosa is Jonas the cyborg. I just blew my own mind.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Una McCormack's THE KING'S DRAGON

I'm just going to say this up front: the only way this book could have been any better would have been if it contained Brian Williams, father of Rory Williams (present), gonna-be father-in-law* of Amy Pond (also present), and gonna-be-grandfather-in-law** of The Doctor (duh). But pretty much every Doctor Who story, maybe ever, would be at least slightly improved by the presence of the elder Williams, and I just have to live with that fact, while still resenting that he's never gotten closure on-screen and probably never will. Ahem.

But that's neither here nor there. Here and there is The King's Dragon, which has shot right up there next to Harvest of Time on my list of best Doctor Who novels, largely because Una McCormack, unlike Amy's creators, actually gets what Amy Pond is all about and stays true to her from page one. But also because it's a good, complete and interesting story, told with elegant economy.

I'd like to visit the parallel universe where Ms. McCormack, and not Mr. Moffat, was the showrunner who took over when Matt Smith and Karen Gillan did. I can't promise that I'd come back, mind.

But so, The King's Dragon. The Eleventh Doctor (one of my favorites, recall), Amy and Rory have come to visit one of the universe's greatest civilizations, the city-state of Greath, a realm that has enjoyed over twelve thousand (12,000) years of peace, harmony, vigorous democracy, and restrained good taste. What a delightful locale to spend part of Rory's infinite stag night!

Of course, decades of Doctor Who watching/reading/listening has taught us all that no high and lovely culture visited by the TARDIS crew is ever going to be encountered at its height. No, no. If the Doctor & co. are going to land there, something is going to have gone horribly off-course. If it's not the TARDIS itself, its the place/time at which it stops. Duh.

So in place of a tastefully decorated and refined civic space of classical elegance, the TARDIS crew finds itself in a gaudy, blinged-out Las Vegas nightmare of a city. And instead of a thriving democracy steeped in humane tradition, the TARDIS crew finds a newly-minted monarchy-cum-cult of personality, centered on an impossibly charismatic and handsome king, Beol*** and his partner The Teller, and the impossibly gorgeous golden dragon idol they've brought into the city.

Plus an intangible but pervasive aura of impending dread, of course.

The best Doctor Who stories are mysteries of this kind. What's gone wrong with history? Why are people X behaving so unlike themselves and why don't they realize it? Something Is Interfering And It's Probably Aliens. Only the Doctor can set things right.

Except, mostly, it's not the Doctor who does so. It's Amy. And, to a degree, Rory. And a few key citizens of the visited world, notably the former democratically elected leader of Geath, a slightly cranky and unimpressed older woman (who I absolutely could not help picturing as played by Diana Rigg in her Queen of Thorns get-up), Hilthe, who seems to be the only person who remembers Geath as it was just months ago. The Doctor is just there to advise, really.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a "Doctor-Lite" story. He's there in all of his lanky, absurd, slightly cranky know-it-all glory, on pretty much every page. But the plot is driven by his Companions and by the locals.

And especially by Amy. Amy Pond is at her nosy, stubborn, willful, smart, wise and capable best, as we've really not seen her since, say, The Beast Below.*** Even when she is under the influence of this story's Alien Menace (because of course there is one. This one is really, really interesting and original, by the way. Bling!), she's her own person, and that person learned long ago, when a certain Raggedy Man failed to come back for her, that she's really the only person she can count on (though Rory is going to be Rory and thus pretty damned reliable, but he's not yet the "wait until he gets here and I'll just wait and watch while he does all the heavy lifting of punishing you for making me cross" substitute for her agency that Moffat is going to make him), but that that's okay, even if she is pretty much lost in time and space and probably In Over Her Head. Amy can swim.

And again, like all the best Doctor Who stories, while there is plenty of ak-shun and things blowing up and existential peril and whatnot, it's ultimately about getting two opposing sides to understand each other, or at least try to empathize with each other, once those two opposing sides are finally discovered by the TARDIS crew and friends' careful sleuthing and thinking and deducing.

I read this in a single sitting, in a single night. Yes, it is a short work, but McCormack has packed a lot into it (again, like the best DW stories, like the best science fiction, Here There Be Allegories, but they are deftly and subtly handled) and hasn't wasted words. Its length might suggest that it's a lightweight, perhaps even juvenile, read, but don't be fooled.

