Monday, August 13, 2018


But for the interludes, brief but vivid, depicting the lives of the women left behind, Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal could be a contemporary novel from the age it depicts, the mid-19th century, when polar exploration was in vogue and a single woman's pleas and offers of financial reward could send dozens of expeditions into danger in the hope of finding some trace of her husband's lost party.

Zeke Vorhees is one of many young, well-to-do New Englanders obsessed with the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in an earlier exploration of the Arctic Circle. As the novel opens, he has convinced his lifelong friend and future brother-in-law, Erasmus Darwin Wells (and yes, Erasmus is named for Charles Darwin's daddy, and yes, he is a naturalist of the fussing-around-in-preserved-collections sort) to abandon his repository and becoming Zeke's logistics manager for an expedition to go find more evidence of the Franklin expedition's fate.

Erasmus is our narrator here, one with a refreshing emotional intelligence we might not entirely expect from a true 19th century Man of Science (but wouldn't it be great if we could? This novel answers YES) as he resolves to pay proper attention, for once, to the staff and underlings who will make his research possible. He thus gives us portraits of all the crew of the Narwhal, from the newly-recruited young cook, Ned (only survivor of a large Irish family who fled the potato famine) to the irascible Captain Tyler to the remarkable and Dr. Maturin-esque (for you Patrick O'Brian fans) Dr. Boerhaave as they journey north, seek traces of the Franklin Expedition, encounter various Inuits (herein referred to by the 19th century term and spelling of "Esquimaux") and spend a terrible winter frozen in place when Zeke springs on them that their more important aim was always to find the fabled Northwest Passage* and nobody's going home until they try.

Interspersed with Erasmus' first-person accounts are brief looks in at the lives of Erasmus' sister Lavinia, Zeke's fiancee, and her live-in companion Alexandra, as they wait for the return of Our Heroes. Lavinia pines somewhat conventionally, but Alexandra finagles her way into an apprenticeship as an engraver and winds up helping a publishing firm frantically race to complete a lavish illustrated edition of Elisha Kent Kane's own travel reports of an expedition seeking the Franklin party.

I would gladly have read a whole book dedicated to Alexandra's story; alas, we mostly just get glimpses of this until the novel's final act.

Big thanks to my mother, by the way, who originally stumbled across this gem while looking for books for my dad, who is a hard guy to find reading material for. We still haven't gotten him to read it, by the way. Stubborn!

*It's especially interesting to read about this idea now, in 2018, when it looks more and more likely that this might actually become a reality in my lifetime thanks to climate change. D'oh.

Monday, July 30, 2018


Where the first book in B. Catling's Vorrh series, The Vorrh, was a scattershot of interesting ideas, weird characters and language games, its sequel, The Erstwhile, is a bit more conventionally readable, while losing none of the prior's strangeness. All in all its a much more enjoyable read, but I'd kind of expected that.

I only took up the first book after reading a few tantalizing reviews of the second, which focused on the title character class. The Erstwhile are basically remnant angels, those who had failed to defend the Tree of Knowledge from Adam (Eve is never mentioned in this derivation from the book of Genesis) and were cast aside and forgotten after that little mishap. In the thousands (millions? Catling takes no stance on how old the Earth might be) of years since then, these angels have gone to ground -- literally in some cases -- and devolved into weirdly malformed monster shapes with moss and plant life growing on various bits even before they became completely quiescent.

Or so it seems until some of them start interacting with humans again, usually when they are accidentally discovered in and around The Vorrh by European colonists looking for resources to exploit there. When a few of these beings are dug up and shipped back to Germany, they come under scrutiny and care and start to seem human-like. And when one emerges mysteriously from the mud on the banks of the Thames in the 18th century and becomes the freaky muse of one William Blake (yes that William Blake, whose image of Nebuchadnezzar graces the cover of this novel and in this story is understood actually to be a portrait from life of one of the Erstwhile), and then spends a century so drifting among human society in London, that one becomes so human that he takes on the name of Nicholas Parsons and becomes a sort of trustee at Bedlam.

Meanwhile back in the Vorrh and the colony city of Essenwald, all of the characters who survived the previous novel are trying to live out their lives after those weird events, with varying degrees of success. Ghertrude Tulp is mysteriously pregnant but not sure by whom -- Ishmael? Some random guy on the same carnival night that Ishmael slept with Cyrena Lohr and by so doing cured her blindness? Ishmael and Cyrena are living together in her sumptuous house and getting tired of having sex with each other. And the city is in steep economic and social decline since the Limboia, the "mindless" slave labor force that kept the timber industry going in the last novel, have up and disappeared. Others have tried to take up the work, but unlike the Limboia, they can't handle the weird powers the forest exerts on puny human minds -- namely all but erasing them.

Soon Ishmael, the only man anyone knows who has traveled through the Vorrh without losing his memories and mind, is drafted into leading an expedition to go find the Limboia and it's all a bit like Werner Herzog's Herz aus Glas.