And now for the Arbitrary and Mercurial rankings. I don't think they're going to surprise you much. The Eleventh Doctor moves up a spot because I just love his silly enthusiasm for things (combined with his old man crankiness and ridiculous physicality) and how he wisely gets out of the way and lets his friends handle things once in a while.

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Eleventh
Third
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Amy
Romana II
Rory
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian

Now onward to a Twelfth Doctor novel, then holy cow, I just found a War Doctor novel, and then I'll start the cycle anew with another First Doctor novel. I'm going to keep going in this fashion for as long as there are enough novels for each Doctor, but alas, I'll run out of Classic Doctors much sooner than Seventh and Eighth Doctors, and then my enthusiasm might wane. We shall see.

*This story takes place before their wedding.

**No screaming about spoilers. It says so right at the top of my blog, right there in the header, "ware spoilers."

***I.E. since Moffat remembered that she is a woman and needed to be put in her place.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Nancy Marie Brown's IVORY VIKINGS: THE MYSTERY OF THE MOST FAMOUS CHESSMEN IN THE WORLD AND THE WOMAN WHO CARVED THEM

More people, I imagine, recognize the Lewis Chessmen than realize that they do. They're the models for the set Harry Potter and pals use in their films. Some illustrations for Lewis Carroll's works draw on them. Etc. Or, like me, they heard of the set on the amazing History of the World in 100 Objects podcast and looked them up and spent untold hours just admiring them. The beserker rooks as they bite their shields, the elaborately enthroned kings with their swords on their knees, the knights astride their stocky little ponies, the queens with their faces resting pensively (or worriedly?) in their hands...

For such people, I wouldn't call Ivory Vikings essential reading, as such, but it's pretty interesting nonetheless. The book explores the set -- or rather, sets, for bits of four sets of chessmen were dug up on that Scottish beach in 1831 -- piece by piece, beginning with the knights, modeled after late Viking warriors, and in the process makes a particular argument as to their nature and origin, a nature and origin intimately tied to some of the later and lesser read Bishop's Sagas of Iceland, as well as to some of the more famous Family Sagas, on which author Nancy Marie Brown draws for ideas of legendary/historical characters that might have inspired these personality-filled bits of walrus ivory and whalebone.

By the way, if you're not familiar with these sagas, you can pick them up pretty cheaply in "Saga Six Packs" over at Amazon, or, and I highly recommend this even if you're not going to read them (though you should read them!), go have a listen to the Saga Thing podcast, in which a pair of scholars summarize, dissect, and rate the sagas in terms of "best bloodshed" and "nicknames" and "notable witticisms" and such. Trust me. It's even more fun than it sounds!

But back to Ivory Vikings, which I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. The problem is structural; while the idea of building the arguments as though one were slowly setting up pieces on a chess board is an intriguing one, the execution of same is very sloppily done, here. For instance, the final chapter, ostensibly considering the pawns, outlines the known history and provenance of the pieces since their discovery in 1831, and thus feels like it belongs at the book's beginning (especially since offhand references to stages in their journey from the island of Lewis' Uig Bay to various museum exhibits are made throughout the rest of the book, and phrased as though the reader is merely being reminded of something already discussed, to baffling and annoying effect). Too, and perhaps more irritatingly, anecdotes from the history of the North Sea in the ninth through 13th centuries are often repeated almost verbatim in several places, while others are fragmented and scattered throughout the book's chapters. The resulting narrative is rather more like a fever dream than a thoughtful work of non-fiction.

Still, these anecdotes and ideas -- that the famous/infamous Gunnhild the Grim may be the model for the queens (and now I can't but picture her holding her hand to her face as she considers what curse would be best for her lover Hrut, for instance), that Pall Jonsson not only might have commissioned the pieces but is also a living avatar of the modern chess bishop that was no bishop in the original Arabian game that became our modern chess, that a woman referred to briefly in a saga of his life might have been the carver of the set -- are fascinating and fun to consider, even as one realizes, through one of the more coherent threads in the book, that the mystery of these remarkable chess pieces might not ever be solved. Locations that might hold the answers to our questions are also locations of existing archaeological digs that would be damaged, if not destroyed, if we wanted to go deeper, as we'd have to, say, in Iceland's Skaholt, where an important 16th century site may sit right on top of the 11th or 12th century site we'd want to examine.

The reader who can be patient with the book's weird structure, and has an interest in chess, history, art history, commerce, archaeology, craftsmanship -- anything, really -- will enjoy this excuse to think about all of these things while admiring these whimsical, enigmatic, arresting little works of art. The reader who can't, will probably want to skip this one.









As for me, I'm off to read or re-read some sagas. Even as I shake my fist that a lot of the ones I'm now most curious about have not yet been translated into English. Ah, me.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Robin D. Laws' NEW TALES OF THE YELLOW SIGN

Man, do I love me some King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers' most famous contribution to the Weird Fiction milieu of the early 20th century. "The Repairer of Reputations" is one of my favorite short stories of all time, with its bizarre blend of off-the-wall "predictions" (it was written in the late 19th century, and set in the "future" of 1920 and not a breath of any such thing as a World War, with or without a Roman numeral, appears, for instance), familial/"dynastic" intrigues, unreliable narration, cosmic horror mythology and the titular character himself -- man, that stuff never fails to delight me.

So yeah, I'm one of those people who lost her freaking mind when I realized the first season of True Detective was totally throwing around bits of Yellowiana like "lost Carcosa" and the Yellow King. Wish there'd been more of that. I'd be totally down for TD having continued to explore a world in which, say, some idiot Hollywood producer greenlights a lavish feature film adaptation of "The King in Yellow"* and mass insanity sweeps the globe, and whatnot. Alas.

But I'm not alone, obviously, because here we have it! New Tales of the Yellow Sign brings the Yellow King/Carcosa mythos into the 21st century, kind of like Amanda Downum's Dreams of Shreds and Tatters did last year. Except more so. So much more so.

The stories herein draw a great deal on the alternate history outlined in "The Repairer of Reputations", using it as a jumping off point for re-imagining the 20th century the way Harry Turtledove might if he wanted to write Weird Fiction. Thus, while the World Wars we remember don't happen, variations on them do, but result, not in the rise of the modern secular/democratic nation-state, but in a tightening of the grip of hereditary monarchy, or of totalitarian dictatorship. Or both. The dystopian feel of a Police State is an undercurrent in every page of these tales, giving them an extra helping of dark glamor they didn't really need, being Yellow Sign stories and thus plenty darkly glamorous already, but do just fine with.

There's probably a little something for everyone here. Usually at this point, when I'm writing about a short fiction collection, I highlight a few of my favorites for special praise, but it's been more than a week since I finished this for the first (but I guarantee not the only) time, and I still can't sort out what my favorites were. Which is to say that I liked them all. Laws pulled off a tour de force of expanding and updating Chambers strange little throwaway alter-verse, and I hope to Hastur he's not done doing so.**

*To clarify, the short story collection of Chambers' that inspired all this is called The King in Yellow. One of the matters the KiY mythos, which figures in just three of the stories, covers, is the existence of a play called "The King in Yellow" which basically evokes cosmic otherworldly supernatural forces by its very text or performance and drives everybody who reads it, let alone sees it, insane forevermore.

**And yeah, I know he's busy inventing amazing award-winning games and writing modules for other games and hosting and appearing as a guest on podcasts and whatnot but, hey, he started it. Nyah.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Stepan Chapman's THE TROIKA

This one came to me via Story Bundle's Weird Fiction bundle, and it sure is! It's maybe the weirdest thing I've encountered since The Bed Sitting Room, and I don't mention that crazy film/play by mere chance.

The Troika, quite unlike the Alastair Reynolds book by the same name that I just adored, is only science fiction in that it takes place on some other planet with three purple suns and seemingly endless desert. So, you know, think Jaku or Tatooine or...

No, it's nothing like those, either.

This is WEIRD, weird fiction, you guys. Something more akin to, say, magic realism than the big cosmic space operas that are a staple of my reading. Because get this.