Already you can see that this novel has a lot more of a conventional focus and structure to it. The expedition provides one of its main narrative threads, twined with another in which a new character, Dr. Hector Schumann, is called upon to take up the mysteries posed by the Erstwhile brought to Europe. A third story, of a lonely old woman who rescues a mysterious baby from the abandoned home of The Vorrh's white savior figure and his black shaman mistress/wife, is woven in less well for all that there are structural parallels between it and the Schumann story in their final thirds. And the fate of Ghertrude's baby is, I guess part of all of this, too, but not really?

For this book is a textbook case of Middle Chapter Trouble. For all that it's a much more enjoyable read than its predecessor, it's even more frustrating, in that exactly none of the questions or problems it or the prior book poses gets resolved at all, leaving a lot for the final book, The Cloven, which just came out, to answer. But, to be honest, I have zero hope that anything will actually get resolved, because Catling isn't here to try for narrative coherence. He's all about the language.

And some of this is downright beautiful:
The stillness of the water became a secondary feature to the movement of the snow. It fell straight down into its own reflection on the mirrored Thames, the depths of the reflection rising up to meet it. Each flake fell from a black sky and fluttered up from the river's black bed to meet its twin and become one before disappearing.
I mean, god damn!

A lot of the time, though, Catling threatens to become downright annoying, especially when he gets precious with malapropisms -- which I have to assume is what he's doing because otherwise 1) He's kind of a doofus and 2) The editorial staff at Random Penguin all need remedial courses. I'm assuming its deliberate because I'd rather that were true. But there sure is a lot of "finally crafted jewelry" and whatnot in here.

But so maybe it's just sunk cost fallacy working and maybe it's still just good enough to make me want more -- I really can't decide -- but I'm looking forward to The Cloven. But I've got a lot of library books to get through before I go looking for it, because right now I'm Vorrhed out.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


(Blogger's note: the author of the below reviewed novel is one of my co-hosts on the Skiffy and Fanty Podcast's Reading Rangers show, so I'm not an entirely unbiased source for opinion on Wells' work. That being said, I naturally think you should read it anyway.)

If this book wore a collar, that collar's color would be primary blue. Imagine if Upton Sinclair had written science fiction set in a vaguely Firefly-esque universe (minus all the pseudo-confederate bullshytt) but was also hell-bent on his work passing the Bechdel Test AND gave vent to HST-ish love of motorcycle gangs. The result might be very like Hunger Makes the Wolf.

Yes, it's really that awesome.

At the heart of the novel is an intense and interesting female friendship between two very different young women, the pistol-packing motorcycle hooligan, Hob, and the whip-smart, pie-baking budding union organizer (with a dainty little gun in her skirt pocket just so people will stop lecturing her about needing one) Mag. Raised as sort of foster cousins but later divided by a round of errors and half-truths, the duo is just what their dusty, strange little wholly-owned corporate subsidiary of a planet needs to start sticking it to the Man.

But that's not all.

Did I mention they live on a strange planet? It's a strange planet. A treasure-trove of mineral wealth, it's also a place where electro-magnetic forces really just don't work right (forcing a reliance on analogue-ish technology like motorcycles) and where some people, if circumstances leave them struggling to survive all alone in the desert for a spell, are mutated into something the Company has very successfully persuaded its captive workforce are basically witches. As in hunt them down and string them up.

But the Company has its own rank of uncanny witch-like Weathermen, whose weird abilities can sort-of-tame the weirdness of this planet (enough to allow corporate headquarters to still enjoy things like computers and uninterrupted electricity and posh digs for its officers and hired thugs) but are also useful in keeping the "witches" in check, along with the rest of the populace who don't need a LOT of controlling because they depend on the Company for absolutely everything and also just never seem to be able to scrape together enough money to leave the planet for some unfathomable class-war-type reason.

Throw in a weird rock shaman, a bunch of lovable biker-thugs and a whole lot of unjustifiable attacks on "troublemakers" and you have a good old fashioned working stiffs vs. suits brawl, with a lot of cool sci fi and just a few fantasy touches.

The sequel, Blood Binds the Pack, is already out for our enjoyment, and I shall be diving in just as soon as the battery on my Kindle is recharged. Solidarity suggests that you do the same, if you've already read this book.

The union makes us strong.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

B. Catling's THE VORRH

Two covers for the first volume of B. Catling's trilogy seem to appear with equal frequency when a curious would-be reader starts poking around, the one at the left and the one I have reproduced further down. Both of them are maddeningly deceptive about what kind of book The Vorrh really is, for it is neither as coldly abstract as the black and white cover*, nor as lushly imaginative as the more colorful one.

Some have compared The Vorrh to the work of Mervyn Peake, whose famous Gormenghast trilogy I have started once or twice but not had the will to finish even while appreciating its uniqueness at least enough to see why this comparison is somewhat apt: Gormenghast, a "fantasy of manners" is both engaging and off-putting in its seeming plotlessness and the artificiality of its characters; The Vorrh is, perhaps, a fantasy of projections, slightly more plot-driven but also off-putting because it gives up its secrets so very, very reluctantly. And the artificiality of its characters, about which more in a bit.