There are three characters, and only three, and they are a car, a dinosaur and an elderly Mexican woman. That's right. A jeep (with solar panels and whatnot to allow it to run indefinitely, and I do mean indefinitely) named Alex, a brontosaurus named Naomi, and a leathery, white-haired woman named Eva. They're on an eternal trek through an unknown desert for unknown reasons, and they have been for centuries. Oh, and every once in a while a big ol' storm rolls through that, in addition to all of the annoyances and hazards one might reasonably expect from desert storms, also has the bonus effect of ripping the characters' souls out of their bodies and then dumping those souls back into one of the bodies at random. So, for instance, the first time it happens, Eva becomes the jeep and Alex the old lady, but Naomi stays a brontosaur. So right away, it feels like a sort of sister-story to The Bed Sitting Room; this could be what that family is like hundreds of years after it undergoes its strange transformations after Britain's "nuclear accident." But here, it's not played for laughs.

Got that?

Oh, and for added fun, they tend to refer to themselves as a family, with Eva ("originally" the old lady) as the mother, Alex ("originally" the jeep, but carrying with him memories of working in a warehouse in 20th century Chicago on good old planet Earth) as the father, and Naomi (brontosaur) as the daughter. And they bicker like family. They bicker like only a nuclear family that's been stuck with one another for hundreds of years can bicker. Like a family utterly dependent on one another (but, it seems, especially on whomever's inside the brontosaur body, which has to pee every night in the jeep's radiator and feed some of her lichen-cud to the old lady every night, too).

Told you it was weird.

But what all that described weirdness does not convey is what weirdly compelling fiction it is. And how well it all just works. Which is to say that The Troika is a textbook example of surrealism done right. Dream sequences blend into schizophrenic episodes blend into (kind of) straight narrative, all at the same high level of prose artistry and competence. No matter how strange a passage gets (an early Aztec-flavored dream sequence full of fish-headed men and women of various species sacrificing one of our characters in spectacularly weird and grotesque fashion, being a good example of this. For instance), it has an underlying logic and coherence. Everything is a metaphor. Nothing is a metaphor. The reader kind of gets to choose at what level to take things as metaphorical.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Kij Johnson's THE DREAM-QUEST OF VELLITT BOE

I hadn't known how much I wanted to explore the world of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle" alongside a middle-aged woman and an intrepid cat until I found myself doing so in Kij Johnson's absolutely delightful The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

H.P. Lovecraft's famously weird (and unpublished in his lifetime, because not regarded by him as finished or even worth passing around to his friends) "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" has long been one of my favorite of his works, both for its underlying message that what most of us are discontentedly seeking beyond the everyday things of ordinary life, is actually that very same ordinary life properly understood and appreciated, and for its crazy imagery, its monsters, its perils, and its madcap, deadly armies of ghouls and Moon-beasts and kitty cats, who are fearless and fearsome in battle, the cats, and then, once the battle is over, instantly resume their more amusing pursuits of chasing leaves. And I'm really not much of a cat person, yo.

But so, Vellitt Boe. Right away she is a most un-Lovecraftian protagonist, for all that she is a Scholar (perhaps his very favorite profession): a professor of mathematics and science in the Women's College at the great, the ancient, the venerated University of Ulthar, a position she holds only with the greatest determination and discipline, for in Lovecraft's Dreamlands, of course, the idea of a female academic, of a female anything except for a witchy figurant, is unheard-of and absurd. In our world, a woman has to be twice as good to get half the respect a man does; in hers, those figures are blown right out of the water, both ways. But she's held on, and helped hold her little school together, creating a place where it's okay to be a smart, capable woman in Lovecraft's men-only imaginary world (which, because it's Lovecraft's Dream World, is also chock full of petty, capricious, moronic and devastatingly powerful gods that mess with things with such abandon that even, say, mathematical constants, to say nothing of things like physical measurements like distants, are subject to ridiculous variation and contstant change, making it extra hard for anyone, let alone a Lady Professor, to teach anything like math or science, really).

Until, until, a Dreamer comes along. Dreamers are, of course, people from our world, who visit Vellitt's in dreams, where they wield unbelievable power, radiate unbelievable charisma, frequently rise to the status of kings, if not godlings. And said Dreamer attracts the romantic interest of one of Vellitt's best students, and convinces her to run away with him to our, "real" world.

For reasons that aren't totally clear but that I immediately bought into because Dream Logic as well as Feminist Critique, the student's eloping with a Dreamer would spell disaster for the very existence of the Women's College (perhaps because it would reveal that even supposedly scholarly women are really, deep down, just looking for a husband to do all that hard thinking and planning and deciding for them and expose the whole idea of educating women as a wasteful scam?), so even before some Big Secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that the student must be retrieved and persuaded against her lover at all costs.

So off goes Professor Boe, who, before she settled down and got educated and became a professor, was a long-distance traveler and explorer, and also happens to be an ex of one Randolph Carter (hero of the Lovecraft story that inspired this tale), who once tried to pin her down as his forever "love" but whose love for her didn't actually respect her personhood or existence as anything apart from a placeholding figment of his dreams. Did I mention feminist critique? This is feminist critique, you guys.

But it's also a cracking good story, and a lovely one. Johnson's fondness for Lovecraft's amazingly detailed and thoroughly imagined Dreamlands quite possibly exceed my own, and she makes of Vellitt Boe's journey through them in quest of a way into the Waking World an absolute delight to read. A lot of familiar creatures and places are encountered along the way without ever feeling like retreads, and the refreshing character of Vellitt herself is one I'd read any number of stories to share.

I'm not someone who spends a lot of time or energy worrying too much about Representation in literature. I'm just in it for the fun stories and the writing. But even so, it sure is nice to see someone like me, a middle aged single, childless woman whom society is constantly questioning the worth of, at center stage in an adventure/quest story. Even if she isn't kicking ass (but here, she does. Oh yes, she does. Lady is pretty deadly with a sharpened piece of obsidian).

More, please.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Mark Morris' FOREVER AUTUMN

Sweet Jeebus, there's a lot to like about Forever Autumn. A lot! Like, it would be a great seasonal read, a fun horror novel, all on its own, without its being a Doctor Who novel. But, sigh, it's not only a Doctor Who novel, it's a Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who novel.

Forever Autumn -- and see, I even love the title! -- blunders right into Lovecraft territory (albeit modern day Lovecraft territory, a smallish* New England town with a history of weird stuff, a mysterious black tree, etc.) and acts like it owns the place. Kids have the wild hair to dig at the roots of the mysterious black tree, which is so ancient there are Native American legends about how it got there, and dig up a mysterious, creepy, kind of "fleshy" book full of strange names and lettering. It emits a weird green glow, and soon the town is enveloped in creepy green mist. Then tall, thin, tree-like skellingtons are walking around town at night throwing the whammy on unsuspecting citizens. I mean, hell yes!

But then the Tenth Doctor, and his beautiful but boring-as-paint-drying companion, Martha Jones, show up, and start mugging for our attention. And here's the flaw. Novels and Big Finish have rehabilitated Doctors that I've not been too fond of for me, so I had at least some expectation that maybe this, my first Tenth Doctor novel, would maybe do the same. But no.

This book managed to make the Tenth Doctor worse! As portrayed by David Tennant -- who has been marvelous in everything else I've seen -- the Doctor is frenetic, twitchy, disconnected (if the Ninth Doctor is the PTSD Doctor, the Tenth is the ADHD Doctor. Unmedicated) and shouty. He's a distraction rather than a star or a protagonist.

As written, he's all of these things, but turned up to eleven (heh). Author Mark Morris must have been under special orders to emphasize all of these qualities, because in these pages the Doctor can't stand or sit still for even 30 seconds. Maybe because, without an actual actor with biology and whatnot to accommodate, there really are no limits to how spastic he can be? When he doesn't even have to take a breath?

I dunno.

What saved this book for me -- remember, to date I've only ever DNF'd one Doctor Who novel -- was the setting, and the incidental characters. The kids are kind of stock characters, but have personality enough to be enjoyable; the early victim of the novel's main monsters is compassionately portrayed (bonus that one of the kids knows better than to take him lightly as a figure of fun), and the novel's temporary companion, an elderly woman whose family has always had something a bit witchy about them, is a delight. Like I said, this would have been a fine, possibly Bradbury-ish read without the Doctor Who elements.