The Vorrh of the title is an imaginary African forest, originally imagined by French surrealist Raymond Roussel for his Impressions of Africa, an outlandish romp through a wholly imagined version of the continent. Roussel becomes a character of sorts in Catling's book, a sketch of his story bookending the rest of the action, mostly just to remind us of how earlier generations with no actual experience of Africa romanticized it, but also to add another layer of weirdness to what is already a pretty weird tale.

For this book, The Vorrh is evoked rather than shown as an African forest of supernatural dread that just might conceal the original Garden of Eden at its heart -- and has a completely transplanted European town, moved stone by stone from one continent to another -- on its edges, thriving on an extractive economy based on timber from the forest (yes, children, this story is in part an answer to the question no one else has ever asked -- what if we started logging operations in Eden?) harvested by conveniently docile native slaves (their docility supernaturally compelled by the presence of... A pretty nasty thing I'm not going to spoil for you here though it's a perfect example of Catling's amazing ability to conjure up the truly grotesque) who are the only people who can come and go from the forest without losing their minds or memories (because they kind of don't have those to begin with? Maybe? At least according to the White Men who manage them? But maybe for reals? Maybe?). The Vorrh is also inhabited by creatures straight out of John Mandeville's fables of the kingdom of Prester John (for those non-Prester John fans out there, similar beings are visually depicted in Rene Laloux's crazy time travel cartoon Gandahar/Light Years) and by beings known as The Erstwhile, who are probably degenerated angels (?) and a sad, silent, grotesque and grey-skinned figure whose toenails have turned to horns or maybe hooves but whose human hands (the first human hands, we are told) look kind of normal and who might be Adam, as in Adam from the book of Genesis (?) Not even Roussel could come up with this stuff, is what I'm saying, but here he is, sharing some pages with them. Sort of.

Nor is Roussel the only historical figure to appear here, as a more fully developed narrative serving as a sort of mini-biography of photographic pioneer Edward Muybridge (with added steampunkish/fantastical elements and a fun interlude when he did some work for Sarah Winchester of Mystery House fame) is interwoven with accounts of Catling's own characters, which include Ishmael, a stunted cyclops of a boy raised by small bakelite robots until a pushy teenaged busybody, Gheertrude Tulp, invades the basement of the mysterious mansion given over to his care, accidentally destroys one of the robots and decides to finish raising him herself; Williams/Oneofthewilliams/The Bowman, Great War veteran and borderline white savior figure who resolves to explore the Vorrh after his shaman-lover dies and commands him to turn her into a sentient bow and two white arrows, which he fires ahead of himself to sort of (?) maybe (?) show him the way deeper into the forest(?); Cyrena, a blind woman who has her sight restored after spending a carnal carnival night with Ishmael, and many more, including a Scotsman who sort of accidentally finds out the secret of manipulating the local "hive-minded" tribesmen, another guy Tsungali,** who might be a member of that tribe but maybe it's a different tribe (the ambiguity is deliberate, as far as I can tell) who joins a host of other weird figures who have chosen to try to prevent The Bowman from crossing the Vorrh even if it means killing him, and...

Do you see?

So I can't even tell for sure if I liked The Vorrh, as such. It's overflowing with weird and neat ideas, and full of passages of stunning imagery (Catling is also an accomplished poet). None of the characters are remotely sympathetic*** but none of them are boring... And always there is the mystery. A sequel, The Erstwhile, is next on my to-be-read file, and a third book in the trilogy, The Cloven, is due out later this year. I'm tentatively on board for the rest of the set. We'll see how I feel after The Erstwhile. Which, judging from the title is going to be a bit more focused on the degenerated angels? Maybe?

Whatever. As long as the prose is still good.

*And I cannot account at all for the choice of such obvious eclipse imagery on this cover, either.

**Tsungali, who has spent most of his life as a colonial soldier and who carries a semi-sentient rifle, is my favorite character, chiefly for one scene quite early in The Vorrh, in which he visits England to serve as a living exhibit for his masters, and chances upon a display of artifacts in the British Museum that are not only the work of his own "True People" but are in fact things that his grandfather made and used, as his grandfather's ghost tells him. This is by far the most deeply felt and moving scene in the entire book, and so seems a bit out of place among the violence and willful misunderstanding and surrealism, but it made Tsungali stand out as, for me, the heart of the book.

***To be frank, all of them are awful, except Tsungali and MAYBE Ishmael, and even he is awfully creepy, even if we can understand why he's creepy. But this book is full of violence, rape, exploitation, manipulation, more violence, grotesquerie, class snobbery, yet more violence, and did I mention violence? I mean, the book starts with a guy dismembering his dead lover to make her spine into a weapon, so... yeah. Not a book to take up if you're looking for depictions of healthy relationships, honest conversations or demonstrations of the power of love and human kindness. While it's plenty critical of colonialism, it still lavishes a lot of loving detail on the mindsets that made colonialism possible and yes, this includes the female characters (which in addition only barely pass the Bechdel Test).