The climax is fun if kind of telegraphed from a long way off (*cough* Chekov's Evil Clown Costume *cough*), the monster-aliens, a delightfully weird riff on the Pumpkinhead, are cool and genuinely creepy and the book quite a good read. I would have absolutely adored it with pretty much any other Doctor/Companion team; as it is, I merely liked it a lot.

As for my Arbitrary & Mercurial rankings, they don't change a lot. I just get to add a few elements.

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian
*Most of you would probably drop the "ish" but I'm from a town with a population under 1600 souls, and spend a lot of time in even smaller burgs, so this town, which is apparently populated enough to allow a year-round dedicated costume shop to not only survive but flourish, it's small-ish. In a true small town, you make your own costumes, or you buy them at the nearest big box store (well over 100 miles away) or luck into them at a second-hand joint if your town's business community manages to support such a thing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Justin Richards' THE CLOCKWISE MAN

Happy sigh. As anyone who's been paying attention to my Arbitrary & Mercurial rankings knows, the Ninth Doctor is my favorite Doctor. This is partly because Christopher Eccleston, but also because this Doctor has an angry edge we haven't really seen since the Sixth Doctor (another one that's high in my lists) but is still hilarious with how he handles it (bananas are good), and he's basically the PTSD Doctor, which I can relate.

Indeed his only flaw is his taste in Companions. I wish he'd met Mickey first. Or Jackie. But nothing's perfect, not even the Ninth Doctor.

But I'd love, love, love to read a an adventure of his without Rose Tyler along. I don't know if I'll ever get one unless I write it myself (call me, BBC Books!), but meanwhile, there are a these New Series Adventures that have Nine and Rose, and of these The Clockwise Man was the very first.

The place-time this time is London in 1924 and right away as we meet a domestic servant getting the crap beaten out of him for mysterious reasons and then follow the Doctor and Rose in escorting the servant back to his employer's house, there are definite vibes. Upstairs, Downstairs, tail end of the Forsyte Saga vibes. Oooh lovely!

But those vibes dissipate rather quickly, because in the master's house are... White Russians. No, not as in Lebowski's favorite cocktail. I'm talking exiled Russian aristocrats who, even though the Tsar and his family are long dead, are still plotting to overthrow the Communists and restore the old regime. And they've got a little boy on their hands whom they claim is the heir to the Romanov dynasty. Which little boy immediately decides that Rose is just the greatest, probably because she's the only person he's ever met who doesn't treat him like he's made of glass and actually encourages him to do stuff, like go see the Imperial Exhibition (the ostensible reason for the TARDIS Twosome's visit).

Meanwhile, domestic servants keep getting assaulted, sometimes even killed, and a mysterious masked woman is making the rounds accompanied by a man who speaks rather mechanically and ticks and tocks audibly when he moves about. They Are Sinister. And the TARDIS disappears. Think these all might be connected somehow?

And what's up with all the identical black cats? Is there a glitch in the Matrix?

But so anyway, Late Steampunk. And another "aliens messing about with Earth history" story. I'm longing for a straight-up adventure out there in space. The Daleks menacing some gleepglorks. A human colony has gotten addicted to the secretions of a giant space lizard. Something. But here we go.

Which is to say that I found The Clockwise Man a bit dull for stretches, though things picked up quite nicely at the end, which in a bit on-the-nose fashion takes place behind the scenes in the Tower of Big Ben. The final confrontation in there is a neat bit of intricate plotting, though it would have been even better if the characters enacting it were more developed. There are too many of these, and they've spent most of the novel feeling dully interchangeable until suddenly they aren't! Oh my! But I didn't really care to make the effort of keeping them straight at that point.

I will give the novel bonus points for using the Sonic Screwdriver in ways that actually matter. But otherwise, hmm, yawn. It didn't suck, but it's pretty forgettable, even just ten minutes or so after I finished reading it.

Nonetheless, onto... a Tenth Doctor novel. Oh, I'm not a Tenth Doctor fan, not at all. But maybe, just maybe, without the mugging and the shouting and did I mention the mugging, he won't annoy me quite so much. We'll see.

As for the Aribitrary & Mercurial, nothing much has changed, really. The Ninth Doctor is still my favorite (and he did get some good moments in this novel). I still don't like Rose very much. And Justin Richards gets a meh for now.

Authors:

Alastair Reynolds
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Samantha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian