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September 5, 2017

Book Review: A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre


Cover A Legacy of Spies sm.jpeg In his newest book, A Legacy Of Spies published by Penguin Random House, John Le Carre returns to the characters and the times that first made him most famous. Yet, while the names, George Smiley, Peter Guillam, Alec Leamas, Jim Prideuaux and others are familiar from titles The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, the settings and the information revealed are quite new.

Guillam has left the Security Service (or The Circus) behind. He's retreated to his mother's family farm in the Breton region of France. However, once you've served in the intelligence community they never really let you go. So he's not overly surprised to one day receive a letter summoning him to London on a matter of some urgency.

It turns out some of the cases he'd been involved in back in the Cold War, with Smiley and the others, have come out of the past to raise questions about the means and methods utilized and answers are being demanded. Since no one can find Smiley, Guillam, his former right hand man, is being called "home" to be served up like so much sacrificial lamb.

The cases the current crop of the security service is interested in are those directly, and indirectly, pertaining to Leamas as recounted by Le Carre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It turns out Leamas had a son and he, along with another, are attempting to sue for damages because of the way things turned out for his father and other agents in the field.

In an effort to mitigate damage control, and find a scapegoat, Guillam is being called on to account for his actions during those periods. The answering of questions and the perusal of "official" files, naturally triggers his memories of the time in question. Aside from seeing how far the reality of what happened during the events in question differed from what's in the files, we are once again reminded why Le Carre is one of the premier spy novelists around.

Not only are the characters beautifully drawn, we also are given insights into their motivations and how they could have possibly done some of the morally questionable things they did. While he might never have questioned why he was doing something in the moment, we see from Guillam's own recollections how much they effected him. His risk taking and keeping secrets from his own handlers, including his beloved Smiley, were all signs he wasn't as content with his lot as he would have liked to think.

Le Carre has done a masterful job of retelling The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his first books, through the eyes of those who worked behind the scenes. Even here, when supposedly the truth is being revealed, there are only hints and allusions to events which give us an indication of what the plan was.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, Guillam's memories take us back to the early days of the Berlin Wall while his interrogation by his former employees is in the present. A Legacy Of Spies provides us with some of the deepest insights into both the mind of a field agent and the world of secrets Le Carre invented all those years ago.
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In some ways this book might be seen as the author's attempt to look back at beloved characters and work through how the world would see them today. Are they heroes, villains, something somewhere in between - creatures occupying a kind of morally nebulous ground where results are all that mattered and means aren't to be questioned?

Typical of Le Carre there are no easy answers - he leaves the reader to make their own decisions. Also typical of this author is the cerebral nature of the work. Don't come to this book looking for gun fights and corpses littering the scenery. Rather, be prepared to not only be drawn into a world where everything has at least three meanings and you're expected to think for yourself.

There was a story circulated around the time of its publication that Richard Nixon had to have Henry Kissinger explain to him what was happening in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as he was having trouble keeping up with the plot twists. A Legacy Of Spies doesn't have the same number of hair pin turns as its predecessor, but its as deeply satisfying and just as intriguing.

A Legacy Of Spies is the final proof, if any other was needed, that Le Carre was one of the few writers able to elevate the spy novel, a genre previously considered close to pulp fiction, and turn it into an art form.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre)

May 25, 2017

Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto


Cover Nest in the Bones copy.jpgIt's been over 30 years since the death of Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto and finally his books are being translated into English. The latest is a collection of short stories, Nest in the Bones released by Penguin/Random House and translated by Martina Broner. The stories assembled here were written over the length of his writing career - dating from the 1950s to the last years of his life in the 1980s.

The stories in this collection range in length from a few pages, "The Impossibility of Sleep", to the almost novella sized, "The Affection of Dimwits". However, no matter story's length you'll soon appreciate the author's use of language to create both atmosphere and character. Di Benedetto had the amazing capacity to pull his reader into a story's circumstances with just a few choice words.

The difficulty with writing a truly great short story lies in ensuring the reader is drawn in with as few details as possible. Baiting the hook with just the right tantalizing morsel is an incredibly difficult task which Di Benedetto manages with an amazing amount of adroitness. In fact you don't even realize how deeply you've been immersed a tale into you're well into it and discover you can't put the book down until you find out how it ends.

Like his more well known fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges or the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez Di Benedetto infuses his work with a kind of otherworldliness. However, he doesn't go quite as far into the realm of magic realism, or even fantasy, as either of them. There is a grittiness and awareness of the darkness in life permeating the stories in this collection that keeps it firmly rooted in reality.
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A good example of this is the story simply named for its main character "Aballay". After hearing a priest's sermon about mystics who sat high in the air on poles in order to remove themselves from society as a form of penance for sins, Aballay is inspired to strive to do something similar. However, he elects to sit on a horse (actually two, allowing one a break from continually carrying him) as his way of atoning for the sin he committed.

In the hands of another writer this could have turned into a kind of homily on the nature of good and evil or something along those lines. In Di Benedetto's world this becomes more about the mundane practicalities of how Aballay can survive living on a horse. How can he sustain himself if he never climbs down from his horse? What about going to the bathroom? The kinds of questions no one ever thinks to ask when they hear about hermits or secluded mystics.

Of course it also explores more than just that, as we follow the lead character on his journey. However, these practical details are what keep the story firmly rooted in its environment. The absurdity of Aballay's self-imposed situation is made all the more poignant by the fact he doesn't seem to be able to actually achieve the inner peace you'd expect from someone on a mystical journey.

Perhaps Di Benedetto's darker view of the world was a result of having been imprisoned and tortured as a political prisoner in Argentina during the infamous "dirty war" of the 1970s and then exiled to Spain. Or perhaps because he lived outside urban centres he saw some of the harsher realities of life and they affected him and his writing. For even the stories written before his time in jail don't have the dream like quality that characterizes some of both Borges' and Marquez's work.

However, just because his work is a little more depressing than other writers doesn't make it any less magnificent. Di Benedetto's eloquence makes the stories in Nest in the Bones works of exquisite beauty that are hard to resist. If, like me, you had never read any of his work until now this is a perfect introduction to a great author.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto)

April 26, 2017

Book Review: Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children


Cover Library of Lost Souls.jpegThe Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs, the third and final book in his "Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children" series, has just been released in paper back by Penguin Random House. Like the previous two books Riggs has created a beautiful combination of text and antique photographs that will not only delight readers but stretch their imaginations.

The story picks up from the cliff hanger conclusion of the second book, Hollow City, where the series' main character Jacob Portman has just realized he can control Peculiar's deadliest enemies, Hollowgasts, or Hollows for short. Up to this point Jacob was the only Peculiar alive who could even see these monsters who were once Peculiars and love suck the souls of their former brethren. Now he has just somehow prevented one of them from killing him and his two companions, Emma Bloom, who can create fire with her hands and Addison MacHenry, a talking dog with the ability to track lost Peculiar children and their caretakers known as ymbrynes.

The three are going to need every bit of their abilities if they are going to rescue not only their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine, and their Peculiar friends, but other ymbryne and Peculiar children as well. For Wights, Hollows who have eaten enough Peculiar souls to regain a human form, under the leadership of the diabolical Caul have kidnapped both children and their caretakers from the safe haven of their loops (short periods of time which have been frozen by ymbryne's to safeguard their children) for some nefarious purpose.

Using Addison's amazing abilities the three track their friends to a loop created out of the worst 19th century London England slum you can imagine. Actually Devil's Acre is probably worse than anything you can imagine. It's only fitting the only way to reach the loop is by a ferry boat piloted by a Peculiar named Sharon - a play on Charon, the ferryman from Greek legend responsible for transporting souls across the river Styx to the underworld realm of Hades.
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Pestilential and rotting, Devil's Acre, is filled with all kinds of different horrors. Riggs has obviously allowed himself to be influenced by The Inferno, the great Renaissance poet Dante Alighier's masterwork describing the nine circles of Hell, in his depiction of the layout and evils to be found in this desolate place. Aided by the reluctantly conscripted Sharon the three make their way through the loop only to find their hardest task still remains, freeing their friends.

Riggs has done a remarkable job of combining action, atmosphere, and character development to ensure the story moves at a pace that will keep even the most attention deficit deprived mind interested. However, he also allows enough breathing space so characters and situations can be fully appreciated. Although the story is told in first person from Jacob's perspective we're still able to understand and appreciate those around him through their conversations with him.

Riggs also allows time for Emma and Jacob to try and figure out their budding romance. While filled with the typical doubts that beset any sixteen year old about becoming involved with a girl, Jacob also has to deal with fact that because she'd lived in a loop her whole life, Emma may look his age but is a hundred years old. Riggs does a fine job of giving them little moments within the action where they take a second for themselves without allowing it to become the central focus of the story.

Library of Souls is a book obviously written for a young adult audience but there's no reason it can't be enjoyed by an adult. Its as well written and thoughtful as any so-called adult fantasy, with far less pretentious extraneous baggage. While the use of the antique photos scattered through-out the book does bring up a certain chicken and the egg query, which influenced which - the photos or the story? - they add a wonderful visual element to the story. It's fun to compare ones own imaginings of a person or setting to the picture describing their reality.

All in all this is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful series. Read it for the simple pleasure of enjoying a gracefully imagined and elegantly executed story.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children)

April 4, 2017

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad


Cover American War by Omar El Akkad.jpeg With American War, published by Penguin Random House April 4 2017, former journalist Omar El Akkad has given us a stunning portrayal of how a terrorist is created. Set in a dystopian future, the last quarter of 21st century America, we follow young Sara T Chestnut, called Sarat because a teacher slurred her first name and middle initial together, as she grows from childhood to her final shaping as a weapon of mass destruction by her handlers.

The United States had descended into a second civil war towards the end of the 21st Century. This time the division is based on the use of fossil fuels. As the oceans have risen coast lines including Florida and most of Louisiana have vanished. When the oil reserves start to run dry the federal government took the drastic step of banning the use of all fossil fuels. Texas and a group of other Southern States rose in protest.

When a pro-fossil fuel demonstration at an American army base in the South results in the death of protesters - nobody can agree on the how or the why - the Free Southern State, comprised of Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and parts of what used to be Louisiana, seceded and declared war on the rest of the United States. While the war has basically petered out into sort of a numb peace between the two side when we meet Sarat and her family in 2075, ongoing terror attacks by Southern forces periodically provoke the North into retaliation.

When Sarat's father is killed while visiting a border post in one of those terror attacks, she and the rest of her family - older brother, twin sister, and mother - are evacuated to a refugee camp in Mississippi run by the Red Crescent society. For as America has crumbled into ruin, countries in the Middle East have finally thrown off their despotic rulers and united to form the Bouazizi Union or Empire. So instead of them being the ones receiving aid from the West, they're now sending aid workers to America.

It's once in the refugee camp that we witness the gradual development of Sarat as a terrorist. We watch as she's selected then groomed by the mysterious Mr. Gaines. Under the guise of befriending Sarat, he begins the careful process of gaining her trust and making her feel like she's part of something important. At first this involves her simply running errands for him - delivering cash to various people within the camp - but gradually develops into the dehumanizing of Northerners so they are no longer seen as anything but an enemy.
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When the camp is attacked in retaliation for the ambush of a Northern supply train Sarat's mother is killed and her brother badly injured. This is the final straw required to make her the tool Gaines has been shaping. Formed in the crucible of war and the barbarity of human atrocity she becomes the ultimate in disposable weaponry.

Akkad has created a world which may seem dystopian to us in North America but is pretty much a reality in any number of war torn countries. His ability to make life in the refugee camp seem almost normal lulls us into a false sense of comfort. It's only when we step away, think about what we've been reading, we realize how abnormal these circumstances are and the desperation they must fuel in the hearts and souls of those force to live under these conditions.

He also displays a masterful hand in laying out the story. We see it through the eyes of a number of characters; Sarat, her mother, the nurse who is hired to care for Sarat's brother after they leave the camp, and finally, Sarat's young nephew. Akkad even includes historical documents; testimony from congressional committees, news accounts of the events leading up to the war, and other similar materials which help create both atmosphere and verisimilitude.

All of these points of view help to create a world both realistic and chilling. What is especially frightening is the fact that we can even understand and sympathize, to an extent, with Sarat. It is remarkable how easy it is to become a terrorist.

While this book is being classified as Science Fiction, mainly because it is set in the future and the world has changed so radically, there is far too much reality contained within its covers to simply dismiss American War as another piece of genre fiction. This is a warning shot across our bows letting us know the circumstances that create the terrorists we fear so much can be created anywhere - even here.

Akkad is a masterful storyteller and American War is one of the most compelling books you'll read this year. It will explain what's going on in the world a whole lot more honestly and clearly than any news cast or politician.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad)

July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series


The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker, published by The Overlook Press July 5 2016, is the third book of the author's "Aspect-Emperor" series. It sets the stage for the conclusion of events he first began depicting in "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy - the world of The Three Seas verging of the precipice of the Second Apocalypse.
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The first series depicted the rise of Anasurimbor Kellus to the position of Aspect Emperor and the first stages of his conquest of The Three Seas. We learned of the world's history and the various players who would shape the course of events for the decades to come. Most importantly we came to understand the history of the name Anasurimbor, and how, according to the teachings of The Mandate School of sorcery (or schoolmen as they are known in this world) it was steeped in dread and wonder. For it had been foretold the name was a harbinger of the Second Apocalypse and the rise of the Mandate's ancient enemy The Consult.

In the first two books of the "Aspect-Emperor" series, The Judging Eye and The White Luck Warrior we witnessed the beginnings of the Kellus' war on The Consult in an attempt to prevent their domination of man. With an army composed of hundreds of thousands he sets out to conquer Golgotterath, the home of The Consult. To accomplish this they must travel beyond the known lands through territory controlled by Sranc - semi-human creations of The Consult who feed on human flesh.

In The Great Ordeal we not only find Kellus' army dealing with the constant grind of fighting a running battle against the Sranc and a lack of supplies, we see how his enemies in the heart of his empire are trying to take advantage of his absence by attacking the capital of his empire. This book also continues the quest of his first teacher, Drusas Achamian - a former Mandate schoolman - to discredit the emperor by discovering his true origins. Accompanying Achamian is Kellus' step-daughter, Mimara, who is equally determined to bring Kellus to heel for her own reasons.

Finally Bakker also takes into the heart of ancient history - the kingdom of the Nomen. They are the world's original inhabitants who after thousands of years of life have slipped into a type of madness. In order to win their allegiance against The Consult Kellus sent them one of his daughters, one of his sons, and the king of one of the realms he conquered as hostages.
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Bakker does a magnificent job of maintaining all four story lines. He transports us from the horrors of the battle field to the intrigues of the palace in capital city of Kellus' empire with ease. He has the uncanny ability to set a scene with such minimal effort there is nothing jarring about these transitions. Whether we're travelling through desolate wilderness with Achamian and Mimara or descending into the pits delved by the Nomen in their mountain home, we are instantly acclimatized to the location and what's taking place.

Bakker's use of language is equally as stunning as his storytelling ability. While he sometimes describes horrors that could push one to the limits of their sanity, he does so in a manner which gives them the power of myth. We feel like we've walked into one of the great sagas of our world's history and are witnessing the deeds and thoughts of people almost beyond our ken.

However, he also has the knack of bringing us up close and personal with each of his characters. The result is we witness and experience events through the eyes of men and women who are every bit as real as we are. We share their innermost thoughts and feelings - including their hopes and fears - to such an extent we can almost believe what they describe is taking place.

He has created a world of magic, wonder, and horror; yet one that is also all too familiar. For it is dominated by religious wars, political and personal ambitions, and the cruelties, personal and otherwise, humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Even the rhetoric spoken by Kellus and other leaders contains eerie echoes of words we have heard, and continue to hear, in our own world.

This series explores human behaviour in ways few epic fantasies have dared in the past. Not only do we witness the depths of depravity which we are capable of stooping to, we hear the words and thoughts granting permission for these acts. While each of the lead characters do anguish over their decisions, they all, in the end, acquiesce to the notion of the ends justifying the means. At the end of the day we have a hard time distinguishing who, if anyone, is a hero.

In The Great Ordeal Bakker has continued to expand upon what he first started six books ago. In the process he's brought to life characters who are both human and compelling, created a world that for all its differences bears a remarkable resemblance to our own, and a sprawling epic tale of the grandest type. Bakker's work carries on the epic story telling tradition established with Homer and the tales of Rama from the Indian sub-continent. Amazingly he is not out of place in this illustrious company.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series)

April 28, 2016

Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
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As is his wont Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he's focused on what we'd know as the region from Venice to Istanbul - with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions - during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they're described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay's previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)

While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay's focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere. From the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It's these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.

Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships travelling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren't supposed to be fighters she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions; Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.

When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif's desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family's representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife travelling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor's wife as a way to enter Seressa's rival as a spy.

When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. The first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
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What's wonderful about Kay's books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character's story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point. Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.

Kay's books are a delight to read because he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you've read over 400 pages without even noticing.

Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif's court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it's his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.

Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created - including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it - makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you'll want to read it again and again.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Children of Earth and Sky - Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay)

January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar


The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar from Soft Skull Press is the third in his series of books featuring Kalix MacRinnalch, the youngest child of the ruling werewolf clan of Great Britain. As she's about to turn 18 Kalix finds herself still an outlaw (she killed her father the Thane) and living in London far removed from the ancestral home in Scotland.
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However, her living situation has improved somewhat since we first met her back in The Lonely Werewolf Girl. She's sharing an apartment with two humans, Daniel and Moonglow, and a Hiyasta fire elemental, Agrivex (known as Vex). While she's still suffering from panic attacks, an eating disorder, and a tendency towards self -harm - she's addicted to laudanum and cuts herself when her anxiety is at its most severe - life is still better. Her family is no longer actively having her hunted down and returned to Scotland (dead or alive) for her crimes and she has friends who care for her.

While things might be looking a little more positive for our werewolf heroine, plans afoot that could see her once more thrust into a horrible maelstrom. For the Avenaris Guild, werewolf hunters, are gearing up to see if they can finally destroy their historic enemies the MacRinnalch clan once and for all. Not only have they recruited new hunters from all over Europe they have found themselves a powerful alley in the person of Empress Kabachetka, the ruler of the Hainusta fire element dimension.

Kabachetka has long begrudged being outshone in the fashion world by Malveria, Queen of the Hiyastas and Vex's aunt. As Malveria's cloths are designed by Kalix's eldest sister Thrix, Kabachetka sees an alliance with the Avenaris Guild against the MacRinnalchs as the perfect opportunity to not only gain revenge but clear the field of all competitors for being the best dressed fire elemental in all dimensions.

If this all sounds rather confusing, and a little bit convoluted, well I've only revealed the tip of the iceberg. For as well as those named above the pages of The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf are peopled with the same host of characters who appeared in the previous two books; including Kalix's extended Werewolf family and the clans associated with them, other magical/mythical beings, and even a cameo appearance by Joan Jett. (Kalix is a big fan of Jett's first group The Runaways.)

However, Millar does a wonderful job of ensuring all the different threads in this story are woven together seamlessly. While he writes chapters that are sometimes merely short bursts of description or brief encounters between one or two characters, each helps to complete our picture of what's happening in the story. We watch as the story builds to its climax - the battle between the werewolves of the MacRicnnalch clan and Avenaris Guild - while coming to appreciate each character more and more.

At the same time, Millar continues to do a wonderful job of describing and detailing the effects of anxiety and panic disorder. It doesn't matter that Kalix is a werewolf. When we step inside her mind and listen to her thoughts we gain a deeper understanding of the fears people suffering from this condition experience. Even the simplest matters can become extremely complicated. What's especially wonderful about Kalix's character is how straightforward her thought processes and reactions are. These are thoughts any of us could have; that any of us could experience.

Of course not all of us our werewolves who were born in their wolf shape on a full moon - which we're given to understand is so rare an occurrence Kalix was the first - who during battle becomes a beserker who feels no pain and will let nothing stop her from ripping an enemy's throat out. It seems like a good way to vent.

There is nothing cute or romantic about the werewolves in this book. In their human forms they have all the same weaknesses and foibles other people have while being fearsome warriors who rip the throats out of their enemies without a second thought. That they design haute couture, use computers (difficult to type when you're in your werewolf shape) donate to art galleries, and play in rock and roll bands might bring them into the 21st century, but they won't back down when challenged.

The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf can be read as a stand alone book, but I'd recommend reading both The Lonely Werewolf Girl and Curse of the Wolf Girl first. Not only will you appreciate this book more for having done so, but they are well worth reading on their own merits.

Millar has a marvellously quirky style of writing that might take a bit getting used to, but once you get into the flow of the book you will find yourself swept along for the ride. There aren't too many authors out there who could have handled the demands of creating such a complex collection of characters and plots and made it so easy to follow without being simplistic. A great book and a fun read for anyone sick and tired of paranormal romance novels.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar)

December 5, 2015

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel - Ms. Marvel Vol.1 No Normal, Ms. Marvel Vol.2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed


Ms Marvel No Normal.jpgA couple of years ago Marvel Comics began the process of rebooting some of its original characters in non traditional ways. It was a way of making their universe a more accurate representation of the real world. Gay characters rub shoulders with new imaginings of traditional characters - a female Thor and a African American Captain America. However, one of the most interesting new interpretations has been how they've taken the character of Ms. Marvel and brought her into the 21st Century.

For those who missed Kamala Khan in her individual comic appearances as the new Ms. Marvel, Marvel has done you the sweet of repackaging them in four volumes: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1:No Normal, Ms. Marval Vol.2: Generation Why, Ms. Marvel Vol.3: Crushed and the soon to be released Ms. Marvel Vol.4: Last Days.

Kamala is the child of immigrants from Pakistan who settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. A typical sixteen year old girl is most ways - loves online RPGs and writes Avenger's fan sites - she also has to deal with the culture clashes most children of immigrants will find familiar. The overprotective parents, the older sibling who knows better and a high school community who think she's "interesting". Sure some of the restrictions placed on her are specific to her being Muslim, but in reality, she could just as easily be Sikh, Chinese or Indian.
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Of course it helps the comic that the head writer is G.Willow Wilson who came to the series with an already impressive resume. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen was winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel as well as having worked on various other comic titles before tackling Ms. Marvel. Having lived and worked in Egypt as a journalist in her twenties she also has a much clearer idea of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world than most Western writers.

The first three volumes collect not only the titles from Ms. Marvel's own book, but also titles from other books - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - she has made guest appearances in. While this sometimes is confusing for purposes of continuity, it also gives us the chance to see the character both in and out of the context of her own world and how she fits into the Marvel universe as a whole.

However, what really makes these comics work is how much Kamala's struggles coming to terms with her new superpower mirrors the struggles she has in finding her place in her community at large. For she wasn't born with her superpowers. After sneaking out to go to a party she's exposed to a mysterious mist which not only induces strange visions - the original Ms. Marvel and some of the Avengers appear to her speaking Urdu - it transforms her into Ms. Marvel.
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While she's always thought this is who she wanted to be, she quickly discovers being someone different doesn't solve her problems. She's not only still Kamala with all of the same difficulties fitting into both school and her parent's world, she now has the added problem of finding her way as a super being. The whole comic is a beautiful conversation on a young woman's struggle for identity which people of all backgrounds will be able to empathize with.

However, the comic doesn't just deal with immigrant life and teenage identity problems, its also got all you typical comic book action. Bringing both to life through short bursts of dialogue and illustrations is no easy task, but the writers and artists on this title do a splendid job. Not only do they bring their message across without being preachy, they also keep the action hopping and have created some exciting story lines for their readers. There's also some special guests along the way if you needed anything else to pique your interest.

Kamala Khan has now outgrown her formative years as a superhero, in current issues of her book she's joined The Avengers. For those who missed her beginnings and her early struggles these three collections are must reads before setting out to find out how she's able to balance being part of a super team and the rest of her life. It was hard enough saving Jersey City, but what if she has to go save the world?

(Article originally published at Blogcrtics.org as Comic Book Review - Ms. Marvel: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 No Normal, Ms Marvel Vol. 2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed)

November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff


Fantasy literature, specifically pertaining to werewolves and vampires, has been seriously tainted by the rise of the unholy spectre of romance novels hiding their true nature in the guise of something called paranormal romance. While this plague has spread seemingly unchecked over the past few years, there are still a brave few willing to stand against the hoards and do their best to drive the stake of a well written werewolf (and vampire) stories into their malevolent hearts.

Tanya Huff has been writing great fantasy and science fiction for more then thirty years. She has not only taken on this new scourge on the literary front, her vampire detective series, Blood Ties has been adapted as a successful television series. While werewolves have made appearances in some of her earlier books in her latest, The Silvered, from Penguin Canada, they take centre stage as the rulers of the small country Aydori.

The world Aydori is part of sees Edwardian technology, steam engines, hot air balloons and gas lights, co-exist with a kind of elemental magic and werewolves. While some have no problem with this rather unique blend, there are those who see magic as a thing of the past and werewolves no better than beasts. As the Hunt Pack, the werewolves of Aydori, are male and only mate with female magic users, known as the Mage Pack, those who hold to this negative opinion of werewolves also condemn the women for sleeping with animals. Unfortunately for Aydori, Emperor Leopold of the Kresentian Empire is a firm adherent to this belief and also has a strong desire to rule his neighbours.
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So when his troops advance through neighbouring provinces and begin an assault upon Aydori, nobody is too surprised. Unfortunately the empire's technology has come up with a method of countering the Hunt Pack's superiority in combat; artillery firing rockets which unleash silver shrapnel. While members of the Pack can heal from normal gun shot almost instantaneously, silver will lodge in their flesh and can kill them. However, in spite of the Emperor's supposed disdain for magic, and desire for land, it turns out his invasion of Aydori is merely cover for a more sinister purpose involving specific members of the Mage Pack.

Mirian Maylin has washed out of university, told by her instructors her magical power is too unfocused for her to amount to much. While the reactions of the Hunt Pack to her, (werewolves are attracted to the smell of magic and pick their mates according to how they react to a woman's scent), say she has a latent source of power, she's never been able to produce more than the weakest and lowest level spells. However, when the Aydori forces are overrun and the leaders of the Hunt Pack are killed, she and the rest of the country are forced to flee to the Pack's mountain retreat. It's during this trip she witnesses a small group of Imperial soldiers capture five of the leading members of the Mage Pack. With a magical artefact designed to neutralize their powers, the five women are hustled away.

Unfortunately for Captain Sean Reiter of the Imperial army his orders were to bring back six mages, not five. So he sends the five captured women back to the capital and with a small band sets out in search of his sixth mage. Picking up the trail of Mirian, he and his men capture her as she's searching for any surviving members of the Hunt Pack to tell them of the kidnap. While most of them have been killed, young Tomas Hagen, the Hunt Pack leader's youngest brother, has managed to survive. Desperate with grief he has fled the battle field only to come across the strong scent of a mage. Finding Mirian held captive, he manages to help her escape.

Thus the stage is set against which the rest of the story plays out. Tomas and Mirian play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Captain Reiter and his small troop while attempting to make their way to the Empire's capital city in order to rescue the captured mages. However, instead of merely telling their tale, Huff splits the narrative three ways. We not only spend time with the young mage and wolf, she also gives us Reiter's perspective as he attempts to recapture them. We are also travel further down the road with the captured mages and begin to learn why the Emperor has gone to such trouble to take them prisoner.

Huff's greatest skills as a storyteller has always been the strength of her characters and her ability to bring the world they inhabit to life. From deep space to times without technology she is able to immerse her readers in a book's environment. However, unlike others who use long descriptive passages to create a sense of place, she develops the picture gradually through the eyes of her characters. It's from young Tomas' descriptions of the battle field we learn of the nascent technology of the empire. Coupled with Mirian descriptions of the type of magic employed by the Mage Pack and Captain Reiter's dealings with his men, we discover both the nature of the relationship between the Mage Pack and the Hunt Pack and different people's different feelings about magic and werewolves.
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Thomas, Mirian, Captain Reiter and the other characters, including Emperor Leopold when we meet him, are drawn as complete human beings. While some, like the Emperor, we only meet through the eyes other characters, even then we are given as balanced a view as possible. For when Reiter is made a member of the Emperor's inner circle he sees the various sides of the man's character. On the one hand he's a loving and doting father who obviously takes pleasure in the company of his family. On the other he can casually order ghastly experiments be carried out on those he considers lesser beings. Its like reading a description of those who blithely sent millions to their deaths in the concentration camps during the day and were loving parents at night.

Huff is one of the best story tellers I've ever come across. Aside from her ability to create characters and intricate, but understandable, plots, she also has a knack for inventing new and intriguing forms of magic. While she's used elemental based magic systems in the past, here she's expanded upon it to include metals and healing as well as the more traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. Most of the Mage Pack are able to control one of the elements.

As their proficiency increases their eyes acquire flecks of colour associated with their power. In the rare case when a person is able to work with multiple elements, like Mirian, their eyes gradually turn silver. This is isn't the only transformation she goes through as her power increases, and watching her and Tomas deal with her transition into a person of power is one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Aside from the whole "with power comes responsibility" thing, there's also a personal cost to be paid. Huff handles the two young people coming to grips with Mirian's new reality in the same practical and straight forward manner she deals with all issues. There are no histrionics or melodrama involved, just a very real description of a young woman's fears and how she copes with overcoming them with the help of a close friend and companion. (By the way, for anyone concerned about the seemingly hetro-centric nature of relationships in the book, rest assured we meet a happily gay werewolf and his soothsayer partner.)

Tanya Huff has always shown a flair for making the fantastic realistic and believable and The Silvered is no exception. If you've given up hope of ever reading about werewolves without having to wade through the treacle of romance novels, this book should ease your mind. While a romantic relationship is obviously starting to flourish between Mirian and Tomas, it's a perfectly normal and natural development based on their experiences together. Their relationship is indicative of the book as a whole, everything happens organically and with good reason. The characters might be mages and werewolves, but they're firmly grounded in reality.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff)

November 5, 2013

Book Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation by Tim Manley


"Curiouser and curiouser" was Alice's commentary on the world she found down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol's Alice In Wonderland. While the land she found herself in was populated by hookah smoking caterpillars, pocket watch bearing white rabbits, vanishing talking cats and other strange and somewhat scary beings, it probably wasn't half so strange as the rabbit hole of social networks we currently live in.

There is no mythical or fantastic country I can think of stranger than the lands of a thousand unknown "Friends" which is Facebook or the 140 characters of sometimes meaningless chatter constituting Twitter. Mobile phones and tablets are the looking glasses of today. Faces glued to screens, oblivious to the world around them, people enter into a cyber world as unreal and made up as any created by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. All of which makes a new book by Tim Manley, Alice In tumblr-Land (and Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation), published by Penguin Canada a pleasure to read on many levels.

Snow White, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and the rest of the fairy tale/folk hero gang, live in the world of social media. Chicken Little feeds her paranoia by Googling illnesses, Snow has fantasies about Ryan Gosling while perusing online photos and Beauty worries what her chic friends will think of Beast. Cinderella divorced the Prince (he wasn't gay, just kind of a prick) and moved back in with her stepmother, vowing never to wear glass slippers ever again - it's Crocs all the way for this modern girl while Arthur and Lancelot have jobs in the sharp end of the service industry and are typical twenty-something slackers.
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Manley, the creator of the blog, Fairy Tales For Twenty-somethings, has put the book together along the lines of blog posts or daily status updates on a social media site. Instead of chapters telling each character's story, each page contains a small blurb and an illustration (all illustrations by the author) of what at first appears to be meaningless pieces of information. All right, it's sort of cute Snow White has the hots for Gosling. (He's not related to the Ugly Duckling is he?) Or, how after pulling the sword from the stone, before becoming king, Arthur takes off on a road trip which includes stops at Burning Man and learning how to make a guitar out of cigar box on the streets of New Orleans.

But like status updates they are merely moments without context or substance. You don't learn anything about a person, or a character, from these types of truncated thoughts. Thankfully Manley understands this, and doesn't just leave it at that. For he uses these blurbs to gradually tell us each person's story. As we continue to read he keeps circling back to his characters gradually revealing more and more about each one.

As the book unfolds you start to see the imaginative and mischievous ways Manley has brought these classic figures into the modern world. He's taken elements of each story and combined these with a character's most distinctive traits to create thoroughly modern versions of the folk/fairy tale. Poor Robin Hood is having a hard time spreading his message of social equality. The whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing just doesn't seem to be working. Changing the world is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Sure it was working on a local level, but what about nationally and globally? Going on the Sheriff's day time talk show wasn't any help - as a firm proponent of trickle down economics he and Robin had a hard time finding anything they could talk about except their mutual liking of ice cream.

As if things weren't bad enough Robin found he was having a hard time opening up about what was on his mind to those closest to him. He was even reticent around his oldest friend Little John. Is this what aging does to you, you slowly just stop talking about things he wondered? However, not to worry. Robin eventually figures things out and develops a whole social media campaign to get his message to the world.

While some people might have problems with some of the choices Manley makes in bringing his characters into the 21st century; Arthur gay, Rapunzel giving up on guys and taking up with a hot girl friend and Mulan having a sex change - she'd always been happier being one of the guys; you never have the impression he's made any of his decisions casually or simply to shock. In fact there's something quite realistic about the way he describes what happens to each of them. Sure it's done with humour, but the process each character goes through is as honest as anything you'll read anywhere else.
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Originally fairy tales and similar stories were written as a means of teaching a moral lesson or something simiilar about the world we live in. Over the years, and thanks to the sentimentality of a certain entertainment conglomerate based out of Florida and California, the lessons have either been diluted or lost. Not only has Manley updated the stories and the characters, he has also restored their original purpose. I don't mean he has made them into modern day morality tales, but he uses them to help us see what's happening in the world around us just a little more clearly.

While it might be funny to think of Sleeping Beauty as suffering from depression, Chicken Little from panic disorder and anxiety and The Ugly Duckling using her superior intellect to cover up her insecurity about her appearance, Manley's descriptions of their conditions gradually becomes uncomfortably accurate. In fact the more we read about each of them, the more poignant their stories become. However, like all good fairy tales, each of their stories has a happy ending. Chicken Little goes into therapy to deal with issues from her childhood and starts hot yoga classes, Sleeping Beauty met up with her old buddy the Prince for coffee and he listened and understood why she was sad which made her feel better, while The Ugly Duckling saw some pictures from her high school reunion posted on Facebook and realized, while she might not be beautiful, she looked right.

As we read about each of the characters we begin to think of them less in terms of who they were originally and more as people dealing with life as we know it. While Manley's illustrations remind us of their fairy tale origins through his use of familiar distinguishing characteristics, his writing turns them into something quite different. They are more than just cute cartoons or figures from stories in our past, they are characters whose concerns and problems are ones we understand. Of course humour is a big part of the book, but underneath the laughter is an insightful mind who understands the foibles and frailties of being human with compassion and empathy.

Social media is a fact of life whether we like it or not. Marshall McLuhan said the media is the message. Through their choice of media some people attempt to send a message or even comment on the media itself. Manley, while maybe poking fun at people's obsessions with social networks and the Internet, embraces the form required for its utilization and gives us an indication of its potential as a means of real communication while neither condeming nor advocating its usage. In his stories the Internet is an accepted part of life just as it is for all of us.

Alice In tumblr-Land (And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation) is a humorous and intelligent look at life in the 21st century as seen through the eyes of familiar figures from the fairy tales of our childhood. While its sub-title implies the book is geared towards a specific generation the content and humour will appeal to almost anyone. Not only is it a lot of fun to read, it is also thought provoking and smart. Like the fairy tale books of our childhoods Manley's illustrations complement the writing and play an integral part in their telling. Unlike those books however, these stories are firmly based in our current reality and the happy endings aren't dependant on anyone being rescued by a handsome prince.

Article originally published at the Empty Mirror as Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation)

October 8, 2013

Book Review: T. C. Boyle - T. C. Boyle Stories II


In some form or another the short story has probably been around as long as man has had the desire and the ability to communicate. Oral tales told around the fire at night aren't going to be long drawn out affairs. Neither are they going to deal with more than one subject. While they might not have been stories in the way we think of them, early ones were probably embellished tales of successful raids on other tribes or descriptions of hunts, the format they followed wouldn't have been much different from the ones we read in books today. They would have recounted a particular incident or time period in an individual's life.

Leaping ahead to the 19th century with the introduction of mass media, specifically periodicals, a demand for stories to serve as popular entertainment developed. While Charles Dickens might have been serializing his epic works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the adventures of his famous detective for the Strand Magazine as short fiction. In the early part of the twentieth century the short story was both the province of those writing genre fiction like Robert E Howard and literary fiction, James Joyce. The short story has continued to endure because of its versatility as a vehicle for expression. Whether a sword and sorcery adventure or an introspective examination of the human psyche, the short story can be anything to anyone depending on what its author chooses to do with it.

T.C.Boyle is probably one of contemporary fiction's premier short story writers. There are very few today who have equaled his output in terms of quantity and quality. Proof of both comes in the release of the 900 plus page T. C. Boyle Stories II by Penguin Canada. The volume of work he's managed to produce in the twenty or so year period this book represents is impressive enough (especially considering this is the second of two volumes). However, you'll also quickly discover he is no hack churning out story after story as if on an assembly line. Each is an intricate and surgical examination of human behaviour, unflinching, and rather terrifying, in its honesty.
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I say the latter for while there are undeniably humorous moments in some of the stories, the weaknesses of the characters in them are described so accurately we can't help recognize what we have in common with them. It's far too easy in reading some of his stories to see how given the right sets of circumstances, or the wrong ones, how you could have followed the same path his people end up taking. Like figures out of classical tragedy whose downfall comes about because they refuse to moderate their behaviour, his characters' paths are caused by a similar fatal flaw. However, as they are acting out their lives in surroundings or circumstances we're familiar with, their actions not only ring true, we can see the elements of ourselves in them.

What impressed me the most about the work I read in this collection, (I defy anyone to sit down and read all 900 plus pages of stories contained in this volume in one sitting) was how much his work has evolved since I first read it back in the mid 1980s. While his material was as biting as it is now, it wasn't quite as insightful or nearly as concerned with the hows and whys of his characters. The stories were more general social commentaries instead of the far more sophisticated character studies they have become.

One thing which has remained consistent over the years is his ability to write without sentimentality. Anybody looking for the type of feel good story you'd find in Reader's Digest or Saturday Evening Post have come to the wrong guy. He's not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or heartwarming in any shape or form. People in his stories make messes of their lives, and no matter what their good intentions might be, don't often manage to clean up after themselves. However, just because he's not sentimental, doesn't mean he isn't without empathy for those he writes about. We wouldn't be able to read these stories if the characters were cruel or stupid or Boyle didn't feel anything for them. He manages to imbue even the most down and out of them with the humanity required to make them both believable and to keep us interested in them.

It's inherent in any author to be able to postulate "What If?" It's what fires their imaginations and breathes life into the worlds they create on the page. Boyle's ability to look at an idea or situation and ask "What If?" is at the same time the most imaginative and the most grounded in reality I've ever read. Like science fiction and fantasy writers he excepts any premise is possible, yet like a realist his settings and people stay incredibly normal. "After The Plague" is a perfect example of this. The population of the world has almost been completely wiped out by some sort of disease and only a few people, who happened to be in isolated situations, managed to survive. In most instances these types of post apocalyptic settings end up being excuses for zombie attacks or mutations of some sort or another resulting in constant battles for survival.
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In Boyle's universe life just goes on as it did before with far fewer people around. As the protagonist, a teacher who was on sabbatical in an isolated cabin, discovers, just because somebody else survived doesn't mean the two of you are going to get along. Personality clashes can happen even in Eden when you're trying to recreate the world. In fact, the end of civilization as we know is a rather prosaic event. Sure everybody's off the grid now and has to become self-sufficient, but since the grocery stores are still well stocked with canned goods, there's plenty of fresh water and material goods are there for the taking, nobody is lacking for anything. What does it matter if you're now sharing the roads and sidewalks with bears and mountain lions, there's plenty for everybody.

The odds of the planet being hit by an astroid or other object from space big enough to cause the type of calamity which wiped out nearly 75% of all the species on earth including the dinosaurs during any individuals lifetime are roughly ten thousand to one. Which just happen to be the same odds you have of being killed in an automobile accident in the next ten months or living to be a hundred with your spouse. When Chicxulub hit the earth 65 million years ago in the area where the Yucatan Peninsula now sits it left an impact crater 120 miles wide, was six miles across and is thought to have been travelling at a speed of roughly 54,000 miles per hour. In the story named for the asteroid Boyle uses details of a variety of different similar strikes to help us fathom what it would be like to lose somebody in an accident.

What are the odds your daughter will be walking down the road at the same time somebody who had too much too drink will begin to make their unsteady way home down the same road? If the odds are the same as those of the earth being hit by an interstellar object capable of destroying civilization, will not the damage be equal as well? For anybody who receives the phone call in the middle of the night telling them their daughter has been involved in an accident wouldn't it be the equivalent of their world being destroyed, their universe crumbling? What at first seems to be a means of distancing us from the experience actually ends up bringing it into proper perspective. Their shock at what's happened is made even more real when we begin to understand how unlikely an event it really is. By comparing the death of a child to the end of civilization we are brought into the heart of the experience and made to understand it with chilling clarity.

Whatever Boyle chooses to write about he always manages to find a way to bring us into the heart of the central character's experience. The usual distancing effect of fiction doesn't seem to exist in the worlds he creates. We are plunged into the lives of his characters with all the chill of diving into a mountain fed stream. Like a portrait painter who doesn't gloss over warts or beauty marks Boyle's work is compelling for all that it is frightening. This is the work of an uncompromising artist. Don't expect to find much comfort among his words, but be prepared to be amazed at the images he creates and the emotions he's able to stir within you.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Review - T.C.Boyle Stories II)

August 12, 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


The issue of race in North America, specifically the relationship between people of African descent and those of European ancestry (white people) is something most of us don't want to talk about. While there are no laws left on the books discriminating against people of colour, nothing we legislate is going to prevent the way people think or feel. Of course its not just race at issue, it's gender, religion and anything else that marks one group of people as different from another. The problem is further exasperated by the tendency to refer to distinct groups as communities. So in stead of communities being made up of the people living together in a geographic area, a geographic area is made up of various segregated communities

Of course there are those who are always willing cynically make use of the word community in order to further their own ends. How many times have you hear a business man or professional athlete talk about giving back to the community? How opening a chain of fast food restaurants or other business is anything but a grab for a neighbourhoods disposable income is beyond me, but it's amazing how often businesses openings are called gifts to a community as if they're supposed to be grateful for more minimum wage service industry jobs. Also which community are they talking about? Is it everybody within the geographic area, or just the people who are the same colour, sexual persuasion or religion as the person making the announcement?

The notion of community and its subtext of race plays a major role in Michael Chabon's most recent release, Telegraph Avenue, first published by < a href="http://www.harpercollins.ca">Harper Collins Canada in 2012 in hardcover and scheduled for release as a trade paperback in October 2013. There aren't many artists today both talented and brave enough to enter into these types of dangerous waters without seriously floundering or running ashore on some shoal or another. However Chabon not only navigates them safely, he does so with such aplomb its only after you've finished and enjoyed his story you realize the keenness of his observations regarding modern urban life.
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Set in what the author refers to as the freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland California circa 2004, with a couple of sojourns into the 1970s, in an ethnically diverse but still predominately African American neighbourhood, Telegraph Avenue details the lives of two families who have intertwined professionally and personally. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used/collectible record shop barely hanging on by its fingernails financially. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva run Berkeley Birth Partners, mid wives performing home and hospital births according to their clients' wishes and needs.

The two partnerships have worked amicably, with the women's financial success compensating for the men's shortfalls, but events are about to become turbulent enough to shake the foundations of everything they have built. For the boys the threat comes from ex- professional quarterback Gibson Goode, the fourth richest African American in the US, and his plans to open his latest "Dogpile Thang" just down the street from them. Goode's multi-story entertainment complexes not only contain all the latest in entertainment diversions, they also include large used record emporiums selling the same mix of jazz, soul, funk and other classic African American music as Brokeland and at much "competitive" prices.

While the boys fret over what looks to be their impending doom, the women have their own problems. When a home birth develops complications and they're forced to rush their client to the hospital they work with, Gwen gets into an argument with the doctor on call. Patronizing and condescending he pushes all her buttons until she loses it. Unfortunately the consequences of her actions result in him filing an official complaint against the two, which means they could have their hospital privileges revoked and their business ruined. Just to make matters worse the husband of the woman who had to be rushed to the hospital intends to sue them because of what happened.

With Gwen expecting her's and Archy's first child the threat to their finances couldn't come at a worse time. Further straining their marriage is the sudden appearance of the child Archy fathered with another woman before he married Gwen. Compounding Archy's difficulties is the sudden reappearance in his life of his deadbeat father, Luther Stallings, former martial arts champion and star of a couple of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. Stallings brings with him not only the smell of failure, but a history with the city politician in Goode's pocket, who also doubles as the local undertaker and is one of the prime movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. Stallings relationship with said undertaker dates back to the days when the Black Panthers and drug dealers vied for control of the streets. Stalling hopes to cash in on this relationship due to his knowledge of certain events and information about the role played in them by the undertaker/city politician.

All these characters and plot lines play out against the backdrop of the faded beauty of the American urban landscape. Chabon's lively mix of people drawn from all ages, backgrounds, gender preferences and ethnicity are the mortar holding this crumbling, but still standing edifice together. When the politicians and business people who look down on them from their lofty perches of commerce and ambition talk about the good an enterprise like Dogpile Thang will bring to the "Community", they are playing a game of divide and conquer. They are trying to sell an image of African American prosperity. However, the reality is a store with little or no economic spin off for other businesses that will create a couple hundred minimum wage service industry jobs while lining the pockets of its owner and his supporters.
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Chabon has captured the way in which these type of people cynically manipulate the race card in order to feed their own ambitions. By making it sound like the opening of the store is some sort of benevolent gesture on their part, giving something back to the "community", all they're really doing is cloaking their greed in a veneer of fake "black pride". Opening a homeless shelter, sponsoring a lunch program for local schools or providing the funding for a recreation centre for neighbourhood people is giving back to the community. Opening a mega store is expanding your retail empire.

On the other hand the crazy mixed up and jumbled mess of people, businesses and streets Chabon describes in Telegraph Avenue is a real community. The premises Archy, Nat and Brokeland records occupy was a barber shop in a previous life. The men who gather in the record store on a semi-regular basis to talk music, life and the whole damn thing are continuing a tradition of community gatherings dating back sixty years or more. The store is a microcosm of the community at large as black, white, Indian, old and young congregate to while away the time in the useless conversations men so dearly love and have specialized in for eons no matter what their backgrounds.

Communities grow from the ground up and can't be created artificially or imposed by those from the outside. These flawed utopias, like the one Chabon describes so beautifully in his book, exist all over urban North America. While the fight between Brokeland records and Dogpile Thang ends in an unexpected way it also shows how change isn't a bad thing for a community, but only if it comes from within and isn't imposed on it. Like any living thing they need nurturing, and if there is any message to be taken away from this book its we've all missed the boat on what's needed for urban redevelopment. Instead of trying to impose order from without, governments and whomever need to help them build from within. Anything that will improve the quality of life for those living in a community from school meals to community health clinics are of far more use than more minimum wage jobs with no future.

Chabon writes in a kind of free flowing stream of conscious. As we move back and forth between his four major characters as they travel through their world and try deal with their situations, their perceptions and observations bring their community to life for us. We join them in the very public ritual of a funeral for one of the community's long standing fixtures, a musician and friend of the boys, and for the very private ritual of the birth of Gwen and Archy's child. We listen in as they do their best to try and hold on when events move so quickly they can't keep up and how they each manage to find a way to meet the needs of the occasion.

Chabon has managed to capture the essence of community. Whether its a family group or people loosely connected through geography and a shared appreciation for the history and traditions of the region, his descriptions of how people manage to coexist, if not in harmony than at least in a state of mutual acceptance, is remarkable. There's nothing neat and tidy about a community, or life, which is what makes them both all the more valuable. Telegraph Avenue is a wonderful celebration of this glorious mess which is a pleasure and an inspiration to read.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon)

June 24, 2013

Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


History books are full of the names of the so called great leaders who have been responsible for the great moments in human existence. However, if recent history has shown us anything leaders are the ones who capitalize on popular movements started by people like you and me who generally pass unnoticed. Look at all the uprisings which have taken place over the past few years, from the Occupy Movement in the West to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and what do you remember most about all of them? Scenes of masses of people spontaneously demonstrating against their leaders. In Cairo, Tunisia and other capital cities in the Arab world the middle class joined forces with students, house wives and workers to topple their governments.

So who were these "unseen" individuals who helped bring down dictators? How did they all of a sudden find the strength and will to stand up to and take on not only the state but armies, police forces and secret police whose jobs it was to ensure this type of dissent shouldn't have happened? In her book, Alif The Unseen, now available in trade paper back from Random House Canada, American author G. Willow Wilson gives us not only a portrait of one of those disaffected individuals, but one potential scenario for how these momentous events could have happened.

In a fictional unnamed emirate somewhere on the Persian Gulf lives a half Arab half Indian computer hacker named Alif. He and his mother, the second wife of a well to do Arab, live in the poorer district of the city, out of sight of his father's Arab first wife. Alif has two major preoccupations. One is providing protection for bloggers and dissident voices of all stripes from the state's secret police. The second is Intisar, the daughter of an aristocratic Arab family with whom he's been carrying on a clandestine affair. His dreams of the two them running away together come crashing down when she lets him know her father has arranged for her to marry an important member of the royal family.
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Heartbroken and angry Alif does two things which will change the course of his life forever. In a fit of pique he has his childhood friend Dina, a properly veiled and draped Muslim girl, deliver a box containing the sheets displaying the marks of Intisar's lost virginity on them to her. He also writes a piece of code which can identify a person from the way they use their keyboard. This will allow him block out any and every communication from Intisar without having even check his email. When Dina returns with an old book Intisar has instructed she give to Alif he thinks nothing of it, except to note the oddity of its title, The Thousand and One Days, the inverse of the famous The Thousand and One Nights.

More dangerous, at least as far as he's concerned, is the discovery The Hand, the state's super hacker responsible for trying to track down and arrest the people Alif is shielding, has somehow co-opted the program he wrote to identify Intisar's presence on line. The Hand has been able to plant the program virus like on all Alif's client's computers and will soon be able to not only trace all of them, but Alif as well, if he hasn't already. As one by one his client's go silent, Alif hastily tries to shore up his own defences. However, when Dina warns him a member of the secret police has tried to frighten her into turning Alif in, he knows he was too late, and they are both forced to flee.

Up to this point the book has read like a pretty straight forward adventure story with only its non-Western setting separating it from other books of its kind. Computer whiz kid stumbles on government plot to silence dissent having to flee with childhood friend who he's been ignoring in favour of some exotic rich beauty could be the plot of any young adult science fiction story. The difference, and a wonderful difference it is, is who and where they end up fleeing to. A friend recommends they seek out a mysterious underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire in the hopes he can help spirit them out of the city to somewhere safe. It turns out "spirit" is an appropriate word for describing Vikram, because he's one of the race of djinn, the magical, beings of Islamic myth.

The djinn exist unseen by most of those around them. While they appear to be human shaped, if you happen to look at them in just the right way you begin to notice differences in their physiology. In the case of Vikram, there's something of the giant cat about him. His legs seem to bend in ways a man's shouldn't be able to and he's able to move faster and in ways that shouldn't be possible. It's Vikram who recognizes the book Intisar gave Alif as more than just a simple collection of stories. Long ago a djinn had been coerced into dictating the book to a human alchemist. Hidden within the text of the stories are some of the deepest secrets of the djinn waiting to be uncovered by the human who is able to see the unseen.

With the help of an American woman convert to Islam studying at the emirate's university, Dina, Vikram and Alif try to crack the secrets of the mysterious book. Alif's quest for knowledge leads him into strange and horrible places including the Emir's prisons and the unseen world of the djinn. However, it turns out the knowledge he was looking for was his all along, it was a just a matter of learning how to see inside himself and find out what he really wanted from life. The Hand wants the book because he believes it will give him the means to exert complete control over the emirate. What he doesn't understand is its power isn't something which can be used for exerting control. its power is in what it can teach us to see.
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Normally I'm suspicious of books set inside a culture written by someone from another background. However, Wilson is not a carpetbagger looking to exploit someone's else beliefs and traditions. She has done a wonderful job of bringing a modern Arab state to life. It's a world filled with computers and smart phones just like ours and populated by people as diverse in their beliefs and habits as any place in the world.

She even has the courage to make fun of herself in the form of the white American woman convert - who is almost always referred to as "the convert" in the book. For she is an outsider, no matter how much she wants to be a Muslim. This is shown by her inability in the beginning to see Vikram for what he truly is. Initially, she was not steeped enough in the tradition and culture to appreciate the subtle nuances of belief allowing him to exist. She literally has to be impregnated by him, to become part of the culture, before she is completely comfortable and able to accept every aspect of her new faith.

There are many ways a person or a people can be unseen. Some of us are unseen because we choose to be - covering our faces with veils or out identities with an alias. Than there are those who aren't seen due to the nature of the society they live in. From the faceless masses who go about their lives, one among millions, without recognition to those who others consider so far beneath them socially they don't exist. Finally there's the unseen who populate the worlds on the fringes of our belief systems - the fairies, the djinn and all the other vaguely defined mythological creatures who we are lucky enough to sometimes glimpse.

However, as recent world events have pointed out even the invisible have the power to change the world. In Alif The Unseen Wilson shows us the many ways the unseen exists around us and how easy it is to learn how to see. Everybody has his or her blind spots, people or things we choose not to see for one reason or another. Maybe if we open our eyes a little bit wider we'll find we have more in common with each other than we might have thought. The people in this book might dress differently then us and use words for god we might not understand. All we have to do is learn to see past those small differences to see the people beneath. This is a fantastic story filled with far more than meets the eye at first glance while being a great deal of fun to read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson)

May 19, 2013

Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer


What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates so many modern writers these days? Not only are people setting novels in the time period, a whole sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy has developed out of it, steampunk. While the stories are set in England of the 19th century, anachronistic elements from our time period are introduced to create a kind of alternate history. What makes the best of these stories work is when the author finds a way of taking the technology of the era and giving it either abilities equivalent to what we have in our world or imbuing it with fantastical gifts equivalent to magic.

This era also saw changes in the way people thought and the things they believed possible. For the beginning of the technological age also saw the beginnings of science fiction writing. Jules Verne and H. G Wells speculated about traveling to distant planets, under the oceans and through time long before the first two were considered possible. In fact, such was the nature of Victorian society, spiritualism and other marginal sciences flourished during the time, they would have been more willing to believe in time travel and other magical events more than either travelling to the moon or delving into the earth's oceans.

In the first book of his latest young adult series, W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, Eoin Colfer (creator of Artemis Fowl) has opted to collide the 20th century with the Victorian era. Along the way he gives readers the chance to experience the differences between the two societies and a taste of steampunk by transplanting some modern technology and ideas into the past through the book's plot.
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The letters WARP are the acronym for an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top secret witness protection program, Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. Even most of the FBI's agents have never heard of the program. The only reason young Chevron Savano finds out about it is because she has been sent to London by the bureau after the trial program she was a part of blew up in their faces. Recruiting high school students to monitor potential terrorist recruits their own age had seemed like a good idea, until Savano actually had to take action to protect her suspects. It was only then the bureau realized the shaky legal and ethical ground they were on utilizing underage agents. So Savano finds herself whisked out of the country guarding a basement full of equipment which looks like its straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie in order to avoid being questioned by the United States Congress.

It turns out to be the WARP program's nerve centre. Unlike other witness protection programs which create new identities, WARP transports people back in time to Victorian England to keep them safe. Savano only finds out its true nature when the machinery comes to life one evening and accidentally transports 14 year old Riley into the future. The apprentice of a Fagin type figure, Albert Garrick, ex-stage illusionist and now the 19th century equivalent of a contract killer, Riley was transported forward to the present because his master's latest target was the inventor of WARP. At the moment of his death he activates the machine and transports both his corpse and Riley into the basement where Sayano is waiting to receive them.

When Garrick highjacks the FBI team, including Sayano's direct superior, sent back into the past to pick up the pieces, he not only follows his young charge into the future, in the process his body absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of the agent in charge of the program. Something about the mechanism changes him on a molecular level resulting in Garrick obtaining superhuman powers. Not only is he still a murderous devil, but he now possesses the ability to change his appearance and assume the identity of the agent whose thoughts he's absorbed. This not only gives him access to all the bureaus' secrets, but allows him to put the blame for the deaths of the team sent into the past on Savano.

At first Savano and Riley's main preoccupation is staying alive and free. Fleeing both the FBI and Garrick they manage to slip through both their fingers and jump back to the Victorian era with Garrick in hot pursuit. It's while in the 19th century they start to uncover the secrets of the WARP program and unravel Riley's strange life story including the secret behind his relationship with Garrick. In the process Colfer takes us on a tour of London featuring stops not on most tourists agendas. From a seedy bar, the hangout of a criminal organization know as the Battering Rams, the well appointed mansions of the mysterious spiritualist Tibor Charismo (advisor to the Queen and the Duke of Westminster and author of such wonders as the symphony "Another Brick In Yonder Wall" featuring the crazed lutist Pinkus Floyd) and finally the horror of the city's slum life in the form of the Rookery, home to the dregs and castoffs of society.
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While the story clips along at a fairly rapid pace with Colfer switching between Garrick's and Savano's perspective of events, he still manages to find the time to fill out his character's history and personalities. As Savano and Riley get to know each other we begin to learn more about each of them until they become fully developed characters.We not only learn the particulars of their lives prior to them meeting, we start to find things in them we can identify with. The same holds true with Garrick, the more we spend time with him the more we begin to understand him. While his life story raises our sympathies, unlike the two young people he chases who have chosen to rise above their troubles, we see how he took the opposite path and chose to lash out at the world.

Colfer has also done an admirable job in bringing both the modern world and the past to life. By showing us 19th century London through Savano's eyes and its modern counterpart through Riley's and Garrick's eyes they both turn into strange and wondrous places. From the way the city smells to the sounds of daily life he reminds us how much we take for granted about our own existence and creates an extremely vivid picture of what life would have been like 120 years ago. Colfer does such a good job with his depictions the past starts to feel as familiar to us as the present and we feel equally at home in either era.

W.A.R,P, Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is first and foremost a fast paced adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes from the opening chapters to its close. Colfer also manages the rather tricky work of making the two worlds his story takes place in, and each setting's respective characters, believable. While the contrasts between the two eras and the character's reactions to the culture shock of shifting time adds an extra dimension to the story, it's the way Colfer manages to integrate all the elements of plot, atmosphere and character development into one cohesive unit that makes it a pleasure to read. What he's created in this first book bodes well for the rest of the series and will have his fans awaiting each new instalment with the eagerness of those who used to anticipate the next edition of The Strand and further adventures of a certain pipe smoking detective.

(Article first published as Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer on Blogcritics)

May 2, 2013

Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by SimonTofield


The majority of animals represented in cartoons, whether animated or not, are anthropomorphized. While occasionally this giving animals human characteristics and motivations is funny, most of the time it comes across as a shameless attempt at creating a character who will appeal to a human audience. It also strikes me as a sign of laziness on the part of the those involved with creating the character. While creations like Bugs Bunny were given witty and intelligent dialogue to make them appealing, most of those responsible for creating cartoon animals today rely solely on the their "humanness" in order to make them popular.

It is far harder to take an animal and turn it into a cartoon representation of itself much as you would a human. Cartoons about humans rely on their creator's ability to exaggerate our characteristics in order to generate humour. The really good cartoonists also know not to exaggerate too much in order to ensure their audience can identify with the character. If we can see traces of our selves in the characters we are watching on screen, or reading in our daily newspaper, we find them much more appealing.

Obviously we're not going to see anything of ourselves in a cartoon animal if its being represented as an exaggerated version of itself. However if the cartoonist chooses an animal whose behaviour we're intimately familiar with, like a dog or a cat, he or she can work with those characteristics to make a successful and appealing character. One of the best examples of this today, in both live action and print, are Simon Tofield's series of books and videos featuring the animal simply known as Simon's Cat. Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book, published by Penguin Canada and Canongate Books, the fifth book in the series is just as funny as its four predecessors in the way it brings its hero to life.

Cat owners the world over are well aware of the variety of means cats will employ to get their human's attention. Under most circumstances these range from the cute to the slightly annoying. Unfortunately a cat's need for attention doesn't change whether a human is asleep or awake and they will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure their needs are met no matter what the obstacle. I'm sure everybody who has ever owned a cat can give at least one example of the means their pet employed to rouse them from a deep slumber.

As the title of this book suggests it does have cartoons dealing with the ways cats have of ensuring their human's wake up on demand. However, what makes it even more interesting is it explores all the variations on the theme of sleeping and cats you can think of, and some you may never have even considered. While there are a variety of cartoons depicting Simon's Cat waking up his human, ranging from the real (sitting on the chest and yelling) to the unreal (peeling back the human's eyelids or stuffing a toy mouse into his mouth) the cartoons dealing with other sleep related situations might even be funnier.

There's the cartoon of the human negotiating a difficult stair case and almost tripping and falling over the cat tucked out of sight asleep on a riser. He was lucky, usually this happens when your arms are full and you're trying to negotiate a particularly dark and difficult descent into a basement. Or, in another instance the hapless man is laying on his stomach reading and the cat curls up asleep on his back. Have you ever tried to dislodge a cat from this position? If so you'll know it's next to impossible. If you stand up too straight they will panic at the sensation of falling and dig their claws into - you. So the final frame in the cartoon of the man walking bent over with the cat on his back asleep looking for a way to remove the limpet from his back will be all too familiar to most cat owners.

Then there are cats' sleeping habits, specifically the places they chose to sleep. Who hasn't found their cat sleeping, and shedding, on top of a pile of fresh laundry as is depicted in the book? Of course there's also their astounding habit of trying to fit themselves into a box, or the equivalent, far smaller than them and either succeeding in contorting themselves into what looks to be an extremely uncomfortable position or destroying the item in question and falling asleep on its remains. Of course, nothing beats the contortions they will put themselves through in order to sleep on top of a hot water radiator in the winter. Once you've seen a cat cram themselves under a window sill in order to secure their position of warmth, you'll believe them capable of anything.

As Tofield depicts cats don't only victimize sleeping humans, they have no qualms about attacking members of their own species when they are asleep either. As the kitten introduced in, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos shows, the dangling tail of a sleeping cat is an irresistible temptation for another cat. In fact, a sleeping adult cat in general is considered an ideal cat toy by kittens until the adult cat puts his paw down, literally.

While Tofield strays away from realism on occasion, the mice holding up a teddy bear to frighten the cat or a hedgehog popping the balloon he's carrying on his own spiny body, the animals rarely take on human characteristics. In his cartoons he relies strictly on the drawings to both tell the story and for humour. Even in the videos which first brought his creations to people's attention the only sounds are those cats would normally make (which are generated by Tofield) and incidental music.

What has always impressed me about Tofiled's creations are how he can accomplish so much with so little. Even in Wake Up, the second book of coloured cartoons, the majority of his illustrations are limited to just the cat and his immediate surroundings. Occasionally he will draw more elaborate panels, but his primary focus is always on depicting the cat's behaviour and its reactions. The result, as in all his other work, is one of the funniest cartoons of an animal you will ever see. At some point every cat owner who either reads or watches one of his creations will find themselves exclaiming, "Why that's just like (insert name of your cat here)".

(Article first published as Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
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This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
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Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald


March 27, 2013

Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer


Ever since Philip Marlow and Sam Spade roamed the back allies and dimly lit bars of American crime fiction readers have revelled in the adventures of anti-hero private detectives. With more in common with the crooks they hunt than those on the supposed right side of the law they not only moved in the shadow world of criminal behaviour but the darker recesses of the human spirit as well. Hardened by crime, corruption and hard living they offered readers a bitter and jaded view of the world. A view which had more to do with reality than what was usually on offer in the popular fiction of the day.

However, as the years have passed since they were first published the world has changed significantly and we're all too aware of the mean streets around us. We don't need hard boiled detectives to expose the rot beneath the pretty veneer of civilization when we can read about it in the headlines of our daily newspaper. So as the 20th century started winding down parodies of the tough private dick started to show up in popular culture. While some of these efforts weren't bad, the most common result of reading or watching something featuring one of these take offs was you'd end up missing the originals. For instead of having fun with the genre, most of those being made were making fun of it.

So I have to admit to having some hesitations when I began reading Robert J Sawyer's new book Red Planet Blues, published by Penguin Canada. Instead of the mean streets of some major city in North America, Sawyer's investigator, Alex Lomax, has set up shop in the rough and tumble city of New Klondike on the planet Mars. Like its namesake on earth it was once a boom town populated by a host of prospectors hoping to strike it big. However instead of gold or diamonds, on Mars they were after fossils. Artefacts of the ancient life on the Red Planet which were valuable collector items back on earth.
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As we learn from Lomax the fossil boom began forty years before the events in our story take place. Two explorers, Simon Weingarten and Denny O'Reilly, discovered the first evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. By the time we come in the boom has long since busted and New Klondike is a city fallen on hard times. There are still a few prospectors chasing the dream of finding "the big one" which will make their fortunes, but mainly its a town filled with those who can't go back to earth for one reason or another. They may not be able to afford the passage, they may have been on Mars too long and their bodies won't be able to readjust to Earth's gravity or they may just like being outside the reach of Earth's jurisdiction. Whatever the reason most of them are just trying to get by, including PI Lomax.

Those wealthy enough can make the stay somewhat more pleasurable by transferring their brains into a new, nearly indestructible, body. Not only do Transfers gain a measure of immortality, they also gain a body which can survive the Martian climate. Everybody else has to stay within the confines of the dome surrounding New Klondike and make monthly payments to keep yourself supplied with life support. If you do have to take a stroll on the planet's surface you need to doll up in a hermetically sealed suit complete with its own life support system and internal plumbing. Those choosing to have the transfer done usually also go for a new improved version of themselves. While most of these upgrades are of the cosmetic variety, the new bodies are also far stronger and faster than their biological equivalents. The invulnerability and the extra strength come in handy for any number of things, including murder, theft and other nefarious activities.

Which, for those still hoping to find the mother lode of fossils, is of course extremely helpful. The investigation Lomax stumbles into via what at first appears to be a simple missing persons case ends up involving an almost mythical rumoured motherlode, transfers and a mystery dating back to the founding of the city. The two who first discovered fossils had died under mysterious circumstances and the knowledge of the location of their biggest fossil field died with them. The problem with fossil prospecting is there are no clues on the surface of the planet telling you what's buried beneath your feet. Unless you know where the fossils are, you could search for decades and not find anything.

With almost no fossils coming on the market demand for them, and the price people are willing to pay, has gone through the roof. So even a rumour somebody has a line on Weingarten's and O'Reilly's famous lost field causes shockwaves of greed to spread through the community. Lomax soon finds his simple missing persons case turning into a murder investigation stretching back four decades. While some of the leads might be cold, it doesn't stop things from heating up or the bodies, both biological and transfers, piling up in the present.
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Sawyer has done a great job in not only lovingly recreating the tough talking detective type made famous by Raymond Chandler, but in putting him in a setting where his talents can shine. There's nothing fancy or exotic about New Klondike, just like there's nothing glamourous about Lomax or any of the people he associates with. Like the plots in those great old movies with Bogart as the tough talking dick, there's some beautiful women along for the ride to provide distraction, including one or two femme fatales just to make things interesting for our stalwart hero.

Yet even more interesting is how Sawyer has made his lead a little more complex then his predecessors and we begin to suspect his hard boiled gum shoe shtick is a persona he puts on for the job. Lomax, who also narrates the adventure, does his best to convince us of his mercenary nature, at one point wondering if he can legitimately bill his client for time spent sleeping with a witness. However, for someone so interested in the almighty dollar he sure spends a lot of time trying to solve this mystery without a client to foot the bill.

The more we find out about Lomax the more we discover he has very set opinions on right and wrong and does his best to see people live up to them. Sure he's got to pay the rent, and for the right to breath oxygen under the dome, but once he gets the bit in his teeth he's not about to let anybody get away with murder. While we may initially like hanging out with him because of his world weary and slightly cynical take on his fellow beings, we actually end up liking him for what lies beneath the surface.

In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has found a highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard boiled detectives of the past. Mars, like the sun kissed streets of Los Angeles Philip Marlow once patrolled, may sound like its an exotic location, but underneath the glamour of being on another planet there's just as many dark and dangerous secrets as anywhere else. So its the perfect setting for a private eye willing to skirt around the edges of the law. You'll have a lot of fun wandering the mean streets of New Klondike and over the surface of the Red Planet with PI Lomax, and he might even give you a few things to think about.

(Article first published as Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer on Blogcritics.)



March 7, 2013

Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie


Have you ever noticed how people react when you tell them you're reading a collection of short stories? They've asked, 'What you reading?', and when told short stories their smiles sort of freeze in place and they quickly change the subject. If it had been a full length novel they would have probably continued asking questions, 'What's it about?' or even the dreaded 'What's it like?'. It's almost as if they don't think short stories somehow merit the same consideration as a full length novel. That they're an inferior form of writing and those who write them not as accomplished as novelists.

I've no idea where or how people formed this impression. For not only can short stories be just entertaining and intelligent as any novel, in some ways they are even more difficult to write. For while a novelist has a few hundred pages at his or her disposal in order to build his characters, develop his plot and establish the environment the story takes place in, the short story writer must be able to do the same in far less time. Of course they also have to tell their story at the same time. Which is why as far as I'm concerned a well written short story is every bit as deserving of our attention as any novel, and a collection by a good author is something to be treasured.

Anybody looking for proof of the short story's merits need look no further than the recently published anthology of Sherman Alexie's short stories, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, from Grove Press distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Alexie a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene born on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit Washington, is not only a prolific short story writer but also a poet, novelist, screenplay writer and a performer.
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In this collection people familiar with Alexie's work will find some stories they've read before including "The Toughest Indian in the World", "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona" (The basis for the movie Smoke Signals) "War Dances" and "Because My Father Said He Was The Only Indian To See Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner At Woodstock" (hands down the best title for a short story I've seen yet). However, this is not just a repackaging of old favourites and there are about as many new stories as there are previously published ones.

Whether new or old Alexie's stories wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren't afraid to speak their minds. Characters drink, take drugs, sleep in alleyways, marry, have children, work for a living, pan handle, live, die, love and hate. Just like the rest of the world. The only difference is most of them are either members of the Spokane or Coeur d'Alene nations, conquered people living among their conquerers. Sometimes you don't really notice any difference between the characters in his stories and those in other people's stories. You wouldn't even know they were from a different nation unless you were told.

Yet even those stories with seemingly assimilated characters still give the impression of being about those on the outside looking in. There's something about their lives which makes you realize they're always going to be separate and not equal no matter how much they try to blend. They never seem to want to talk about where they come from and they try to avoid thinking about their families. For it's when they do the pretence of belonging falls apart. How many of their friends have parents who drank themselves to death? How many have had to go more funerals then birthday parties before they left home?

Of course there are the stories where its bloody obvious you've entered a world completely alien to anything you've ever experienced. "Cry Cry Cry", the first story in the book, takes you into the world of desperation and hopelessness New Age bookstores and their talk of "Native Spirituality" pretend isn't reality. "Whenever an Indian says he's traditional you know that Indian is full of shit" says the narrator in reference to his cousin Junior, the drug dealing Pow Wow dancer. Maybe Junior's story, his descent from using drugs, to dealing, to serving time for dealing drugs to white people and screwing white girls is repeated in ghettos all over America. Maybe not.
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"Cry Cry Cry" is also about the person who has to see his friend and cousin go into free fall. The guy who's there when he finally goes off the deep end and kills someone, and is then considered a pariah for turning Junior into the cops. How far has a community fallen when the person who turns in a drug dealing murderer is considered a traitor? When he considers himself a traitor? These are dangerous questions to ask, but Alexie doesn't shy away from the nasty shit. When the narrator of the story takes up Pow-Wow dancing he does so thinking he's honouring his dead friend. However, the truth he comes to understand is something different. He's honouring all those who have died, he's honouring what his people once were and what they might be again.

How many people ask when they see the homeless Indian drunk on the sidewalk "How did this happen?" No, most are going say something along the lines of "Fucking drunk Indian" or "What do you expect there all a bunch of fuckin' lazy welfare bums who'd rather drink than work". In an "Indian Education" we learn the lessons most Indian kids learn in their formative years. The ones which are part of the answer to the question hardly anybody asks. Humiliation, despair, hopelessness, hunger, self-pity and self-loathing aren't on most Public School curriculums, but are the equivalent of the three "r's" of an Indian's education.

When a State Trooper asks why a guy who is happily married with kids, has a good job and is sober drives his car straight into a tree everybody shrugs their shoulders. What they don't say out loud is "...when we look in the mirror, see the history of us our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water and shake with old tears, we understand completely. Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough." (Alexei, Sherman "Indian Education", Blasphemy Grove/Atlantic Press, New York, 2012 p. 292)

Alexie is one of those remarkable writers who are able to write about truly gut wrenching and heart breaking events without making you feel sorry for those in the stories. What good is pity to these people anyway. It won't put food on the table or take away the ingrained pain of being broken across the wheel of history. The people in his stories are real. Some of the situations they find themselves in aren't going to be ones very many of us can identify with. However, somethings are common to all of us, no matter who we are and where we come from. The heartbreak of losing a parent, feeling lost in an overwhelming world and the need to have our pain understood. Alexie uses these to bridge the immense gap between the world of the conquered and the conquerer allowing us to begin to understand what it would be like to stand on the other side of that divide.

There are very few authors who can write with the same amount of honesty Alexie brings to his work. Some of the stories aren't pleasant, others are hilarious and some are just sad. However all of them are brilliant, multi-faceted gems guaranteed to make you think.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie on Blogcritics)


February 3, 2013

Book Review: The Golden Door Book One Of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda


When writing for a younger audience, the Young Adult or teen reader, an author has to find the perfect balance between going over his or her audience's head and appearing to talk down to them. What made books like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series such a success was her ability to create characters who were not only believable but whom her readers could identify with. As our perceptions of the world she created were shaped by Harry's reactions any false notes in her characterization would have shattered the illusion of reality she had created. If a reader can believe in and identify with the character who we see the world through he or she will accept just about any reality they find themselves transported into.

Australian author Emily Rodda has obviously taken that lesson to heart judging by her most recent release in North America The Golden Door, the first book in her The Three Doors trilogy, published by Puffin Books and imprint of Penguin Canada. Following in the footsteps of generations of storytellers before her Rodda's story sends a hero out into the unknown on a quest. However, with the careful injection of her own ingredients, she manages to put a new spin on the ages old format.

Young Rye lives with his mother Lisbeth and two elder brothers Dirk and Sholto in the walled city of Weld on the island of Dorne. According to the city's legends it had been founded over a thousand years ago by a sorcerer Dann. Seeking a place of peace and refuge for him and his followers he had led his people into the secret centre of the island, surrounded by the mysterious Fell Zone, and with his magic raised a towering wall within which Weld nestled safe from the fierce creatures and barbarians that plagued the island. Generations later the city is ruled by a Warden, a direct descendant of Dann's original appointed heir.

As the years have passed the magic supposedly used to create The Wall (the citizens of Weld refer to it with a reverence akin to the way others talk about a god or a hero) has waned. Until recently this hasn't been a problem. So grateful are they for their supposed safety the people of Weld have willingly obeyed all the strictures imposed on them by the Wardens down through the years. Notices placed around the city in the Warden's name remind people to dress warmly in the cold months, tell children to be careful not to play too roughly in case they hurt one another and generally dictate every aspect of their lives.
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However all that began to change five years ago when the skimmers first appeared. Fell creatures from the sky with an appetite for warm flesh and blood, the skimmers fly over The Wall in the warm season and attack anything they find out in the open. As they are attracted by light, sound and the smell of flesh summer nights see the citizens of Weld locking themselves up into their houses. Sitting in the dark, eating cold meals and carrying on conversations in whispers they listen to the sound of leathery wings flying overhead. Even leaving a shutter over a window open a crack could be enough for the skimmers. Many a morning houses have been found cracked open like eggs and their inhabitants slaughtered.

As the attacks have grown fiercer and the measures taken by the Warden to protect the people have failed, disquiet begins to grown among Weld's citizens. Both Rye's older brothers, big burly brave Dirk and clever Sholto, the apprentice healer, have given voice to their frustration. So when the Warden calls for volunteers to leave Weld and search for the source of the skimmers its no surprise that both end up leaving as they each in turn come of age. When they both fail to return Rye obsesses over their fate. For although the Warden declares them dead after they have each been gone a year, Rye believes they are both still alive.

When disaster strikes Rye and his mother, skimmers destroy their only means of livelihood, they are forced to seek shelter in Warden's Keep, Rye's decision to lie about his age and volunteer to leave Weld is only inevitable. How though does one leave the city? For one of the oddities of Weld is there is no visible gate allowing exit or entrance. Hence the title of the series. For secreted well beneath the Keep lies a secret chamber containing three doors. Made of gold, silver and wood each of the doors leads to a different destination in the outer world.
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While Rye's first instinct is to pick the wooden door, his quest isn't to find the skimmers like everybody else. No, he is determined to find his two brothers and bring them back alive. Knowing his brothers as well as he does he realizes brave Dirk will have chosen the door of gold and Sholto the silver. Determined to bring his older brother back he's just about to leave through the gold door when he's interrupted. A girl his age climbs out of the fireplace in the secret chamber and demands he take her with him. He only gives in when she threatens to tell the Warden he's underage. So Rye and his unwanted companion, Sonia, step through the gold door into another world.

While its through the door Rye and Sonia's quest begins, they are also presented with another mystery which Rodda's establishment of their life within Weld set up. Growing up Rye was taught Weld and its Wall were the centre of their universe. But once out in the world he soon discovers its merely one, insignificant, part of something much larger. Things aren't as cut and dried as he'd been taught. While he goes about completing his tasks - finding his brother Dirk and rescuing him - as readers we feel his amazement at the size and diversity of the world beyond the shelter of his city.

While Rye himself is too preoccupied with his quest to begin the process of questioning what he has been taught, we're left no doubt that seeds of disquiet have been planted. Rodda is too smart a story teller to spell these things out for us, but from his reactions to what he sees and the things that happen to him Rye's world view is being shaken. As readers we begin to wonder about the real reasons behind the creation of Weld, its impenetrable wall and the amount of control exerted over its inhabitants by the Warden. Was The Wall created to keep the rest of the world at bay or to keep Weld's citizens in?

At first glance the characters of Rye's older brothers seem to be less real people and more types. However, as the story develops we realize this is because Rodda has done such a good job of telling the story from Rye's point of view. Until he understands the world more a younger brother sees his elders only in terms of their dominant characteristic and not as complete humans. As Rye's horizons expand with his travelling beyond Weld he comes to understand there's more to both himself and his brothers. He's no longer merely the younger brother who must be looked after and worried about.

With The Golden Door Rodda has created the beginnings of what has the potential to be a fascinating multi-layered adventure. Not only will Rye's quest to find his brothers and deliver Weld from skimmer attacks continue, there is also the mystery of Weld's creation and the nature of the world its located in to solve. Of course there's also the question of Sonia and Rye's friendship. While they started off in adversity, they quickly came to trust each other and gradually earned each other's respect and friendship. It will be interesting to see how both their characters and their relationship develop over the course of the trilogy.

All in all this is a very promising start. It's not often you find a Young Adult fantasy series which does more than recount the adventures of its heroes. Without being didactic or obvious Rodda raises some fairly sophisticated and pertinent social issues. In these days of heightened security we are being asked to surrender various rights in the name of safety. In Weld we see that carried to an extreme, with a ruler trying to dictate everything about how its people live for their own good. Isolation from the world around you might keep you safe, but at what cost? It will be very interesting to see what Rodda does with these themes while continuing to tell her story.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Golden Door Book One of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda on Blogcritics)

December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2012

Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont


It's not very often you have the opportunity to read the same story told from two different perspectives. Occasionally we will see the same events through the eyes of two separate characters, but how often do we have a chance to read a whole series of books which run concurrent to another series? Well this is exactly what Steven Erikson and Ian C Esslemont have been attempting to do with their epic fantasy series set in the mythical world of The Malazan Empire.

Erickson began the process with his ten book sequence The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, but Esslemont is quickly catching up with the publication of his 5th book set in the same world, Blood and Bone, from Random House Canada. As the books have been published over the years it's become obvious the two men are not just telling the story of an Empire, but recounting the history of a world, if not a universe. While there are occasions when the authors' work intersect and characters first met in one's work show up the other's, each of them are responsible for recounting different aspects of the history. At times events in one book are concurrent with those of the other series while on other occasions they take place at different times in the history.

While Erikson's books have predominately centred around action within the Empire, Esslemont switches back and forth between the Empire and characters and locations only briefly mentioned in the other series. As with a previous book Blood and Bone features members of an elite fighting force who have taken a vow of eternal opposition to the Empire. The Avowed of the Crimson Guard, who are nominally a mercenary army, have gained immortality with their vow to follow their leader Prince K'azz Davore until the Empire has been overcome. However, dissension within the company has caused a split leading to around fifty warriors to be disavowed by the Prince for betraying the spirit of their oath. Unfortunately merely disavowing them turns out to be insufficient, and the book opens with K'azz being forced to gather his forces and head out to bring the renegade members of his troop to heel.
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Unbeknown to the Guard the continent of Jacuruku where they are heading has become a lodestone for several powers who will all converge upon its shores simultaneously. Long ago the entire continent was under the rule of one so terrible a group of sorcerers known as the Thaumaturgs attempted to depose him by bringing a god from another universe down upon his head. Unfortunately all they succeeded in doing was killing themselves in the resulting conflagration, scattering pieces of the god all over the world, pissing their former ruler off and leaving the world vulnerable to the presence of a very angry and crippled alien god. Although his power was somewhat curtailed by various powers, the Crippled God has still managed to exert considerable influence in the world.

While Erikson recounted how the Crippled God's story was resolved, inBlood and Bone Esslemont focuses on how some parts of the world are still dealing with the repercussions of his landing. After the fall Jacuruku gradually came back. While the descendants of the Thaumaturgs who caused the original destruction have carved out a kingdom they rule by means of terror and magic, a huge swath of the continent is covered by jungle ruled by the goddess like figure of Ardata - also known as Queen of The Witches. While expeditions into her jungle have never been successful - few who set out have ever returned alive, the Thaumaturgs have decided to send an army against her.

An ungainly beast which would be almost impossible to move under ideal conditions, the idea of trying to take an army and the thousands of bearers required to carry supplies through the jungle seems to be madness of the first degree. Ardata need not send out troops to defend her borders as the jungle itself appears to be sufficient to overcome any invaders. However, they aren't the only invasion force heading into her heartland. A shard of The Crippled God buried near her land has attracted quite a bit of attention. The disavowed of the Crimson Guard have been sent by the Crippled God to try and recover this piece of himself in exchange for his patronage and protection. However, power attracts power, and the extremely powerful sorceress, Lady Spite, has hired a mercenary company made up of ex-Malazan marines and magicians to help her secure the same shard.

When the marines are stranded on the continent they are forced to attempt to cross through Ardata's territory. Having recovered the shard of the Crippled God, at the cost of losing their employer temporarily, they have become a lodestone for other beings of power. So not only are they forced to deal with the jungle's dangers, they also have to worry about what this piece of a god they are carrying around could call down upon them. While this struggle is being played out, a mysterious Warlord has landed on another coast with a mercenary force. He manages to unite the fractious desert warriors of the continent into an army and is now leading them in an invasion of the Taumaturg kingdom.
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If that sounds like way too many plot lines to keep track of, and that's not even all of them, you would be right if they were in the hands of a lessor author. Not only is Esslemont able to keep his hands firmly upon the reins of all the action taking place and tie them all together quite nicely, he also manages to bring the environment they take place in to life with remarkable vividness. Part dream world, part claustrophobic jungle and part nightmare we follow each party's progress through one of the most inhospitable habitats you've ever encountered. Even more impressive is what we learn about the various characters and their cultures from the way they interact with this environment.

It might sound odd to say this, but Esslemont also manages to deal with all these social and personal examinations without ever taking himself or the circumstances too seriously. Not that he turns the experiences his characters undergo into a joke, but the story never becomes bogged down in needless naval gazing on the part of either himself or the characters. After all this is a fantasy novel, not some 19th century naturalistic examination of the human condition. So while you can make the obvious comparison with Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, with its description of a journey into a land where the rules of civilization as we know them have vanished, there's one major difference.

For instead of depicting his characters as having descended into some uncivilized dark pit, Esslemont makes it clear a social structure governed by rules of behaviour still exists, they're just not the ones his characters are used to. Those who stubbornly refuse to adopt suffer while those who are willing to accept change have an easier time of it. Ironically, while the struggles of these characters seem loom huge in both our's and their eyes, events in the world beyond this small continent end up making most of their voyages irrelevant. However, this in no ways diminishes the book, as Esslemont has done such a fine job of taking us on each journey the lack of any finite conclusion is irrelevant.

Blood and Bone is the latest chapter of the magnificent epic sequence set in the universe created by Esslemont and Erikson. Somehow or other they have done the seemingly impossible of finding ways of fleshing out the world and introducing new and exciting ingredients and characters with each book. Esslemont continues to show he's every bit as imaginative and literate as Erikson. The ability to combine the fantastic with literary elegance is something I've come to take for granted with the writing of both authors, yet each time it catches me by surprise and takes my breath away. There really are no other books quite like them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

September 19, 2012

Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One Of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson


To be honest I've never been much for prequels. Even the name given these titles of books or movies which tell the story of what came before bothers me. It's just a little too cute tying together previous and sequel into one word which actually means nothing at all. Aside from my abhorrence for all things cute, prequels are usually just blatant attempts to cash in on a title's original success. Nine times out of ten they nowhere near as good as the original and usually they turn out to be a waste of money. However, there are exceptions to any rule and Forge Of Darkness, the first book in Steven Erikson's new The Kharkanas Trilogy, published by Random House Canada, detailing events taking place prior to those depicted in his The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is one of those rarities.

Forge Of Darkness tells the story of the Tiste Andii, the mysterious dark skinned immortal race who seemed almost godlike in their powers when compared to the mortals of the previous series. Here, at some time in the distant past, long before the creation of the mortal realms, we are introduced to the Tiste in their realm of Kuruld Galaim. Mother Dark rules over them in her citadel in Kharkanas, but the realm is seriously divided. The noble families of the vie for political and social power with each other and conspire against Mother Dark's chosen Consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus. Considered an upstart of no real noble lineage, the majority of the nobility feel him unsuitable for the position of lover to their. However they dare not move openly against him for not only don't they know the extent of his power, he also has the support of Mother Dark's chosen sons, three brothers; Anomander, Andarist and Silchas Ruin of the Purake family.
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While the nobles make noises a more tangible threat is shaping up in the form of disbanded soldiers who served in the wars defending Kuruld Galaim against threats from beyond its borders. Fuelled by the resentment of a few officers, who feel they were never properly recognized for their contributions, bands of soldiers have started reforming in secret. Claiming to be protecting Mother Dark they start killing those they call the Deniers, ones who they accuse of refusing to worship her and what she represents. The only trouble is she doesn't know what they are doing in her name. Soon their killings become indiscriminate as they attack both noble houses and other legions who fought in the wars. In reality their ambition is to see themselves elevated to nobility and the former leader of their forces, Vartha Ursander, wedded to Mother Dark, whether he, or she, wants to or not.

Those who have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence will start to recognize the history being described from hints and clues dropped during that series. This is the beginning of the schism that would eventually see the Tiste divided into three: Tiste Andii, children of dark; Tiste Liossan, children of light and Tiste E'dur children of shadow. Although that's jumping ahead of the story told in this book as it only sets the stage for the first division between light and dark. Along the way readers will meet characters whom they first met at various points in the original series and learn something about their history and origins.

We also learn more about some of the peoples who are were known as the elder races, the ones who were around before mortals. As well as races with the familiar names of Jaghut and Forkul Assail, we are introduced to an even older race called the Azathanai. Known as renowned masons and able to work incredible magic with earth and stone, they are also builders of another sort as we're soon to find out. For among their number are other character names from the earlier series, the most important of which is K'rull - who created the warrens which are the repository of the magic humans draw on for sorcery and healing. There are also specific Azathanai who are given responsibility for shepherding each of the other races, acting as protectors, gift givers and the instigators of change.

What separated Erikson's work in the past from others was not only the detail he would bring to his world building, but the humanity he brought to his characters. Whether or not the characters in question are technically human doesn't really matter, they are created in an manner so we can identify with them emotionally and intellectually. None of this has changed in his latest creation. However, in some ways this book has depths to it that previous works lacked, and lends it a weightiness some might find disconcerting at first. For it raises issues about faith, belief and religion that one wouldn't normally expect to find in a fantasy book. Or at least the level of discussion rises to a level one doesn't normally find in works of fiction.

While some might question the appropriateness of having such a discussion in a fantasy novel, the story of the Tiste and their schism is all about questions of faith and belief. In order to create the level of verisimilitude required to make their world and its reality believable there needs to be a philosophical underpinning to all that happens. Otherwise it's just a series of actions carried out for no reason. That may be sufficient for an action adventure story, but not if you're looking at telling the story of the growth and evolution of a people and a world. We're not talking about a simplistic fantasy story here after all, this is a world as complex and unsettled as our own.
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What's even more impressive is the manner in which Erikson is able to incorporate this discussion seamlessly into the natural flow of the book and make it a natural extension of the action. Characters, whether attempting to justify their actions or questioning the actions of others, put forward arguments and counter arguments without it ever impeding on the actual narrative. It's not like they stop in the middle of a battle to engage in a philosophical debate or anything like that. To be honest I'm not even sure how he managed it, but as you reach the end of the book you'll realize he's managed to create the variety of philosophies needed for a schism of the size he's portraying to occur.

Trying to capture a moment of crises in amber is almost impossible as there is never only one reason or event that pushes things past a point of no return. It not only takes a wide array of people acting in a various different ways and a variety of events all just happening to occur in the right sequence to precipitate a seemingly singular and momentous occurrence. Our own world's history is rife with examples of how a series of apparently unconnected events led to a calamity. There might have been one amongst them that is most remembered now because it was the one that proved the tipping point, but if it had occurred in isolation, it wouldn't have had the same impact.

What Erikson has done with Forge Of Darkness is very carefully show how events and actions, from the trivial to the major, all play a role in contributing to a society's descent into chaos. Those who had grown accustomed to the humour salted through the previous series may find the harshness and bleakness a bit unexpected, but there's nothing much funny about a world tearing itself apart. In the Malazan Book of the Fallen we were introduced to the three races of Tiste. We knew at one time they had all been one people; this is the story of how the schism began with the birth of the first two; Dark and Light. I'm sure as the trilogy continues so will the story and out of Darkness and Light will be born the third people Shadow. In The Malazan Book of the Fallen we heard various myths on how the three people of the Tiste came to be, this is that history brought to life.

This is fantasy on a level that few have ever attempted and fewer still would have the ability to carry off. Erikson is one of the few who can. It might be not be to the taste of those who only want sword and sorcery in their fantasy, but anyone looking for something a little more intellectually taxing and fulfilling will love it. Erikson should be made a genre onto himself, because nobody else is quite like him or equal to his abilities.

(Article first published as Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One of The Kharkanas Triologyby Steven Erikson on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Wurms Of BlearmouthBy Steven Erikson


One of the crasser ways devised by television producers to cash in on the popularity of a show was the "spin off". This usually involved taking a second tier character from an original show and trying to make something out of nothing for no other reason than to make more money. Invariably, with only a few notable exceptions, these shows were not only inferior to the originals but would never last more then one or two seasons. The problem was that most supporting characters didn't have the substance to base a show around. They had been created with the purpose of being incidental to the main action and that quickly became obvious when the spotlight shone on them. Just because a character could grab an audience's attention for thirty seconds a week didn't mean he or she was interesting enough to have their own show.

In the literary world spin offs aren't as common as they are in television but they still exist. However, they are rare enough occurrences to make them noteworthy if for no other reason than the author has been able to find the time to write about secondary characters. Therefore when Steven Erikson, best known for the ten book series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, began writing novellas featuring three characters who made a brief, yet memorable, appearance in one of his books I decided to check them out. Everything I had by Erikson up to that point was worth reading, so the chances were good these would be too. That the characters in question, the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their man servant Emancipator Reece (also known as Mancy the Unlucky for his history as a sailor on doomed ships and the fact that all of his prior employers had meant untimely ends) had made an indelible impression in their brief appearance, was evidence there was a good chance they could carry a novella on their own.

The Wurms Of Blearmoth, currently available from Britain's PS Publishing and hopefully soon to be released in North America by Macmillan who have published three previous novellas in omnibus form, is the fourth tale to feature two villains you'll learn to love to hate and their luckless manservant. (A fifth book, The Crackedpot Trial, focused on a group of disparate hunters trying to track down Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the various crimes they have committed against society) As we have discovered in their previous adventures evil and villainy are relative terms, and as often as not the two necromancers are relatively benign compared to those they have encountered on their travels.
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When the Suncurl, the ship they had boarded to make their hasty exit from the town of Lamentable Moll, finally gives out under them, Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and Emancipator Reece find themselves wading ashore at one of the most desolate outposts in West Elingarth, Spendrugle of Blearmouth. Why anyone would want to hold sway over such a backwards outpost is unknown, but Lord Fangtooth Claw the Render, has only recently usurped his brother to take control of the remote backwater. That he takes his position as local tyrant seriously is made clear by his keeping his brother chained in the dungeons of his moulding keep for a bit of routine torture, his edict that all newcomers be brought to said keep in order to be put to death and his employment of a scribe to make sure his words are remembered for posterity. While Fangtooth is ruler of this little cesspit, the town's inhabitants are more than his equal when it comes to being memorable. From the inn keeper/madam with the strange additions to her anatomy and her beautiful yet simple daughter, the ex tax collector who plots to leave the town with the aforementioned daughter, the town's sole militia member who carries out his master's edict of arresting all newcomers, the hung man who refused to die to the strange old fellow who lives in a cabin by the beach, the town seems filled out of proportion to its size with the weird and the odd.

Yet as strange a collection of folk they might be, they are still woefully unprepared for the onslaught of visitors they are about to receive. For not only do everyone's favourite necromancers make it ashore from the wreck, so do three of the boat's crew. These three bring with them a history which includes a posse of heavily armed, but not very intelligent, soldiers intent on bringing them to justice for a theft they carried out in a far off land. The first mistake the locals make is treating Bauchelain and Korbal Broach as they would any other visitors - which means being taken up to the keep for Lord Fangtooth's pleasure.
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Not content to merely allow events to take their natural course, having Bauchelain make short work of the local despot, Erikson shows why the two sorcerers have become favourite characters in spite of their own predilections. Before disposing of Fangtooth, Erikson has Bauchelain engage him in a philosophical discussion on the nature of tyranny over dinner. Over a meal that was designed to poison its guests, the two debate on the hows and wherefores of what is required to be a successful tyrant and how to best subjugate towns people. Needless to say Fangtooth is much distraught to find his company still alive when the evening's repast is complete and excuses himself in order to kill the cook.

Of course the arrival of the other visitors has not gone unnoticed in the village, and the result is quite a todo that ends in substantial bloodletting. Of course it doesn't help matters that the witch who Fangtooth deposed, who also happens to be a shape shifter, manages to regain her powers and chooses this moment to exact vengeance on those town folk she believes betrayed her. So all in all it ends up being a night of glorious bedlam resulting in the local population being somewhat diminished by its conclusion.

Anyone who has read anything else by Erikson will know of his ability to write humour, and this book is a great example of just how twisted and dark it can be. Yet in spite of some of the more gruesome and macabre moments to be found there is an underlying layer of intelligent satire that elevates it above most stories of this type. Filled with strange and interesting characters and action suiting their various miens The Wurms Of Blearmouth is a treat for Erikson fans everywhere. If you've been intimidated by the sheer size of the Malazon Book Of The Fallen the novellas featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach provide an easier path of entry to the wonderful world Erikson has created. However, be warned, like all entry level drugs you'll find them highly addictive and habit forming.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wurms Of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics)

June 3, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair


It's amazing the lengths colonial powers went to in order to justify oppressing civilizations which predated anything the West by a good thousand years. By referring to India and points further east dismissively as the Orient or the Mysterious East, they turned vast sophisticated kingdoms into something dark and dangerous in desperate need of the enlightenment only they could provide. As is often the case with ignorant people, what they couldn't understand confused and scared them. Faced with something beyond their comprehension they did what any normal person would do. Instead of trying to learn more about it, they did their best to either subjugated it or belittle it.

While it was bad enough they would misinterpret and sensationalize another culture's beliefs Victorian era Englishmen came up with all sorts of pseudo sciences to prove the superiority of, what they called, the Caucasian race over those with darker skins. One of the most popular in the mid 1800s was the science of phrenology - the study of the bumps on people's heads and how they related to the brains within and the person's character as a whole. Of course the Caucasian's head was an example of a superior brain and moral standards and as a person's skin colour darkened, well you get the picture.

In his novel The Thing About Thugs, first published by Harper Collins India in 2010 and now being released in North America by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt July 24 2012, Tabish Khair turns this world on its head by showing it through the eyes of those "inferior" races. British literature of the times, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone and on through the works of Rudyard Kipling emphasized and reinforced the Victorian world view. Khair not only points out the how ridiculous the philosophy of the day was, but he does so in a manner which takes the works in question to task for perpetuating the fallacy.
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Amir Ali is from a small village in rural India. Orphaned at a young age he goes to live with his uncle, a small land owner, and his family. At one time his family's holdings had been far greater, but another landowner has contrived to steal through various means the majority of their acres. While the methods used are illegal there is nothing Ali's uncle is able to do as the other man's wealth and willingness to employ violence ensure nobody with the authority to do anything about it will gainsay his activities. When Ali's uncle is murdered he hatches a plot that will not only ensure those in the wrong are brought to justice, but will see him taken to England where he hopes to start a new life. He learns that a British gentlemen is looking to interview members of the cult of Kali known as Thugees to help him prove his theory that in spite of a skull shape indicating a predisposition for violence a lessor being can turn over a new leaf by exposure to the redeeming qualities of civilized Christian society.

Ali spins Captain William T. Mathews a tale painting himself as a young initiate into the cult which also incriminates the man responsible for his uncle's death. For as proof of his remorse he not only supplies the Captain with the names of his fellow cultists in the region, but offers as proof of their villainy the location where their most recent victims are buried. When Williams informs the local detachment of The East Indian Tea Company's guard of the presence of Thugees in their territory and proof of their nefarious behaviour, they move quickly to arrest those responsible. Mathews is so enthused by his Thugees' denouncement of his former life, he takes Ali back to London with him. Ali is then paraded through the drawing rooms of polite society by Mathews as an example of a barbaric assassin reformed by civilization.

Unfortunately for Ali he told his story too well. For when London is shocked by a series of murders where the victim's heads have been stolen it's obvious to society and the newly formed Peelers (London police force named for their founder Robert Peel latter change to Bobbies to reflect his first name instead of the more provocative Peeler) that no white man, no matter what his class, could have carried out such grizzly deeds. It had to be one of those foreign devils who made their way back to the bosom of the empire from the colonies. Naturally it doesn't take long for suspicion to fall upon the supposedly reformed Thugee Ali.

With the assistance of other members of London's immigrant community Ali attempts to clear his name. This is one occasion where being beneath notice pays off as it allows them to keep an eye on those they suspect are responsible for the murders without anyone paying them the least bit of attention. There had long been a decent wage to be made supplying those studying medicine with body parts, Things, for those willing to do a little work with shovel and crowbar and no fear of graveyards at night. However for one group of resurrectionists, or body snatchers, looking to supply a prominent phrenologist with interesting shaped heads, the graveyards of London can't meet their needs. Showing the initiative that forged an empire they find likely candidates among those who will be least missed and relieve them of their heads.
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Khair does an excellent job of both recreating and ridiculing the Victorian era novel. In the case of the former he populates the book with recognizable character types from the period. Mathews is the well meaning and intentioned earnest hero type. Honourable, he actually steps forward and provides Ali with an alibi when he's arrested and ensures he's safe, and firm in his conviction that anybody exposed to the benefits of good Christian/English society can be saved from their life of heathenism. While condescending and bigoted at least he doesn't believe they are inherently evil or that being poor or foreign makes you some sort of criminal. One only has to contrast him with a couple of the other characters, even his cook thinks he's far too lax by keeping a dangerous coloured person in the house, to see why Ali feels a little guilty for having deceived him.

The author also takes writers from this, and other eras, to task in a roundabout way for their lack of imaginations. He has created a kind of narrator from what appears to be our era. It's this man who comes across a series of letters in his grandfather's library written in Farsi. (Muslims in India used to be able to read and write in Farsi, the language of Persia, as the Mughal empire in Northern India was originally Persian.) While it is a chore, because he doesn't know very much Farsi, what he discovers are a series of letters from Ali in which he either describes the events in the book or makes allusions to things he'd obviously described to his addressee in person. Khair's narrator is inspired by these letters and begins to imagine the events and filling in the blanks. He will occasionally pose the question as to how could he, somebody living in India, possibly describe London of the 19th century or the interior of a nobleman's house. His answer is to show how by using his imagination, a knowledge of what these things look like gained from reading and extrapolating from his personal experiences, it's not very hard to recreate a reasonably accurate picture of a time and place one's never experienced.

Aside from being a wonderful piece of satire and a witty send up of 19th century novels The Thing About Thugs also gives readers insights into life in London in that era from a far different perspective than has been previously offered. Even more so then today immigrants were looked on with suspicion and they were relegated to live in the poorer parts of the city. Here at least they would turn into just another one of those people beneath the notice of their betters and could enjoy some simple freedoms. However, it they dared to leave those environs for the streets of their betters, they were regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. Of course that could never happen in today's world - just ask young African Americans what happens if they wander into all white suburbs.

The Thing About Thugs is at times poignant, at times funny and at other times will leave you shaking your head at the things people used to believe and their attitudes towards their fellow humans. Khair has created a story that's not only a pleasure to read but manages to contain social commentary without it turning into a polemic. That's a delicate balancing act few authors have the ability to carry off and it not only increases the pleasure one takes in the book but gives it a depth you don't often find in popular fiction today.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Kahir on Blogcritics)

May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) By Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo


In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the first millennium CE the door was opened for Europe to be invaded from the East. While early leaders like Charlemagne tried to fill the vacuum with the Empire's demise, their reach didn't extend beyond the boundaries of Western Europe. The situation didn't improve with time either. First of all the cream of European soldiery were being spent in fruitless attempts to re-conquer Jerusalem after the city was retaken by Saladin and his armies. Then in the1100s the Mongol hoards came sweeping out of the Steppes of Asia conquering and pillaging everything in their path in a huge swath stretching from the Ukraine to Poland.

With the Mongol hoards threatening expansion into the West the church and secular leaders finally turnd their attention away from Crusades into the Holy Land and attempted to deal with the threat closer to home. It's against this backdrop the story told in the first instalment of a new series unfolds. The Mongoliad: Book One, published by 47 North, an Amazon Publishing imprint, had its genesis as an online co-operative effort between a collection of known and unknown writers with a shared passion for medieval weaponry and martial arts. Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Mark Teppo are established science fiction and fantasy writers. E.D. deBirmingham and Erik Bear have written historical fiction and for a bestselling video game respectively while Joseph Brassey teaches medieval fighting techniques to members of the armed forces and Cooper Moo is an ancient weapons enthusiast. While this might seem rather an odd (if not motley crew) collection of authors, once you begin reading the fruits of their efforts you quickly forget its provenance.

While The Mongoliad is itself a trilogy, it is only the first part of the far more ambitious Foreworld Saga that will eventually take readers on a trip through the ages via the 19th century adventurer and literary translator Sir Richard F Burton and into modern times via a group of archaeologists who uncover manuscripts Burton was attempting to translate when he died. While these details aren't available to readers who pick up The Mongoliad: Book One we can only assume their pertinence to the story being told in this volume will be revealed as the saga continues.

This story begins in what appears to be an abandoned monastery deep within Mongol controlled territory in Eastern Europe. A mysterious young women has travelled a dangerous road to bring a message to a group of Christian warrior monks who have taken up residence among the ruins. While most of us are probably familiar with the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, religious warrior orders infamous and famous from the Crusades, there were other, more obscure, but equally dedicated, military sects. The knights gathered at this monastery were all members of The Shield Brethren, or the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, an ancient military order with roots stretching back to a pre-Christian Norsemen brotherhood called the Skjaldbraedur. They were gathered here close to the encampment of the Mongol Kahgan, Ogedei, third son of the great Genghis Khan, in response to a challenge issued to all warriors of the West. Defeat the Kahgan's champion in a tournament and he would spare their countries the sight of the Mongol hoards attacking them.

However, we don't just see the world through the eyes of the Christian knights, as the authors take us into the world of the Mongol tribesman as well. Expansion and empire are not resting easy on the former nomadic plainsmen. Kahgan Ogedei is sinking into a pit of despair fuelled by his ever increasing consumption of wine. He has reached such a bad state that one of his brothers sends a young hunter/warrior, to Ogedei's court with explicit instructions to protect his brother from the wine he consumes. At first glance this seems like an impossible task to set for anyone, but especially for the young man chosen for the job. While a hero in battle and a great hunter Gansukh has no experience in dealing with the intrigues of life at court. In fact even being inside a building cut off from sight of the sky and hearing the wind play on the grass leaves him feeling imprisoned and trapped. Trying to figure out how to protect somebody from himself is difficult enough as it is, but when that person's word is law and to contradict him is tantamount to treason it's next to impossible.

As the book continues on readers not only move back and forth between the Mongol and Christian worlds, we also see the action through the eyes of multiple characters. While initially we meet the Christian knights via the observations of Cnan, the young messenger, as their journeys progress we are also given the perspective of one within the order, Raphael, a warrior physician. While Cnan is able to give us an outsider's objective observations and appraisals, Raphael's insights into the divisions and rivalries between the various warrior monk factions add another layer of intrigue to the story taking it beyond a simple hack and slash fantasy novel. A veteran of the Crusades Raphael has few illusions left about righteousness and those who claim to be on missions for God. The war against the Mongols is a matter of survival, and whether God's on their side or not doesn't really make any difference.
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While Gansukh is able to provide us with a view of the world from a tribesman who has lived his entire life on the steppes of Asia following the traditions of his ancestors, we are guided through the intrigues of life at court by the Chinese slave assigned to instruct him how to survive in this new and dangerous environment. The instruction she offers him also serves to help us understand what is plaguing Kahgan Ogedei. So, those times when we are offered the chance to see the world through the eyes of the Kahgan, we understand why he has come to rely on wine for solace. While it's true their are ghosts of events from the past that haunt him, they're only one part of the problem.

While there might be some truth to the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth", it doesn't apply to The Mongoliad: Book One. In fact it's a distinct advantage in a book where we see the world through the eyes of such a diverse group of people. Differences in voice make each character a distinct individual while not detracting from the story's coherency or cohesion. The overall narrative actually flows far more smoothly than usual for a book covering as much ground as this one as events build upon themselves naturally and logically. While there's no indication as to who wrote which parts it ends up being irrelevant. After the first few pages you'll find yourself so wrapped up in the story you'll no longer care who the author is, you'll just want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The authors have also done a wonderful job of bringing the world they are describing to life. There is an air of verisimilitude about everything that leaves you little doubt as to the historical accuracy of their descriptions of not only life during the era described but the behaviour of the characters as well. From the descriptions of the armour worn by the knights, individual fighting styles to the various personality traits of the characters, everything rings true.

It's early days yet, being only the first book of a trilogy which is the first instalment in what promises to be an incredibly complex and involved saga, but judging by The Mongoliad: Book One The Foreworld Saga promises to be not only intelligent and well written, but a lot of fun as well. The characters are intriguing, the plots interesting and complex without being convoluted and the fighting and descriptions of battle scenes realistic and exciting while not shirking from describing the more brutal truths of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. In other words this has all the characteristics of being a must read series in the making. Lets hope it can keep the pace up.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo on Blogcritics.)

May 21, 2012

Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya


The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren't able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.

Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.

In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana's poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.

The slaves' place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
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Bhattacharya's story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.

While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it one moment your amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.

Well the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls the world's largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya's book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganga play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out - the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.

The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There's no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that's as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there's always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren't for them why things would be better.
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Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya's story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can't last, he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there's more to it than just something casual. She's not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she's pathetically ignorant. She's the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he's to leave the country, not what you think, and he fails the test quite miserably.

In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He's the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois, and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page, it's all a pretence for him. He's still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he's involved with what's going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people's behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he's honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.

The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world's forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we've seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that's a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me By Simon Tofield


There have been plenty of cartoon cats who have come gone over the years, and to be honest none of them have ever really appealed to me. Maybe it's because I own and like cats, I find most of the caricatures lacking. For instead of trusting in the natural appeal of the animal most of them have been given human attributes which might make them cute for some, but just makes them unappealing to me. So when someone first sent me a link to Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat it took me a while to even bother checking it out. Well, as anyone who has seen these videos knows Tofield took the opposite tact, with his cat barely beening anthropomorphized at all.

The live action cartoons are simple, black and white, sketch like drawings. Nothing high tech about them. In fact there's not even and dialogue, or at least any in human language. Simon's Cat, he doesn't appear to have any other name, communicates in a series of sounds and noises which will be familiar to any cat owner. From the inquisitive chirps he makes when faced with a puzzle all the way through to the contented purr of the well fed animal. Somehow, with just this basic vocabulary, and an understanding of cat body language, Tofield has managed to instil his creation with the just the right combination of elements that its behaviour strikes chords of recognition with his viewers. I'm sure every cat owner watching has at one time or another said a variation on, "That's just like my cat", at some time or another.
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How though would the cat make the transition to the printed page? What works with an audio track and animation won't necessarily in the less kinetic media. But at those who have read Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence will know he's just as, if not more, appealing in print as he is on the screen. Up until now the books like the cartoons have been in black in and white. However that's all going to change with the release of Simon's Cat: Feed Me, a Canongate UK publication distributed by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

For Simon's Cat and his environment are in colour for the first time. To be honest I had worried that he might not be able to stand up to the transition. Part of the cartoon's charm has been its simplicity. In some instances the cat appears alone on the page, no settings aside from him and the object of his attention. Whether it be a piece of tape attached to his paw and his struggles to remove it, his turning of an empty box into an adventure or his continual and relentless attempts at filling his food bowl, it had always been the cat at the centre of our attention. But colour could ruin that, as colour might well demand a more fleshed out world forcing Tolfield to draw what had been left to our imaginations and reduce the cat to nothing more than just another object in a world full of clutter.

Thankfully this isn't the case. As in the previous books in those instances where Tolfield fills in the world around the cat, he always does so in close up. Even when he's out in the wilds the focus is tight to the immediate surroundings keeping our attention solely on the centre of this world's universe - the cat. As the title of this book suggests all of the cartoons revolve around its lead's endless pursuit of food. Or rather obsession with being fed. In the original animated cartoons no matter what mayhem the cat might have caused, the action would invariably end with him sitting, pointing to his open mouth making pleading noises even the stupidest of humans couldn't fail to recognize as a demand to be fed.

We are witness to Simon's Cat resorting to an impressive array of attempted deceptions and ploys in his attempts to squeeze some extra food from a harsh world. From disguising himself as a bird house, with his mouth as the entrance, in the hopes a bird will fly in to sitting under a cow and pulling on its tail in the hopes this will activate the udders under which he's urgently waiting with gaping mouth. Then there are his efforts to have other animals feed him, even going so far as begging a heron for its fish or pretending to be a fox kit in order to get a share of the kill a mother brings home for its brood. His disguises are always ridiculously easy to see through and part of the fun are the expressions of incredulity on the other animal's faces upon catching site of the interloper. It's as if they can't believe anyone can be that stupid as to fall for a cat's tricks.
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While the animal kingdom might not fall for his ploys, the same can't be said for humans. While there are plenty of scenes of the cat rummaging in cupboards ripping open boxes, or stealing food from his human's plate, there are enough showing the cat falling victim to his own excesses we don't begin to hate him. For every slapstick image of the human tripping over the purring cat, spilling his coffee when his leg is used as a scratching post, the cat also gets his comeuppance. We've all seen a cat do its happy dance with its front paws, usually when it beds down in a comfortable place - like your stomach or other sensitive body parts. Well in this case the cat goes into his happy dance around his full food bowl only to take it a step too far and catch the edge of his dish and end up wearing his meal.

The success of Simon's Cat lies in the cartoon's ability to capture those characteristics of the animal immediately recognizable to any cat owner. Everyone who has ever owned a cat will at some point in watching, or reading, them say - that's exactly like (insert the name of your cat here). In transferring the series from animated cartoon to book instead of trying to fit it into a conventional comic strip format to tell the story, Tolfield elects to go with a more free form style. We either are treated to a moment in time caught on the page and left to figure out what's going on - cat sitting on floor, man throwing coffee cup at ceiling with expression of pained surprise on face and lower leg of pyjamas showing definite signs of claw marks tells its own story - or given a series of images that our eye follows around the page like stop action animation.

Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat works so well because the cat in question is not cute, has few if any human characteristics or motivations, and is saved from being a complete pain in the ass by occasionally ending up the victim of its own plots. I doubt the series will appeal to dog lovers, but if you've ever owned a cat, whether you liked it or not, you can't help but be impressed at how well it captures the domestic cat in all its glory. If you enjoyed the cartoons on the internet and the previous books of black and white drawings, then you won't be able to resist Simon's Cat in colour.
(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

May 4, 2012

Book Review: Except The Queen by Midori Snyder And Jane Yolen


Once upon a time fairy stories were things told to children and had very little to do with fairies. Oh there were spells and other enchantments would make appearances, but by the twentieth century most of the ones my generation grew up on owned more to a late nineteenth century romantic version of cute little winged creatures than anything else. This, in spite of the fact these depictions ran contrary to every precedent established by centuries of English language literature. Even changing the name and spelling from Faerie, or the Fae, to fairy, thus eliminating the allusions to madness that fae implied, seems to have been part of the attempt to make them cute and precious instead of the wild and untamed creatures they had been previously.

While the cutesy "Tinkerbell" image of the Fae persists, recent years have seen the pendulum beginning to swing in the other direction again. In fact it might even have swung too far with depictions of the Fae as a mixture of succubi and deadly killers out to rule the world. While it's true they have always taken delight in causing mischief and consider mortals as toys for their amusement, the dark image created by some, with the heavy sexual overtones, has more to do with the imaginations of those who depict them than anything else. Thankfully there are writers who are doing their best to write stories that find a balance between both misconceptions.
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One of the best of those is the recently published Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen published by Penguin Canada. Both women have a history of writing exceptional fantasy novels, with Yolen best known for her prolific output of children's books and Snyder for her young adult New Moon trilogy. Together they have penned something special - a Faerie tale for the modern era.

Meteora and Serena were typical Fae. Sisters, they loved nothing better than to beguile mortals with their looks and charms. They lived lives of indolent pleasure among the forests and glades of The Greenwood. However one day they chanced upon a scene which would change their lives forever. While out hunting for mortals to play with they heard the unmistakeable sounds of lovemaking taking place among some trees. Upon further investigation they first found a baby sleeping gently upon a blanket and then her parents under the cover of some bushes. Only then do they discover that its the Queen of the Fae who is the woman of the pair. While all the other Fae never hesitate to take human lovers, the Queen would lose face in the eyes of the nobility if it was ever discovered she had surrendered to such base appetites.

While the sisters escape discovery initially, Meteora indadvertedly lets the secret out. Needles to say the Queen is irate and punishes them in the worst way imaginable. Not only does she banish them to the mortal world, but she changes them so they are stripped of the glamour which gives them the illusion of beauty and endless youth and they are turned into dumpy middle aged women. On top of that they are sent to separate places in the mortal world and have to figure out how to get by on their own. Meteora receives some guidance on how to survive from the witch Baba Yaga and is allowed to stay in her house in the mortal world. Serena, on the other hand, ends up in the hands of social services. While she doesn't receive instructions on how to get by like Meteora, she is given some money and a place to live.
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In their separate cities the two sisters begin to find their way among the mortals. Using what little magic is left to them they are each able to communicate with birds. Eventually a dove manages to pass messages between the two sisters. So even though they don't where each other are, they know they are three days by dove flight apart, they are able to communicate. It's a good thing to, because they soon discover the Queen had banished them not only as punishment. For while our main focus is on the activities of the two sisters, we are also given occasional glimpses of events in the world of the Fae. Dissension among the nobility of her court is causing the Queen serious problems, but that's the least of her troubles. The Unseelie court, home to the truly evil denizens of Faerie, have begun plotting against her, and somehow their plans are tied up with two young people in the mortal world.
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It's no coincidence that Meteora and Serena have ended up placed in a position where they can help the young man, Robin, and the young woman, Sparrow. It becomes obvious to both sisters that each of their young charges have been touched by Faerie in some manner. In her previous form Serena had the gift of foresight and even in the mortal world she retains some small talent for predicting the future. Which is how she knows she must send Robin to stay with her sister and Sparrow. In someway the two young people's fates are entwined. Unfortunately bringing the two of them together also seems to focus the attention of the Unseelie court's hunters. It will take all of Meteora's and Serena's skill and bravery to keep themselves, the two young ones and those they've befriended alive and solve the mystery of why the Unseelie want them so desperately.

What makes this story different from many other modern urban fairy stories is the fact it manages to retain the love of nature and growing things that's at the heart of Faerie instead of dwelling only on the dark elements of the magic realm. Even though their magic has been weakened by the transition to the mortal realm the two sisters carry within them the heart and soul of carefree children of the Greenwood and those they meet can't help but be effected. The occasional glimpses we have of the sisters through the eyes of the mortals they befriend and meet, gives us a good idea of the impact they have on people.

On top of that Yolen and Snyder have written an exciting story filled with surprises and an eclectic mix of characters. Wait 'till you meet the crones! While the bad guys are enough to unsettle even the bravest, we never dwell too long amongst them. Just long enough to make our skin crawl, but never long enough for their darkness to take over the story. There aren't many authors out there who have the ability to depict the world of the Fae in as balanced and non sensationalistic manner as these two have. Like their two lead characters the authors bring a little magic into the lives of all they encounter, and we can all use a little more magic.

( Article first published as Book Review: Except The Queen By Mydori Snyder And Jane Yolen on Blogcritics.)

April 29, 2012

Book Review: Asbury Park By Robb Scott


New Jersey has always seemed to be the butt of people's jokes. Even the state's motto, "The Garden State", seems a deliberate attempt by somebody to set it up for a fall given its reputation as an industrial wasteland and dumping ground. However, the sea side board walks and sandy beaches of its coastal towns once made it a haven in summer time for families of all incomes. While beaches were segregated by class, the wealthiest to the poorest could enjoy cooling off in the heat of the summer in its sheltered coves. Even today the boardwalks remain and people converge on the ocean front in places like Asbury Park to surf and swim.

While the beaches may not have changed all that much moving inland things aren't as nice. With the failures of industry and the loss of jobs the fastest growth business is recreational chemicals. Crystal meth, crack, heroin and ecstasy are where the money is and those looking to make a quick buck have moved in to stake out their territories. In Rob Scot's new release from Orion/Gollancz, Asbury Park, Detective Sam "Sailor" Doyle returns to the family home in New Jersey to recover from injuries received in the line of duty. He knows he'll find things have changed for the worst since he was a teenager, but nothing can prepare him for the nightmare he's about to walk into.

While Sailor was heralded in the news for being the hero who saved the life of the President and prevented a mad man from infecting the east coast of the United State with the plague (for details see Scott's previous release 15 Miles) there's a darker reality hidden beneath the headlines. Plagued by personal demons Sailor hadn't been completely sober in years. By the time of the events described in the previous book he had stooped to the level of stealing prescription drugs from crime scenes to feed his Oxycocete addiction and was cheating on his wife. This summer's trip back home is being made not only in the hopes he can recover physically, but is an effort to salvage his marriage and his life.
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Sailor's experienced cop eye is disconcerted to see the telltale signs of organized gang activity in his old neighbourhood. Aside from the obvious evidence of poverty and drug trafficking, even more ominous are the telltale signs of gang "tags" marking territory on buildings and at scenes of what appear to be random acts of vandalism. However his more immediate concerns are his wife's threat to take the kids and leave him if she gets so much of as a hint that he's fallen off the wagon and the withdrawal symptoms that are wracking his body. It's the latter which forces him out of bed in the early hours of the morning and out onto the boardwalk. Exhausted and in pain he seeks refuge in a sea side hotel where he's taken under the wing of an early rising former minor league baseball player, Mark "Moses" Stillman.

The invitation to join Stillman for breakfast would have been ideal if they weren't interrupted by a body falling from the sixth floor balcony onto their table. When the apparent suicide turns out to have at one time been Sailor's high school history teacher it's enough to send shivers up his spine. However odd it might be that a former teacher of his just happens to pick his breakfast table to jump into it can still all be explained away as a coincidence. With the jumper comes the local police and the kind of attention Sailor was hoping to avoid. Spend the month of July getting clean and patching things up with the wife is harder to do when you're a material witness to what might be a murder inquiry. Suicide becomes possible murder when there's evidence to suggest his former teacher might have been dead before he did the swan dive off the balcony.

All hopes of staying off anyone's radar disappear when Sailor breaks up what he thinks is a potential shooting spree in the making. He tackles a teenage kid about to enter a middle school with a concealed weapon. Unfortunately the kid is possessed with the strength of desperation and Sailor is suffering from the wounds he earned earlier. Things are looking really desperate for him when help arrives in an unexpected form. A local drug dealer jumps into the fray and kills the kid before jumping into his car and taking off. When it turns out the kid's weapons were not only obsolete but empty, his bomb nothing more than flares taped together and he'd wrapped a device designed to set himself on fire the apparent murderer becomes an attempted suicide.

A suicide that could be a murder and a murderer who was really a suicide and both in very public places with both just happening to involve Sailor. Too make matters worse ever since he's returned to the old neighbourhood he's been having what he can only call auditory hallucinations that seem to be turning into his own personal soundtrack. While it's possible a classic rock station is fixating on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", the fact Sailor hears it coming out of almost every radio and stereo he comes within hearing range of is starting to strain his already taunt nerves. As if that's not enough there's another tune that keeps cropping up. Whether he hears it faintly on the air or somebody is whistling a few bars as they walk by it's starting to drive him crazy. When it starts heralding him seeing events out of the past and other twists in reality it only takes hearing the familiar notes to make him panic.
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However when the ghost of the kid he wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard starts stalking him and "tagging" his house Sailor knows something somewhere is not right. As more and more pieces of the puzzle start to assemble the picture becomes even fuzzier. Somehow present day gang activity ties in to mysterious deaths back when he was teenager and he's somehow the focal point. On the surface it seems like a confusing mess with little or no way for Sailor to find his way clear. Yet author Scott takes what seems like a frustrating morass of unconnected incidents and characters and allows them to find a way to fit together that makes sense in the world he's created.

On the surface it appears to be the New Jersey of today, with all the problems drugs and gangs bring to any urban community. However underneath is something far more sinister and dangerous. Combining elements of psychological horror and fantasy with a stark and gritty crime thriller is no mean trick, yet when it's done with the aplomb that Scott manages it makes for a gripping read. Even more tricky is the fact that he has centred the action around a character who is not necessarily sympathetic. Sailor Doyle displays too many of the symptoms of an addict to make him easy to like. However, in spite of his back sliding, lying and self pity he never once makes excuses for him self or his behaviour. In some ways the mystery he finds himself in parallels his personal nightmare of addiction. It's a maze he has to find his way out of before it collapses and buries him and those he loves alive.

Asbury Park is not your typical cop novel or standard horror story and as a result is better than what you'd normally expect from either genre. Not only does it deliver the chills and thrills of both, but it does so with an intelligence and emotional depth usually lacking in those types of books. From Scott's honest depiction of his main character's struggles with his personal demons to the way he gradually cranks up the tension as the book proceeds, it becomes harder and harder to put the book down. If you thought the streets of your home town were unsafe, it's nothing compared to what's happening in Asbury Park New Jersey. The boardwalk will never be the same again.
(Article first published as Book Review: Asbury Park by Rob Scott on Blogcritics)

April 20, 2012

Book Review: Elves Once Walked With God & Rise Of The Taigethen by James Barclay


For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.

British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.
For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.
Cover Elves - Once Walked With Gods.jpg
British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.

The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.
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Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read. The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.

Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read.

(Article first published as Book Reviews: Elves: Once Walked with Gods and Elves: Rise of the TaiGethen by James Barclay on Blogcritics.)

April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited By Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray


You can find them in almost every culture around the world; stories about the little people. Creatures from a different realm but who happen to share the world with us. Sometimes they are portrayed as evil, other times as good and sometimes simply indifferent to the wishes and wants of humans. They are described as either being inhumanly beautiful or unspeakably horrific, but either way we've always been in their thrall. Among people of European descent they are known as the Fae, or Fairy, and they've appeared in everything from nursery rhymes to the plays of Shakespeare.

It was in the Victorian era, the 1800s, that we first started to turn them into the cartoon figures they've become today. Instead of the wild folk who lurked in the woods they became darling little creatures with gossamer wings who lived in flower gardens or who sprinkled fairy dust on you to make you fly. This set the stage for the fairies that most of us know today thanks to Tinkerbell and her ilk. Creatures who have as little to do with the Fae, the Unseelie Court and all the other beings who live under the hill, in the deepest parts of the forest or on abandoned moors shrouded in mist. Fortunately the tide is starting to turn again and beginning in the late twentieth century fantasy writers have been mining the older tales for their inspiration. As a result we're beginning to see stories depicting the Fae as they appeared for thousands of years.
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Not content with merely resurrecting old tales, this is especially true of the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, authors are bringing the Fae into modern times. While this has resulted in some interesting and fascinating stories, it has also posed the question of how have these creatures of magic and imagination managed to adopt to life in the twenty-first century. So many of the wild places they used to live have disappeared and you can barely move without running into something made from iron. Well a new anthology of stories, The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity published by Penguin Canada and edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray being published on March 6 2012, shows just how inventive the Fae have been in dealing with the modern world.

The premise the editors gave those they approached about contributing to the anthology was a simple one. What if the Fae still existed in the modern world? The answers they received from fourteen authors were as diverse as the mythical creatures the stories were about. However the stories can be broken down into three distinct categories. Those in which the Fae try to "pass" or blend in with the human world, ones where the two worlds share an uneasy co-existence and ones where the Fae are still living as they used to and trying to carry on as they did in simpler, less technological times. However no matter which approach the authors have chosen to take, they have all taken remarkable pains to make the stories as true to the original tales of the beings described in their versions as possible.

As a result all of the stories, from the comic to the dark, not only capture the magic and mystery of the Fae but very realistically describe how they could overcome the challenges facing them in order to survive in the twenty-first century. Whether it's running Undermart, a WallMart type discount store, in an attempt to increase the proliferation of plastic products to and keep the Tuatha de Danann in M&Ms in "We Will Not Be Undersold" by Seanan McGuire (a fairy glamour sure explains why store greeters are able to smile all the time without killing customers), working as motivational speakers convincing people that meaningless platitudes will change their lives in "How To Be Human TM" by Barbara Ashford, or using an off the beaten track MBA program to head hunt for humans looking to change their lives in "Continuing Education" by Kristine Smith, we see those Fae who put their minds to it can assimilate quite nicely. Oh sure they occasionally get caught out, but all in all if you had to work as a greeter in chain discount store wouldn't you prefer the option of having your brain shut off for the duration of your shift?

Those who try to carry on as they did in the old days have a slightly harder time of it. Although they might be able to get away with some stuff, like scooping up changelings in "Changeling" by Susan Jett and "A People Who Always Know" by Shannon Page and Jay Lake because most people don't believe in fairies anymore, it's not always easy for the more traditionally minded. Take poor Green Jenny who used to lure hapless humans into swamps where she would feed on their life force. As we find out in "Water Called" by Kari Sperring, if the draining of marshes and building of canals to confine waters hasn't reduced her source of food badly enough, people carrying out experiments on the drunks and down and outers who normally fall into her embrace, are making it extremely difficult for her to get by. Or as the dryads in "The Roots Of Aston Quercus" by Juliet E. McKenna discover, they have to adapt somewhat in order to save their grove of trees from being cut down for a new bypass.

However if you think they've got it hard, imagine being a transgendered werewolf like Edie in "The Slaughtered Lamb" by Elizabeth Bear. With the human and Fae worlds coexisting peacefully she chose to live among humans because of the Pack's rigid rules on sexual identity. Anyway shapeshifting is hard on a girl - shaving your legs is a nightmare after you've taken on wolf form. It also loses some of its impact on others when you require a the help of a dresser before you can make the shift - you try removing a gaff by yourself. Still, anybody who tries to get rough with this girl is in for a nasty surprise.

Sometimes the quality of stories in these types of anthologies is quite frankly uneven. Far too many of them seem to rely on one or two stories by a name writer and then fill in the rest with what is quite frankly padding. However in this case I had only vaguely heard of one or two of the contributing authors and all of the stories were equally captivating. The editors have also done a good job in selecting stories that represent a cross section of the various types of fantasy story on offer today. Fae of all shapes, sizes and character are represented from those just seeking to get by, those interested in making a little mischief and those whose intentions are not what anybody would call friendly. The Fae have always had an uneasy relationship with mortals. Whether it's our use of iron which is poison to them or how the more callous of them look upon us as playthings to be discarded when we grow too tedious. However, as this collection makes clear, the world would be a lot less interesting a place if they didn't exist, and it's good to see they've found so many ways of getting by even in these complicated times.
Article first published as Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray on Blogcritics.)

April 12, 2012

Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moonby Saladin Ahmed


Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn't blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn't prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either "swarthy" or "svart" while his heroes are universally pale skinned by employing the well worn "product of his times" argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can't be offered the same out. In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

In some ways fantasy has been the worst of the two culprits as title after title roles off the presses with stories whose roots lie somewhere in Europe. When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author's imagination, or the fact that you can't walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of colours, sizes and shapes among the populace, its a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale skinned lovely. Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you'll notice quite a difference from what you'd see on the street. It's awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs; i.e white Anglo Saxon Protestant only.

This isn't a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn't look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in a title being released by Penguin Canada on February 7 2012 - Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
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The combination of the book's title and the author's name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn't be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myth and legend in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there's a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full length novel, and its not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of story telling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past. In this case he has looked to the ancient city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed's descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it's true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he's as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family. As this story commences he's forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he's asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he'd been able to make peace with this trade off, recently he's began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.
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Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you're morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack. The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men's lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he's picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn't just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades. Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor's home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man part jackal, who can't be harmed by normal weapons, only those made of silver. It's only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survived the attack. For while Zamia's silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its "blessed friend" sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn't bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane. The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince's uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader's attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won't be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over explained and filled the story with unnecessary details supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture through the deeds and thoughts of his characters. Whether it's something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you'll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you're more knowledgeable about.

However, don't read this book because its different. Read it because its well written and as good as most other fantasy titles out there. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that's something to look forward to.

(Article first published as Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed on Blogcritics)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
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The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
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Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

April 8, 2012

Book Review: Song Of Ice And Fire - Books 1 - 4 Four Book Box Set By George R R Martin


It might seem a little odd to be reviewing books that have been available for the best part of the past decade. However, with the renewed interest in George R R Martin's epic fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire", thanks to a Home Box Office (HBO) television adaptation (A Game Of Thrones - season one in Canada and season two in the US) and the publication of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about. After all the books were written by the man whom Time Magazine had referred to as the "American Tolkien" and I've been a fan of the original's work for decades. Even given Times' reputation for hyperbole it had to mean there was something worth reading in the series.

So, in order to see what all the fuss was about I bought Game of Thrones 4-Book Box Set, put out by Random House Canada in the spring of 2011 containing the first four books in the series: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Feast For Crows and A Storm Of Swords. Set in a world roughly equivalent to our history's dark ages where the majority scrabble to eke out an existence from the land or from what little money a skilled tradesperson can demand and a minority rule through inherited wealth and military prowess, "A Song Of Ice And Fire" takes readers from the throne rooms to the whore houses of Martin's invented world of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands surrounding it, to detail the struggle for control of its Iron Throne. While there is a wide world beyond the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, the majority of the action takes place in one of three geographical locales; the far north of the kingdom where a small band of warriors, The Night's Watch, man The Wall that keeps uncivilized tribes people (and if the myths are true other, less human, foes) at bay, the kingdom itself, which is a seething cauldron of plots and counter-plots as various factions strive for control of the throne and the Free Cities where the scion of the former ruling family looks to find the means to regain the throne her family lost.

Book one, Game Of Thrones, introduces us to all the main players, the world they inhabit and shakes out the various plot lines the series will continue to follow through the first four books. Rather then following the standard format of telling a story through the eyes of characters representing one perspective, Martin chose to try and tell his tale from as many angles as possible. In each book he has chosen to follow a specific collection of characters who represent as many sides of the story as possible. He then proceeds to switch back and forth between those characters with each chapter. As a result readers, over the course of each book and cumulatively over the course of the series, get to know the main characters far more intimately then is usual for this type of story. For not only do we see them through the eyes of others, we also step inside their heads and hear their version of events. It's amazing how what one person sees as a strength in them self is seen by others as a means to defeat them.

Even more fascinating is how Martin is able to use this format to change our opinion of a character. Someone who is depicted as vain, venal and indolent by others turns out to be far more complex and multifaceted than anyone else ever gave him credit for when we finally meet him. The eldest son of the wealthiest family in the kingdoms, Jamie Lannister, has been decried as a breaker of oaths and a king slayer since he killed the king he was meant to be guarding. While others, like Ned Stark, head of another powerful family and enemy of the Lannister clan, claim he dishonoured himself, when Jamie tells the reader why he killed the king, even though he knew he would be cursed and damned, we see him in a far better light.

The same applies to the aforementioned Ned Stark and his family who are all central figures in the struggle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. A descendant of one of the oldest families in the kingdom, and ruler of the far north in the king's name, Ned Stark initially comes across as your typical tragic hero. Yet for all his supposed nobility and honour his adherence to the code governing knights is so inflexible it blinds him to both the realities of the world he lives in and how others suffer because of his actions. It's his inability to see the world as anything other than black and white which leads to both his own downfall and the kingdom's descent into civil war.

Initially we are sympathetic to him, seeing how easily others are able to manipulate him because his reactions are so predictable. However, the more we learn about other people and see the history of the land through their eyes, the more we realize how flawed he was and how his simplistic view of the world was unfair and unjust. Of course Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister aren't the only characters whose stories we follow, and with each, whether Ned's wife and children (Catelyn, his youngest son Bran, his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, and illegitimate son Jon Snow) other members of the Lannister family (Tryion Jamie's dwarf brother and their sister Cersei, Queen and then Queen mother/regent of the Seven Kingdoms) or any one of a number other major and minor players in the struggle for power, we learn more about the land and the history behind the current conflict and the other currents of power at work in this world.

While this rather novel approach does serve to give readers a better than average understanding of the characters in the series, in the end it also ends up being the series' biggest limitation. While the details offered up by each character are interesting enough to hold your attention, after a while it began to feel like too much minutiae and not enough focus is being paid to the big picture. In spite of there being any number of battles and fights, countless plot twists involving betrayal and counter betrayals, we are never able to fully appreciate their scope as we always see them through the narrow focus of one person's perspective. It's like trying to see a panoramic view using a magnifying glass which only lets you focus on one small area at a time.

Only on very rare occasions does Martin give readers the distance required to appreciate the full sweep of events. As a result, even the most momentous of battles and happenings felt trivial and I began to feel like I was endlessly waiting for something important to happen. The few times he allowed action to begin to take place he'd leave readers hanging and end a chapter, However, instead of coming back and picking the action up where it left off, the story would have moved on and we'd find the characters somewhere else. Instead of experiencing the events begun earlier directly, we have to make due with the character's memories which makes them far less immediate and reduces any impact they might have had. This has the unfortunate result of making the books more like history texts than fiction.

While the first four books in the series "A Song Of Ice And Fire" are well written and are populated by a fascinating collection of characters the sum of its parts doesn't add up to a cohesive whole. While the idea of constantly switching focus from character to character is interesting enough, not enough has been done to tie the different perspectives together for it to have the flow required for a story of this length to have any sense of continuity. Having purchased the box set I waded through all four books, but by the third volume, Storm Of Swords, I found myself caring less and less about certain story lines and skimming the sections I found more tedious and have no real desire to read the most recently published fifth book. These are not bad books, or poorly written by any means, but the comparison with Tolkien is without basis and does Martin no favours. All it does is heighten a reader's expectations and makes the books that much more disappointing.

(Article first published as Book Review: A Game of Thrones, 4-Book Boxed Set (A Song of Ice and Fire Series) by George R.R. Martin on Blogcritics.)

November 20, 2011

Book Review: Inheritance - Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

I've begun to notice a worrying trend in fantasy novels these days. It seems like more and more people are writing epic length books and epic length series when they could just as easily have told their story in half the number of pages. Not only are many of these books a prodigious waste of paper, they do the authors a horrible disservice. Most of the time there's a descent enough story lurking somewhere within the dross, if only the publishers had taken the time to properly edit the books. However, because they've been allowed to wander off in all directions authors learn all sorts of bad habits and their books either become progressively worse or appear to as we lose patience with them. There are times I want to reach into a book and shake the author by the shoulders and yell, "Get to the point already".

When Christopher Paolini was fifteen he self-published the young adult fantasy book Eragon. When he started to have some moderate success with sales on his own, Knoff, a division of Random House, republished the book and bought the rights to the series. Eragon and its sequel Eldest had shown a great deal of promise. An exciting adventure story filled with magic and magical beings. Sure it wasn't the most original of ideas, but there were enough new wrinkles thrown in to make the first two instalments at least compelling and interesting to read. Some of the sub plots were probably unnecessary but they at least helped further the story and didn't interfere with its forward motion. However even before the third book, Brisingr, in what was supposed to have been a trilogy, was published there were indications Paolini was running into trouble. For along with the announcement of its forthcoming publication came the news the series was being extended to a fourth book as the author hadn't been able to find a way to finish it in three books.
Cover Inheritance By Christopher Paolini.jpg
Brisingr wasn't a bad book, no better or worse than any number of fantasy books on the market, but it did very little to advance the overall plot of the series. There were a few pieces of information given out that would prove significant, but for the most part it was taken up with adventures which did little or nothing to advance the plot. So when it was announced that book four, Inheritance, published by Random House Canada on November 8 2011, was going to be over 800 pages long, I seriously wondered what Paolini was going to fill that number of pages with. Sure there were a number of questions that still remained to be answered, not least of which were how was the hero going to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe, but even half those pages should have been sufficient to bring the series to a conclusion.

The most pressing of those questions was how the hero of the series, Eragon, and his dragon Saphira, were going to overcome the evil king Galbatorix who ruled Alagaesia with an iron fist. Eragon had been the first new dragon rider since Galbatorix had killed the rest of them, along with their dragons, when he rose to power. Everything we've seen in the series to date has made it look like a long shot at best that the younger rider succeed. Even with the four races of people banded together, elves, humans, dwarves and Urgal (a race of warriors with large ram's horns growing out of their heads) to form an army of resistance known as the Varden, the forces of the king seem overwhelming. Not only are his armies equal to, if not larger, than those of the Varden, his powers of magic are so strong even if Eragon and every other magic user in the kingdom linked their powers they wouldn't be able to overcome him through force. Galbatorix is so strong he was able to force Eragon's half-brother Murtagh, and his dragon Thorn, to swear oaths of allegiance to him against their wills; oaths that if broken would destroy them.

The only clue Eragon has to a possible solution to the problem of how to overcome Galbatorix is the second part of a cryptic piece of advice given him soon after he became a dragon rider. "When all seems lost and your power insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls". Unfortunately nobody he's talked to, not even the werecat who gave him the advice, have any idea where either of them are located. When the leader of the Varden, Nasuada, is captured in a daring midnight raid by Murtagh and Thorn, the chances of their success have never seen slimmer. Their armies may have captured some of the cities controlled by Galbatorix, but they are running out of supplies and have to figure out how to defeat him quickly.
Christopher Paolini Author of Inheritance cycle.jpg
From that summation of events the final book had the potential for at least some nail biting adventure. However instead of focusing on the matter at hand, having Eragon search out the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls and then confronting Galbatorix, Paolini clutters up the book with page upon page of battles that could just as easily taken place off stage. While some people might find the battle scenes and side adventures exciting, overall they merely slow the story down and needlessly detract from the through line of the series. In fact by wasting so much time on insignificant details along the way, the final confrontation with Galbatorix when it comes feels rushed. Even worse, discovering the location of the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls feels incredibly contrived. It's almost like the author used the peripheral details hoping to distract us from the weaknesses of his resolution for the main plot.

Even more difficult to understand is how the last hundred or so pages of the book are spent in a very awkward attempt to tie up all the lose ends he had created throughout the series. While questions like who should rule Alagaesia after Galbatorix could only be answered once he was defeated, there should have been a way of resolving other threads more organically. Instead it feels like Paolini has remembered at the last moment he's left questions unanswered and tacked on the answers in order to satisfy fan forums.The most truthful part of his conclusion was the ambiguous way in which he dealt with some of the issues facing his characters. This at least fit in with the idea they and the world they lived in were facing a new beginning and an uncertain future.

The first two books of the Inheritance cycle showed great promise. Paolini had created a world complete with an intricate history and a variety of different races. However, somewhere along the way he lost his focus, and the details took on a life of their own until they overshadowed the main plot of the story. As a result the final book in the series, Inheritance, felt contrived and rather forced as the author tried to cram in answers to all the questions he had raised in the earlier books. While I'm sure die hard fans will find much to enjoy, it could have been much better.

(Article first published as Book Review: Inheritance, Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2011

Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

Like most other genres fantasy has evolved over the years until it now includes its own sub-genres. One of the more recent twists on it is something called urban fantasy. While that might imply stories specifically set in the city, it pretty much encompasses any tale set in modern times which contains enough magical elements for it to qualify for the fantasy genre. Unfortunately these days the most predominant form these stories take seem to be paranormal romances dealing with illicit love between humans and either vampires or werewolves. Basically your typical romance drivel with the dark brooding guy being a little more mysterious then in earlier works of the same ilk.

Thankfully there are a few authors out there who have shunned that path and understand fantasy and imagination don't have to be strangers. One of my personal favourites for years has been Canadian author Tanya Huff. She seems to be able to write everything from military science fiction to pure old fashioned fantasy. Perhaps it's this versatility which allows her to be so comfortable with urban fantasy's demands for combining contemporary settings with magic and other fantastic elements. In 2009's The Enchantment Emporium she introduced us to the Gale family whose women wield extraordinary powers and whose men sprout antlers.

The Gales are all about family and setting down roots. Each generation has their role to play in establishing the family's connection with their territory, and once established the family is pretty much tied to that land. They not only draw their power from the area, but are also responsible for using that power to take care of it. However once every few generations or so a Gale is born who is different. Known as wild powers they don't settle down and have the gift to travel through time and space. In Huff's second novel about the Gales, The Wild Ways, published by Penguin Canada, we are reintroduced to many of the characters we met in the first book, but this time the focus is on Charlie, this generation's wild power.
Cover he Wild Ways By Tanya Huff.jpg
Charlie is a musician and until recently has lived on the road playing with any and every band that can use her. However since her cousin Alley established the family in Calgary Alberta Canada she's become something of a homebody, sharing space with her cousin, her cousin's husband and a fourteen year old Dragon Lord named Jack from the under realm who also happens to be a cousin. (Read The Enchantment Emporium for details) While part of her is enjoying the domesticity, another part of her is chaffing at settling. The Aunts - a designation given to any Gale woman once they obtain a certain age - a group of matronly women who strike fear into the hearts of any sane being, human or otherwise, are starting to drop hints if she doesn't make up her mind soon about what she's going to do with her life they'll make the decision for her. Since that would probably involve far more domestic bliss than she's really interested in coping with, a call from musician friends in need of her skills from the East Coast of Canada, comes as a relief. She can hit the road and put off making a decision for the summer.

However, fate, destiny and or the Aunts have something else in mind. Upon her arrival in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Canada Charlie discovers her aunt Catherine, a previous generation's wild power, has stirred up trouble for some of the locals. While not human or from this realm, Selkies, seals who can take off their pelts and turn into alluring women, have been living in Cape Breton for as long as there have been humans. In order to preserve their natural habitat, the ocean, they have formed the core of a very powerful environmental lobby group. Already instrumental in curtailing the annual seal hunt and working to preserve depleted fish stocks, their latest is Carson Oil who is determined to begin drilling for off shore oil near what is not only protected land, but one of the largest seal colonies on the island.

If one wants to control a Selkie you wait until they have assumed their human form and then you steal their skin. According to ancient lore if a man takes a Selkie's skin she is obliged to become his wife and love him. However if she ever finds her skin again, she will return to her home beneath the waves. Carlson Oil isn't looking for the love of a good seal, they're looking to get permits for drilling rights. So when Catherine Gale says she has a solution to their problem the oil company's CEO will pay any price she asks. While she may not understand the supernatural, Amelia Carlson understands blackmail. So hiding the seal skins from the Selkies until they come out in support of her company's drilling operation makes perfect sense to her.
Tanya Huff Author Of The Wild Ways.jpg
With the assistance of her Dragon Lord cousin Jack, Charlie decides to not only help the Selkies recover their skins - one of her band mates is married to one of the Selkies - and attempt to figure out why a member of her family would align herself with one of the greedheads of the world. While it might be just be perversity on aunt Catherine's part - I'm doing because I can and I never really liked that holier than thou attitude of the Selkies to begin with - with the Aunts one can never tell. Wild power or not, all of the Aunts are manipulative out of habit, and who knows how many ulterior motives might lay behind Aunt Catherine's decision to scoop the seal skins.

I don't know how Tanya Huff is able to do it, but she has this great ability to write whimsical and funny fantasy novels which on the surface don't appear to have much to them. However, you're sailing along enjoying the bad jokes, occasional sexual innuendo, the characters and the adventure when all of a sudden you run into a serious thought. It's so subtly done you could almost miss it. Yet, as in the case of The Wild Ways, you all of a sudden realize it is the heart of the story and everything has been winding its way towards this point from the beginning. While the plot is important as it creates the opportunity for the character(s) in the book to make the journey required of them, it's this underlying theme which gives Huff's books their real strength.

Most books of this type would be content with just being an adventure/comedy/fantasy, which while tasty enough, usually have all the substance of cotton candy. With a core of intelligence beneath its surface, what would have been the equivalent of a literary snack with the potential for tooth decay, becomes a meal to satisfy most appetites. Combined with Huff's ability to blend ancient traditions seamlessly into the modern world and making them seem perfectly normal and characters who are appealing and fun to hang out with, you're in for an amazing read. A perfect example of how there's more to urban fantasy than teenage girls swooning over the undead and how so many others are failing to exploit the genre's full potential.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

September 25, 2011

Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Of all the evils done under the guise of "Free Trade" some of the most insidious were those carried out by the unofficial mercantile arm of the British Empire, The East India Tea Company. Beneath that seemingly innocuous banner more acts of piracy, looting and pillaging were carried out than by anybody sailing under the Skull & Crossbones.Yet perhaps the worst crime that can be laid at their feet was the development and propagation of the opium trade. In spite of stereotypes depicting Chinese as nefarious purveyors of the drug, it was not native to their land, instead it was deliberately introduced to the country by English merchants. Yet it wasn't just the Chinese effected by this practice, but those in the British colonies of India and its neighbours, what is now Afghanistan for example, where the poppies from which opium is made were grown who suffered, and still suffer today, from the repercussions of this trade.

For not only were farmers convinced to turn over acres of valuable agricultural land to the cultivation of poppies, at who knows what long term cost to the lands potential for other crops, countless others were convinced to tie their lives to the process of manufacturing and selling opium. From those who worked the harvest all the way up to merchant families who invested in opium in the hopes of reaping profits by selling it in China, every level of society in British South East Asia became ensnared in the opium trade. For in spite of the fact possession and selling of opium were both illegal in China there were enormous profits to be made by those willing to make the outlay required to bribe officials, pay smugglers and purchase the product.

However, the Chinese governments weren't about to let a small group of foreign merchants reap enormous profits by enslaving their people to drugs without a fight. In the late 1830's the emperor finally decided enough was enough and decided to act against the opium trade in his country and in doing so precipitated what has become known as the "Opium Wars". Crying their rights to "Free Trade" were being curtailed by a foreign government, British merchants whose cargos were forcibly impounded backed up their demands for restitution with the guns of the Royal Navy. It is into this tumultuous period of history that we are tossed in Amitav Ghosh's latest release, River Of Smoke, the second book of his Ibis Trilogy, (Sea Of Poppies was the first book) which will be published by Penguin Canada on Tuesday September 27 2011. While only one of the four story lines we follow through the course of the book deals directly with the opium trade, as all four centre around China, and specifically the section of the city of Canton where foreigners are allowed to dwell and the major trading houses have set up shop, each of the characters we meet are impacted by the events of the day.
Cover River Of Smoke Amitav Ghosh.jpg
Like a wonderful multicoloured tapestry Ghosh has woven a story made up of a series of vibrant threads made from a multitude of materials. The tale which unfolds before us is another chapter in the history of a vast multicultural and multiethnic family whose progenitors seem to be a mix of the mix-blood illegitimate children of Europeans, former indentured servants and escaped convicts from European colonies in South East Asia and points further East. Now settled in Mauritius, La Fami Colver, (they speak a strange mix of Creole, Hindu and pidgin (which means trader) English from China) have kept a pictorial record of how the lives of its founders were bound together by fate, and in particular a hurricane in September of 1838 that struck three boats: the Ibis carrying convicts and indentured servants from Calcutta to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a cargo of opium from India to Canton and the Redruth sailing from Cornwall to China in search of rare botanical specimens.

While both the Ibis and the Redruth carry those who would end up being part of the La Fami, it's the Anahita, it's cargo and the merchant whose fortunes are riding upon the opium in its hold who end up at the centre of the story. Bahramji Naurozji Modi had been born to a poor rural family, but through a strange twist of fortune ended up marring into one of Bombay's wealthiest shipbuilding families. It was he who convinced his father in law to begin using the ships they built for trading ventures. As none of the other family members had the slightest inclination to travel, or interest in trade for that matter, it was Bahram who took care of everything. He found the investors to pay for the opium his boat carried, escorted it to China, found the buyers and was the face of the family business in the foreigners enclave in Canton.

It's mainly through Bahram's eyes we watch the beginnings of what will become known as the opium wars. However Ghosh doesn't limit us to the one perspective as the events overtake all foreigners even if they have nothing directly to do with the opium trade. Neel, a young wealthy man convicted of embezzlement had escaped from the Ibis along with Bahram's illegitimate half Chinese son Ah Fat, and when both men turn up in Singapore at the same time the Anahita shows up, Ah Fat arranges for his friend to be hired as his father's personal secretary. For those on board the Redruth they are forced to rely upon the letters of a friend for information on both goings on in Canton and the location of a rare plant they hope to take back to England. For one of the ways the Chinese were attempting to curtail the opium trade by allowing fewer and fewer foreigners to travel in their territory. Only people with special permits were allowed to travel up the river from Hong Kong to Canton, and they weren't being handed out to those looking for rare flowers.
Amitav Ghosh by Ulf Anderson.jpg
Ghosh has done a masterful job in not only making each of his characters fascinating studies and interesting people to spend time with, he has also managed to bring the strange exotic world of the foreign enclave in Canton vividly alive. Crammed within a few square blocks a cross are traders from almost every corner of the world. Outside the enclave they might never have had anything to do with each other, but here all of the constraints society would normally place upon them have been suspended. Race and colour are of no matter as money and influence are the great equalizers. Each of the many traders have created second lives for themselves in China, up to and including taking wives and fathering children who they treat with equal devotion as their "real" families. While Bahram might only live there for six months or so every ten years, his is no different from the British traders who live there permanently.

While Ghosh's descriptive abilities allow us to create intricate portraits of people and locations, it's his agility with languages which gives River Of Smoke an extra level of verisimilitude. From the strange mix of words spoken by the family in the opening pages of the book, the scattering of pidgin appearing like exotic fruit in amongst the bland English of the trader's everyday speech, the conversations between the merchants and their Chinese partners, to the bombastic rhetoric of the ardent British free traders, each person we meet is given a voice as unique as their character and a language or dialect to match. While this might present a bit of a challenge to readers initially, you can usually work everything out within the context of a sentence, it makes for a far more interesting read than if he had opted have everyone speaking in one voice.

Lurking at the centre of all this splendour though is the dark heart of the opium trade. The majority of the traders in Canton are there to exercise their right to sell what ever products they want for the most profit they can earn. That the product in question is opium and its sale is illegal in China (and most of their home countries as well) is irrelevant. Like "Free Enterprise" exponents down through the ages they decry Chinese edict against the drug trade as government interference in their "God given right to trade" but have no hesitation about turning to their own government for assistance when their profits are threatened. By incorporating real historical figures from the period and drawing upon their speeches Ghosh manages to make his points about these people and their practices without breaking stride in his storytelling. The only disquieting note being how little these speeches have changed in the past century and a half or so.

River Of Smoke is a wonderful mixture of people, places and story that captures a moment in history like an insect snared in amber. All the details are there for the reader to see and appreciate. While the trade in opium, the policies of the British government which encouraged it, and those who made obscene profits from attempting to addict an entire nation to the drug, were reprehensible, one can't but help echo one character's regret at the passing of the foreign enclave in Canton which served as home to those involved. Instead of the usual ghettoizing of people by race, language or skin colour which usually occurs when various representatives of humanity are forced into close confines, here, for whatever the reason and for however brief period of time it lasted, something different was born. An international community alive with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of each of its representatives with a universal language allowing them to communicate across cultural and social boundaries. While Ghosh goes to great pains to make sure its not depicted as a perfect world, those few square blocks in Canton were an example we'd do well to emulate more often.

(Author Photo by Ulf Anderson)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh)

August 26, 2011

Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

To most of us in North America India remains something of an enigma. We either think of it as the backward country where children are only saved from starvation by the intervention of foreigners or as call centre central where all our tech support questions are answered. Even those who have visited the country are barely going to scratch the surface of this ancient and complex culture with its multitude of languages and peoples. Compounding the problem is that the majority of books, fiction and non-fiction, written about India up until the last decade were written by non-Indians. History books still refer to the first nationalist uprisings that attempted to throw off colonial rule in the 1800s as the "Indian Mutiny". Making out that those fighting for independence from the British were in the wrong.

While some British writers, like Kipling, were born in India and had a better understanding of life in the country than their compatriots, they were still part of the ruling elite and their perspectives were coloured accordingly. Thankfully that is changing and in the last few years we've seen more and more books published by Indian authors writing about both contemporary India and its history. One of the first things an astute reader will realize after reading any of these books is how little they know about the country and the incredible complexity of its history. Two things which become abundantly clear from reading any of the historical fiction are how the idea of India as one nation is a new concept and how British rule radically changed the lives of subcontinent's people.

Both these points come out in Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna recently published by Penguin Canada. The book traces the history of one family from 1878 until the tumultuous days in the 1940s leading up to independence. I doubt if most of us have even heard of Coorg in Southern India where the majority of the story takes place, but what becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is how the people native to the region consider themselves to be from Coorg, not India.
Cover Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna.jpg
We learn how they have fought fiercely to maintain their independence from neighbouring Mysore and when the story opens border posts are still manned in case their neighbour should try to invade again. They appear to have a type of feudal government, with those families with the largest land holdings being the most powerful. However they don't to use that power in order to tell others what to do, they just seem to be held in higher esteem by others. Instead the people are governed by their traditional moral codes and their belief system. A mixture of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and the worship of the goddess Kaveri as well as other Hindu gods associated with agriculture. Over the course of the book both the moral code and the hierarchy of families play key roles in the fates of the main characters giving readers a chance to understand and appreciate the delicate way in which they work to hold society together.

Focusing on the lives of two children from infancy to adulthood, the story Mandanna weaves follows the familiar pattern of frustrated love, betrayal, resentment and eventually reconciliation.
Devi is the first daughter born to the Nachimandas family in over sixty years. An obvious beauty from an early age, she is doted on by the entire family. Her male childhood companion, Devanna, is less fortunate as his mother commits suicide after fleeing her wealthy landowner husband to return to her home village. The young boy is taken in by Devi's parents and they are inseparable as children. However while Devanna assumes nothing has changed when they come to maturity, Devi nurtures a secret passion for his cousin Manchu, a renowned hunter who slew a tiger with his dagger.

Even after she is forced to marry Devanna, Devi's obsession with Manchu doesn't end. First expressed in an elicit affair that only ends when Devanna attempts suicide and Manchu overcome with guilt refuses to see Devi again and finds his own wife. However not even Manchu's death fighting for the British in Afghanistan can stop Devi from yearning for the man she loved. Seeking out his widow she convinces her to send Manchu's son Appu to live at her estate where she can provide him with a far better life. She then directs the love she was never able to give Manchu to his son, to the point where she almost convinces herself he was their child. Of course this comes at a cost, for in the process she neglects her own son Nanju. It is Appu who she finds the most beautiful bride for, even though as eldest Nanju should have been married first, and it is Appu who she plans on leaving her estate, Nari Malai - Tiger Hills. After all it was named in honour of his father, so it's only right he should inherit it.
Sarita Mandanna.jpg
While the family dynamic plays out, the changing world around them is also having its impact on the characters. While both Devanna and Devi attended a mission school run by German Catholics, and it was Devanna's decision to attend a British medical school as a boarding student which precipitated the events that changed all their lives, they still remained rooted in their Coorg traditions. Devanna might have found himself being two people, one person at school and another at home, but he never forgot where he came from and who he was. While their son Nanju retained some of their love for the land which was so key to being a Coorg, on being exposed to British living through school and social activity, Appu quickly leaves his old life behind. He insists his mother change the family estate's name to Tiger Hills as referring to it by its native name is so "provincial". He also quickly tires of, and is embarrassed by, his beautiful wife when she can't handle herself in "Society".

Of course he's not the only one. Scions of old Coorg families are assuming British sounding names, affecting the manners of polite society and beginning to scheme as how they will fill the power vacuum created by the British leaving. It's all very well and good for nationalists to preach equality for all, but these children of landowners know land is power and aren't about to start surrendering either of those commodities. They are the face of the new elite in India, the power behind the scenes, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions of wealth and status.

While the story of Tiger Hills is a bit formulaic in its tale of thwarted romance, obsession and so on, where Mandanna excels is in her depiction of the changing world the story takes place in. Told chronologically we watch as the people of Coorg's lives change radically in the space of only one generation. Almost everything about them, even down to the crops they grow and the reasons for growing them, change from the time Devi is a child to the time her adopted son comes of age. Interestingly enough it's the people like Devanna who have managed to keep a foot in each of the worlds who seem to be best able to cope with the new world. He is able to combine his European education with his knowledge of Coorg to solve agricultural problems that no one else has been able to deal with.

Appu is the other end of the stick. Throwing himself whole hearted into being even more British than the British, he ends up losing all sense of himself. We gradually see him becoming all flash and no substance and his character floats in the wind without direction or focus. With his every whim indulged by his mother growing up, he is used to getting his way without effort, and expects privilege as his right not something to be earned. Never having had to work for anything, the few times he's denied the things he wants, usually because of his own misdeeds, he becomes resentful and sulky, blaming others for his failures. Without the roots in his land to fall back on he has nothing, and in the end his ambitions come to nought as well.

Tiger Hills offers a glimpse into the past of one province in India and in the process allows readers a view of one of the many different faces of the country. At the same time Sarita Mandanna shows us one of the long term results of colonial rule, something whose impact is still being felt in many former colonies including India. How a generation attracted by the allure of the bright and shiny gave up the traditions that had defined their place in the world, only to be left with a void that constantly needs to be filled. A void they continue to attempt to fill to this day with power and money by any means possible. Reading this book will give readers a little more of an insight into what's behind the Indian Tiger and perhaps help them taking the first steps towards understanding there's a lot more to the country than they thought.
(Article first published as Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna on Blogcritics)

July 17, 2011

Graphic Novel: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson - Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero

I guess I'm something of a snob, because for the most part I've looked on so called graphic novels as being nothing more than glorified and overblown comic books. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with comic books, I've loved them ever since I picked up my first Avengers and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos books when I was kid. They were, and are, a great way of escaping reality for however long you wanted to spend poring over their pages. I have to confess, however, I have a hard time with those titles that have started to take themselves seriously while still depicting the female body as something out a male adolescent fantasy. I don't understand how you can claim to be making some great moral or social statement when your female characters defy the basic laws of physics.

Now before I'm inundated with hate mail from graphic novel apologists eager to point out how wrongheaded and stupid I am and wondering how far I've my head stuck inside my intestinal track, I'm perfectly aware there are exceptions to the above. Anything Neil Gaiman is associated with won't look like it was created by someone who has been sitting in his parent's basement glorying in the elasticity of spandex. Those titles, along with a thankfully increasing number of others, have instead focused on how to best take advantage of utilizing two mediums simultaneously in order to tell their story.
Cover The Griff Moore & Corson.jpg
From our earliest drawings depicting hunts on cave walls man has been telling stories through images. With the development of language there was a time when imagery took a back seat as a means of telling a story. Now, while theatre and film both use visuals and words, the former doesn't leave a permanent record behind and the latter has come to rely on visual technology to the point where language has become secondary and in many cases movies are now equivalent to paintings on a rock face as far as telling a story is concerned. The graphic novel has the potential for putting language and imagery on an equal footing. However, finding the balance between the two, where the images and the words compliment each to the point where they have equal weight in telling the story, requires both artists and writers to make changes in the way they would normally approach their work.

So I was curious to see the results of the recent collaboration between one of my favourite authors, Christopher Moore, a film director and writer friend of his, Ian Corson and Magna illustrator Jennyson Rosero in the graphic novel The Griff published by Harper Collins Canada. According to Moore's forward The Griff originally started out as an idea for a movie, but he and Corson scraped the idea when it became obvious it would cost way too much to make and went with the far less expensive graphic novel format instead.
Christopher Moore.jpg
The plot line is your basic War Of The Worlds scenario and the world has been invaded by man eating lizard type creatures from outer space. Nicknamed "Griffs" for their resemblance to the mythical griffins, the flying lizards easily overwhelmed earth's military defences. With all early warning defence systems geared towards picking up metal objects, earth, as the tag line for the novel says, "Was totally unprepared for an enemy made of meat". With heat seeking missiles unable to lock onto the cold blooded lizards air forces were quickly demolished and mankind was quickly devoured leaving only isolated pockets of survivors hanging on by a thread. After quickly taking us through scenes of devastation and destruction the book changes pace and we join up with two of the small gangs of plucky survivors. In New York City we meet the skate border Steve, sexy video game designer Mo (short for Maureen) and Curt Armstrong, former paratrooper whose most recent employment was behind the make-up counter at Macy's. Down in Orlando Florida we meet Liz, who trained killer whales at Sea World before humans became snack food for giant lizards, and Oscar, a professional squirrel - mascot for the theme park.

The Griff had been transported to earth's outer atmosphere by a space ship and when the ship is taken out by forces unknown down in Orlando, our plucky heroes in NYC decide to risk the journey south in order to join what they think is a burgeoning resistance movement. With the aid of a research sub (The Griff don't like going underwater), a guy and his tank and a few lucky breaks they make it down to the Gulf. Meanwhile back at Sea World Liz and Oscar make the discovery that with the downing of mothership the Griff no longer seem as intent on working together to hunt down humans. While that means they're no longer acting as a collective, it doesn't make them any less dangerous as they still consider humans tasty treats. However it does mean when Liz stumbles on a clutch of Griff eggs the little hatchlings latch on to her as mommy dearest when she's the first creature they lay eyes on when they stumble into the world.
Ian Corson.jpg
While the story line pretty much follows along the predictable plucky survivors theme taking down the aliens out to rule the world, The Griff is saved from being typical by the minds behind it. How often do you find the ex-military guy in one of these stories giving make-up and highlighting advice? Although two female characters are built and dressed (Mo's wardrobe gives new definition to the word skimpy and Liz is permanently in a skin tight wet-suit) like stereotypical comic book "babes", their characterization makes it feel like the authors are making fun of the convention. When Mo and the boys are raiding an armoury in New York City she unearths a massive gun which reduces her to a puddle. Even funnier is the first time she fires it, for although she takes out her target, the recoil sends her flying backwards through the wall of a shed into New York's harbour. Her response to the question don't you think that weapon is too big for you, is a smirk and "I'll grow into it".

As for the telling of the story itself, Moore, Corson and Rosero have done a skilful job of blending their two media in order to tell the story. I'm sure Corson's film experience, having to work with story boards, came in handy for the parts of the book where they let the pictures do the talking, but I was very impressed by how well Rosero was able to sum up what would have been paragraphs of descriptive prose with a few illustrations. This is especially noticeable in the opening pages of the book during the depiction of the invasion and its immediate aftermath. In fact throughout the book his visuals were excellent in serving as replacements for prose in setting the mood of a scene and developing atmosphere. I especially appreciated how instead of showing the readers pictures of carnage we would be given images of our characters responding to what they saw. The horror and revulsion depicted on their faces was more powerful than any images of blood and gore could hope to be. We're so inundated with visuals of the aftermath of war and disaster, reactions to them have a far better chance at reaching us on emotional level than more of what we see on the evening news.

The Griff is not great art or literature by any means, but neither does it pretend to be anything other than what it is; an action adventure comic book. With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks the authors have jumped feet first into the medium, embracing its conventions wholeheartedly while gently poking fun at them at the same time. Like one of the better Bruce Willis action movies there's lots of action, but there's a sly wink to the audience at the same time. It's as if the writers are saying, yeah okay we know this is a little over the top, but it's a lot of fun isn't it? Which of course it is.

(Photo of Christopher Moore Eric Luse)
(Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson, Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma

Its always there, yet we hardly ever see it. Its always moving, but we hardly ever notice it. Its tasteless, soundless, weightless and without body or form yet time rules almost all of our days. It dictates when we wake up in the morning, when we eat our meals and when we go to bed. We compartmentalize our lives into segments because of time telling us where we have to be, how long we have to be there and when we're supposed to show up. Look at the effect it has on our language. How many words do we use which suggest something to do with time? How much of our daily conversations or thought processes are dedicated to our relationship with time and the way we've chosen to sublimate almost everything else to the arbitrary system we've devised for measuring its passage.

Maybe it's because our time is so tightly controlled the idea of travelling through it holds so much appeal, Who hasn't wanted to travel into the future in the hopes of finding out what is in store for them? Who wouldn't love to go back in time armed with our knowledge and change aspects of our earlier life? It can't be a coincidence that it was during the late nineteenth century the idea began to take hold. For not only was this the period in our history when time began controlling individual lives as more and more people began to work in factories and be paid based on how much of their time they surrendered, it was also an era when science and invention worked together to overcome barriers previously thought insurmountable.

It was this heady atmosphere which inspired writers like Jules Verne to imagine machines capable of travelling great distances underwater and, even more outlandishly, to the moon. However, it was the British writer Herbert George Wells, known as Bertie to his intimates and H. G. Wells to most of us, who first postulated the idea of time travel in his now famous novel The Time Machine. So who better, and what era could be better suited then the one he lived in, for taking a lead role in a contemporary novel about time travel? Judging by the latest book from Spanish author Felix J Palma, The Map Of Time published by Simon & Schuster Canada and translated into English by Nick Caistor, they are the perfect combination as they provide both the motivation and the atmosphere necessary for creating one of the most imaginative and pleasurable reads you'll come across.
Cover The Map Of Time Felix J Palma.jpg
Part mystery, part fantasy and part historical fiction, Palma has woven together a story whose twists and turns will leave you guessing at what is real and what is illusion. Although the novel is populated by historical figures like Wells, and in cameo appearances Henry James and Bram Stoker, the reader who is paying attention will notice quite early on an anomaly in the events described which mark it as different from the history we believe to be true. This small clue dropped early on in the book offers us the first hint there is more happening than what we first assume to be the case. However it is so subtle and presented in such a matter of fact manner, that we are able to convince ourselves it doesn't really matter, yet in the end it becomes the fulcrum the whole story balances on. Like a teeter-totter, when the weight on either end shifts radically, the question of whether time travel is actually possible is first made credible as we join characters on their journeys into the past and the present, then dismissed as we are made privy to the elaborate charades that created the illusion.

One of the fascinating contradictions of the nineteenth century was how concurrent with the rise in science there was also a burgeoning belief in the occult and all things supernatural. People as notable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were firm in their belief in fairies a la Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, attended seances firmly convinced they would be able to communicate with their beloved who had crossed over and a host of other nonsense which we wouldn't think twice as dismissing as a load of hokum. Therefore when a company in the novel called Murray's Time Travel claims to have discovered a fourth dimension that allows them to travel to a hundred years in the future, it is easy for us to believe people are only too willing to fork out the hundred pound asking price to make the trip.

It's also equally understandable how a young man, Andrew Harrington, can readily believe that Wells possesses a time machine like the one in his book that will allow him to travel back in time to prevent the woman he loves, a Whitechapel prostitute named Marie Kelly, being murdered by Jack The Ripper. Or that a police inspector can be convinced the person responsible for a series of murders could only be somebody from the future as envisioned by Murray's Time Travel - as no nineteenth century weapon could inflict the wounds which killed the victims. Even the young lady who runs into somebody she met in the future in her own time believing he has travelled back in time especially to see her doesn't come off as being especially naive, merely a product of her times.
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Ironically one of the biggest sceptics about time travel is the man who introduced the concept to the world, Wells himself. However even he is mystified by the wounds in the corpses which have caused the London police inspector to have a warrant issued for the arrest of a person living in the year 2000. Where did the weapon which made these wounds come from and who could have scrawled the opening lines from the book he's just finished writing, The Invisible Man on the wall over the first corpse? Nobody else in the world should know those words for nobody else even knows of the manuscript's existence.

With The Map Of Time Palma has created a story which works on multiple levels, like one of those dolls which hides numerous smaller and smaller replicas of itself. He starts with what appears to be a number of unrelated story lines, but as each new version of the story is revealed they converge until the solid core in the centre comes to light. Along the way he presents us with all the usual arguments we've heard for and against time travel, the various dangers involved with tampering with the past, the idea that alternate realities are created each time such tampering occurs and finally how it's possible for the choices we make during the course of our lives to also create multiple versions of the world, even if only in our imaginations. What if I had turned left instead of right that day and never run into so and so who offered me that job through which I met the woman who became my wife? Would everything have ended up differently? Perhaps right now some other version of me is living out that choice in another universe?

However, all the philosophy and speculation aside, Palma has written a book that is not only a delight to read for its intelligent plot and wonderful characterization, but for the sheer joy of observing an author delighting in his art. At times he steps out of his neutral position of narrator and takes an active role in the story by freely admitting he is the one who is actually controlling the actions of his characters. His sly asides about how he already knows what's going to happen to them and his arguments for introducing individuals in the order he does and for writing the book in a style similar to that of something written in the nineteenth century are more than just a writer's conceit. For, while initially they interrupt the narrative and remind us of the separation between us and his characters, we gradually become so accustomed to them they become part of the overall story until we can no longer differentiate between what we thought of as being the present and the past during which the book takes place.

Time travel has been the subject of movies and books for years now, but Palma's approach is by far the most original that I've ever experienced. Brilliantly executed and wonderfully conceived it will at times leave you both puzzled and smiling in equal measure. While some might be disappointed with the book's lack of the normal paraphernalia they've come to expect from modern science fiction, this is as true and wonderful an exercise in imagination as you'll read in a long time.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma on Blogcritics.)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
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As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

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Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

May 28, 2011

Book Review: Pyre Of Queens by David Hair

I've gone on record a number of times expressing my displeasure with those who appropriate stories from other cultures. For far too many years there has existed a type of cultural colonialism which has seen people's stories all over the world retold by others and passed off as being accurate representations of a tradition. Whether it's been British colonialist writing about India or new age European Americans retelling Native American stories it amounts to the same thing. A people's stories are their life blood. They are their history and the means of passing that history from one generation to the next. When someone from outside enters into that stream of knowledge they are as much a pollutant as mercury dumped into a freshwater stream.

Thankfully, as more and more writers are coming forward to reclaim their people's heritage with either modern retellings of their traditional stories or the creation of new stories which accurately reflect both their traditions and their current place in the world, those old types of stories are falling into disfavour. An even more positive sign, in some ways, is there are now a third group of writers striving to find a way to reflect their admiration for another culture's traditions and stories in their work while being sensitive to their status as outsiders. Walking the fine line between appropriation and respect is a delicate tightrope for any writer to negotiate. While historical and cultural accuracy are important elements in these attempts, it's what the writer does with the material that's crucial to maintaining their balance.
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If they merely attempt to retell stories or sensationalize elements of the culture for effect they are no different from any other exploiter. On the other hand if they allow the material to inspire them to create a story which is accurate in its depiction of the culture in question and are only concerned with the story's telling and not setting themselves up as some sort of authority or other they can create something wonderful. This is just what New Zealand author David Hair has made a stab at doing with Pyre Of Queens, published by Penguin Canada, the first book in his four part series The Return Of Ravana.

Inspired by The Ramayana, arguably the most well known and influential Epic Poem in India, if not South East Asia, Hair has combined elements of Indian culture, fantasy and contemporary young adult fiction in the telling of his story. Divided equally between the past and the present he tells how a despotic ruler from ancient India seeks immortality through a ritual that will allow him to host the spirit of the ancient demon king Ravana. By feigning his death and then arranging to have his queens burnt with him on his funeral pyre under very specific conditions he has been assured by Ravana's spirit he will live for ever. Unfortunately all does not go according to plan and one of the wife's is rescued from the flames by the court poet.

Aided by the Captain of the ruler's guard they would have made good their escape save for the fact the partially resurrected spirit of the king and the queens who did "die" in the flames join the pursuit and track down and corner them. Using a flimsy rope bridge across a chasm to escape while the captain attempts to slow down the king, the poet and queen try to find a way out of the underground caverns they have ended up in. The poet, being both jealous of the captain, as the queen obviously loves him and not the poet, and certain the king will be soon pursuing them, weakens the main ropes supporting the bridge. Unfortunately it's the captain of the guard who next stumbles across the bridge and when it gives out underneath him the queen perishes attempting to save him. Wrecked by guilt, the poet eventually makes good his escape but lives out the rest of his days in despair for what he has done.

In the twenty-first century three youngsters at the same school, but from widely divergent backgrounds, begin to have odd dreams. Vikram, a shy intelligent kid with an interest in poetry is the son of a middle class salesman, Amanjit, a boisterous popular athlete lives with his widowed mother knowing his only future is driving taxi for his uncle and Deepika, smart, brash and thoroughly modern, would under normal circumstances probably have had nothing to do with each other. However when chance brings them together and strange things start happening, like spirits appearing or they start seeing things nobody else can see, they begin to realize there is some mysterious tie which unites them. After careful research, and eliminating all other possibilities, the only conclusion they can come to is they're the reincarnations of the poet, the Captain of the guard, and the young queen respectively.
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It's only then they realize the visions and dreams each of them have been experiencing individually and collectively are the spirits of the dead king and his queens coming back to life in an attempt to complete the ritual required to revive both the king and Ravana. In order to do so they need Deepika and the spirit of the escaped queen she carries within her. The adventures the three undertake will test them and the new bonds of friendship that have been forged between them as they are faced with the same choices their previous incarnations dealt with. How they react may well decide their fate and whether or not one of the great evils of the past is able to rise again.

While David Hair is obviously a keen observer of life around him, as can be told by his detailed and accurate descriptions of life in modern India, a solid writer with the ability to bring both scenes and characters to life and the possessor of a deep respect for the culture and traditions of India, there were certain aspects of Pyre Of Queens that left me uncomfortable. While I understand the importance of magic and the forces of good and evil in a fantasy story, and how heroes need a villain to overcome in order to prove their worth, intentionally or not the author has created a somewhat sensationalized view of aspects of Indian culture. Evil spirits, arcane rituals involving burning people alive and reincarnation are going to be what most readers around the world are going to remember most from reading this book, not Hair's descriptions of modern life in India or any of the other less garish parts of the story.

Yes those things make for a good story and are necessary for his plot, but the impression it creates is more of the same old "mysteries of the East" type of story that used to be prevalent in years gone by. The problem is how this type of story reduces complex and sophisticated cultures to sounding like a collection of superstitions and trivializes the people who live within them. Obviously this was not David Hair's intention, and he has done his best to depict the Indians in this story, both those in the past and the present, as sophisticated and intelligent people. However, as he continues the series he needs to step back and think about what stands out the most in each book - the most powerful imagery - and the kind of impression it will make on those who know little or nothing about India.

When somebody from outside a culture attempts to depict it in any shape of form, be it a book, a painting or even a piece of music, they must carefully consider the impression their work will leave on those unfamiliar with the world they are describing. Somebody born and raised inside a culture lives and breathes all of its complexities and any depiction they recreate will usually (not always of course) be far more balanced than anything an outsider can offer. While David Hair in his new book Pyre Of Queens does a far better job of depicting India and her people as multidimensional and real than most of those who have come before, he falls short in his failure to consider how his more flamboyant material will shape people's impression of India. It's a well written book with interesting characters, but as one intended for a young adult audience I could only wish he had taken more care with how he presented his choice of material.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pyre of Queens by David Hair on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons

When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world's tendency to always be looking for the next "best thing" and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren't even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what's available today, written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don't just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There's also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
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This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.

First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons' targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the "talkies", the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today, this is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn't being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents she's nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she's taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she's fifty-three and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, she decides to draw upon her one asset - a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them, "just won't do", her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
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Flora is obsessed with organizing other people's lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son in law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o' the wisp, Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.

By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether its her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what's revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and everyone of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only a gives clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.

Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn't been designated a classic or isn't deemed literature doesn't mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear: Day Two Of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

Anyone who has read any of my book reviews in the past is probably well aware of my love for Epic Fantasy. I love the way the authors painstakingly develop the worlds and cultures their characters inhabit and appreciate deeply the time, energy and imagination that has gone into their labour. However, what I've grown to especially appreciate is how, in spite of the book's length, there never seems to be an extraneous word. Perhaps because I have my own struggles with pithiness and tendencies to ramble, I can't help but be impressed by an author's ability to tell a story of such length without resorting to padding the story with extraneous words. As far as I'm concerned the mark of a great Epic Fantasy is coming to the end of an eight hundred plus page novel and be left wanting more. Anything else is merely a long book.

It's been three years since I published my review of The Name Of The Wind, the first book in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. Based on the fact my review was of the mass market paper back edition of the book, it's probably been four years since it was first published. Since then there have been many false alarms regarding its sequel's publication, including the title being listed in its publisher's on line catalogue, only to hear it was yet again being mysteriously delayed from hitting the shelves. Finally, in March of this year the false alarms were over and The Wise Man's Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicles Day Two, published by Penguin Canada, was here for all to read.
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To be honest it had been such a long time since I had read the first book many of the specifics regarding the story's plot had escaped me and I wondered how easy it would be pick up the story again without having at least skimmed its predecessor before starting. Fortunately Rothfuss seems to have anticipated this, because over the course of the opening few chapters he not only manages to reintroduce us to the world and the characters he'd previously established, he also subtly reminds us of sufficient portions of the plot to ensure we know what's going on.

Once again we start in some unknown present where a man of some infamy, Kvothe, whether he's a hero or a villain seems to depend on which stories people are telling about him, is continuing the process of telling his life's story to a scribe who goes by the name Chronicler. Having set himself up as an innkeeper in a small backwater of a hamlet, he's obviously put that life behind him, but when the opportunity presents itself for him to separate the myth from the facts concerning his life by dictating the details of his life, he decides to take up the challenge. The second book picks up where the first left off with disturbing events happening in the present and young Kvothe continuing his education at the University in the past. This university teaches students what most would refer to as magic, although quite a lot of it appears to our eyes to be a mixture of alchemy, science and wizardry.

While the young Kvothe is a natural in most areas of study, he was one of the youngest students ever admitted, he faces some very real obstacles. Primary among them is the fact he has made a powerful enemy of a fellow student who is not only wealthy but influential. It's because of this animosity that he ends up broadening the scope of his education. He is advised it would be wise to take some time away from the University as the Masters are sick of the bother and embarrassment the squabbles between the two young men have brought upon the institution and would be happier if neither of them were around for a while. With the aid of a friendly member of the nobility he finds himself a position at the court of one of the most powerful men in the country. If he is able to win this man's favour his future will be a lot less uncertain.

Through his knowledge of the arcane, his ability as a musician and his own inherent wit and intelligence he is not only able to save his new master's life, but helps him secure the bride of his choice. Unfortunately his initial reward appears at first blush to be punishment as he's sent off to lead a small band of mercenaries with orders to track down and kill a party of bandits who have been preying on his new master's tax collectors. While his band are successful in the end, his real adventures, and the beginnings of his legend, commence after the mission is over. First, he is ensnared and escapes a legendary lovely from the land of fairy, with whom no man has managed to survive an encounter and retain their sanity and second, he is accepted into an isolated community of feared warriors and introduced to their secrets.
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While there's no doubt that Patrick Rothfuss is a good storyteller and the story itself is interesting there were times during the The Wise Man's Fear I found my attention wandering. I was puzzled as to the reason at first as the book is well written, the characters are interesting and realistically drawn and its filled with fascinating details about the world he has created, the arts Kvothe is studying and other minutiae. What I gradually came to realize was that it was a case of losing site of the forest because of the tress. Like a nineteenth century naturalist writer who would spend pages detailing some item or other with no mind to its relevance to plot or narrative, Rothfuss spends so much time on details the book seems to lose track of its purpose, becoming aimless and rambling in places.

Supposedly Kvothe is on a quest to track down the mysterious people who slaughtered his parents and the rest of his extended family of travelling players when he was young. The whole idea of attending the University, and everything else he does for that matter, is so he can both prepare himself for this confrontation and find the villains. Yet, while the character occasionally remembers his obsession, it seems like Rothfuss has to remind himself of the story's central point periodically and force the story back on track. Understandably his lead character is only seventeen years old and easily distracted. But is there a need for all the side trips in order to stumble across small bits of information or for the amount of elaborate detail each step of the way as the legend of Kvothe is built? While I love Epic Fantasy, less is still more and Rothfuss needs to learn that lesson.

I'm sure those who have been waiting patiently for The Wise Man's Fear to be released will be more than contented with the result. After all it's still a well told story with some intriguing concepts and ideas covered. However, unless you're a devil for details, or a closet naturalist, there's a good chance you'll find yourself skimming pages. If you have any doubts, wait for it to come out in mass market paperback and save yourself the expense and weight of the hardcover edition. It will make a much better companion for a long distance trip in that form.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss on Blogcritics.)

April 15, 2011

Interview: Steven Erikson Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence

For the best part of the twenty-first century Steven Erikson's and Ian Cameron Esselement have bewitched and amazed readers with their joint creation of the world inhabited by the Malazan Empire. As the first of the two authors to publish books in the series, and the first to finish his contribution to world building with the publication of his tenth and final book in his "The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence, The Crippled God, Erikson's name is the one most still identify the series with.

Over the course of reading the series I've read little bits and pieces of quotes from Mr. Erikson about the series. However, to be honest, I have avoided sitting down and reading any of the interviews he's given or delving too deep into any of the other background material that has surfaced on the web that either he or Mr. Esslement have let slip. At one point I made a half hearted attempt to see about interviewing him through his publisher in Canada, Random House Canada, but part of me didn't want to hear anything about the hows and whys of the series from his point of view while he was still writing it.

Somehow or other it just didn't seem right. As a reader I think I might have thought that asking questions about the series while it was still in progress might have taken a little bit of the magic out of it. Spoiled the illusion that perhaps this world they created could really exist outside of the two fevered brains which had cooked it up. My reviews of both author's books have reflected this as they lacked anything approaching critical objectivity and usually ended up being somewhat incoherent peons of praise as I was usually at a loss as to how to stretch "Holly Fuck what a great book" into something resembling review length.

Like a glutton waiting for a particularly lavish meal to end, but for whom anticipating each course makes up a great deal of the pleasure, any hints as to what was in store for dessert would have been a deadly disappointment. However with Mr. Erikson finished his contributions I found myself wanting just that little bit more, so emailed him to see if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that had occurred to me over the course of reading his books. Here then are both the questions I emailed him and his answers. Hopefully they will not give anything away for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading his books or finishing the series, but will give all of you a deeper appreciation for what he has accomplished in their writing.

Why writing? What is it about the media that attracts you and when did you first start becoming interested in writing?

From early on and throughout high school I was being directed towards painting and illustration. I was sent by my school to life-drawing courses taught at the city’s art gallery, and I spent most of my free time drawing (especially during Math and other subjects that baffled me). I was reading fantasy and SF at the time, ever since I was about twelve, and had initially been drawn to those genres by the cover illustrations, in particular those painted by Frank Frazetta. This was where my ambitions seemed to reside. Increasingly, however, my efforts pushed me towards a kind of visual narrative. I toyed with the idea of doing comic books, but it seemed like a lot of work (this was in the time before computers handled the formatting tasks, etc – I recall using Letraset for the first few panels), and I wasn’t quite as nimble with India ink as I was with ball-point pens (me dipping a quill while doodling in class would not have gone over well).

When I entered university a friend tracked me down and invited me to a partnership doing a cartoon strip for the campus newspaper. I did a few editorial cartoons as well. We then schemed to produce a spoof edition of that campus newspaper, and this led me into writing mock articles and the usual juvenile attempts at satire. From there we ended up co-editing a magazine for the Faculty of Arts (the mag was called "The Sophisto", stolen from A Clockwork Orange). This led to quasi-journalistic writing of the offensive variety (I remember a phone interview my co-conspirator conducted with Barbara Amiel (future wife of Conrad Black) that really ticked her off).

As that endeavour was wrapping up, with booze-spiked coffees at faculty meetings, and us putting a sign up on our office door (GO AWAY), I saw in the local city paper an invitation to a short-story contest, and decided to try for it. Won second place, a hundred dollars and the adoration of a gaggle of very old ladies.

Finishing my degree in archaeology I wrote up two more stories along with the second-place winner and applied to the Vermont MFA in writing program and got turned down. So I applied to take an undergraduate (BFA) in creative writing at the University of Victoria a year later, and got accepted.

Illustration led me into narrative, and words were much faster for me than drawing.

Have there been any particular writers, styles, or media that have influenced your writing? Who what and why?

Influences can be pernicious. I recall reading George MacDonald Frazer’s The Pyrates and writing everything in pirate vernacular for six months thereafter, including memos at work. The thing is, one takes it all in, and hopefully when it comes back out it’s all a mishmash, which eventually becomes your ‘style.’ I remember fellow students in the writing programs I was in taking up the styles of famous writers and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much is actually learned by doing that. The only thing that teaches a beginning writer is writing, and in as many unique voices as one can manage. We all have our peculiar rhythms, and learning to write is learning to see and hear one’s own rhythms (once you know them you can then mess with them, experiment, etc). This ‘finding’ process is often what frustrates beginning writers, to the point that they end up quitting. It’s not ego that drives one so much as it is faith, and the early twenties for most of us is not a time when faith in oneself is at its strongest. What drives someone to write? Is it all the books seen in bookstores? Is it all the books read followed by the dream and conviction that I can do just as well? The desire for recognition, validation, fame, wealth? To be honest, probably all of those things came to the fore at one time or another, but dreams are not tickets to entitlement, and the end goal may not be what one first dreamed about – no matter. It’s all down to work in the end. You could take ten writers and task them all with the same subject on which to write about; even the same plot; and no two will be alike.

You will see that I pretty much avoided answering your question. I could offer up lists, but those lists would consist of writers and books I like or once liked: but it’s just a list, not a guide book to understanding, or, heaven forbid, following in my footsteps. But, before people jump, it’s not a position of arrogance I’m taking, but the opposite. Influences are down to tastes, but I well know that my ‘list’ is constructed as much from what I haven’t read as from what I have read, and if anything only highlights my deficiencies.

I could note that I am presently reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Why? Because it’s fun and perhaps more significantly, it justifies my buying a Kindle.

I've read that the Malazan Book Of The Fallen evolved out of yours and Ian Esselemonts's love of role playing gaming. Can you give me a quick overview of how that evolution happened. (I spent many an afternoon in smoke filled basements with others playing versions of Dungeon and Dragons back in the early 80s and only ever came out of those games with headaches - so there must have been something different about the way you guys approached these things then we ever did. Ours usually degenerated into drunken/stoned, bleary eyed, silliness)

The first game I ever played was run by Cam (Ian) on a dig on Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. We were bored rigid. We got stoned, and when the wolves attacked to mark our first effort at fighting, my character threw away his weapons and climbed a tree; another player’s character hid under his shield. Later on, yet another player tried to backstab a ranger NPC, but being a Halfling only managed to prick the back of his leg. Not an impressive first outing.

When Cam and I ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, we started gaming in earnest and you’re right in guessing that they were unusual games. We were both in the writing program at the time, and narrative was uppermost in our minds: these sessions were as much storytelling as gaming and often involved little more than protracted conversations between characters – finding their voices, acquiring a sense of their histories, their world-views, and all the conflict born of those world-views clashing. When scraps arrived they were brutal and irreversible for the characters, and we liked that. A lot. We burdened those characters with bitter memories, with old pains and open wounds; we made them tired of living but unable to give up. Not your typical game, I guess.

Later on, when I ran an actual group, I carried all that over, and the players often ended each session looking shellshocked.

When a reader picks up Gardens Of The Moon they have the feeling they're entering into a story that's been going on for some time. This goes against almost all the traditions of narrative in Epic Fiction, which usually has a static beginning, middle and end. Why did you elect to work from the middle, backwards and forwards, out, so to speak, and did you run into any significant resistance from editors/publishers along the way because of that decision?

Eight years of resistance. We did it because we’d gamed a history that provided the foundation on which to build new tales. Also, as archaeologists, we were well aware that in history there is no real beginning or end: it just goes on. The old lesson we had drilled into us in our writing workshops was that a story begins with a crisis of character, and we began our novels with that in mind. We could do that because we had a sense of the backgrounds of these characters – we’d been them for years, after all – and it’s that sense that gave the crisis meaning, each and every time (at least for us, and for it to affect others it had to affect us first – what followed then was simply the challenge of communicating what we felt. When it works, we and the reader share something, and if there’s one single desire behind writing, it must be that one).

I have to ask - you did work from an outline right - you didn't just wing it and hope for inspiration along the way? If yes, what form did the outline take and how detailed was it?- I have visions of a huge flow chart covering the wall of a fair sized room filled with circles and arrows and notes.
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I had a big chart for Gardens of the Moon, but all it had was chapter listings made up of sections defined by character names, and then a square box that I filled in once the section was done, physically tracking my progress. I had notes in a notepad, and I still do that in a chaotic, confused way. No physical outline, then; just the one in my head, which consisted of big scenes loosely arrayed in a particular order, and from that the driving need to move from one to the next, and to make sure that the ‘filler’ provided as much as was needed to give those big scenes the impact desired. Mostly, what drove and drives me still is the sheer pleasure of writing: the telling of a tale.

In the midst of writing a scene, I would on occasion hit on an image that I would mentally flag, and file away. And I learned to trust in my instincts on when next to riff on that image (or word choice) to create a kind of resonance. This was how I was taught to write short stories, and I extended that across novels, and then across all ten books. Even now, only a few months after the series is done, I look back and am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all in for so long, across so many thousands of pages. I don’t myself understand the creative process well enough to say: this is how it’s done; this is how I remembered everything I needed to remember (besides which, I obviously didn’t remember everything, as inconsistencies did indeed arise from time to, uh time). All I can say now is: I remembered the stuff that was important to me, in the telling of this tale. I did that much, at least. How I did it, I’ll never know.

You created numerous different civilisations and societies for the series and I wondered if you could explain your process in developing them. Were they based on ones from earth's history, did they just spring out of your imagination, was there any specific intent behind some of their characteristics? The Letherai Empire for example with its extreme version of free market social Darwinism and organisations like The Patriotists.

If you can steal but leave no clues, no tracks ... well ... no, it’s not even that. Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society’s relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment). There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency – even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean. To create a fictional culture in fantasy (quick guide), begin with the environment. Plains, boreal forest, mountains, steppes, flood-plain, dry, wet, warm, cold, coastal, mineral rich, fauna poor – the more details you decide on, the tighter the potential characteristics of the resident culture. Next: choose technology level and principal sources of subsistence. These will further shape that culture: farmers, fisher-folk, whalers, raiders, herders – when it comes to food procurement, we’re all rather limited. If, say, it’s a hunting culture, well, it’s not likely to be a populous one, is it, since no wild environment can sustain a large, sedentary population of predators such as people. If it is a herding culture, and you have steppes, well, best expect a mobile boom and bust cycle for that culture (see Mongols) involving rapid, violent expansion followed by fragmentation and assimilation into the more materially established sedentary cultures they may have conquered – a civilisation that can vanish like dust in the wind (Huns). If you want cities you need to work out what feeds its denizens ... outlying farms, mercantile wealth (if in, say, a trading crossroads like Constantinople), harvest from the sea – and in each case you should refer to the technology level. If farming, do the farmers irrigate and if so, where does the water come from? Related to the seasons and weather patterns – is it in fact situated on a cusp of potential disaster should drought strike, or is it relatively stable as with, say, The Nile. For comparison on how the two shape their cultures, do a compare and contrast between ancient Egypt and the Mayans of Central America. Fairly similar in terms of technology – how much did the need to appease capricious sky gods affect the almost psychotic sacrifice frenzy of the Mayans, compared to the sedate, generally passive culture of Egypt?

What other factors might impede that culture in its pursuit of quality of life? Caste, class systems, indenture – who’s pulling the strings and how firm is their grip? The Mayan priests might have felt on top of the world (on top of the pyramids, too) but when the environment collapsed so too did their power base. What forces are at play resisting progress? Religious dogma, social institutions (slavery), indolence? Is there any social mobility? How fares its arts, its centres of learning and philosophy? Is it warrior-based? If magic exists, how does it work and what does it do to shape the culture using it?

All anthropological, I suppose, and geographical too. It’s why I always started with a map, because that told me so much of what I need to know about the resident civilisations. Obviously, the question of the role of magic was a central one that needed answering early on: we chose an egalitarian structure, based on hard work – not gender-based in any way – and from this we posited civilisations that could not impose gender-based hierarchies in terms of access to and exploitation of power. This, as you might imagine, opened things up considerably, which was most pleasing.

I was fascinated by the system(s) of magic you created for this world. A system which seemed based on a person's ability to channel an aspect or characteristic of a particular god or goddess yet wizards weren't necessarily priests and vice-versa. How did you come up with this system and why did you elect to use it.

See above! We wanted something malleable yet mysterious; so instead of devising a single or handful of paths to magic, we created a multitude of paths, and then embodied that theoretical theme in the Warrens (made the metaphor real), which is why when people ask us about the magic system we mostly just shrug. It defines itself. It is exactly what it looks like: multiple paths to magic. For us, that’s all we needed, and we could adjust all we liked for each character using it – potential applications are endless, unconstrained, forever fluid. It became a dynamic system where even the attempted impositions (Deck of Dragons, cults and priest-hoods) had a tendency to slip from the grasp of the users. We’re not into ‘systems.’ We never were. We like things much messier.

Psychologically, we wanted magic to have the effect of napalm descending from the skies to hammer into the ground peasant soldiers. It’s ugly, terrifying, unpredictable.

In the books there are a strata of people who appear to exist on a plane somewhere between the gods and mortals, ascendants. What was the purpose of having this type of hero class of character?

Inspired by two things: on the one hand, this was all Homeric, incorporating the ancient bronze age/iron age proto-Greek sense of the pantheon and its mix of Olympian and chthonic deities, including demigods, Lapiths and forces of chaos – all of them as venal and petty-minded as our regular mortal affairs. On the other hand, we role-played characters in the old ‘powering up’ fashion consistent with all fantasy games. They had to have the potential to achieve something, if they so chose. The interesting is that, in the games, we ended up with so many characters who ultimately chose not to ‘ascend.’ And that was brilliant, and from these individuals came the real story of the world, as we have and are telling it. Because they were just like us.

Was there any particular pantheon of gods in our world which inspired your depiction of gods and their relationship to the mortals who worshipped them? How would you describe that relationship?

The key was giving those gods personalities, not just ‘aspects’ or ‘themes.’ Make them old, yet some older than others, some almost forgotten, others ambitious and young, some remote, others not so remote. As personalities, they were then open to specific relationships with their followers, sometimes benign, sometimes malicious. Many gods in our own world were worshipped to appease, lest vengeance and terror descend. That was not a benign relationship, was it? Its fuel was fear, and the notion of getting direct attention from a god was, for very good reasons, terrifying. By extension, exploring such relationships in fiction can also address how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us, to the vagaries of happenstance, fate and bad luck. Cause and effect is central to our intellect, and for those causes we cannot find, we invent, and so persist in a lifelong dialogue with indifferent nature.

We spend a great deal of time among soldiers and on the battle field during the course of the series and you don't hesitate from describing the action in graphic detail leaving us no doubt as to its grim reality. Yet most of the lead characters, those we come to admire, are soldiers who take part in those battles and I was wondering if there were any message in particular you were trying to deliver because of that, and if so what it was?

All too often in fantasy fiction we’re stuck with the rulers, the leaders, and we see their machinations in a generalised sense of victory and loss, even good and evil. Until Glen Cook, we rarely saw the brutal consequences of all these toffs vying for dominance. When approaching our own novels, we wanted to emulate Cook’s ground-up approach, covering the entire social strata from the lowly street urchin to the gods and everyone in between. History is, as you mentioned, a thing that flows in all directions, and we liked the idea that even though shit always flows down, on occasion some poor bastard is going to rise up from the muck and throw a handful back upward, hopefully straight into the face of one of those toffs. There is always an implicit commentary in medieval-style fantasy, whether the author intends it or not – that has to do with inequality, with purity of blood and nobility of form, with who the heroes are and just how beloved they are when the last battle’s won. For the majority of people, feudal life was misery; yet here we get again and again all these tales about high-born elites – granted, some authors make a point of highlighting just how well-meaning and benign those rulers are. The fact remains, however, that they take as a birthright their right to decide who lives or dies among their subjects.

For myself, I’ve had my fill of those implicit assertions on inequity, and some central threads of the Malazan Book of the Fallen made a point of addressing that.

I have to ask - where did Kruppe come from. He's an absolutely brilliant character and I'd love to see more of him elsewhere. Any hope of that happening?

Character I rolled up, and on spur of the moment elected to make him ... the way he is. I believe he makes a return in Cam’s novel set in Darujhistan.

There were quite a few loose ends left behind with the conclusion of the tenth book and I was wondering if you were considering filling them in, or will that be Ian Esselemont's job with his books set in the Malazn Empire?

Cam will cover some of them, but not all, nor should anyone expect him to. We’re comfortable with threads left dangling. No history is complete and if people are left with questions, well, how like real life is that?

I can't think of a more appropriate note to end this on save to say thank you to Steven Erikson for taking the time to answer my questions. Now when will Ian Cameron Esslement's next book be released?

(Article first published as Interview: Steven Erikson, Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)

March 23, 2011

INHERITANCE - BOOK FOUR OF The Inheritance Cycle, Release Date Announced

Finally, it's just been announced that the long awaited concluding chapter to Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, INHERITANCE will be published in November of 2011. According to a release sent out by Barnes and Noble today, the fourth book in Paolini's young adult fantasy series is scheduled to be released at some point in November of this year, just in time for Christmas shopping.
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For those who have been paying any sort of attention for the past two years, you'll know that I have something of a vested interest in this news as I was commissioned to write a book predicting how Paolini would wrap up the series. What Will Happen In Eragon lV? was published by Ulysses Press in October of 2009 and while those who have read it have given it fairly positive reviews (Those who purchased it thinking they were buying the fourth book were understandably disappointed but I still don't think that gives them the right to give the book one star ratings at Amazon.com - when the only person they have to blame for not paying attention is themselves) sales slowed to a trickle when it became obvious the concluding book wasn't being published any time soon.

Now three years after the release of book three, Brisingr, book four will finally hit the shelves, and hopefully in the interim - there are still seven months to go before Paolini's book comes out folks - people might decide the quickest and easiest way to remind themselves of what went on in the first three books would be to pick up a copy of What Will Happen In Eragon lV? Well I can hope can't I? Hey I've got a wife, three cats, and credit cards to support - I need all the help I cant get here.

Anyway, this is good news for fans of Paolini's books, and good news for Paolini himself. I have to confess I was little worried about him having hit a wall, and so I'm very glad for his sake that he was able to finish the book. I hope that he is satisfied with what he did, and I would also like to say, that no matter what, he should be very proud of his accomplishment. After all he started this project when he was fifteen and has shown the perseverance to stick with it and finish it off even under what must have been considerable pressure. Well done

Oh, for those keeping score - Inheritance wasn't even on my short list for possible titles. That's one wrong - but who knows how many right. You'll have to read both my book and Christopher's to find out.

March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

And in the end we return to where we started. An inconsequential city on the small island which gave its name to an empire spanning continents. The seat of power has long since moved away from Malaz City on the Isle of Malaz, but it was here that an empire was formed, and it was here we first walked into the lives of those who were woven into the fabric of the empire's storied existence. A wine merchant's son standing on the parapet overlooking both the town and the sea, his head filled with dreams of glory and battlefield victories, has a chance encounter with two soldiers. In the town below fires burn and smoke billows as out of control soldiers brutally carry out the orders of their regent to kill all the cities magic users. When a gust of wind carries the smell of burning flesh to their perch the boy innocently opines that a slaughter house has caught fire, mistaking the smell of humans for beasts.

Many years later, another young boy, looking over the empty sea from the end of the same town's pier, lets his dreams of heroic deeds be interrupted by an old man's apparently pointless attempts to catch a fish during the middle of the day. The setting is somewhat more peaceful then before, as there is no riot taking place and the smell of burning blood isn't wafting over the two, but for the old man who had been one of the soldiers on that parapet all those years ago, the conversation must have been eerily familiar. Yet for all that, and all that we know he has been through in the years between the two conversations, he makes no attempt to dissuade the boy when he speaks of leaving the island and becoming a soldier. Instead he merely echoes words spoken years earlier, "Well, the world always needs soldiers".
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In some ways there couldn't be a finer epitaph for Steven Erikson's ten book epic masterpiece, The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. "The world always needs soldiers", for primarily this was the story of soldiers. Brave ones, evil ones, honourable ones, cowards, heroes (intentional and otherwise), but mainly the soldiers who marched in ranks, fought, died, were wounded, survived and went unnoticed by history. For all the intricacies of plots, for all the twists and turns Erikson so successfully navigated in bringing us to his conclusion in, The Crippled God, now available from Random House Canada, like the Malazan Empire itself, the series marched on the backs of its soldier's lives.

For while the gods and other races with powers, including the ability to transform into dragons or change the shape of the world without breaking a sweat, schemed and plotted against each other, it was the mortal soldiers whose footsteps we followed in, and whose boots we stood in on the front lines. Deep into the press of bodies we went, where men and women lost their souls and minds. Swords gouged, shields smashed, blood flowed, piss ran and sweat stank of fear and pain. We learned what it felt like to fight on when there was no way to win and how there was rarely anything worth celebrating when the victories did come. Usually in the latter it meant you had delivered such slaughter as to feel sick. For dead is dead no matter what flag you fought under and in the corpses opposite you can easily see yourself. But for a slip here, or a lunge there your guts could just as easily been spilled on the ground as anybody else's.

After nine books we have learned not to become overly attached to any of the characters we've met on our march around the world. Even those who have lived thousands of years can still succumb to a sword stroke eventually. So as we come down to the penultimate battles for all those who have endured what the world has thrown at them until this point, and already witnessed the deaths of many we've come to know, we can only hope some will survive. Yet given the circumstances, the odds they face and the mauling their armies have already experienced, we, as well as they, know they all could die. Even worse, their lives could have been spent for no reason if even one of the forces set in motion should go awry.

For in this far off corner of the world an ancient race, the Forkrul Assail, have begun their campaign to rid the world of mortals. They call themselves adjudicators, and they have decided humans no longer deserve to live. Since they long ago killed their own god when they found him lacking, they now seek to steal the power of an alien god, The Crippled God of the title, who fell to this planet thousands of years ago. It was to counter this threat former Adjunct to the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Tavore Paran, set out on her seemingly aimless campaign. After the losses suffered by both her and her allies' armies in their last engagement their chances of succeeding, slim to begin with, appear next to impossible. They go to face far superior numbers commanded by beings whose very voices can tear the flesh from human skin. What hope do they have of success?
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Everyone, from the lowliest camp follower to the highest ranking officer in the allied armies know their role is to die so that others might have the chance to live. Most of them know nothing of the other forces at work, within the very fabric of existence itself, who are fighting the same desperate struggle on the other plains of existence. However as they are marching towards what will be their final battles, Erikson takes us from one field of battle to the next. Plots and characters he set in motion in previous books, which at the time seemed to be separate stories of their own, are now revealed to be another front on which this war is being fought. In a brilliant feat of engineering he slides the last little piece into place in each area providing the final links tying them all together. Even more amazingly is how he does it with such ease we are left wondering how we could have missed noticing the connections earlier.

Yet, in spite of the grand sweep of events that he created, the crooked paths the story has sometimes walked down, it has been the characters who have been the glue holding it all together. From the ones we've loved to hate, Kallor the high king, to the ones we've loved; Fiddler, Hedge, Whiskeyjack, Kalam, Quick Ben, Toc the Younger, Onas T'oolan, Kruppe, Crokus, Apsalar, Karsa Orlong, Ganoes and Tavore Paran, the humans, the undead, the gods and even a couple of dogs, they are the ones who gave the series the flavour that made it so special. They were a celebration of all that was good and bad in humanity, proving over and over again how situations can bring the best and worst out in everybody. Now here, at the end of their story, we are given a chance to celebrate all that they were and what they meant to the books.

I realize I've not talked much about what actually happens in The Crippled God, but to do that would give too much away to those who have been eagerly awaiting this concluding volume and mean nothing at all to those unfamiliar with the previous nine books. If you belong to the latter group I envy you still having all ten books to look forward to. For those who are in the former all I can say is you won't be disappointed. It will not only live up to your expectations, it will exceed them. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is an extraordinary work of epic fiction and this final instalment is not only a fitting conclusion to what's come before, it takes the series to an even higher level than you would have thought possible. Fantasy and science fiction are often thought the poor cousins of so called serious novels, but I defy anyone to think that after reading this series.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics.)

January 5, 2011

Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queens Command by Michael A Stackpole

I first started reading historical fiction when I was really young. There were some great British authors who wrote books for young people which were not only historically accurate but brought the eras they were set in wonderfully to life. So I spent a great deal of time travelling through time and and around the world from the Crusades in the 1100s to the French Indian wars in 18 century North America. However as I grew older I discovered that historical fiction for adults didn't quite live up to the same standards as those established by the authors I read as a kid. Far too many of them were really romance novels in fancy dress and I found them lacking in both the quality of information and story telling I had come to expect from the genre.

As a result I pretty much ignored historical fiction for quite some time. Even today I'm still not all that enamoured of the genre, but there is a sub-group of authors who have revitalized the field by using human history as their inspiration instead of a backdrop for their latest costume drama. Historical fantasies are usually set in recognizable times and places given new names and where the circumstances are influenced by the inclusion of fantastical elements. The trick to creating a successful work of this type is to be able to recreate an era so its recognizable to readers without ever spelling it out, while at the same time writing a story that captures our imaginations.

While this may sound fairly straight forward, it takes an author of some skill to be able to pull it off successfully. For as well as having the skills we usually expect of an author in creating characters we are interested in enough to care about and plots that hold our attention, they must be sufficiently well versed in the era they are attempting to emulate to recreate its social structure, styles of speech and all the other elements necessary for it to be believable. With the publication of the first book in his new historical fantasy series, Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queen's Command from Night Shade Books, Michael A Stackpole shows that he's more than up for the challenge.
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The wars that have embroiled two empires, Norisl and Tharyngia, in the Old World are expanding to the New World and threaten all who live in Norillian crown colony of Mystria. Captain Owen Strake, a veteran of the wars on one continent, is sent to the new one to survey the territory and evaluate the strength of the Tharyngian colonial forces. The Norillians hope that a strike against their foe's colony will not only force them to divert resources away from their battles elsewhere, but also deny them access to the trade goods which has been fuelling their economy. For Captain Strake the mission represents a chance for him to secure his financial situation and make a place for himself and his young wife back home. In the rigid class system of Norisl the adopted son of a Duke's youngest brother, his birth father was a Mystrian ship's captain by pirates, lacks the resources and position to either purchase or obtain promotion.

While Strake is well aware of the Norrillian scorn for their colonial subjects, having felt the brunt of it himself because of his father, he is shocked by the level of resentment he finds among Mystrians towards the crown. These feelings are reflected in the treasonous desires for independence expressed by some of those he meets. Accepted by neither the local representatives of Norisl because of his mixed heritage, nor the locals for being a Norrillian, it looks as if Strake might fail in his task before he even starts. Thankfully for his sake, the Colonial Governor-General, the Queen's nephew Prince Vladimir, is far more concerned with the well being of his colony and its occupants than most of his fellow aristocrats and has earned the respect of the Mystrians. So, while he might not have much political influence in the home country, he is able to smooth things over for Strake with the locals.

Aside from their desire for Owen to succeed in his mission, the Prince and he have something else in common. Strake is a Captain in the Queen's Own Wurms, and is used to being around the long flightless dragons whom form a vital part of the Royal Forces, and the Prince is the owner of a magnificent wurm by the name of Mugwump. Mugwump is different from the wurms Strake is used to, he was born from a clutch of eggs discovered in the new world. However, the fact he's as at home with the creature as the Prince establishes a bond between the two which goes a long way to ensuring Strake won't just be taken out into the forests and walked in circles, eaten by the strange beasts who inhabit them or killed by Tharyngian native allies.
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Even before we meet Mugwump, Stackpole lets us know there are sizeable differences between our world and the one inhabited by Owen Strake. For while the soldiers use recognizable weapons, muzzle and breech loading muskets and rifles, they are fired through a mixture of magic and science. Instead of a flint generating a spark and firing gunpowder to propel a ball from a musket, soldiers use a spell to ignite a blasting cap of brimstone. Each time they "cast" the spell they pay a cost in blood, and a person's magical ability is rated according to the number of times he is able to fire his weapon before being forced to stop because of being incapacitated by the bruising the blood loss causes to whichever digit, usually the thumb, they use for that purpose.

As both we and Strake find out, there's more, some of it deadlier, magic awaiting him as he travels into the interior of this untamed new world. Those indigenous to the land (referred to as The Twilight People for their ability to disappear into the woods by settlers, and feared by many because they are different) use magic in ways that Strake has never seen before. However there's is a benign power. What awaits him at the hands of the Tharyngian in charge of their colonial forces is a horror beyond his wildest imaginings. Like his Norrillian counterparts he has mixed science and magic in order to develop a power that could see the Tharyngians not only wrest control of Mystria from Norisl, but change the face of the world.

With At The Queen's Command Stackpole has laid the groundwork for the rest of the series by taking the time to establish the world in which it takes place; introducing us to a variety of multidimensional characters and setting in motion the plots which will dictate the future of both his characters and their world. While that in itself is a difficult task, even more impressive is how he has accomplished it. Sometimes when reading a historical novel there's the feeling of looking backwards in time with everything filtered through a modern sensibility. In this instance though, with everything viewed through the eyes of his characters, not only do we observe their behaviour and dialogue, we are party to their feelings, thought processes and reactions and are thus completely immersed in their world. If Stackpole can sustain this over the balance of the series, The Crown Colonies promises to be a great addition to the historical fantasy genre. As it is, this first book is a great opening salvo full of adventure, magic, intrigue and even a little romance that makes for a highly enjoyable read.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book One: At The Queen's Command by Michael A. Stackpole on Blogcritics.)

January 1, 2011

Book Review: The Year Of The Hare By Arto Paasilinna

How many of you out there have wanted to just say," Oh fuck it" at some point in your life? Slough off all your responsibilities and head for the hills; a partner who makes you so miserable you can't remember why you married them or a once inspiring job has become a cynical task you only keep doing because you need the money. Everywhere you look you see the walls closing in and you're starting to be able to identify with the animals you see pacing from side to side in a zoo's cages. Of course, if you were to take that giant step off the edge you would become a social pariah. The creep who left the loving partner or rejected the well paying job to wander aimlessly picking up piece work like some sort of hobo or bum. Someone who is, in fact, a danger to himself and others because he, or she, are obviously mentally unhinged.

Society can be a harsh judge when you don't play by the rules, but sometimes a body is pushed too far and something happens to trigger snapping the bonds holding them in check. Such is the case in Finnish author Arto Paasilinna's book The Year Of The Hare, published by Penguin Canada. In an almost clinical fashion Paasilinna records one man's odyssey into exile from society and follows him as he gradually travels further and further away from civilization until he crosses over into neighbouring Russia somewhere near the Arctic Circle. However, this is no glib peon to the rights of the individual and the author leaves it to the reader to make his own decisions about his 'hero's' behaviour by assigning us the role of observer.

Vatanen is a journalist made cynical from too many years of reporting scandals and writing about people and issues that don't matter. He can't remember why he married his wife, nor is he quite sure why she married him as she apparently despises him. Returning from assignment with his photographer, their car side swipes a young hare who hadn't been able to get out of the way. Seized by a sudden impulse Vatanen leaves the car to search for the wounded animal in the woods where it hobbled after they hit it. When he doesn't return, and after repeatedly calling him, the photographer takes off and leaves Vatanen. When later guilt over abandoning him, he might have fallen and injured himself, forces the photographer to return to search for his associate, he can't find any sign of either him or the hare.
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Vatanen had found the hare and after carefully tending to it for the night and establishing a bond had taken it to the nearest village to arrange medical care. The more he thought about his life - wife and job - the gloomier he would become, while the more he allowed himself to enjoy his surroundings - the peaceful woods, the friendly villagers and the quiet companionship of the hare - the happier he became. Seemingly without thinking about it he makes arrangements to separate himself from civilization. He sells his boat to a friend to obtain some much needed cash and then proceeds to vanish into the wilderness. However, unlike Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to contemplate society and nature, our friend is not so much interested in philosophy as he is in escape.

In fact, Paasilinna paints an almost negative picture of Vatanen at times. Hired on to help fight the biggest forest fire in Finnish history he comes across a man who has been forced to flee from the flames with his still. He then proceed to enjoy the results of his new acquaintance's labours. When the fire threatens to consume the two men they swim out into a lake and wait for it to burn out around them. While I suppose one could make the case for this being an analogy for selfishness - self-gratification while the world literally burns around you - in the context of the story its merely just another adventure among the many he experiences in his wandering. Anyway, his willingness to go to almost any lengths to protect the hare belie charges that he's only interested in himself. It's more when an opportunity presents itself he's seizing it with both hands no matter how strange it might seem to observers.

He's at his most content though when it's just him and the hare. He takes jobs which allow him to retreat further and further from society. Yet no matter how remote a location he manages to find, intrusions are inevitable. Hired to renovate a shelter for the herdsmen who look after reindeer in the north he and the hare find some moments of respite until a government official decides it is an ideal location to bring foreign dignitaries to observe the Finnish army perform winter manoeuvres. When the intruders insist upon trying to hunt a bear hibernating in the vicinity it sets off a series of absurd events which results in the cabin being burnt to the ground and the entire party being evacuated, nearly naked, by helicopter. When Vatanen is finally able to return to finish the job he started, he and the hare are forced to contend with the irate bear and are lucky to escape unscathed. Unable to lash out at those responsible, he and the hare decide to hunt down the bear who leads them on a merry chase across the Finnish Russian border where he is held on suspicion of spying.
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It's here that Paasilinna is at his most satirical. For the Finns send a extradition request to the Russians detailing the list of crimes Vatanen is wanted for in his native country which is almost as farcical as it is lengthy. Reading between the lines of the list of meaningless crimes what he's really being accused of is shirking his responsibilities as a member of a well ordered society and generally not behaving in a acceptable manner. It's one thing if life's circumstances force you to live on the margins, it's another all together if you decide to do so voluntarily. Anybody who rejects the holy trinity of family, work and societal obligations is obviously a threat and needs to be separated from the general public - you wouldn't want anybody getting ideas now would you.

What makes The Year Of The Hare so compelling is how Paasilinna makes no effort to glorify any of Vatanen's actions or offer any justifications for what he does. Yet even his seemingly irrational decisions couldn't be construed by anyone but the most anal as dangerous or even mean spirited. At times he's forced into situations by the idiocy of those around him, but because he's considered "abnormal", even those who threaten him with violence are considered to be acting within the bounds of normalcy. While our society claims to cherish the rights of the individual, this book makes it obvious how narrow our definition of that word really is. If you stray too far outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour you will be either shunned as a pariah, treated as a criminal or be considered mentally unstable, if not all three at once.

With his almost casual writing style Paasilinna is able to make his point without ever preaching or being obvious about what he is doing. As the book progresses he gradually builds his case and we slowly become aware of the weight of societal disapproval lurking in the background like some malevolent presence waiting to pounce. By not setting Vatanen up as some heroic figure in search of inner meaning or on a quest for the truth, Paasilinna has created a character readers can identify with at least some of the time. Sure he's flawed, but who isn't? All he wants is to be left alone to live a peaceful co-existence with his new friend, is that such a bad thing? Read the book and see what you think, you might just find yourself wishing for a hare to enter your life in the near future.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Year Of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Book Review: Stonewielder Ian C. Esslemont

Humans have been making up stories about heroes and gods since before we even had a written language. They not only served as the means to explain the world around us, the adventures described were used by each society as benchmarks against which people could judge their own behaviour. Heroes gave us characteristics we could aspire to emulate while the foibles of the gods served as object lessons with regards to having to deal with the consequences of our actions. In a kind of inverted social structure the mortal heroes of most epic tales were usually paragons of moral virtue while the gods and goddesses were subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

The most drastic change that has occurred in story telling down through the years has been the devolution of their protagonists from figures of noble birth, who either suffered from some moral weakness causing their downfall and were defined as tragic or were examples to be emulated, to being men and women much the same as those reading about them. There is nothing cut and dried about the anti-hero of modern fiction. Neither completely good nor evil, he and she muddle their way through life doing the best they can. While in some ways this makes for more interesting reading, as audiences identify with these figures more readily than any paragons of virtue or nobly flawed individuals, how do these "regular folk" hold up when placed in epic situations? Is it indeed possible to have proper epic fiction without the epic heroes to go with them?

While there have been any number of science fiction and fantasy works written which have attempted to fill the void of the great heroic tales of the past, there have been precious few which have been able to give answer to that question while retaining the qualities that made the originals so riveting. By no means have I read every epic fantasy series published in the last century, but to my mind there has only been one fictional world created which matches up favourably without an epic hero to carry the load. Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have combined forces over the last decade or so to bring to life the world populated by the Malazan Empire and a multitude of other civilizations, gods, ancient beings, demons, and assorted other types. While the gods and goddesses continue the tradition of their Greek and Roman predecessors with their all too human behaviour, those mortals populating the tales aren't liable to be confused with either Ulysses or Rama anytime soon.
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While Erikson's tenth and final instalment in the series will be published in February, the recently published Stonewielder, from Random House Canada, represents only Esslemont's third entry. (Won't be released in the US until May 2011) Like all massive empires, the Malazans have been fighting wars on many fronts; at home and abroad and on the human plane of existence and alternate realities as well. So while Erikson has been concentrating on reporting from one half of the battle, Esslemont has been going back over the history of the Empire to help show how it arrived at the point its at now and reporting back on action that have only been vague rumours before.

Such is the case with this title as he picks up the story of the characters he was following in his previous title, The Return Of The Crimson Guard. At times throughout the telling of the story of the Malazan Empire we've heard of the continent of Korel; the mysterious Storm Riders who assail it and the Stormwall that guards against them and the failed efforts of the Malazan Empire to subdue them completely. Stonewielder is the name given the disgraced ex-Malazan military commander, Greymane, who led the first invasion and was introduced in Return of the Crimson Guard, by the indigenous people of Korel because of a gift he received from the Storm Riders. The gift, a great stone sword, as well as the fact he met and talked with the Storm Riders, are the reasons Greymane is considered a traitor by both the Korelians and the Malazan Empire. The former because he treated with their ancient enemies, and the latter, because after the meeting Greymane inexplicably resigned his commission and deserted. Now Greymane is given the chance to redeem himself and is named to head the new invasion force being put together by the Empire.

However, this is no mere recounting of an invasion, nor is it the story of one person's quest. For while Greymane and his young companion Kyle, who also is the owner of a sword blessed with the powers of an unusual being, have their roles to play in the events that unfold, Esslemont is working with a much broader canvas. Not only does he offer us multiple perspectives of the Malazan invasion by letting us see it through the eyes of characters as diverse as a new recruit in the army, the High Mage for the invasion and one of Greymane's senior officers, but does the same for the forces arrayed against them. Korel is an archipelago comprised of various island nations who are united by two things; their need for the protection provided by the Stormwall and their worship of a single deity know as The Lady.

The two we learn are directly intertwined as it was The Lady who gifted settlers with the power to build the wall. All she asked in exchange was they worship no one but her and eradicate any and all other existing beliefs they found in the region. While this seemed like a good deal at the time to those few attempting to fend off the Storm Riders, and who cared about the beliefs of the savages who lived there already, in the present not everybody is as convinced of its benefits. For The Chosen, those who lead the defence of the Stonewall, there are no doubts. Every winter they force thousands of prisoners to stand chained to the wall and face both the elements and the Riders. The Lady has given them the power to protect their people, and they see nothing wrong with doing whatever is necessary to carry their mission out in her name.

However, the further inland one travels things aren't so cut and dried. While the ruling class have no trouble maintaining the status quo, dissatisfaction has grown among the peasant farmers and the poor in the cities to the point where an army of rebellion has been raised. In the past attempts at rebellion have been quashed with ease, but this time looks to be different as they are not only better organized militarily, they have allied themselves with the powers of the indigenous people who predate The Lady. For while The Lady has been able to quash most conventional wielders of magic, they seem to be able to operate under her radar and provide some magical assistance to the rebellion.

Things aren't any better away from the battle fronts for the establishment, as a magistrate's investigation into decades of mysterious deaths among the young people of his city offers proof of something vile at the heart of the belief in The Lady. With fissures starting to appear in their power base, the church begins to crack down even harder on any dissent. Playing on people's fears of the Malazan invasion they incite mob violence against anyone who might bring The Lady's "disfavour" down on Korel. Without The Lady we are doomed, so in these times of trouble we must crack down even harder on those who would preach anything but absolute devotion to Her.

Esslemont deftly guides us through multiple settings, plot lines and characters as he carefully fills in the details of his immense canvas. Whether we're standing the Wall with The Chosen, riding the waves with the Malazans, marching with the rebel army or skulking in the back streets of the cities, we learn both a little bit more about our location and have the plot advanced a little further. What's more, the characters he has chosen to be our guides at each stop along the way become more and more real to us and in the process help give a deeper understanding of the world they move in.

What's most amazing about Stonewielder is the way in which Esslemont takes the epic sweep of history and is able to reduce it down to a human level. The manipulations of gods and goddesses are like ripples whose effects touch both the humblest of foot soldiers and the leaders of countries equally. We not only read about the great events that are the result of a deity's actions, but live through them with each of the characters in this book. Where epic tales in the past would recount the heroic deeds of those involved, here people slog through mud, scavenge for food and water, fight to survive and express their doubts about their so-called destinies.

Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, this makes them all the more heroic and all the less savoury depending on how they react to their circumstances. It's just as easy for a man or woman to choose to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. In creating his characters Esslemont has been very careful to make sure its those choices that define them. Few of the people we spend any real time with are so one dimensional that you'll be able to say he is evil or she is good, instead its only through what they do that we truly know them.

Stonewielder is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an immensely satisfying one. For not only is it as exciting an adventure story filled with great battle scenes and descriptions of combat unlike any you'll read elsewhere, the sea battles alone make it worth reading, there's also an intimacy you'll not often find in a story of this type. It is epic fiction at its finest, yet proof positive that you don't need the heroes of yore for a story of this scope to hold a reader's attention. In fact I'd say it is just the opposite. For once you start reading you aren't going to want to stop - and you might just find yourself staying up half the night finishing what you've started.

(Article first published as Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.)

November 15, 2010

Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie

Stories exist on levels most of us aren't even aware of. We pick up a book, read the words written by an author, and usually we've forgotten what we've read by the time we pick up the next book, A whole world that somebody has striven to create obliterated by our need to move on to what comes next, to our search for distraction and our need to be entertained. However, stories are what define people, give meaning to their lives and explain the world around them. In our culture we have The Bible, and while some might not like to hear it defined in this manner, the stories contained in its pages shape the way most of us think, and have been the motivation behind the majority of decisions that have shaped our world.

What happens to one of those worlds created by an author after we've moved on to something else? In the case of stories like those recounted in The Bible, or other holy books still being followed, there's no question the people and events talked about are still real to those who believe in them. But what about those Gods and Goddesses who are no longer actively worshipped? What about other worlds created and populated by authors throughout the ages? Do they cease to exist when we no longer read about them, or is there some alternate reality in which those people brought to life continue leading the lives we dropped in on for the brief moments allowed us by the author's imagination? Does the storyteller's power extend beyond the boundaries of our attention span?

In his newest novel, Luka And The Fire Of Life published by Random House Canada, Salman Rushdie manages to not only create a fantastical world and a great adventure for his young hero to explore and experience, he gives us an intriguing look at the relationships between stories, their listeners and the way the two come together to shape the world around them. While it contains most of the elements we've come to expect from a tale involving a hero's quest, its the twist and turns he throws in for him to navigate that makes this one special
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Luka is the youngest son of the renowned storyteller Rashid Khalifa, known to some as the Shah of Blah for his love of talking. From the very first he was an amazing child - he amazed his parents with his birth as he came so late in their lives; eighteen years after his older brother Haroun. Young Luka soon showed that he was going to be different from other children. Maybe it was the fact that he was left handed that gave him a different perspective on the world - having to struggle with doorknobs that were apparently backwards can have an odd impact on you. Perhaps it was because he grew up the son of a storyteller hearing about the wonderful alternative reality known as Magic World, but he spent a great deal of time imaging different worlds - including his personal favourite where everything worked counter-clockwise to suit his left handed abilities.

Luka's two closest companions were his two pets, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing Bear. One day a particularly nasty circus, known as the Great Rings of Fire for its "Famous Incredible Fire Illusion", had come to town. It was one of those which relied on abusing animals to make them perform for an audience's pleasure. Luka and his father had been in town when the circus had paraded through and the young lad had been so distraught by the sight of the poor animals he shouted at the circus owner "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire burn up your stupid tent". Much to the audience's amazement at the first performance in town all the animals stood up to the ringmaster and refused to obey his commands. When later that same night, after everybody was asleep, the circus's big tent burnt to the ground people began to wonder at the power of Luka's words. While all the other animals escaped into the wilderness, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing bear showed up at Luka's door and made their gratitude known by becoming his boon companions.

While Luka was thus reasonably content, he still yearned for the chance to have a great adventure and dreamed of alternate realities where they might take place. It should therefore not surprise anyone that he spent quite a bit of time playing computer role playing games where he could send himself on adventures into an incredible variety of words. It turned out it was good thing he had taken the time to prepare himself, because he was soon faced with having a very real adventure of his own. A day came when Rashid said his legs felt heavy, then his arms and finally his body. Eventually he fell asleep and couldn't be woken. It soon became apparent that this was no natural sleep, and Luka discovered that it was caused by the evil circus ringmaster seeking revenge for making him look foolish. Thankfully he also discovers the means of reviving his father. All he'll have to do is travel to the World of Magic and steal the Fire of Life and somehow return home with it for his father.
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The world Luka and his faithful companions enter in their attempt to save his father turns out to be strangely familiar. He soon recognizes landmarks and countries that have all appeared in his father's stories, yet at the same time there are elements that reflect his own experiences. For, every time he manages to accomplish a task he is rewarded with the gift of extra "lives" to spend, much like one would gain by accumulating points in a video game (A running tally of his lives magically appears as a number in the upper left hand corner of his vision). He is also given the opportunity to save his progress through the world so he won't have to go all the way back to beginning if he should lose one of his lives. At the same time, while some of the characters he meets on the way are those he's heard his father describe, a number of them are based on people from his own life and share many of their characteristics.

What Rushdie has done with his story of Luka's adventures is not only create a rather whimsical adventure quest that audiences of all ages can enjoy, he's also offered a somewhat wry commentary on the whole idea of stories and how they influence us. At first Luka is content to merely follow the path laid out by his father's stories in his attempt to transverse the various strange lands and creatures he encounters. However he soon realizes he'll not succeed unless he starts exerting his own will on events and search for his own path to success.

We all have our own lives to lead, and what Rushdie has very gently pointed out in his book is while we might look upon other's accomplishments with envy and admiration, it's only by striking out on our path that we will realize our full potential. For while the stories that have come before us will definitely influence us, and have shaped the world around us, we are all given unique characteristics which allow us to write our own story. With humour and intelligence Rushdie's book shows just how important our choices are and the importance of exerting our influence on the world around us. You don't have to blindly follow in anyone's footsteps, in fact you'll be far better off if you don't, and while those trapped in stories might be fated to repeat the same meaningless actions over and over again, there's no reason for an individual to do so.

Our world, or more specifically our cultures and our societies, have been shaped by the stories we have told ourselves for thousands of years. Everything from how we behave to who and what we worship and believe are based on we've been told and re-told hundreds if not thousands of time before. While they all serve the valuable purpose of providing frameworks within which people can carry out there lives, there is also plenty of room within all of them for individuals to create their own stories based on their hopes, dreams and experiences. Luka And The Fire Of Life not only is a wonderful read for the diversity of its characters and the fantastical worlds it takes us to, but for the way in which it reminds us not to ignore what each of us has to bring to the world and the power we have to shape events. Just because a story has been told a thousand times before doesn't mean it can't have a different ending every so often.

(Article first published as Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2010

Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer

Once upon a time we were all very young. We used to be able to escape into magical worlds occupied by daring princes who would overcome huge odds to rescue beautiful princesses and ugly trolls and witches who would grind our bones to flour for their bread as soon as look at us. Forests were primordial places filled with dangerous wolves set on eating our grandparents, brave dwarves who protected beautiful virgins from evil step-mothers. and mysterious animals who could grant wishes both perilous and glorious. A person could obtain riches instantly and have all their dreams come true or find that no matter how wealthy they became happiness continued to escape them. It was a simple world of good against evil where the righteous always triumphed and villainy was always be vanquished in the end.

Unfortunately as we grew older the real world of half-truths, shades of grey that clouded moral issues, and winners who weren't always the good guy asserted itself. We lost our belief in fairy god-mothers who could wave a magic wand and make things better and discovered there wasn't a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of every rainbow. The witches that lurked in the heart of the forest sending delightful chills up our spine turned into the anxiety of the job interview that has to go well and worries about the price of food. In the face of such pragmatic considerations what place is there in our lives for magic? We no longer dream of fairies or dragons, instead we dream of new cars and houses in a safe neighbourhood. While we still might divide the world into good and evil we do so to justify our actions instead of as a impartial judgement of behaviour.
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However, somewhere inside of each us still lurks the heart that was stirred by tales of magic and a part of each of us, no matter how small it might be, still yearns to be dazzled by fairy lights. When we turn on the television, go to the movies, theatre, ballet and opera, or pick up a book, some small piece of us is remembering the thrill we felt as we followed a hero down a dark path in a forest and are hoping for that spirit to be recaptured. Too often we come away disappointed for one reason or another as there are too few stories out there that can capture our imaginations in quite the way the tales of our youth did. When one does come along we latch onto it like a life preserver and it sells in the millions. How else can you explain the phenomenal success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the ongoing fascination with J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings?

Understanding our need for magic, and trying to fulfill it, has been the focus of Kate Bernheimer's literary career. As well as founding the Fairy Tale Review, a literary magazine devoted to modern fairy tales, she has edited anthologies devoted to the retelling of fairy tales, lectured on their validity as literature and done everything in her power to keep them alive. Her latest attempt to help us remember that imaginations are a treasure, My Mother She Killed Me ; My Father He Ate Me, published by Penguin Canada, gathers together stories and authors from around the globe. Each author, whether from Vietnam, Russia, England, Japan, United States and elsewhere was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale or myth that inspired them.

While each of the stories are fascinating in some ways the paragraphs the authors wrote explaining why they had chosen a particular story, or perhaps, why that story had chosen them, are equally insightful. I was amazed at how many of them admitted the story they had chosen in some way impacted all their work, not just this piece specifically commissioned for the book. Think about that for a second - these people of all ages and backgrounds, have carried around one story in their hearts and it has fed their creativity since they were children. If that isn't enough right there to convince you magic still exists in the world nothing will.

The more then thirty stories gathered together between the covers of this book aren't filled with the characters you remember from the fairy tales of your childhood. Some of them may have the occasional king or princess in them, but the majority are about mother's and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters and other characters we're all familiar with from our everyday life. Occasionally a mysterious figure like a mermaid will poke her tail fin into the narrative or we'll venture into a realm that bears little resemblance to the street we walk down on our way to work, but most of the time we're surrounded by the everyday. So what makes them fairy tales if there is no princess in the tower waiting to be rescued or pile of gold waiting to be found?
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Fairy tales brought magic into our lives in all its obvious guises. A good number of the stories in My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me find the elements of fairy tales being played out around us. The child who imagines a mysterious stranger who has a wonderful surprise for her to escape from her fear of disappointing her mother's obsession with cost and status; the middle aged mother and wife who feels unappreciated by her husband and daughter only to find out, magically, how much they love her; the husband and wife who drift apart but then discover their true love for each other before its too late and the insecure lovers who allow their anxieties to ruin their relationship but ultimately discover themselves as individuals and renew their chance at love. There's a type of magic that permeates each of these stories; the magic of being alive that so many of us have forgotten about or have never learned to recognize or acknowledge.

As children fairy tales stirred our imaginations and let us travel beyond the boundaries of the known world. However as our world began to grow around us we began to lose sight of them until we no longer believed. Collections like My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me allow us to realize they haven't disappeared, we just no longer recognize magic when we see it. We don't have to mount white chargers or slay dragons to combat evil or break spells to woo our prince or princess anymore, but there's no denying the magic in discovering love or righting a wrong no matter how trivial. Pots of gold may not glitter the way they did when we were younger, but there are still rewards beyond our imagining awaiting us out in the world - we only have to open our eyes to see them.

(Article first published as Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer on Blogcritics.)

September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Truth Of Valour by Tanya Huff

Science fiction, for a genre that prides itself on imagination and imagining exciting possibilities in the future, used to be home to some of the most reactionary and conservative writers around. While there were some wonderful exceptions (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and a few others) a great many of what was written could just as easily be classified as "Boys With Toys" as anything else. By toys I mean everything from rockets and big weapons to women in either tight fitting or very little clothing. The story lines were, more often then not, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic - characteristics of human behaviour I would have thought most would have hoped were eliminated from future, more enlightened cultures.

Thankfully the genre started to mature around the end of the 1960s and the first anti-war science fiction novel was published in 1972 (Joe Haldeman's Forever War). However, aside his work there really hasn't been much written in the sub-genre known as military science fiction that has appealed to me. That changed a while back when one of my favourite fantasy writers, Tanya Huff, wrote her first book in what has now become known as the Confederation series. While she's probably best known for her books about a vampire private detective (they formed the basis for the series Blood Ties) I had known her as the writer of some really great fantasy books, as well a former employee of the best Science Fiction/Fantasy bookstore in Toronto Ontario - Bakka Books, that were the antithesis of those early "Boys With Toys" books as you could get. While they still contained violence, the lead character was as likely to be female as male, sexual orientation among her characters was very flexible, and characters usually came in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
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So I've followed Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through four books as she's travelled through space fighting alongside two other sentient species against a mysterious enemy known only as "The Others". However, in the last book, she had discovered that both sides had been manipulated by another race of beings who had been using them and the war as a huge "social experiment", and had prolonged the war in order to gather as much information about their peoples as possible. That revelation had a two-fold result, not only bringing the war to a somewhat screeching halt, but forcing Torin to reconsider her career choices. Having fallen in love with the civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, leaving the Marines wouldn't have to mean leaving space, it just meant operating in it without weapons or having as many resources or technology to call upon in case of trouble.

And trouble is just what she and Craig find in the fifth book of the series, The Truth Of Valor published by Penguin Canada. For while the authorities have been busily involved with a war, salvage operators have been dealing with their own troubles, pirates stealing their hard earned cargo. Up until now there haven't been any fatalities, mainly because most salvage ships are unarmed (weapons are illegal for anything but military vessels), but also because most operators value their lives more than cargo. However that all changes when two friends of Craig's are found dead, having tried to fight off a pirate in order to protect their find. It turns out that what they had was not only valuable, but deadly - deadly enough to shift the balance of power in space. They had picked up a fully loaded Marine armoury that had survived a space battle intact; an armoury containing enough weapons to arm a small army and allow pirates to go beyond hijacking cargo and begin taking over space stations.

However the pirates need a salvage operator to help them crack the codes securing the armoury, and although its been said that space is big, its not that big. Especially when you accidently get into a poker game with members of the pirate crew who proceed to set you up by "selling" you information about some prime salvage so they can ambush you. While the pirates carry out their ambush of Craig and Torin perfectly, capturing Craig alive and mainly intact, they make the mistake of thinking they've left Torin to die. Probably the one person most pissed off at the universe for fucking with her enough to figure out a way of surviving when she's been left to float in a debris field and eventually suffocate when her oxygen supply runs out.

When she fails to get help from Craig's fellow salvage operators to mount a rescue mission, she calls upon a few of her former squad mates who have not only also survived, but retired from the Marines for the same reasons she has. Unable to go after the enemy they really want to, the alien race which kept them all fighting for no reason, they are more than happy to join her in kicking another being's deserving butt, especially to help out their old Gunnery Sergeant who had helped see them through some pretty horrendous times.
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Huff has done her usual skilful job of writing an exciting adventure story which never descends into cliche or the expected. As those of you familiar with the previous books in the serious know, Torin Kerr operates by a pretty simple code - don't fuck with me and mine and I won't fuck with you. When she was in the Marines her job was to try and make sure she brought all of her people home alive with her and she took every loss personally. So with the man she loves at risk, she's pretty much prepared to do or risk anything and everything to bring him back alive. However she's not a robot, and having only recently discovered that so many of those lives she wasn't able to protect had died for nothing, the threat of losing Ryder pushes her close to cracking.

Military training has given her not only the ability to survive situations most people couldn't even imagine being in, but also the skills to kill people in ways you wouldn't think possible. Unfortunately there's only so much human circuitry can take before it starts shorting out, and the rescue mission fast becomes a race against time; how long will the pirates keep Craig Ryder alive and how long can Torin hold it together.

That doesn't mean she's going to all of a sudden sit in a corner and start crying, it means she'll cross the line between caring about the consequences of her actions and not giving a damn who suffers as a result. She may have killed before as a Marine, but it had only been a case of kill or be killed against an enemy who was following the same modus operandi. However she's not in the military any longer and there are what's known as innocent bystanders involved in her current mission, a mission without any official sanctioning and maybe just as illegal as the pirates' actions.

Through both Torin and one of the pirates who captures Ryder, Huff has painted a very stark picture of what can happen to the human mind when it witnesses too much suffering. The thin veneer of civilization that provides us our moral compass and makes sure we follow the rules of our respective societies can only take so many poundings before serious cracks form. The Truth Of Valor does a remarkable job of depicting both the results of these cracks and how they form. Torin Kerr was an exemplary Marine and a compassionate human being, but even she has her limits, and watching her fight her internal battle not to give into the urge to cross the line between not caring and caring is one of the most exacting battles ever written about in Science Fiction.

On the surface the battle in this book may appear to be a pretty straight forward one between some good guys and some bad guys. However Huff not only starts blurring the lines by sending us on board the pirate ship with Ryder and allowing us to get to know the beings crewing it, but she also takes us into the battlefield that is the human mind. Probably the scariest battlefield in the universe. While The Truth Of Valor might share some elements in common with the old school military science fiction books, you'll soon realize that Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, its a good book period.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2010

Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar

Now a days you can't open the the TV listings, entertainment pages or go into a book store without coming across a reference to either werewolves or vampires. However, unlike the good old days when they were considered straight ahead creatures of evil who would as soon rip out your throat or drink your blood as look at you, they've been turned into tragic romantic heroes (or heroines) becoming the favoured subject matter of something called paranormal romance - enough to make Bram Stoker rise from the dead and drive a stake in anybody's heart. I can only guess this latest twist on the bad boy theme - kind of makes you miss the love and leave him cad or even the brooding dark haired guy with the mysterious past of the old days - will continue to rake in millions for publishers across North America as the way the number of titles falling into this category continue to proliferate suggests the public's appetite for this schlock isn't going to wane anytime soon.

Unfortunately with the market being swamped with dreck interesting titles run the risk of being lost in the shuffle. One of the best of the lot was Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl. In it we were introduced to Kalix, a teenage werewolf who not only suffered from anxiety but was also saddled with an eating disorder and a nasty addiction to the opium derivative laudanum. The youngest daughter of the ruling clan of Scottish werewolves, Kalix was forced into exile in London for savaging her brutal father, the Thane. His death set off a brutal war of succession which split the clan in half and literally set brother against brother. Although Kalix really couldn't have cared less who became the new thane, she, the humans she befriended (Moonglow and Daniel) and their friend Vex, a fire elemental from another dimension, were all caught up in the resulting battle and barely survived.
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Along with her fashion designing sister Thrix, punk rock cousins Beauty and Delicious, Vex's adopted aunt Queen Malvaria and other assorted members of the werewolf clan, Kalix now returns in Millar's latest book Curse Of The Wolf Girl published in North America by Underland Press. With her brother Marcus enthroned as new Thane of the clan there are hopes that things can return to normal for everybody. While for most of them that means returning to the business of living peacefully in their private estates in Scotland, Kalix and a few others are firmly settled in London and have no desire to return home. As a result of her misspent early years Kalix didn't have the educational opportunities others in the clan were given and has reached the age of seventeen a functional illiterate. So, when the book opens we find her and Vex preparing to begin their first days at remedial collage where they will join with others hoping to learn basic literacy and math skills.

Unfortunately there are those unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie (or werewolves either for that matter). Underneath the calm exterior there is simmering resentment among some of those who backed Marcus's brother Sarapen as Thane and who wish to seek revenge of Kalix for having killed him in the final battle. Even while they plot to try and hunt her down, the guild of werewolf hunters have been quietly rebuilding their depleted ranks (they suffered horrible losses during the war of succession when they got in the crossfire so to speak) with dedicated hunters from Eastern Europe wishing to capitalize on the free market. They are hopeful that the combination of new members and modern surveillance technology will give them enough of an advantage they'll be able to exact revenge for their previous losses. Finally, a Princess of a rival fire elemental dimension who has long been jealous of Queen Malvaria's fashion triumphs because of her friendship with the werewolf designer Thrix, forms a secret alliance with a traitor in her rival's court that could not only see Malvaria overthrown, but the death of a great many werewolves.

What separated Millar's first book from so many other "werewolf" books, was how easy it was for the reader to take for granted his characters were werewolves. Sure Kalix was a ferocious warrior who had no qualms about ripping the throat out of any werewolf hunter or enemy werewolf she encountered, (she was born during a full moon as a werewolf and is able to change whether the moon is shining or not and has a battle madness that gives her a strength and speed far surpassing beings twice her size) but she's also a scared and confused teenager who was badly scarred by an abusive father. In Curse Of The Wolf Girl the characters continue to be interesting not only because of what they are, but who they are, and Martin has taken great care to continue their development in a very real way. In fact once you're able to suspend your disbelief about werewolves, fairies and elementals existing, everything about them and the world surrounding them is so believable you'll have no problem accepting their reality.
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It doesn't hurt that Millar has a wonderful sense of the absurd that injects necessary doses of humour into the proceedings. The fashion industry bears the brunt of most of his comedy - for all the right reasons - through Queen Malvaria's obsessions with clothes and accessories, especially handbags and shoes. However, he also turns his sharp eye on popular music, comics, and a variety of other popular culture affectations. Yet, unlike others, there's nothing mean or nasty about Millar's humour. Its the type of affectionate teasing you'd expect from someone who admires something but whose also well aware of the ridiculous lengths people will go to when something becomes an obsession - from collecting comics to yearning for the perfect shade of lipstick.

If you're not used to Millar's style of writing, short chapters that switch back and forth between his various characters and plot lines, you might find it a little difficult to settle into the rhythm of the story at first. However, once you are accustomed to how he works you'll soon begin to appreciate it for the ease with which it allows you to assimilate the information necessary for following the various plot lines and keeping all the characters, and how they relate to each other, straight in your head. Bouncing between the mortal realm, two separate fire elemental kingdoms, the world of the fairies and the home of the Scottish werewolves while keeping track of a multitude of characters is no easy task, but Millar has done it with an ease that borders on magical. (Perhaps he had some assistance from some of his friends from the other dimensions who appear on these pages - his familiarity with what goes on in some of them seems a little too complete for him not to have made the occasional visit there) While you'll have an easier time of it if you've already read The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own.

In Curse Of The Wolf Girl Martin Millar once again proves that he's one of the more innovative and interesting fantasy writers around. He tackles subject matter that has been worked to death recently and makes it seem brand new. While his writing isn't going to appeal to the paranormal romance crowd, and for that we should all be eternally grateful, for the rest of us its a breath of fresh air in a genre that's become increasingly stale. If we're really lucky Kalix and her friends might supplant a certain whinny teenager and her un-dead heart throbs on movie screens. However, even if that doesn't occur at least you know you can run to the books for safety, and Millar has left open the potential for a third. If you like your humour with a bite and your paranormal grounded in reality, than look no further, Martin Millar's books are just what you've been looking for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

July 21, 2010

Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott

I'm not a fan of horror books, or movies for that manner, along the lines of those written by Steven King. I've never understood how anyone can enjoy having the shit scared out of them or can find blood and gore being splattered all over the screen anything but repulsive. In fact, of the books along those lines that I've attempted to read I've found them to be dangerously perverse, close to pornographic, in the way the authors seem to revel in delving into the potential for sick and twisted behaviour among human beings. There's far more exploitation, instead of exploration, of human psychological deformities in those I've read to give them any redeeming qualities in my eyes.

There's enough genuine horror in the world we live in that I don't need to read the inventions of anyone who takes pleasure in recreating them. According to the best seller lists I realize this reaction puts me in the minority as there seems to be a huge market for these exploitation thrillers. Thankfully that doesn't there's nothing in the genre that's not worth reading and there aren't some gems waiting to be uncovered amidst the dross if you dig around carefully enough. One of those is Rob Scott's 15 Miles being published by Orion Books on August 19th/10.

With its title taken from the old nursery rhyme of the same name; (From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles/From Wibleton to Wobbleton/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles) a plot mixing together elements of police procedurals and thrillers with a dash of the supernatural and macabre thrown in for good measure, on the surface it appears no different from any other book in the genre. However, Scott takes the story to another level in the way he's able to take a set of circumstances that is almost a cliché; an isolated farm house in Virginia complete with two corpses in various stages of decomposition, feral domestic cats, mysteriously dead live stock, and a missing person; and turn them into a means of exploring the effects of deep seated guilt on an individual.
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Officer Samuel "Sailor" Doyle of the Virginia State Police had been desperate for a transfer from the Vice squad to Homicide. Like so many other officers before him exposure to the types of crime you deal with in Vice, child pornography for instance, has had its effect on him. Unfortunately in his case that includes a serious addiction to OxyContin and a heavy dependance on alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the job. With a loving wife and two young kids at home he knows something has to change or he risks ruining the one good thing in his life. However, taking a mistress at the annual CID Christmas party isn't what the doctor ordered, even if she is interning with the MD who serves as the department's crime scene specialist. So when the switch to Homicide comes through he convinces himself it's the first step on his road to recovery.

However just how much further he has to travel down that particular road comes home to him with a resounding thud when the July 4th weekend and a visit from a Presidential hopeful leave the Virginia State Police stretched thin and Doyle has to head up the investigation surrounding two bodies found on an derelict farm. It's his first time flying solo and he's terrified of making the wrong decision, mis-reading the evidence or just fucking up in general. So he's reaching for the OcyContin before he's even on site in the hopes it will give him the confidence he lacks. I'll leave it to your imagination to picture the scene he finds based on what I described in an earlier paragraph, only adding that once he manages to look beyond the rubble he uncovers a secret that might well explain how it came about.

Further complicating matters for Doyle is he begins to suffer from a series of audio hallucinations which take the form of messages from his sister who died years ago. What makes them doubly disconcerting is not only the fact that he's hearing them, but they can happen in the middle of a conversation and they sound like they're coming from the person talking to him. As we move deeper into the novel the story line involving Doyle's sister becomes increasingly important to our understanding of his character and how he's ended up in his current situation. Even more importantly is how Scott utilizes this plot line as the link between the supernatural and the rational. The memory and unconscious mind can play amazing tricks upon individuals, especially when stress, drugs, alcohol and guilt are mixed together in as lethal a cocktail as they are in Doyle. However, as it's only as Doyle starts to remember what happened that this becomes clear, there's plenty of time for his horror and fear over the voices to build to near his breaking point.
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In the midst of all that's happening in his mind, Doyle is also doing his best to solve the mystery surrounding the two dead bodies in the farm house and the absence of their developmentally challenged adult daughter. Scott does an amazing job of not only balancing the plot lines of Doyle's personal life and the case he's investigating, but in establishing how the two become irrevocably linked in his main character's mind. Doyle and his team must look beyond the horror of what they find at the crime scene in order to piece together what's happened in much the same way he has to look beyond the mess he's made of his personal life to see the root cause of his own problems.

While Doyle isn't the most sympathetic of characters to begin with, over the course of the story we find ourselves not only hoping for him to succeed, but winning our grudging respect and actually caring what happens to him. As a result, whether or not he is able to solve the case becomes even more vitally important because of what he has invested in it personally. Somehow, if he's able to find and save the missing daughter he will, in his own mind, be able to redeem himself for the death of his sister. With one blow Scott has not only provided motivation for his main character, he also manages to ramp up the tension over solving the case an extra notch or two. For not only is there a plot twist that makes finding the daughter take on an extra dimension of urgency, the attachment we've formed with Doyle makes us want desperately for him to find a way out of his personal hell.

In his previous works, The Eldarn Sequence, Scott showed his talent for creating believable characters in fantastic circumstances and a flair for multiple plot lines. In 15 Miles he has not only put those talents to excellent use with the creation of Samuel "Sailor" Doyle and his supporting cast and the way events in the book have been interwoven, his sense of pace and his feel for atmosphere make this a thriller of the highest quality. While the tension gradually rises throughout the book, Scott's timing is such that just when you thing it will be too much to bear he eases back ever so slightly, only to take your breath away when he ramps it up to a newer and higher level.

Unlike a roller coaster which has ups and downs, 15 Miles is a constant ascent, with occasional breaks on a plateau to regain your breath before moving on, spotted with occasional doubts about your ability to reach the top. With the macabre elements rooted in reality giving credence to everything that happens no matter how strange or outlandish they maybe, this is as well crafted and intelligent a thriller as you're liable to read this year. If you're like me and have no taste for horror stories, or so-called psychological thrillers, which seem to exploit their circumstances in order for the author to produce some cheap thrills, 15 Miles will go a long way to restoring your faith that there are writers who actually care about what they produce.

(Article first published as Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 4, 2010

Book Review: Dreams Of Sex and Stage Diving By Martin Millar

Years ago I participated in a five day theatre workshop called "Leap In The Dark". While the title suggests those participating would be going into uncharted territory, thinking back on the process, it now seems like the exercise was more training to take a leap than a leap itself. The exercises we were led through were designed to open us up to risk taking so in the future we wouldn't be afraid of taking the leaps in the dark necessary to the creative process. When you decide to make a career in the arts there are no guarantees of success; everything you do is a risk. The more willing you are to throw yourself whole heartily into something without worrying about the consequences the better.

These aren't blind leaps of faith based on some faint hope there will be someone there to catch you when you land. Instead you do it based on the faith you have in your own abilities to do what's necessary in order to complete whatever it is you've set out to do. Personally I always go through a period of agonizing before throwing myself off that precipice, but once I commit there's a great feeling of liberation and freedom, almost like flying, or at least tightrope walking without a net. If you fall you're going to splat resoundingly true enough, but think how wonderful you'll feel when you succeed. The only way you have a chance at making any dreams you might have come true is by taking some sort of risk. You can drift through life feeling mildly frustrated all the time and safe, or take the occasional chance and reach for your dreams.

It was reading the re-release of Martin Millar's Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Soft Skull Press which triggered those thoughts. Originally published in 1995, the book is set in familiar territory for fans of Millar's work, the streets of London England's Brixton. With poverty, homelessness, and unemployment rampant, the fact that the young punks who populate this book have dreams at all is remarkable, no matter how trivial or silly their dreams might appear to us or anyone else. The dream around which this book revolves belongs to one of the most unlikely, and frankly unlovable, heroines your liable to meet. Elfish brings new meaning to the word misanthropic as she stomps her unwashed way through people's lives in her oversized motorcycle boots and bad attitude.
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There's no lie she won't tell and nothing she won't steal in her quest to wrest the use of Queen Mab as a band name away from her ex boyfriend Mo. The two of them had not only been partners but also band mates, and upon the dissolution of their relationship she demanded rights to the name, in spite of the fact that she had no band and what looked like little hope of ever forming one. Prospects are looking particularly bleak when she discovers that Mo's band has a gig scheduled in ten days time. If they perform just once in public using the name she knows her hopes will be dashed. However, she's able to convince Mo to accept a bet which will see her win the band name if she's able to recite a speech from William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet about Queen Mab on stage prior to the gig and then have her band open the show. If she loses the bet Mo gets to do anything he wants with her.

So on top of learning the forty-three lines of the monologue, Elfish also must somehow put together a band within the next ten days as well. For most of us this would be a daunting task, one few of us would even consider taking on. The risk of making an absolute fool of oneself in public over something as apparently trivial as the name of a band just doesn't seem worth it. However Elfish is not like most of us and she's used to plunging headlong into the unknown. For while she may be well known as a self-centred and selfish individual, she's also equally renowned for her capabilities as a stage diver.

Small and wiry she's wonderfully adept at working her way through the throngs of people in front of a stage, eluding whatever security is on hand, climbing on stage and then flinging herself head first into the audience where her fall would be cushioned by those below. Crammed in as they are, most crowds have no way of getting out of a stage diver's way and can only defend themselves by raising their hands in order to fend off flailing boots, elbows, and other assorted body parts that have the potential to cause injury as they plummet earthwards.
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Much like she would dive off a stack of speakers, Elfish dives headlong into her quest to memorize her speech and coerce, bribe, beg, and lie to get people to join her band. Like the audience at a gig those she choses to descend on are defenceless against her onslaught as she preys upon their weaknesses and fears. Whether its the bulimic actress she bullies into helping her learn her lines with false promises of hooking her up with a fundraiser for her theatre company, the homeless guitar player she falsely assures of a place to live, or one of the many other lies she spouts in order to see her dream come true, they all strike a soft spot in her target as surely as a well place boot to the kidney.

Mab is the queen of dreams, and as she might visit us in our sleep to inspire us with thoughts and ideas, so Millar has Elfish visiting upon his cast of characters the inspiration to overcome their apathy and anguish to make their own tentative steps towards fulfilling their dreams. While they all might despise her for the methods she's used against them, without her they would have never done anything to change their circumstances, to take a chance on living again. Fairies aren't the pretty little things that Walt Disney or others would have us believe them to be. They are selfish beings who think of little else but their own pleasure, and often times that pleasure takes the form of poking and prodding humans in uncomfortable ways. Without intending anything of the sort Elfish assumes the role of Queen Mab for all those she comes into contact with, inspiring them to work towards the fulfillment of dreams they had almost lost hope in.

In Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving Martin Millar has brought a fairy to life on the streets of Brixton to remind us that sometimes the path to making our dreams a reality isn't an easy road. The spark required to overcome our fears, to make that leap into the unknown, isn't always the nicest of experiences, but without it where would we be? Millar's abilities as a story teller allow him to weave a modern fairy tale which, in spite of its desolate setting and the depression of its inhabitants, manages to make you believe that dreams can come true, even when the only rainbow in site is caused by an oil slick in a parking lot. Heck, if this bunch of losers can make things work out for themselves, it shouldn't be too hard for us now should it?

(Article first published as Book Review: Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well By Carole Enahoro

We take it for granted, after all its all around us, it literally falls from the sky, but in some parts of the world water is even more precious a natural resource than the petroleum we in the West cherish so highly. However its still a naturally occurring resource, one readily available through springs and water holes to those in the desert and to us in more temperate climates rivers, rain barrels and the tap in our kitchen sink. Of course we in the city pay for the water we use - usually in the form of a metered rate to our municipality - but the cost is usually so insignificant we barely notice. After all nobody is trying to profit from selling us our water or treating our sewage, just covering the costs.

However as recent events have shown us, nothing is safe from privatization and corporate greed, and water is no exception. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank debt laden countries are being coerced into selling their water rights to American and European private corporations. The results have invariably been disastrous for the general populations as water prices have risen by as much as %50. In Bolivia, where the rights were sold to Bechetel, an American company, in the late 1990's, the result was what's become known as the water wars. People rioted all over the country in response until the company was forced to cancel the contract.

Of course companies don't need the World Bank or the IMF to do all their dirty work for them. In an age where natural disasters and wars are considered golden opportunities for doing business, all a good corporate executive need do is wait for the next tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake to destroy some poor country's infrastructure, and with the right political connections they could end up owning the rights to almost anything they want. Offer to help secure the necessary loans from the World Bank to finance rebuilding that damn and then generously offer to purchase the rights to the water the dam controls in order to help pay back the loan, and everybody's happy - except for the people who are all of sudden paying for something they never had to before.
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It's against this background of international greed Nigerian/Canadian author Carole Enahoro has set her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well, being released by Random House Canada May 11/10. However its not just Big Business and the forces of globalization that come under attack in her book, as Enahoro takes shots at every side in the argument. Government officials in Nigeria, do-gooding liberals in North America, and of course corporate social climbers are all grist for her mill.

When a major damn bursts in Nigeria killing thousands of people in the initial deluge, and then thousands more because of disease, Nigerians and Americans alike see it as a golden opportunity for advancing their careers. Ogbe Kolo is the current Minister of Natural Resources and sees this as a golden opportunity to work his way up the ladder to President and Mary Glass of TransAqua International is the one to help him get there by helping rebuild the broken damn. In return she'll only want the water and power rights from the damn, but Kolo can keep the naming rights to the new river and gets to be President. It's a win win situation for everyone save those who happen to live and depend on the Niger river and its waters for anything at all.

Naturally there is some opposition to these plans on both sides of the world. In Nigeria they are headed up by Femi Jegede, whose home village was destroyed in the deluge and after recovering from his grief has determined to prevent the plans of Ogbe Kolo from bearing fruit. Across the Atlantic Ocean Barbara Glass is equally determined to prevent her sister Mary from succeeding in her efforts. She joins a radical-Water group, Drop Of Life, in that known hotbed of socialism, Ottawa Canada, to co-ordinate resistance with her Nigerian "brothers and sisters". That she barely knows where Nigeria is doesn't prevent her from hopping a plane to travel there in order to "mobilize" resistance.
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From corner corporate offices to the corridors of power in Nigeria and from the jungles surrounding the Niger river to the backwoods of Ottawa, Enahoro leads us around the world as we follow her assorted mix of characters. Save for Femi and his companions, they are a collection of the least likeable sorts ever assembled. All of them, from President Kolo to the Glass sisters and their supporting casts, serve nobody and nothing but their own ambitions. Enahoro mercilessly skewers everything from new age pretensions to capitalist greed as she follows each of her character's globe hopping search for personal fulfillment.

The problem is that in her eagerness to attack so many targets, we lose sight of the reality. While the press material claims Doing Dangerously Well is the first satire to deal with the issue of Disaster Capitalism, and by extension the way in which governments are coerced into selling off their resources by the World Bank and the IMF, there's far too much chaff thrown up by her multi-pronged attack for the reader to focus on any one subject. While I agree with her assessments of all her targets, it might have been better to tackle each of them separately. There is the basis for three good books in this one, but instead they've been crammed under one cover and the whole suffers accordingly.

While Carole Enahoro manages to convey some of the results of the destructive policies being implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the developing world, the book's vagueness and burlesque humour make them seem far less dangerous than they actually are. Mistaking satire for humour is a common misconception, and in this case the result is to make those who the author has targeted seem to be less of a threat than they really are. Along with the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank pose the largest threat to sustainable development, climate change, and, in the long run, peaceful coexistence among the world's nations of anyone.
By continuing to place more and more of the world's assets in the hands of fewer and fewer people they increase the divides separating the haves and the have-nots and the accompanying resentment that is the root of instability and terrorism.

Trivializing the actions of those involved by reducing them to the level of a farce gives a false impression of the real dangers we face by allowing this system to continue unchecked. The potential was there for an intelligent and bitingly funny book, but the author opted for the easy laugh instead. It's a pity because Enahoro is obviously intelligent and well informed with a good eye for the ridiculous on both sides of any issue. With a tighter focus she'll serve up some fine political satire in the future.

Article first published as Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro on Blogcritics.

April 22, 2010

Book Review: Instructions By Neil Gaiman Illustrated by Charles Vess

As adults we tend to forget how to children everything about them is strange and wondrous; that every step away from the familiar is fraught with peril and filled with potential dangers. Who knows for sure what lurks beneath the roses or what caused the bush in the deepest darkest corner of the garden to tremble? If the garden itself is filled with so many mysteries, what great adventures await should you choose to leave its safety? In the garden shelter is only a short sprint away, but out there in the world there will be no kitchen to replenish supplies when they run low or door to lock behind you when the sun expires and the shadows come alive.

It will take nerves of steel and a brave heart to venture beyond into the unknown for the first time. In fact, it's almost to much to expect anyone to take that dangerous plunge on their own. Even the bravest of adventurers has always at least consulted some wise person or oracle prior to seeking his or her fortune in the wild world, so it's not asking too much to seek some guidance. The only trouble is who can today's explorer turn to for advice in these matters? Parents may know about not touching burners or pulling on electrical cords, but what do they know about the little people who live under toadstools, the proper way to deal with giants, or how to hitch a ride on a giant eagle? No, one needs to turn to those who haven't forgotten how to look at the world and see behind the prosaic.

Thankfully not only do two such people exist, but they have just put out a guide book for all those wishing to travel through that door in the garden they've never seen before; a door leading to the world of imagination and mystery. In fact as their new book Instructions, released by Harper Collins Canada April 19th/10, (April 27th in the U.S.) shows, there can't be two gentlemen more suited for this task than author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Charles Vess. Not only have they created numerous fantastical worlds together in the past, (worlds where almost everything imaginable, and even some things unimaginable exist) both men have always seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the secret places where magic exists. I've always been inclined to believe their work in the past has been based on first hand experience, as if they had travelled to the places they've written and drawn about and not just visualized them in their mind's eye.
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Instructions is one of the handiest guides an explorer will ever come across as its filled with all sorts of useful information about the world in which fairy tales, myths, and legends exist. Unlike those boring guide books you see some people reading, filled with pages upon pages of text telling you where to find the best hotels and various tourist attractions, here words are kept to a minimum. Seeing is believing after all. Therefore, anyone you come across, or anything, in these pages, one way or another there's a good chance you might meet up with them someday.

Now instead of merely describing what awaits you beyond the wall, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Vess have enlisted the help of a friend to take a trip into the unknown so you can experience everything first hand. He's come into quite a few tales on his own and is known as quite an adventurer. Since they don't mention his name, I think he wanted to remain anonymous; but he has whiskers and a tail, and wears a fine set of boots, so you'll probably guess who he is easily enough. The first thing you'll notice when we step out through the door in the back of his garden is how important it is to keep your eyes wide open. There is plenty to see everywhere right from the start, including many friendly faces you've known from earlier days.

However, that's no reason to let your guard down, for you never know what might be lurking under the roots of a tree or when something as innocuous as a door knocker could give you a nasty bite. That's where what little text there is in the book become so important, for they are the specific instructions for you on how to act in certain situations. Whether they remind you to be kind and compassionate to any beings in need you meet along your journey, to be very careful about falling into wells as they lead to dark and dangerous worlds, how to best avoid giants or what you need to know about witches, their advice is the type of common sense you'll need when out in the world.

As might be expected from a work by the team of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Instructions is a lush and beautiful book filled with their love of the fantastic and the imaginary. You'll find they've paid homage to fairy tales and nursery rhymes from all around the world through both indirect and direct references. Part of the fun for people of all ages will be the moment of recognition they'll feel when they come across something or somebody familiar. Even though they are fantastic you will feel like you have met an old friend, somebody you loved dearly but haven't seen in a long time.
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Vess's illustrations do a wonderful job of bringing all the creatures, both good and bad, to life. What I especially appreciated was hoe he did so without resorting to imagery that was so nasty younger adventurers would fear the world beyond their door and how good wasn't always depicted as pretty and cute. You'll still know who is to be avoided and who is safe to talk to, but it will because of who they are, not just what they look like. An important lesson no matter what world you're travelling through.

As already mentioned Gaiman's text is sparse, but it applies equally to the fantastic journey depicted in the illustrations and the journey through life we all take. For while it's not very likely you'll be literally flying on a giant eagle's back anytime soon, it is important for you to aspire to fly as high as you can without being afraid of falling. Perhaps younger readers may not understand all the allusions in the text, but they can't help but get the overall message of not to be afraid of new experiences, and while the world might seem big and mysterious its nothing to be afraid of.

Like all the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes Instructions is as much set in our world as it is in the fantastic. Gathering together elements and characters from throughout familiar imaginary worlds in one place, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have created a world that is both recognizable and mysterious in much the same way the real world might look to someone when they prepare to set out into it for the first time. However, the instructions in this book are ones we'd all be wise to follow and remember, no matter what our age or experience.

April 18, 2010

Book Review: The Seven Veils Of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni

There's a tendency among Western people to romanticize that which seems exotic to them. Whether the yogic practices of India, philosophies of the Far East, or the spirituality of Native Americans, it doesn't seem to matter. They imbue them with all sorts of mystical qualities, that may or may not have anything to do with the original practices, and believe they have found the secret to living a better life. Of course they also conveniently ignore the fact that so much of what they think of as answers are practices that have evolved through centuries of living under specific conditions and which might not have any practical application in another environment.

It's only been in the last decade or so the nomadic people of the North Sahara Desert in Africa have come to the attention of people in the West. The Tuareg pre-date the introduction of Islam and speak a Berber language, Tamasheq, related to ancient Egyptian, with an equally ancient alphabet and script known as Tifinagh. Pastoral nomads, primarily herds people who relied on their flocks for survival, they currently are spread out over a territory that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria. Since the early 1960's they have been involved in sporadic uprisings against the various governments in the region in an attempt to preserve the land so integral to grazing their nomadic lifestyle. However, only since former rebels have formed musical groups like Tinariwen, has the world at large taken any notice of their situation or the people themselves.

While the bands might sing about their culture and traditions, they do so in Tamasheq, which means the majority of their audience really aren't hearing what they are singing about or gaining any insights into the world they come from. Anyway, for the most part, the bands are making music for their own people, not for foreign consumption, which means the lyrics are only going to be truly understood by those already steeped in that culture. Therefore, while it's true they are getting out the message to the rest of the world about their struggle to survive, we actually know very little about them - their stories, their cultures or their traditions.
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So when I was contacted by Garnet Publishing asking if I would be interested in reviewing The Seven Veils Of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni, I said yes, in the hopes it would fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the people the work was about. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, but according to the blurb on the back of the book al-Koni is an award winning writer in the Arab world, and has published over fifty novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms, all of which have been inspired by the desert. Therefore, even though he's lived pretty far removed from any desert in Switzerland since 1993, it sounded like he not only could write well, but also wrote specifically about his people.

Well it turned both assumptions were true, as not only is he a wonderful writer (here's as good as time as any for a tip of the hat to William M. Hutchins who somehow translated it from Arabic into English without making it sound "English" or "American") who writes about his people, but he does so with such imagination and infectious joy for his subject, that you can't help being caught up in the story even if you're not quite sure what's going on all the time. The Seth of the title is in fact the ancient Egyptian god who killed his brother Osiris, the god of agriculture, in order to seize his throne and has come down to us through history as a villain. However, Seth also turns out to be the god of the desert and a benevolent champion for desert dwelling types like the Tuareg.

The story takes place in an oases where a permanent settlement of Tuareg has taken root and established a thriving community that includes a busy market place, a fool, a diviner (or prophet), a headman, and a heroic warrior. As an oases they are used to visitors, but not one quite as disconcerting as Isan. First, unlike most he eschews the company of camels and rides in on the back of a female donkey, a jenny. He then refuses any and all offers of hospitality, including a welcoming dinner, and strangest of all he chooses to dwell in a crypt in the graveyard. None of the town's notable are sure what to make of him - save for the Fool who after meeting Isan advices the town's elders to kill him before they have chance to regret not doing so.
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The seven veils of the title refer to the various names or ways in which Seth is referred to, and as the novel progresses, Isan is at various times referred to by each one, though most often as either "the jenny master" or "the strategist". Even more beguiling is his obvious disdain for anyone living in one place. No matter what arguments a person might make against the nomadic life he's always able to turn them around and show what they consider negative aspects of the life are actually necessities for the development of self-awareness. It's while he's having one of these arguments we learn another of his names, Wantahet, a character in Tuareg mythology who promised the people deliverance, but delivered them to the abyss.

So who is Isan, and what is he promising? He claims that hell, the abyss, is a type of deliverance as at times we have to burn the body to root out disease, and it's obvious he considers the settled life wrong. Yet, he's also a master at turning words on their head to the point where he makes his contravention of traditional laws and customs appear like he's complying with them. In Isan al-Koni has created a character who is the epitome of the trickster, and like his brethren and sisters around the world his contrary nature wrecks havoc where ever he travels. Yet, what is the lesson he is teaching - or is there even a lesson at all? Is his purpose to make those he meets question what they have accepted as normal? Is being a nomad really the answer to all questions and the proper way to live - or does he only espouse it because he's the god of the desert and this is all part of a "strategy" in his battle to keep the throne of heaven and his war against Osiris' son Horus?

Although Isan is the main character and we spend a great deal of our time with him, like everybody else who meets him we still can't be sure about his motivations. While in some ways the various characters Isan interacts with are representatives of their title (Fool, Merchant, Warrior, Prophet etc.) and the roles they play in their society, al-Koni ensures they aren't just types. In almost each case we learn more about them, and in fact, in some ways, end up knowing them better than Isan, through the back stories and histories the author has created for them. Therefore we not only see them as personifications of types representing a way of looking at the world or a certain place in society, we also see the real human behind that mask. In their discussions and arguments with Isan he challenges what they stand for and in doing so shows just how arbitrary the laws, the ones that dictate their behaviour and they use to help differentiate between right and wrong, they espouse as sacrosanct really are by using the ones they quote as proof he is wrong, as support for what he advocates.

How would you react if one of your people's traditional gods all of a sudden showed up in your town and began turning you lives upside down by questioning everything you have been using to govern your behaviour? With Isan al-Koni has created a veritable stick to shove into the bee hive of the oases and the results are thoughtful, funny and occasionally tragic. Not only is the story a pleasure to read, it also gives the reader something of an introduction to the life of the Tuareg. It's hard to tell exactly where reality and fantasy separate sometimes, but than again sometimes its in the fantastic we find the most truth. If you've enjoyed the music that comes from this region it might be time for you to look behind those purple robes they wear on stage and get to know the people a little better, and this book provides you with that opportunity.

April 6, 2010

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

There's probably nothing harder to do than write about a subject which has not only been written to death, but which is also is some manner considered highly sacrosanct. Even more perplexing is when the subject is about the unspeakable horrors that humans have proven themselves capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. In today's world we are so inundated with images and information that the mere recounting of events has little or no effect on us. Hearing the same story over and over again instead of increasing our disgust, deadens our emotional reaction and we are no longer able to take in the real implications of what's being described.

Yann Martel brings that issue home with his new release, Beatrice & Virgil, published by Random House Canada on April/06/10 (April 13th/10 in the US). A successful author, Henry, latest story idea is rejected by his publishers and he moves with his wife to start a new life where he has little or nothing to do with writing. The book Henry's publishers had rejected was his attempt to find a way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way. He worked for five years creating in reality two books; an essay and a work of fiction. In order to accommodate both under the same roof his idea was to make a flip book; a work with two covers which the reader could start from either end and when finished with the first part, flip the book over and then start reading the second part in the other direction.

It was running head first into the brutal realities of publishing - he was taken to task by editors, publishers, and book sellers over lunch as to all the reasons it wouldn't work - that precipitated his exodus from both the city he lived in and writing. However, when he receives in the mail an obscure short story by the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert and an excerpt from a play that his correspondent has written along with a simple note saying he had read and enjoyed Henry's novel and needed his help, Henry was intrigued enough to contact the man.
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The Flaubert story was a particularly gruesome piece featuring what appears to be a highly amoral individual, who as a child takes great delight in the slaughter of animals. For some reason Henry's correspondent has highlighted the most gruesome of these scenes throughout the story as if to draw particular attention to them. The story continues with the young man perpetrating all sorts of violence through out his life, including the killing of his parents. Although he is eventually redeemed for the murder of his parents, nothing in the story gives answer to his senseless slaughter of animals. What Henry can't figure out is what the excerpt from the play - featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil with the latter attempting to describe a pear to the former, has to do with the themes expressed in the short story.

When he discovers the playwright, also named Henry, is also a taxidermist, and the characters of Beatrice and Virgil were inspired by two of his subjects, a donkey and a howler monkey respectively, the connection is apparently obvious. While the play itself starts off sounding like a re-make of Beckett's Waiting For Godot as the two characters are seem intent on finding ways of filling time, but it suddenly veers into a horrible account of the persecutions suffered by the two creatures at the hands of humans. It turns out the help he requires is he wants Henry to actually write for him; a description of Virgil in Beatrice's words.

Amazingly, instead of feeling resentful at being used by this total stranger, Henry finds that's he's excited and inspired. Perhaps its because of the obvious connections that can be drawn between the script and Henry's idea about finding new ways for writing about the Holocaust, but whatever it is he finds himself not only completely immersed in the play, but fascinated with both the taxidermist and his products to the point where he takes home various pieces. The man himself must be close to eighty Henry figures, yet is filled with a kind of remorseless energy. While some of his habits might be deemed eccentric, he is reluctant to let Henry take any of the script home with him to work with, Henry doesn't understand why everybody else, including his dog, his wife, and a waiter in a cafe where they meet, react so negatively to his new acquaintance.
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What Martel has done with Beatrice and Virgil is give readers a multilayered and highly textured read that at first seems somewhat obtuse and disjointed. For audiences used to being spoon fed information in comfortable digestible servings it might appear there are large gaps in the narrative. However what he has done is both gradually build a picture of the obsessive nature of the artist in his character of Henry and find a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. While the play within the novel is the obvious parallel, with its depiction of innocents being persecuted for no reason save their differences, as we follow the trajectory of Henry's obsession with both the play and the taxidermist it feels like we are watching the ease in which we can become complicit in horrific events. For although all the clues are right in front of him Henry fails to see the obvious with almost fatal consequences.

As Martel has Henry make clear at the beginning writing about subjects as abhorrent and sensitive as the Holocaust is a precarious proposition. Henry makes the argument that war has seen the death of millions of people, but that hasn't prevented the subject from being represented by many genres; war comedies, war romances, war thrillers and so on, and because of this we've gained a truer perspective of its nature. However, very few books of fiction dealing with the Holocaust have ever done anything but present it strictly as straight historical fiction that deal directly with actual events. With Beatrice & Virgil Martel has managed to prove that point to a certain degree - I don't think the world will ever be ready for a comedy about mass murder or even a romantic Holocaust story - you can write about it effectively without once ever setting foot in the camps or having the action take place in the 1940s.

In fact, in some ways he's made the situation even more horrific by bringing it back to the personal level instead of allowing us to hide from realities behind the safety of historical facts. If we know in advance we are going to be reading a story of the Holocaust, we inure ourselves against what we suppose will be the horrors to come and so pass through relatively unscathed. Here Martel almost ambushes us with it, as although his main character raises the subject in the opening of the book, its apparently dropped with the rejection of his book and his decision to take a sabbatical from writing. Even the introduction of the Flaubert story, with its scenes of carnage, and our early glimpses of the play are made to seem more about the plight of endangered species through the introduction of Henry the taxidermist.

According to Henry, the novelist, only two percent of every Holocaust victim has ever written about their experiences. As that's the case in order for these horrendous types of events to be remembered, and the experience properly understood by others, it's necessary for those who've not been through it to find a way to bring it to life so the world can understand the horror in an attempt to prevent them from occurring again. As we don't seem to be able to learn from history - ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Rawanda, and all the other ethnic based violence that has occurred since the end of WW ll makes that apparent- it becomes imperative some other way of getting the message across is found. Martel's book might not be the whole answer, but its a positive step in the right direction.

April 3, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The art of storytelling is difficult enough as it is, but when an author attempts to recreate a culture, any culture, be it based on reality or imagined, he or she has set for themselves a task equivalent to scaling the highest of peaks. It's not enough to simply offer descriptions, the characters have to live and breath every nuance of the world created for them in order for it to come to life. Otherwise you end up with vessels moving in front of a pretty background like shadow puppets in a panorama. Everything from the way a character thinks to the way they hold themselves must be as carefully considered as any plot twist if an author is to have any hope of being convincing.

Guy Gavriel Kay has carved his own niche in the world of fiction through his ability to not only accomplish the above, but successfully meld it with historical fiction and fantasy. From the Byzantine Empire, Medieval France, Ottoman Spain, to Renaissance Italy, the pages of his books have exuded the colours and textures of historical eras with elegance and verisimilitude. The kings, peasants, warriors, and courtesans who wander through the market places, courts and battlefields where his stories unfold not only dress and act appropriately to their environment and status within it, the poetry they recite, the duels they fight, and the attitudes they strike are equally at harmony with the world they live in.

While his attention to detail would put a documentarian to shame, remarkably the reader never notices. Everything is so subtly integrated into the overall telling of the story, it's only upon reflection that you realize the amount of work that has gone into to the making of what you've just read. It's like the sudden realization when looking at a painting that has so accurately captured a person in time that thousands of brush strokes have gone into its making; you don't want to see them, but knowing they exist make you appreciate the work all the more. One need look no further than his new release, Under Heaven, being published by Penguin Canada April 3rd/10, (April 27th/10 in America) to see this in action.
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Inspired by the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China, Under Heaven is set in the fictional kingdom of Kitai and follows the fortunes of the second son of a general in the imperial army. Twenty years prior Shen Tai's father had led imperial troops into their last great battle with the neighbouring Tagur kingdom. Beside a remote lake bordering both kingdoms forty thousand men of both kingdoms lost their lives. When his father dies Shen Tai takes it upon himself to spend the official two year mourning period in a hut beside the lake burying the bones of as many of those who died there as possible. Without regard to rank or nationality he has spent nearly two years at his self appointed task with his only contact to the outside world being visits from soldiers of both empires' nearest forts who bring him supplies.

While Tai had been only the second son a general, one of many young men studying to pass the exams that would allow them admittance to the lowest level of the court's civil service, prior to his father's death, his actions by the lake have not gone unnoticed. It's on one of the re-supply visits from the Tagur soldiers that he first becomes aware of the enormity of what he's done when the Captain accompanying the soldiers gives him a letter stating he has been gifted with two hundred and fifty of the most magnificent horses in the world.

While he's till reeling from the news that he now owns horses whose worth will either make his fortune or, if he doesn't handle matters just right, result in his death, he just as unexpectedly receives a visitor. Here, beyond the final outpost of the empire he never expected to receive visits, yet a fellow student, accompanied only by one guard, deemed it so important he receive the news he carries that he's travelled across the land's breadth to tell him. It's a message he never delivers, as the guard turns out to be an assassin hired to ensure Shen Tai doesn't return to the capital. Although his friend dies, Tai miraculously survives the attempt on his life, and with the aid of the Tagur Captain concocts a plan that will not only see him survive the journey back through the empire, but ensure the safe delivery of the magnificent horses.

As we make the long journey back to civilization with Tai, we learn that he's not quite the unimpressive figure we might have thought at first. Not only has he served as an officer in the Imperial army, he had also studied for a time with warrior monks who are known not only for their martial prowess but their trustworthiness. While he may not have completed his training with the order, he still possesses some of their skills with weapons, which comes in handy as the assassination attempts weren't finished with that first one. However, by the time he reaches the capital city, and word has travelled ahead of him of the present he has been given by their former enemies, he might find himself remembering the assassination attempts with fondness. At least he could see where the danger lay in them and defend himself. The Emperor's court on the other hand is a seething mass of plots and intrigues. Most of which seem to be primarily centred around the newly appointed prime minister, his senior advisor, the prime minister's cousin, who also happens to be the Emperor's favoured concubine, and the most powerful military governor in the country.
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Trying to weave one's way through these webs of intrigue takes an amount of skill that would try most men at the best of times. Having to do this while attempting to find out who among the powerful wanted you killed, figure out what to do with two hundred and fifty horses whom everybody covets, and deal with the fact your eldest brother - the aforementioned advisor to the prime minister - has pretty much sold your sister into slavery by having her sent off to be the bride of tribal chief's son, is a seemingly impossible task. On top of this it seems that the machinations of the prime minister are about to send the country into a bloody civil war that could very well see the end of the current dynasty and result in millions of deaths. With war brewing, two hundred and fifty of the finest horses, faster and stronger than any to be found in the kingdom, are all of a sudden even more key to the empire's future.

Kay has never shied away from showing the steel that lies beneath the beauty on his pages and the ugly truth behind the romantic images of finely dressed nobility. In Under Heaven he not only manages to convey the nearly sublime beauty of the empire, but the brutal reality of what it takes for a small ruling class to keep millions to heel. The same man who can wax eloquent about the beauty of a flower, will think nothing of giving an order that will see thousands die or have a servant beaten nearly to death because his wine was not the right temperature. For all its sumptuous beauty, we are never allowed to forget the harsh truths of this empire and the iron fist required for its running.

The characters who populate the book's pages are as multilayered, if not more so, than the society they live in. While we gradually learn about Tai, he is learning about those around him. What's interesting is how in some cases the more we learn about a character the less impressive he is. For all his vaunted intelligence the prime minister turns out to be more cruel than anything else. Everything about the characters though, is consistent with the society they live in and the culture they belong to. From the way the women manage to manipulate events even though they are supposedly powerless in this society, to how servants take advantage of being beneath notice, all tell us a little bit more about the world they live in while making the picture Kay has created that much more believable.

Guy Gavriel Kay has the ability to bring worlds and people alive on the page in a way that few authors today seem capable of. Although he uses the same repertoire as other authors, characterization, plot, atmosphere etc., somehow they are employed in such a manner that we're not aware of them as individual components. Like dancers and music they move together in such harmony we can enjoy the image they create without noticing the steps taken bringing it about. In Under Heaven he not only reaffirms his reputation as a story teller par excellence, but as a master of bringing people and cultures alive. This is a magnificent creation that you will want to read over and over again for the joy reading it brings you.

April 1, 2010

Book Review: Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani

How is it that people can so easily go from being oppressed to being an oppressor? Immigrants fleeing from a society where they were second class citizens come to a new country in order to make a fresh start, but somehow forget what it was that caused them to have to flee in the first place. Instead of being merely grateful for the opportunity to live as they like without having to look over their shoulders, they become driven to make a success of themselves no matter what. Perhaps because they lived with insecurity for so long, they are blinded to anything but guarantying security for themselves and their loved ones in this new place, and lose track of everything else.

Obviously that's not the case with all immigrants, and its not even a statement one can make about any particular community in general. Within any group of people there will be those, no matter what their backgrounds or personal histories, who will have no compulsions about doing whatever they have to in order to get ahead, and those who follow a more moderate path. Yet in a society whose system is based on the premise of winners and losers, one group will invariably be higher up the ladder that somebody else. Therefore, no matter how good their intentions, they will be the exploiters, in either a small way or a large way, of those beneath them. While we may like to think of ourselves as living in a classless society the reality is wealth equals status and the more you have the more exalted you are.

In his new release, Dahanu Road published by Random House Canada on March 30th/10, Anosh Irani recounts the story of a family of Iranian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India before WW ll in order to escape their status as second class citizens. By the time we join the story the family are well established land owners and the founder of the family's fortune's grandson, Zarios, is now an adult. Zarios has grown accustomed to privilege and leading a life of idleness. While his grandfather may have had to walk from Iran to India, and suffered deprivations and abuse as a child, neither Zarios or his father Aspi have had to struggle for anything.
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Working for the family, and all the other local landowners, are the Warlis, a local tribal people whose land this was before the immigrants from Iran arrived. Zarios is not a cruel person by any stretch of the imagination, but he's never given any thought to how the Warlis went from owning the land he stands to inherit, to working for next to slave wages as field workers on it. As his father is as ignorant of the land's history as he is, it's to his grandfather that he must turn to for answers to the questions that start to arise soon after the story begins. For, one morning, as he's walking the land, he comes across the body of one of their workers who has hung himself. When it turns out the last person to have seen Ganpat alive was Zarios' grandfather, he becomes curious as to what happened at that meeting. His grandfather said, with great scorn, that Ganpat had asked him for money, which he naturally refused to give him.

Nothing more might have come of this incident, after all it was just another drunk tribal worker who hung himself, save for the fact that Zarios meets Ganpat's daughter, Kusum, and is immediately attracted to her. When he finds out that Ganpat wanted money to free his daughter from an abusive marriage, Zarios takes it into his head that he will rescue her and then take her away from her life of squaller. Naturally he has no idea of what he's doing. All his life whenever he has seen something he's liked or wanted he's taken it, and this case is no different. It's not that his intentions aren't good in this case, or that he means Kusum any harm, but if he can't even tell his parents that she's not a servant when they come home unexpectedly and find her sleeping on the living room floor, well how is he going to be able to have any sort of permanent relationship with her?
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As the book progresses we learn what Zarios doesn't know about his family's history in the region. Ganpat's death is the catalyst which not only propels the action in the present, but brings the past alive for both his grandfather and Kusum's family as well. For it turns out that the fortunes of the two families have been intertwined long before the youngest generation met. Over the course of the book Irani does a remarkable job of having the past and the present march through its pages side by side with the former providing the backdrop against which the latter takes place. Whether we are given access to the grandfather's memories as he thinks back over his life, or we listen in on Kusum being told her family history by her aunt, what is revealed is both sad and disgusting.

What's most impressive about Dahanu Road is how the reader finds it very easy to slip into the world of the landlords and accept their behaviour as, if not normal, than perhaps harmless. The men gather at a local tea house every day, each with their own peculiar personality quirks to make them endearing to the reader, and it's not until a while has passed we realize none of them have to do anything to make money. For while they sit around all day long their fields are being worked by people like Kusum and her family, who live in huts with dirt floors. Then we also start to learn how these same men treat the Warlis - how they hold one of their fellows in high esteem because he devised a method of cleaning the crop that will guarantee the women having to expose themselves for their pleasure - and their cute little jokes and pranks don't seem so harmless anymore.

On the surface this is a deceptively simple book, but you will discover there are secrets hidden beneath some words and questions hidden among the paragraphs. Why do immigrants escaping oppression end up oppressing others? Is it only because of the fear they feel from the insecurity they've faced in the past, or is there more to it than that? Irani doesn't offer any simple answers to any of the questions he raises in the book - there are no simple answers in the real world, just attempts at understanding in the hopes we learn from the mistakes of the past. While it appears that Zarios represents that hope, the reality is that nothing much has changed by the time we get to the end of the book from the way things were when we first met him and we're left wondering what the future holds.

March 24, 2010

Book Reviw: Werewolf Smackdown by Mario Acevedo

In Charleston South Carolina the upper classes try to retain something of the gentility of their plantation ancestors and celebrate the history of their colourful town. Like other major Southern cities, it suffered greatly during the Civil War and no effort was spared over the years to restore some of the pristine beauty that was lost during those troublesome times. So, the proud city fathers would be horrified to learn their city might soon be at the centre of another type of civil war, one that not only has the potential to raze the city to the ground and destroy its inhabitants, but also plunge the entire world into chaos and change life as we know it.

Sound a little over the top? Well consider the situation that Felix Gomez, veteran of the Gulf War, private investigator, and vampire, finds when he responds to a request for his services and travels down from his home in Denver to Charleston. The alpha leader of the area's Werewolf clans has died under mysterious circumstances, her small plane crashed killing all on board, and the two highest ranking males from the local packs are both vying to replace her. Gomez's hopes of the job having nothing to do with the world of the paranormal are quickly dashed when he discovers the person who requested his services, Eric Bourbon attorney-at-law, is not only one of those two leaders, but he wants Gomez to assassinate his opponent, Randolph Calhoun.

Normally vampires and werewolves have nothing to do with each other and either hiring one of the others to take care of internal business is not done. In fact, according to Gomez, official policy as set forth by the Araneum - Latin for spiderweb - the worldwide secret network of vampires, is strictly hands off when it comes to vampires getting involved with werewolves. Therefore it's only natural that Gomez tells Bourbon to handle his own killings. However as he is on his way back to his digs, a local mortuary who rents out coffins to vampires, to prepare to leave town he's ambushed by two vampires carrying not only Bourbon's business card, but one with the name of a renegade vampire scrawled across its back. A vampire who not only came real close to killing Gomez sometime back, but who was intent on revealing the existence of the supernatural to the human world in the hopes of provoking a war between the living and the un-dead.
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So the scene is set for the most recent of Mario Acevedo's hard boiled detective novels, Werewolf Smackdown published by HarperCollins Canada, featuring the latest inheritor of Philip Marlow's mantle of the tough talking gum shoe. While he shares his predecessors predilection for beautiful dames and hard liquor, he differs from Chandler's famous creation in some key ways. Aside from preferring a chaser of A-, and pleasuring his human companions by releasing enzymes into their blood stream through the holes he leaves in their neck (don't worry he's also neat as he heals them up after he's done), you'd have a hard time picturing either Marlow or Sam Spade knowing as much about foundation make-up as Gomez does.

As a vampire Gomez has some supernatural advantages over the rest of us; speed, agility, strength, and some amazing healing abilities. However he also shares many of the traditional aversions that have afflicted his kind throughout history with garlic and sunlight being the ones most likely to ruin his day. While Raybans, a good knowledge of foundation makeup and the liberal application of the highest ratted sun-block have made it possible for vampires to handle all but the brightest sun - a sun rise will cut through anything he can slather on his skin - he still has no defence against garlic or silver. Unloading a full clip from an Uzi into his chest might crack a few ribs, but when you don't have a heart regular bullets don't do any permanent damage. Jab him with a silver fork from your family's fancy flatware on the other hand and you're liable to cause some serious damage.
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It's a good thing that vampires are so durable because in spite of his best intentions, he quickly finds himself up to his neck in werewolves. No sooner has he dealt with the two vampires sent to kill him then he's forcibly taken to meet the man he was brought to town to kill. Needless to say while Bourbon has painted Calhoun the villain of the piece, Calhoun has a different story to tell and does his best to enlist Gomez to his cause. He also fills Gomez in on a few details Bourbon neglected to mention. In four days time Charleston will be swarming with werewolves as hundreds of them will be convening for a gathering of the clans in order to select a new area alpha and there is a very real threat of civil war breaking out between them. If a war of that scale starts it will be next to impossible to keep the existence of the supernatural a secret from the humans, and the possibility of out and out war between the two worlds ensuing as a result is a given.

While others have introduced the idea of the co-existing worlds before, and there's even a couple of vampire/werewolf detectives scattered among the pages of fiction already, the film noir world that Acevedo has created does a great job of bringing the genre to life in a way that is both matter of fact and realistic. Perhaps it's because all of the action takes place in the world of the supernatural where mortals very rarely make an appearance that he is able to make it all seem so matter of fact. Aside from those who hold positions of wealth in the "real" world, there's nothing glamourous about their lifestyle, nor are they particularly romantic figures with tragic pasts or any of that bullshit. Gomez is just a private investigator trying to make ends meet in his world. That he has an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a dryad or can talk to ghosts when they chose to make themselves visible, only seems natural considering who he is and the world he moves in.

Werewolf Shakedown is that wonderful creation that manages to successfully marry genres without sacrificing anything of what makes either of them intriguing. With humour, a good sense of the absurd, and wry intelligence he has in fact improved upon both to create a highly entertaining read. Don't come to this looking for cheap thrills, romance, or high intellect, but be prepared to hold on to your hat as Acevedo takes you on a great ride.

March 23, 2010

Book Review: Bite Me Christopher Moore

Long before the New Moon saga had created a cult of adolescent girls going all weak kneed over the possibility of receiving a hickey from an un-dead heart throb, Christopher Moore had begun recounting the misadventures of vampires on the West Coast in Blood Sucking Fiends. Set in the far more exotic environs of San Francisco (Washington's overcast and rainy weather may sound like atmosphere to some, but to me it just sounds cold and damp) it, along with its sequel You Suck, recounted the story of how the put upon Jody became a vampire, and how she in turn converted her boy friend, want to be writer Thomas C. Flood.

Having a sensitivity to the UV rays of sunlight that not even the toughest sun-block will cope with, Jody had initially taken advantage of Thomas working the nightshift stocking shelves at a local grocery store and having his days free. This allowed him to run errands for her and take care of all that stuff that can only happen during the sunlight hours. So with Thomas becoming a vampire they find themselves in need of somebody to pick up the slack for them. By the end of You Suck they had settled on a young Goth girl, Abby Normal (Day Slave name Allison) to handle such tedious tasks as finding them accommodation and keeping them under wraps during the day. What they hadn't probably counted on was Abby and her bio-tech boy friend Steve dipping them in bronze while dead to the world in order to make sure they didn't split up and ruin Abby's romantic vision of the two vampires living an eternity of loving bliss with her as their worshipful minion.

Which is where we pick up the story in the third book of Moore's Vampire triptych, Bite Me, hitting the streets March 23rd/10 curtsey of HarperCollins Canada through its William Morrow imprint. In case anybody's missed the first two books, our erstwhile narrator fills us in on the details in her own inimitable style. An extended text message on speed coloured with sexual innuendo and rampant sarcasm through which we get periodic glimpses of the person hiding behind the pounds of make-up, fishnet stockings, and dyed hair. One of the key points of her summation is how a very large, hairless, cat named Chet has become a vampire and has now set out on a rampage through the city.
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Now Steve has been using his science geekdom, to quote Abby, to come up with a way of reversing what happens to a person's blood when they are "turned", or become a vampire. This becomes awfully key when it's discovered that third generation vampires - those turned by a vampire who were turned by the dude who bite Jody - don't have the longest shelf life without some rather intensive blood transfusions from the original dude. Jody will be okay, but anybody she has turned, or anybody turned by ingesting the blood of somebody she's turned, won't be around longer then a month. It means Thomas could go at any time, as could Abby. Oh yes Abby granted herself her fondest wish by ingesting the blood of some rats Steve had turned in order to test his serum.

Of course there's still the rather large matter of Chet as well, and the fact that he's not only drinking his way through the homeless population of San Francisco, but is also turning every stray cat he comes across. Chet seems to have also absorbed quite a few of the attributes of the elder vampire, the same one who turned Jody, and has not only grown in size to about eighty pounds, but has developed the ability to reason and think. He also has learned the very valuable trick of turning to mist - not something most novice vampires are able to do - and somehow or other also passed on this talent to felines he turns. Which means that come sundown that patch of mist drifting towards you down a San Francisco street could very well materialize in front of you as a hundred vampire cats looking to suck you dry.

Thankfully help is sort of on the way in the shape of three vampires who've been travelling the world cleaning up the messes left behind by the elder vampire who turned Jody. Unfortunately their idea of cleaning up also means eliminating any witnesses, which means not only Chet and his brood are in danger, but so are Jody, Thomas, Abby, Steve, and everybody who has had any contact with vampiric activity in San Francisco recently. That includes Thomas' fellow shelve stockers at the grocery store - a group of stoners referred to collectively as the Animals - and the two cops, Rivera and Cavuto who helped take down the original vampire.
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To be honest I worried that Moore was going to this particular vein one time to often writing another sequel to Blood Sucking Fiends as You Suck had already begun showing signs of thinning blood. However he's managed to inject some new life into the series through some ingenious plot twists and the introduction of a couple of new characters. He also, thankfully, splits the narration duties up amongst his characters, for at times I wanted to reach into the pages and grab Abby Normal by her throat to shut her up. If I heard one more conversation recounted as "Like he was then all" and "Like then I was" and "Like 'kay?" there's a good chance I wouldn't have finished the book. Some people might find it endearing or funny, but I thought it was just annoying to a point where it went beyond interesting characterization.

However Moore is a good enough writer that he pushes it to the limit but not further and doesn't allow his book to descend to the depths of being a one note joke. In fact by the end the joking has been relegated to the back burner as there's not only the showdown with the vampire clean-up crew to deal with, decisions have to be reached on everybody's part. Here again Moore shows his skill as an author through his ability to quickly switch tones. One moment we're in the middle of what can best be described as a horror farce and the next a gentle and genuinely touching story about the choices we make and the reasons we make them. Even more impressive is the way he is able to do this so that the transition from one to the other feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Vampires are all the rage right now among the teenage girl set with them swooning over handsome pale skinned heart throbs and dreaming of eternal love. Bite Me provides a nice antidote to the sickeningly sweet world of paranormal romance that's being peddled by the trash merchants these days. Even if slightly over the top at times, Moore is a refreshing dose of the absurd in a world which has started to take itself and fantasy far too seriously.

Book Review: The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar

New York City has long been known for attracting visitors and immigrants from all over the world as well as being a centre for artistic creation. So is it any wonder that artists of all shapes and sizes have shown up there seeking out fame and fortune? However, I doubt that even the creators of the I Love NY campaign (the first people to implement that annoying design of using a heart instead of the word love and who in light of its subsequent ubiquitous usage should have committed ritual suicide ages ago) could have foreseen the folk who flocked to the Big Apple in absurdist fantasy novel The Good Fairies Of New York.

While the book was originally published quite some time ago in England both Soft Skull Press and Tor Books currently have copies of the title on the market, with the latter being a mass market paperback while the former is available in an inexpensive trade paper back format. If it seems like I'm being a little bit biased towards Soft Skull, it's only because they've taken the extraordinary step for an independent publisher of picking up all of Millar's back catalogue, and have been steadily republishing them on a regular basis for the last couple of years. It was largely due to the success of Good Fairies when it was originally published back in 2006 that inspired them to be so unusually generous for a publisher.

I had read (and reviewed) Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl when it was first released, but had missed out on Good Fairies. Having enjoyed others of his recently released backlist (Ruby And The Stone Age Diet and Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation) it became imperative that I read Good Fairies. After all, as Neil Gaiman so accurately puts it in his introduction : "It has a war in it and a most unusual production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream and Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls guitar solos. What more could anyone desire from a book?" What indeed? In fact not only do his guitar solos play a key role in the book, the ghost of Thunders himself wanders through on a quest - he is searching for his lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top electric guitar which was stolen from him after a gig at CBGBS. According to what he tells fellow former and deceased member of the New York Dolls Billy Murcia, as they are hanging out in Heaven, he had put it down on a bar stool, turned away for a minute and when he looked again it was gone.
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Thunder's quest however, no matter how urgent it might be to him (there's a definite lack of gritty rock and roll in Heaven) is merely a side show to the greater tales at hand - namely the recounting of the exile of two Scottish Thistle fairies, Morag MacPherson and Heather MacKintosh, and how they come to the aid of two of New York City's rather more typical inhabitants. Dinnie MacKintosh and Kerry live across the street from each other, but the gulf that divides their characters is as deep as the Grand Canyon and as wide as the Pacific Ocean. For while Kerry is a graceful beauty full of compassion and love for almost all her fellow human beings, (the sole exception being Cal her ex-boyfriend who dumped her when he found out she had a colostomy bag and completely reneged on his promise to teach her Johnny Thunder's guitar solos from his days with the New York Dolls, thus she is determined to wreck horrible vengeance on him in some form or another) Dinnie is not only the city's worst fiddle player, he's overweight, a slob, a bigot, and generally all around mean person.

So when Heather and Morag flutter through his apartment window stoned and drunk on too many magic mushrooms and too much single malt whisky he's not exactly ecstatic to see them. Nor is he much mollified by Heather's assurances that fairy vomit smells sweet to humans after she spews on his arm and carpet, and begins to heap abuse on their heads and demand they leave, even though both Morag and Heather tell him that humans in Scotland would be thrilled to be visited by fairies. He eventually gets half his wish when the two fairies discover a) that he is a MacKintosh like Heather and b) how bad a fiddle player Dinnie is. All of which leads to Morag making derogatory remarks about MacKintosh fiddle playing in general, and the two fairies having a glorious row ending only when Morag flutters out the window and Heather vowing she can teach even a clod like Dinnie to play better than any MacPherson.

The window Morag flutters into across the street from Dinnie's is of course Kerry's, and they immediately strike up a friendship. Morag vows to not only help Kerry learn all of Johnny Thunders' leads from his days as a New York Doll, but to help her exact vengeance upon the hated Cal by assisting Kerry in winning the East Fourth Street's Community Arts Association Prize. Cal's entry is an amateur production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, while Kerry is attempting to assemble the exceedingly rare and beautiful Celtic Flower Alphabet, in which each of the original symbols of the Celtic alphabet are represented by a different flower.
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What neither human are aware of initially is how the two eighteen inch high fairies came to be in New York City. They'd been chased out of Scotland for desecrating one of the three great Fairy Relics, The MacLeod Banner. Not only had they cut two pieces out of it to use as blankets, adding insult to injury, they subsequently blew their noses in them. While fleeing Scotland they met up with three fairies from Ireland, Maeve, Padraig, and Brannoc who were helping the son and daughter of the King of the Cornish fairies, Tulip and Petal, to escape their father's rule. Somewhere in transit the seven had stumbled upon a field of magic mushrooms, indulged heavily, ended up on a cargo flight to New York City and found themselves hung over and coming too on the back of a transport truck wending through the streets of the city.

While Morag and Heather were settling in with their new human companions the other five exiles were living in the relative serenity of Central Park. While they had managed to make the acquaintance of some friendly squirrels and make friends with local black fairies from Harlem, it was soon revealed that even emigration to the New World wasn't far enough to keep them safe from their father as he decided to send his entire army after them. Meanwhile things aren't going so well for the other exiles as neither of their plans to help their human friends are working out so well. Even Morag's befriending the ghost of Johnny Thunders doesn't alleviate the disaster of having the centrepiece of Kerry's flower alphabet, a rare triple bloomed Welsh poppy, go missing. When Heather manages to piss off both the Italian fairies - she's been robbing the wrong banks - and the Chinese fairies, chaos ensues and leads to the first race riot between fairies in the history of New York City.

Martin Millar has penned a spectacular and gloriously wild ride of a book which manages to be both side splitting and touching at the same time. While it might seem like there are far too many threads of story lines for a reader to ever keep straight, his unique style of writing in short, sharp bursts gives us constant updates as to everyone's condition and the overall picture gradually takes shape in front of us. Like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, as a little more of each segment is revealed, the whole becomes clearer as well. The characters come into focus and the story takes on a life of its own as we delve deeper into their lives. As we are swept up into the current of events we can't help but give whoops of enjoyment as we hit the downward spirals, and think carefully over what is being said during the introspective ascents that precede them.

So wrap your clan kilt around your hips, strap on your claymore, and pick up your fiddle and be prepared for anything in this bizarre mix of traditional Scottish fairies and New York Punk. You might just find your preconceived notions of both stood on their heads and you'll be a lot happier for it. Fantasy writing needs to be shaken out of its stolid reverie and Mllar pushes and pulls it into dancing to something a little more daring than usual and its a lot better for it. You've heard of cyberpunk, well welcome to the world of faepunk, it can get bit wild and weird at times, but its a breath of fresh air that will revive even the most jaded of readers.

March 9, 2010

Book Review: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass By Drew Hayden Taylor

All across North America, and in fact around the world, the tradition of the trickster has a long and storied history among the older cultures of the world. Whether the Raven of the West Coast, Coyote of the plains, the bumbling Nanabush or Nanabozo of the woodlands, or whatever shape or form he has been given by his people, his purpose is the same. By epitomizing our worst traits, and putting them into action, he teaches us object lessons on how to live. By his own estimation he's the most intelligent. the bravest, the toughest, and generally all around best at everything, yet he invariably ends up falling flat on his face. Somehow or other he's always just tricky enough to outsmart himself and no one else.

The other thing all tricksters, no matter what their nationality, have in common is their complete lack of humility. No matter what happens, no matter how embarrassing the situation they end up finding themselves in, they never seem to able to learn the lesson that they were the ones responsible for their own downfall. While many of their predicaments are quite funny, there are occasions when our laughter at what happens to them is slightly tinged with sadness or even unease. For, while the stories are told to ensure we never get to full of ourselves, there are only so many times you can watch someone slip on a banana peel and find it funny until you start to either feel sorry for them or begin to wonder what it might be like to slip on it yourself.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any room in the modern world for tricksters anymore. Which is a pity, because we're currently a world that thinks way to highly of itself and has a far overblown sense of our own importance. We've all become so wrapped up in going about our business that we've forgotten how to live. Well, Canadian author Drew Hayden Talyor, a member of the Ojibway nation - or as they refer to themselves, Anishnawbe (The People) - has decided its about time to see what would happen if the ancient trickster of his nation were to show up on a modern day Reservation. What would he look like, what would people's reaction to him be, and what kind of mayhem would be the result? The answers to those questions and others can all be found in his first full length novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, being published by Random House Canada on March 9/10.
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The action takes place on the fictional Anishnawbe Reserve of Otter Lake, located somewhere in central Ontario, Canada. Maggie Secord has the usual problems single moms do with raising a teenage boy, but they're compounded by her decision to take over he late husband's role of elected Chief of the band. She's sure there was a good reason for her doing so at the time, but now she's damned if she can remember what that was. It's been especially difficult in the last couple of years as the government has finally decided to return to the band land that had been "borrowed" from them. Aside from all the paper work, and meetings with all levels of government - county, provincial, and federal - this involves, it sometimes seems, every person living on the reserve having their own opinions as to how the land should be put to use and each of them spelling their plans out in detail for her.

As if things couldn't get any more difficult, there's the whole matter of the mysterious white stranger who showed up at her mother's house just before she died. He pulled up on a bright red 1953 Indian motorcycle, and marched into the house and into her bedroom like he was expected. Well it turns out he was, for looking in his grandma's window, Maggie's son Virgil sees the young, blond white guy, kissing his grandma in a very friendly manner. Now grandma Lillian Benojee was one of those who were taken off to the residential schools in an attempt to take the Indian out of native children. Somehow or other though she managed to hold onto her language and beliefs, while also accepting some of the white man's. It always amazed her children how she could go to church on Sunday, yet also know all the old tales about Nanabush the trickster and recite them and her prayers with an equal amount of sincerity. In fact she could talk about both Jesus and Nanabush as if she knew them personally.

While we never find out about the former, Lillian does turn out to have been buddies with Nanabush and it was she who invited him to show up at Otter Lake reserve to say good bye to her before she left and to ask him a favour. Virgil, who was already suspicious of John after seeing him kissing his grandma, becomes even more so when he turns his attention to his mother. There's something decidedly odd about this white man whose eyes are always changing colour, can speak the Anishnawbe language better than most elders, and knows how to braid sweetgrass so perfectly. Aside from everything else, why do the local racoons seem to be following him everywhere he goes?
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In Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Drew Hayden Taylor has brought the character of Nanabush the trickster out of the old tales of his people and has him up to his usual tricks. He's not just some fun loving guy who plays practical jokes on people, he's also vindictive, selfish, and a liar. While he does make life more interesting for Maggie while he's on the reserve and helps her to have fun for the first time since her husband died, he also creates no end of problems for her with his solution for dealing with the land being returned to the tribe. Along the way Taylor manages to poke fun at his own people and politicians, while raising the issues of non-natives attitudes to land clams and Residential schools in a way which is humorous but at the same time doesn't diminish the reality of the situation.

People who aren't used to twenty-first century Natives, are going to be surprised to hear how much life on a reserve sounds like life in any small town. Everybody knows everybody, and its hard to have business that others aren't going to be sticking there noses in all the time. Of course they did use to be quite a bit different from those who are now living in neighbouring towns, and life on a reserve isn't quite the same as anywhere else. Yet, while Taylor manages to bring that reality to life its not the one we read in the newspapers all the time of despair and hopelessness. These are real people trying to balance the realities of living in the twenty-first century and holding onto their culture.

While Taylor doesn't shy away from the ugly truths that populate the history of the relationship between Native Canadians and their government, he uses humour to bring these issues into focus. Like the Nanabush stories of the past with their lessons on how to live a good life, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass slyly sneaks its message in when we're not looking. Its a gentle and timely reminder that while we may think we know what we're doing, there's a damn good chance that we're missing out on what's really important in our lives. We can get hung up in politics and issues all we want, but at the end of the day we all still have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

February 12, 2010

Book Review: Ruby And The Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar

It's difficult enough as it is for those of us who are reasonably well adjusted to handle the day to day grind of existence, let alone any of the nastier surprises that members of your own species might decide to chuck at you. It makes you wonder how anybody not firing on all their cylinders is able to cope. Oh sure there are those who have chosen to opt out of the game in one way or another, usually through either drugs or alcohol, or a combination of both. However I'm talking about the ones who wander through life minus some of the mental and emotional armour most of us employ to protect ourselves.

In his most recent book, Ruby And The Stone Age Diet published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Scottish born author Martin Millar takes us into the lives of those who live on the fringes of society. The unnamed narrator of the book shares living space with his friend Ruby, who no matter what the weather wears the same lilac cotton dress and a pair of sunglasses day in and day out and goes barefoot. While Ruby sits at home, or occasionally goes over to visit her inappropriate and abusive boy friend, our protagonist works a succession of temporary, mindless, unskilled labour positions in order to augment their unemployment insurance.

However, there are weeks when he's unable to obtain employment, and both of them forget to file their claims for the "dole" so they are often without any money. Even when he is able to earn money, Ruby insists that it be spent on things far more important than food and shelter - like an amazing new style of can opener and a crate of tinned beans. While they do spend what our narrator describes as "probably the most fun he has had in a year" opening the cans of beans, spreading them all over the apartment and frisbeeing the lids down the hall, at the end they still haven't eaten and they've spent all their money. Aside from not eating very much, they aren't able to pay rent very often, let alone utility bills, which means they are forced to move repeatedly from one illegal squat to another.
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Aside from his financial straits our narrator is also suffering from a broken heart as he and his girlfriend Cis break up near the beginning of the book. He spends a great deal of time envisioning scenarios in which he accidently on purpose runs into her. Of course he also has an incredibly active imagination which leads him to believe he occasionally travels in space ships with aliens, and to create gods and goddesses for the everyday demands of his life. For instance there is Helena, the goddess of electric guitar players and Ascanazl, an ancient and powerful Inca spirit who looks after lonely people. Unfortunately his fantasy life also prevents him from being able to hold down a full time job, or even keep his temporary ones for any length of time. For he is always being distracted away from the world or being forced to miss work because of the danger of being eaten by snow wolves.

While he refers to Ruby as his best friend, someone wonderfully supportive, Ruby is not what anybody would call healthy. She obviously suffers from some sort of eating disorder as she keeps coming up with new reasons for throwing all the food in their house out. At one point she insists they only follow the "Stone Age Diet" of the book's title, which means they can "only eat the sort of healthy things our ancestor would have eaten". As she hardly ever leaves the house, it's up to her to think up ways for them to make more money. One of her ideas is to write pornographic fiction. So she sends the narrator our on a series of "dates" by answering ads in sex trade magazines from people looking for S&M partners and has him recount the details of his encounters so she can write them out. Unfortunately it all comes to nought as she loses the stories on the bus.

Our narrator only wants to please, and is so grateful to Ruby for being his friend that he goes along with whatever she suggests. After all she's much smarter than he is and has his best interests at heart. Wasn't she the one who told him that the cactus Cis bought for him just before dumping him was actually an Aphrodite Cactus? Which upon flowering will seal the love of the one who gave it with the one who received it? So he instead of moving on from the broken relationship, he waits for the cactus to bloom, and dreams of Cis coming back to him. He's always there when Ruby needs him. He's somebody for her to control and to feel superior to. At one point he comments about how and Ruby are both expert self-pityists, and how they regard it as a good positive emotion, not exactly the healthiest basis for a friendship.
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Ruby And The Stone Age Diet meanders around inside the head of the narrator as he bounces from thought to thought without any direction. He is an innocent in a world that is far too confusing and he hides from it as much as he can. Unfortunately innocents also become victims as there are always those willing to take advantage of them. Occasionally you want to reach into the pages of the book and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to wake up, but most of the time he only makes you a little sad. When Ruby disappears at the end of the book he finds a full-time job working as a librarian. Without Ruby to support him he has to stop squatting and starts renting an apartment. He says the last without any irony, as if stability and security are signs of failure, as if it's a surrender.

While there are genuinely funny moments through out the book, the werewolf tale that Ruby is writing and that she reads from is hysterical, it's permeated by an aura of sadness that you can't escape. For all its main character's attempts at escapism, there's something undeniably real in Millar's descriptions of contemporary life. His characters gradually come alive over the course of the book, until by the end we know them all too well. We see in them elements of those we've known and various bits and pieces of ourselves. The mirror Millar holds up for us to look into may be a bit like those in a fun house distorting reality, but in the end we can't help realize the image we see in it is true whether we like it or not.

January 27, 2010

Book Review: Dust Of Dreams By Steven Erikson

How often do you read an eight hundred plus page book and get to the end not wanting it to end? I don't care how good a book it is, or how great the author, it takes something pretty special to not only hold your attention for that many pages, but to make you want it to keep going. Well, that's the case with the latest book from Steven Erikson, Dust Of Dreams, published by Random House Canada. In this, the ninth and second last book of his Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, not only has Erikson managed to maintain the level of intensity of the previous books, he ramps it up another notch, to the point where the reader is pretty much kept on the edge of their seats for the entire book.

Throughout the series Erikson has introduced us to literally hundreds of characters of various sizes, shapes, colours, and powers. Regular soldiers, kings, queens, wizards, gods, goddesses, demons, un-dead warriors of a variety of species, and shape-shifters, who represent an amazing array of species, worlds, and eras. In what has to be one of the most virtuoso pieces of universe creation yet, the action in Erikson's books is not limited to one world or one time period. In almost every book we are whisked backwards and forwards through time as the action not only spans continents and different planes of existence, but the past, present, and sometimes future of each location.

While locales and characters may change from book to book, the one constant in every book has been war. From the opening pages of the very first book, Gardens Of The Moon, where we find ourselves in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle, we haven't been able to escape the battle field. While some of the books deal with the battles waged by the Malazan Empire as it strives to both expand its territories and hold onto what it has captured at the same time, others deal with wars between races on distant continents with the latter seemingly unconnected to the former. However, no matter if the battle takes place between humans using mundane weapons or is being fought in the spirit world by gods and other outlandish folk, it's gradually become apparent that all of them have been skirmishes in one great conflict.
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One troop of humans the series has followed through various battles has been the beleaguered 14th army of the Malazan Empire. From their first battles quelling an uprising in the outlying reaches of the Empire, to their betrayal by the Empress herself on their return to their homeland, we've watched them turn from wide eyed, green recruits under the tutelage of a few veterans, to world weary, cynical, battlers. Having survived almost everything war can throw at them, from fire storms to sorcery, one would think they are now prepared to take on anything the world has in store for them. Yet when we meet up with them in Dust Of Dreams they seem more intent upon tearing themselves apart than readying for what might be their most deadly battle to date.

Part of that can be put down to the fact that they are still cut adrift, flying no country or empire's flag. They represent no one but themselves and the will of their leader, former Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore Paron. They neither know who they are about to fight, nor why they are heading off into some of the most inhospitable lands the world knows for this battle, but there are whispers of battles between gods and ancient forces making the rounds of their camps that make even the stoutest hearts quail and loyalties to waver. If Tavore knows what they are heading into, she's not saying, as not even her closest advisors and highest ranking officers are able to enlighten the troops. Those few among the troops, wizards, healers, and diviners of the future, who might reassure the troops with foreknowledge are no better off than the rest. In fact what little they are able to glean by reading signs or consulting their gods only makes them so uneasy it only increases the tension among their fellows.

It's not just the Malazans, or humans for that matter, who are preparing for battle. In fact it begins to appear that all who have survived the series to this point are about to converge at the same place and at the same time as the 14th army. Gods from the ancient days of the planet's life are plotting to regain power by attempting to depose those who have replaced them in mankind's pantheon. While their children and grandchildren may have come to ascendancy in other lands, here on this continent, belief in them is still strong enough for them to have the power necessary to strike what could be a blow that not only topples their descendants, but destroy the world. What better vengeance against a population that has begun to reject you is there for a god than destroying the world in which the mortals live?
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Does all this sound a little much? Are you confused? Well if you've not read the previous eight books in the series, or at least some of them, you'll be hard pressed to understand the context of what your reading and the majority of the plot lines won't make any sense. However, anybody who has been following Erikson from the beginning won't have any trouble keeping pace with events. While some new threads are introduced into the pattern, Dust Of Dreams is primarily populated by familiar faces and names continuing on the paths that Erikson set out for them whenever they first made their presence felt in the series. Whether it's Quick Ben or Fiddler, who we've followed all the way from the first book, or one of the myriad other characters who we've met along the way, their histories are sufficiently well known even if they've not been mentioned for a couple of books we're able to pick up their tale again with ease.

For it's the characters that have made this series so compelling from the onset. Erikson's careful attention to detail when creating the people who play significant roles in this world has ensured the reader will have no problems with continuity. It also means that even at this late stage in the game he is able to introduce new and seemingly unrelated story lines without creating any confusion. In fact those who have received only passing mention before, or who are introduced for the first time, not only play significant roles in helping build the series to its climax, they provide answers to questions that have been left dangling from previous books.

The Malazon Book Of The Fallen has distinguished itself from other epic ventures in the way it has always successfully melded action with thought. Not only is Erikson a master weaver of plots, a creator of fascinating characters, and the possessor of a vivid imagination, his work is far more intellectually stimulating than what you'd expect from the fantasy/sword and sorcery genre. His books raise questions about religion, faith, societal structure, war, human nature, and culture that both treat the subjects with the seriousness they deserve and integrate them seamlessly into the story lines. As a result there's never even the faintest whiff of pontification to be smelt while reading. Dust Of Dreams is no exception to this, as he continues to have his characters pose questions about their circumstances that encourage readers to think more carefully about their own situations without preaching or pretending there is only ever one solution to a problem.

Dust Of Dreams is the second last book in Steven Erikson's epic series The Malazon Book Of The Fallen, and like its predecessors its a masterful piece of storytelling. Not only does the author continue to hold our attention throughout the eight hundred and eighty some pages of the book, he does so through his usual admirable mix of action, thought, and humour. For those who've read all of the previous books in the series, this one will not only not disappoint, it will exceed your expectations. For those who've not read any of his other books - you don't know what you've been missing out on. In the future this will be the benchmark against which other epics will be measured.

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

December 8, 2009

Book Review: Crack'd Pot Trail By Steven Erikson

In the constant struggle of good against evil there are occasions when those who ally themselves on the side of the angels are forced by circumstances into acts which would see them condemned as evil themselves if it wasn't for the sacred nature of their mission. For those unenlightened enough to hold paragons of virtue to the same standards as the rest of the great unwashed it would in fact appear that occasionally there is no difference to be found between those combating evil and the evil doers themselves. However, to those narrow minded and self-righteous individuals who have made it their goal to scour the world of evil by any means necessary, the ends will always justify the means, no matter how abhorrent those means might seem to the naive and simplistic unable to see the big picture.

The hand that wields the sword of purity can not be swayed by such trivialities as sentiment, nor can it be judged by the same standards to which others are held to. Would you ask the angels to explain themselves as they went about their business? How could anyone expect those blinded by the bright light of goodness to see beyond their own narrow focus to the extent that they be forced to consider the consequences of their actions? Self appointed guardians of morality, especially when heavily armed, need not answer to anyone, not even their own consciences, supported as they are by the certainty of their own superiority to all those surrounding them.
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In fact, would you not say it was a sign of their saintliness, that they will unwaveringly commit atrocities in their quest to combat the forces of evil? Would you have the fortitude, the strength of character, to make the decision to eat your companions in order to ensure the completion of your task? It's not just anybody who can look around themselves and judge others worthy of being the fodder that will keep them strong in pursuit of evil. If you would witness such strength in action, than step onto the Crack'd Pot Trail, Steven Erikson's latest release from England's PS Publishing concerning the travails and travels of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. These two personifications of evil have swept like a scythe threw the known world, leaving behind them piles of bodies and acres of sin. Needless to say they've also managed to outrage the forces of decency and good everywhere they've travelled and now find themselves pursued by those dedicated to the sole task of wiping them from the face of the earth - the Nehemothanai.

Those familiar with any of the previous instalments involving Korbal Broach and Bauchelain will recognize some of the names hot on their tails - Mortal Sword Tulgord Vise from Blood Follows and Well Knight Arpo Relent from The Healthy Dead, and they are joined by the equally redoubtable Steck Marynd and the three Chanter brothers in their quest to exact vengeance on the necromancer duo for their foul deeds against goodness and decency. It's on the pilgrim path, the Crack'd Pot Trial, that we meet up with the heroes and the others making the trek through the harsh wasteland laying between the Gates of Nowhere and the Shrine of the Indifferent God. Aside from the above named there are amongst them are a mysterious noble woman who remains enclosed within her carriage the whole time, her manservant, a rag-tag collection of poets making their way to attend the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days to vie for title of "The Century's Greatest Artist" awarded there each year, and one Sardic Thew who proclaims himself to be host of this erstwhile band of travellers.

According to the narration provided by one Avas Didion Flicker, under normal circumstances the trek across the desolate Great Dry would take twenty-three days and is eased by springs of fresh water and the welcoming camps of those called the Finders. Alas for our poor pilgrims, for the wells are fouled, the springs muddied, and the camps are all deserted this year. So the twenty-third day finds them barely half-way to their destination and their supplies depleted. It's the eldest of the Chanter brothers, the inaptly named Tiny (supposedly the result of his mother's tryst with a bear) who hits upon the solution of ensuring the Nehemothanai are fed by having the poets sing not to be supper. Each day the poets will strive to entertain the rest of the party and the first who fails to amuse will be slaughtered to feed the rest.
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Those horses among the company are needed by our champions in their pursuit of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, and you can't deny nobility their carriage so the noblewoman's mules are sacrosanct, therefore the poets are the only bodies going spare. Besides, as is so aptly pointed out by the Well Knight, poets are known for their licentious behaviour and for inciting subversive thoughts that would not tolerated in a moral society. Anyway, if they aren't capable of entertaining, they serve no useful function and might as well do something of service and keep their companions alive.

Erikson's rather perverse and twisted take on Chaucer's Caterbury Tales differs from the original model in that not everybody is on the tale telling, and rather more is at stake with the tales than just whiling away the hours. In fact as readers we only ever hear two of the tales told in full, for on most occasions the poet who starts doesn't get a chance to finish before one or more critics decides to curtail their performance. The two tales we do here in full are the ones told by our narrator and he uses both to manipulate events on the journey to keep himself alive, proving that words can be as deadly a weapon as anything. However, as the pillars of virtue who made this competition a necessity are shown to exercise authority not because they hold some sort of moral high ground, but because their might makes them right, we can't help but applaud his efforts to stay alive

As is usual with Erikson there is more going on than meets the eye within Crack'd Pot Trail, as there are some carefully hidden agendas being plied beneath the surface. However what makes Erikson such a skilled story teller is his ability to gradually reveal what's going on through his characters and the events. He might supply us with a few diversions like an undead corpse joining the pilgrimage, but he doesn't allow them to confuse the issue or steal too much of our focus so we lose track of the real story. The characters in the story, whether old friends from previous stories or brand new, are sketched in rather broad strokes by our narrator, but we don't require more than those few lines to understand their motivations so it is more than enough.

Crack'd Pot Trail is a great piece of social satire which takes no prisoners. From the pompous poets who proclaim their greatness only to be revealed as thieves who've never written an original thought in their lives, to the warriors against evil who don't have a problem with forcing their companions to compete against each other in order to avoid being eaten. By the end of the story the so called villains of the piece come out looking a lot better than their reputations would have you think when compared with those who hunt them and the reader is left to ponder the exact nature of good and evil.

December 2, 2009

Book Review: Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia By Christopher Paolini

When I first saw a copy of Christopher Paolini's Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia, published by Random House Canada, I have to admit to being of two minds. My first, albeit selfish reaction was, damn this is going to cut into sales of the book, What Will Happen In Eragon IV, I had been commissioned to write by Ulysses Press last year. However, as a fan of the series I was also interested in seeing how the various artists involved would bring Paolini's world to life visually. I've not seen the video game, but having found the movie adaptation of the first book in the series, Eragon, to be disappointing not only as a retelling but visually as well - heck they couldn't even recreate some of the beings accurately in spite of Paolini giving very accurate descriptions - I hoped for something a little better in this attempt.

I don't know how much say Paolini had in the decision making process as to the art used or the artists employed for the book, for the usual practice in book publishing is the author has little or no say in things like what a book's cover will look like or the design of the book. However in the case of Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia there would have had to be some co-ordination between the artists and the author as the art and text have been very carefully integrated. Still, Paolini could have come up with the text independently, and the artists and designers worked to create the illustrations and lay out of the book based on what he had written without consulting him. Therefore, much like the movie, there's a good chance he didn't have much say in the matter, meaning there was the possibility this could have been equally disappointing.
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Thankfully his publishers aren't about to mess around with one of their hottest properties, and as this book is obviously meant to tide people over until the release of book four, they have gone to great pains to be as true to Paolini's vision as possible in their selection of illustrators and illustrations. Again I'm not sure whose idea it was, but it was a brilliant stroke to have the text read like a personal letter from Eragon, welcoming the reader into the fold as a dragon rider and offering them the benefit of his knowledge of Alagaesia and its inhabitants. This allows the text to have a much more conversational tone then most books of this type. Far too often they end up coming across as a mixture of encyclopedia, dictionary, and history text, with the words and the illustrations end up existing as completely separate entities within the same covers.

The illustrations, by Fred Gambino, Larry McDougal, Ian Miller and David Wyatt, range from wonderfully detailed black and white pen and ink drawings, coloured illustrations, detailed maps, to the equivalent of full colour paintings that capture both the magical attributes and the harsher realities of the world created by Paolini. Jonathan Lambert's design has ensured the artwork is not only shown to its best effect, it also integrates the text superbly. There's always the risk in a book like this of trying to cram too much information onto one page resulting in a confusing hodgepodge of information. Lambert has avoided this through his careful use of fold out flaps to expand some pages, small, beautifully decorated, booklets that when opened reveal information specific to the subject at hand, and occasional samples of the objects under discussion, while never over saturating a page.

For example, on the page devoted to discussing the elvish people of Alagaesia the reader not only is treated to illustrations and text describing them and their home city of Ellesmera, you will find a collection of key phrases in Elvish, a description of their queen Islanzadi, and a description of their clothing in the small booklets affixed to the page. Carefully attached to these pages are also a small sample of the fabric elves use for making their clothes, while another envelope contains a small piece of elvish craftsmanship the reader can carefully remove to treasure as a souvenir of their trip to that country. There are treasures like this scattered throughout the book, ranging from an example of what a dragon wing feels like, to a very special treasure at the end of the book which I'll leave for the reader to discover on their own.
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As for the text itself, well you won't find out anything new about Alagaesia, the story, or anything about the characters in the story. What you will find in each section is that all the information Eragon has compiled during his journeys about a particular subject has been summarized in easy to digest chunks. From the overall history in the shape of a timeline, the map of the continent (with accompanying illustrations of some of the story's key locations), the history of each of the four main races of beings (elves, humans, dwarfs, and urgals), and on down the list including the wildlife found on the continent, each section will gives the reader an overview at a glance and the opportunity to explore the subject in more detail through the added pockets of information.

From Eragon's letter of welcome, tucked into an envelope stuck on the inside of the front cover, to his final message on the inside of the back cover, Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia offers a beautifully illustrated history and overview of the world Paolini created for his adventure. The individual illustrators have done a remarkable job of realizing Paolini's vision by bringing the environments and beings of the world to the page in a manner that is faithful to his text. While some people or places may not be exactly as you might have visualized them in your head while reading the books, there is never any doubt in your mind as to who or what are being depicted.

While you won't find any clues or discussion as to what the future holds for Alagaesia or Eragon, you can find that in another recently published book, for the fan of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle this book will be a visual treat and a pleasure from beginning to end. It may not be Book Four, but in the interim it will do just fine.

November 28, 2009

Book Review: Midnight Fugue By Reginald Hill

The English is a funny old thing isn't it? It's gone through life picking up bits of pieces from other languages and appropriating them for its own use. Some of the meanings that have been attached to these new words might leave those who originally spoke the language it came from shaking their heads, but it has also allowed for an incredible amount of flexibility when it comes to word meaning. Look through the dictionary and you'll be amazed at how many words have two, if not more, either meanings, or ways they can be employed which changes their meaning.

Any writer worth his or her salt is going to learn how to take advantage of this as soon as possible, and not just for the opportunities it allows for one to make rally bad puns. Using a word with multiple meanings allows authors to suggest two thoughts at once to their readers making it harder to predict just what will happen as they continue to read. For somebody writing a mystery or a thriller you can see how attractive that would be. Having your reader's thoughts running in a couple of directions at once will keep them on their toes even more than usual if you know what you're doing.

Anyone who has enjoyed the work of Reginald Hill over the last number of years, and more specifically his novels featuring Chief Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Peter Pascoe, have come to appreciate the joy he receives from playing with the English language. In his newest release, Midnight Fugue published on November 24th/09 by Random House Canada, he delivers the goods yet again with an intriguing mystery built around the meanings of fugue from the title.
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Feeling himself fully recovered from his recent brush with mortality, (he was caught in a bomb explosion) Dalziel has returned to work assuming he can pick up right where he left off. Unfortunately, as anybody who has missed any amount of work could have told him, he discovers that in his absence not only hasn't the world ended because he wasn't there to keep it in one piece, his junior officers have begun to learn how to survive without him. Worse yet he begins to wonder if Pascoe's thought that he might have returned to work a little early might not be correct. For what else would explain him rushing out of the house on a Sunday morning to ensure he's not late for his Monday morning conference?

However this minor state of confusion turns out to be the least of Andy's problems on this Sunday morning. Gina Wolfe, the fiancee of an acquaintance from the London police force, comes to Andy with the story of trying to track down her police officer husband who had vanished seven years ago without a trace. She has just begun taking steps to have him declared legally dead when she receives in the mail a newspaper clipping of a photo showing her missing husband as part of a crowd. Seven years earlier not only had Alex Wolfe come under suspicion of being in the pay of one time East End of London loan shark Goldie Gidman, but his and Gina's young daughter had died of leukaemia. Instead of being a comfort to his bereaved wife, Wolfe had seemed to shut down to the point of unresponsiveness, until she eventually left him. It was shortly after that he vanished so completely that he might as well have ceased to exist.

However it's not just Gina who has come looking for any sign of Alex. Goldie Gidman doesn't like loose ends floating around that can come back to haunt him or his family. Especially now when his son is considered a rising star in the Conservative party. In spite of not being a natural part of the Conservative constituency - Gidman senior is the son a black immigrant - Goldie had felt a definite kinship for the avarice and greed on display in that party under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Part of his effort to hide the past and make the transition to respectable pillar of the community had been the making of large regular contributions to the party coffers for decades. How would it look now if it came to light that he had paid members of London's finest to keep him abreast of the a major investigation into his affairs? Even worse would be information about his days of using a hammer to break fingers as gentle reminders of overdue loans coming to light. They would be sure to cast a pall on his son's chances of political success.
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However Goldie's cleaning crew, the brother and sister team of Fleur and Vince, who are dispatched to look into the potential of Wolfe talking, aren't as up to the task as they once might have been, what with Fleur preoccupied with her pending death from a brain tumour and her need to get her idiot brother out of harms way before she dies. It seems like no one, from the villains to the missing person, are operating at quite a hundred per cent capacity. For the first time in his life Andy Dalziel is actually slowed by self doubts, which are only heightened by the sense of self-recrimination he feels when a junior officer he enlists to assist him unofficially is seriously hurt when she has a run in with Vince and Fleur.

In music a fugue is a composition where a melody is introduced in one part, and then successively taken up by others and developed by the interweaving of all the parts. Which is exactly what Hill has done with characters and plot lines instead of music so adroitly in his Midnight Fugue. Each new character introduced reveals a different facet of the overall theme, and as he gradually interweaves them the picture becomes clearer and carries the story to its conclusion. The author who brings in multiple views of a single story risks leaving his readers scratching their heads in confusion. Hill is able to avoid this by not only making each of the perspectives offered intriguing plot lines in their own right, but equally important, making sure they add to the theme by either revealing more information or posing questions that set us to pondering possible ways in which it could develop.

While some of the characters experience momentary lapses in their awareness of who they are and find themselves far afield from their usual territory - whether Andy Dalziel sitting in a cathedral contemplating his life or Alex Wolfe leading a new life far from London - or in a fugue state, there's never an occasion where the reader feels the same way. It's a pleasure to see how Hill incorporates the multiple meanings of the word fugue into the both the structure of the story and the plot without letting it interfere with the important business of writing an enjoyable mystery story. Fans of Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, and the rest of Hill's ensemble of characters, will be delighted with how he has continued to develop their interrelationships. At the same time newcomers to Hill's work can take pleasure in reading an intriguing mystery filled with his trademark intelligence and sufficient dollops of gritty reality to keep it firmly in the realm of the believable. Further proof, if any were needed, that Hill is far more than just a mystery writer.

November 21, 2009

Book Review: War Dances By Sherman Alexie

What is a short story? Technically it's a story that's not more than a certain amount of words or pages in length, usually a great deal shorter than even the shortest of novels. Yet there's more to it than just the number of words it contains. The good short story writers are able to give readers of their few pages insight into the world around them that many writers of full length novels never manage to do. Of course our expectations when it comes to short stories are different than those we have for a full length novel. Instead of a long drawn out and slow developing plot over the course of which we gradually get to know a group of characters, we are usually plunked down into the middle of somebody's life and watch as they grapple with one particular incident.

For all we know once we leave, after the story is done, they continue on to do other things, but that's not what caught the author's attention about them anyway. Short stories aren't much for extraneous details about a person's life, but at the same time we still somehow manage to get to know the person in the story well enough by its end we are able to come to a conclusion about them and their life. How short story writers are able to do that is a bit of a mystery, one that I've never really taken the time to solve, and actually one that I'm not that interested in solving. Would you ask a stage magician to reveal the secret behind some great illusion that has left you spell bound? Well the same goes for a short story writer as far as I'm concerned - I don't want to know how they did it, I just want to enjoy the results of their labour.

While Sherman Alexie has published three of full length novels, as well as writing a couple of screen plays, the majority of his work has either been short stories or poetry. His latest collection from the Grove/Atlantic press, War Dances is pretty much evenly split between poems and short stories, and there's not a wasted word or thought among them. When you only dole out so many words you can't afford for even one to sound faintly off, let alone discordant. In this collection Alexie is completely in tune with his subject matter, with each word and thought working together to give us twenty-three snap shots of life.

As well as being a writer, Alexie also happens to be a member of the Spokane nation, a Native American, so naturally quite a number of his stories and poetry deal with that reality. That doesn't mean your going to find stories filled with eagle feathers and sweat lodges, but you will find references to things like dying a natural Indian death of alcohol and diabetes. In the title story of the collection, "War Dances", after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a man recalls his father dying of the above mentioned natural causes, and in the midst of his own worries about his health he goes over in his mind the things his father went through - endured - before his life finally ended.

Alexie is far too subtle a writer to simply write out a standard list of indignities suffered at the hands of a racist society. Instead with satire and humor he is able to make the same points, but without hitting us over the head too hard. At one point in "War Dances" he interrupts the story with what his character calls an exit interview for my father, a list of questions about his life. My favorite was, "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind "is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time". Do you believe this is true? And is it also true that you once said, "The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut"?

However Alexie doesn't just write about American Indians, he also writes about the general emptiness of some people's lives. "The Ballad Of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a rather vacuous businessman who specializes in vintage clothing. While there's nothing wrong with his profession, there's something wrong with his soul. "He was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits", we're told as Paul sings the refrain from a stupid Hall and Oates song after glimpsing a beautiful woman in an airport. It's not actually the woman herself that attracts him as much as her red Puma running shoes. He had fallen in love with them when he first saw them advertised, and on a beautiful woman's feet they were even more spectacular.

Paul, who claims to love his wife and three daughters, still has managed to sleep with eight other women aside from his wife during the course of their marriage, which could explain why they are separated. Paul doesn't have any core values, he believes pop music and popular culture to be the great unifying force among Americans. How can we be so different he thinks, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? How can anything be a unifying force for a man who is a serial adulator but is also convinced he loves his wife?

Alexie has captured the essence of man living in a fantasy world with Paul, and the scary thing is that we can see the potential for this character everywhere. Popular culture defines us in ways we don't even know - it's what we talk about with colleagues at work, its one of the few things that we have left in common with most people that we come in contact with. What does that say about us when a thirty minute situation comedy is the glue that binds a society together? When the only things we really have in common with the people we share a country with aren't ideals but twenty minutes of mindless comedy and ten minutes of commercials?

Not all of the stories or poems are as satirical as the two I've described, in fact some are really quite splendid in how they capture moments of beauty with the commonplace. His poem "Ode To Small-town Sweethearts" captures the joy/pain/foolishness of adolescent love/lust with the right touch of reality mixed with sentimentality so that everybody reading it - no matter what their background - can immediately relate to and understand the experience being described. "Mortals have always fought the gods/And braved epic storms for love and/or lust/So don't be afraid to speak honestly/About how you obeyed beauty's call./And though your triumph was small/ You can still sing of your teenage odyssey."

In some ways short stories are the insects caught in amber of literature in that they preserve moments in time and space for us to examine from all angles. In his most recent collection, War Dances, Sherman Alexie proves once again that he's a master of shining a light through amber and letting us see the insects from all sides. Sometimes the stories he tells are filled with bitter truths that will hurt going down or that some people aren't going to want to read. Yet at the same time there is a gentleness to his stories, on occasion, which show a willingness to believe that there are things that all of us share, and some experiences are universal no matter how far apart we may appear to be. That's the ultimate magic trick behind a short story and Sherman Alexie is a conjurer without equal.

November 2, 2009

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer - A Retelling By Peter Ackroyd

I've always believed that if you want to truly understand a people and their culture you need to read the stories they've written, or told, about themselves. Its from these works that we can get an accurate depiction of what a people believe in, what guides their behaviour, and the philosophical and moral precepts they base their code of conduct on. While reading religious texts or morality tales may well outline the hierarchy among the Gods and the requirements placed upon a people for living a holy life, it's only in the stories that we see them in their day to day living. Of course, the stories are also a much more reliable indicator of the tenor of the times they were written in; for while a dictate in a religious text may not change over the centuries, the way people react to its strictures will vary from age to age.

Interestingly enough a number of peoples have turned to their own stories in an attempt to remind themselves of who they are in order to either stave off cultural extinction, like Native Americans and First Nations people in America and Canada respectively, or to reclaim their history and culture from former colonial masters. In India, for example, the British managed to rewrite history so successfully, the nineteenth century bid for independence by Indians is still referred to in most history books as the Indian Mutiny. So instead of it being depicted as the attempt of an oppressed people to throw off the invader it seems an illegal act against a legitimate governing body.

While you can understand the logic behind those efforts to re-visit older stories, what reason would an Englishman have for a similar project? There doesn't seem much danger of that culture becoming extinct nor has there been any recent attempt by a foreign power to re-write their history. Yet British author Peter Ackroyd has written a modern language version of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, being published by Penguin Canada on November 3rd/09.
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The original Canterbury Tales is credited with being the first major work of literature written in English. There's no denying it's historical significance either, as at the time French was the common language of the educated, the nobles, and Kings and Queens, the majority of whom were descendants of the Norman invaders of 1066. However, after the publication of Chaucer's book, that all began to change, and by the time the next king crowned English had become the official language of the court and learning. Of course the English it was originally written in is as foreign to most of us as if it were another language - anybody who remembers trying to struggle through reading "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe" (Wife of Bath) in high school can attest to that - so aside from scholars, most people have probably never read Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

For those who might have forgotten, or never known, the basic story of The Canterbury Tales is a group of pilgrims setting out from London to Canterbury in order to visit the tomb of St.Thomas Becket, agree to each tell the others a story while they travel in order to pass the time more pleasantly. Aside from Chaucer himself who acts as narrator of the overall events, the party consists of a cross section of the time's society with about a fifty/fifty split between those in the employ of the Church and lay folk. Instead of referring to individuals by name, each of the party is identified by their position be it priest, nun, squire, knight, merchant, pardoner, summoner, friar, or Wife of Bath.

Some of the titles, like pardoner (sold pardons for sins on behalf of the church), and summoner (summoned folk to ecclesiastical courts), were positions in the church that have long since been abolished due to the abuses of those who filled their offices. Others like franklin, the name given to a landowner not of noble birth, and manciple, who we would refer to either as a quartermaster or supply clerk, have long since fallen out of common usage. However, no matter what their title or status, none of them are safe from the caustic commentary of Chaucer's pen. Whether it's the "Knight's Tale" full of extreme examples of chivalry, elaborate and overblown acts of piety, and idyllic depiction of romantic love or the Friar's and Summoner's bawdy and caustic tales about the other's vocation, he manages to satirize both the teller of the tale and tsome aspect of his times.
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According to Ackroyd's introduction when Chaucer went to Italy the major lesson he gleaned from the works he studied there was the importance of producing works in the vernacular of the people you're writing for. For a culture to thrive, it can't just be the province of the ruling classes, everybody needs at least be given the chance to enjoy it. By rendering The Canterbury Tales in language that most of the English speaking world can understand, Ackroyd is following in Chaucer's footsteps and making the work not only accessible to a new generation, but to a far wider audience then ever before.

Unlike earlier interpretations, which have adhered to the poetic structure of the original work and tried to be as faithful as possible to the text, Ackroyd's version is not only in prose but he has replaced words that are no longer in common usage with ones that convey similar meanings while retaining true to the spirit of the text. He's done a remarkable job, because while he has recreated the style of the original text, in that the cadences and manner it is presented are similar to middle English texts I've read, the language is sufficiently of the 20th century that no one should have any trouble understanding it.

Earlier I asked whether there was anything that could be learned from a retelling of The Canterbury Tales, comparing it to efforts made by other cultures to reclaim their history or relearn their traditions. While there may not be the same urgency or need as with those other efforts, its value as a first hand account of life from our history can't be overstated. Chaucer's frankness when it comes to sexual matters, and his refusal to revere a person because of their office, whether secular or religious, shows that no matter what the age the role of the artist has always been to question and hold a mirror up for society to see itself warts and all. In this day and age when people look to the past to justify prudery in the name or religion, and far too many in power seem to expect shelter from prosecution based on the privileges granted them by their office, its nice to be able to point out precedent for the opposite.

Aside from any deep sociological and philosophical reasons for this work being re-written, there's also the fact that its a lot of fun to read. Where else will you find the answer to how to divide a fart into twelve equal parts? Part Monty-Python, part Carry On gang, and part biting satire, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the funniest works of English literature. With his retelling Peter Ackroyd has given everybody a wonderful opportunity to enjoy it to its fullest, and as close to the spirit that Chaucer wrote it in as even the most devout literary purist could want. Sometimes a story is its own best reason for its revival, and that's definitely the case here.

October 29, 2009

Book Review: The Forest Of The Pygmies By Isabel Allende

Far too often adventure stories set in places like Africa or other exotic locales feature Western heroes who have to overcome various challenges in order to achieve their goal. If the people who live in the area play any role in the proceedings it's either in the guise of savage natives who mean them harm, or simpletons who have to be led by the hand in order to get anything accomplished. If anything is said about their belief systems it is either represented as superstitious nonsense or some sort of black magic.

One of the things that impressed me the most reading City Of The Beasts by Isabel Allende was the way in which she depicted both the peoples, and their beliefs, of the Amazon rain forest. While some of her characters might have spouted the usual lines about dangerous savages, Allende made every attempt to counter that view in her descriptions of them and their behaviour. Her two central characters ended up spending time with one particular group of indigenous peoples and through their eyes we learned about their society and beliefs in as real a way as possible.

Therefore I was interested to see what she would do with the same characters when she transported them to Africa in Forest Of The Pygmies, being published in a brand new edition by Harper Collins Canada in their Perennial Editions imprint on November 3rd/09. It's been a couple of years since Nadia and Alexander shared their first adventure in the Amazon, and in the interim Nadia has moved from South America where she was born to New York City to live with Kate, Alex's grandmother, so she can go to school. With Alex still living in California with his parents they don't see each other any more than they did before, but they have stayed in constant touch via e-mails, and their friendship has grown far deeper than is usual between a teenaged boy and girl.
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When Kate receives an assignment to report on a new type of safari being offered to tourists in Kenya by the wildlife magazine she writes for, she and the two young friends are already overseas, so she makes it a condition of her acceptance that they accompany her. Initially the trip appears to be rather tame in comparison to their previous times travelling together. The new safari is adventurous enough, as it has the tourists being ferried around by elephants, and allows them unprecedented access to the wild life of the great plains, but its relatively safe. All of which makes the warning Nadia and Alex received from a Voodoo priestess to never separate or they faced death at the hands of a three headed ogre prior to beginning the safari all the more incongruous. The only danger they faced on the safari was from a troupe of mandrils who trashed their camp after breaking into Kate's store of medicinal vodka.

However, fate in the shape of a missionary searching for missing companions changes their plans just prior to their departure from Kenya. Agreeing to help Brother Fernando in his quest results in the air plane they were travelling in crash landing deep in the jungle at a spot near where he claimed his fellow missionaries had established a mission. It turns out that the closest village is ruled by a couple of army officers who have established their own personal fiefdom. They controll the local population of pygmies and Bantu tribes people through threats and violence. By holding their women and children hostage, King Kosongo and commandant Mbembele, force the pygmy tribesmen to carry out illegal hunts for elephant tusks which they in turn sell to smugglers.

It soon becomes obvious that the missionaries Brother Fernando is searching for were murdered by the two despots. When Alex, Nadia, Kate, and their companions are made "guests" in the village they realize the only way they can save themselves is if they can convince the locals to rise up against their rulers. Alex and Nadia manage to escape the village and join up with a hunting party of pygmy men - they have a day within which to capture an elephant or their children will face reprisals. The challenge for Alex and Nadia is to find a way to help the men regain their confidence sufficiently to be able to stand up for themselves against their enemies.
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As in the earlier book, The City Of The Beasts, Isabel Allende has her heroes find the answer by learning about the people they are trying to help. The pygmies are ancestor worshipers and believe in the power of the spirit world. Alex and Nadia spend a night in their burial grounds in an attempt to communicate with those who have gone before in order to find the means to restore the people's pride and sense of self. While the experience they have may border on the supernatural in some people's eyes, they learn not only about the pygmies, but gain a deeper understanding of their own fears and aspirations.

Even with the knowledge they gain through this experience the adventure is far from over, but just as important is the fact that Allende is opening the minds of her readers to the possibility that there are more ways to look at the world then the ones we've been taught. Knowledge can be gleaned from places other than books and the Internet, and simply because people look at the world in a different way than we do, doesn't make their view any better or worse, just different. Through the experiences of Alexander and Nadia readers learn of the diversity of beliefs and the multitude of wondrous ways which people have of seeing the world.

Not only has Isabel Allende written a novel that works as a rollicking adventure story for young people, but she manages to present as balanced a view of the world as you'll see in any work of fiction. Without making it obvious, or rubbing a reader's face in it, her stories teach valuable lessons about tolerance and understanding. The new Harper Perennial editions of the work include interviews with the author and a reading guide to help increase appreciation for the story. If you missed out on Forest Of The Pygmies in its previous editions, these enhancements make it the perfect time to pick up a copy.

October 28, 2009

Book Review: City Of The Beasts By Isabel Allende

Most adventure stories for young adults don't go much below the surface of the story. Oh sure there will be some sort of morale or lesson to be learned in some of them, but on the whole the action is what matters. The stories themselves aren't bad, but the books always seem to lack something in sophistication and too often have little or nothing to do with most young people's reality. Oddly enough the books that do the best jobs of dealing with subjects that are pertinent to young people are usually fantasy books set outside are everyday world. It's as if the story doesn't take place on earth or in our time period the author has licence to mention the subjects because he or she aren't dealing with reality.

So when I discovered South American author Isabel Allende, best known for her novels The House Of Spirits and Zorro had written a series of books for young adults I was intrigued as to what she would do with the genre. Allende usually does a remarkable job of mixing contemporary political and social issues into her novels without ever losing track of her responsibilities as a story teller. With Harper Collins Canada issuing new editions of her trio of young adult titles under their Perennial Editions it seemed like as good as chance as any to check out if she was able to have the same success with this genre as she's had with other titles.

City Of The Beasts, first published in 2002, is the first of three books (the other two being Kingdom Of The Golden Dragon and Forest Of The Pygmies) that see teenaged Alexander Cold flying halfway around the world with his grandmother Kate. Kate is anything but your average grandmother being a writer for naturalist magazines whose assignments invariably take her well off the beaten path to check out rumours of various exotic and dangerous creatures. At fifteen Alex's world is being turned upside down by his mother's battle with cancer. When his father decides that she will be better off be taken for treatment in a hospital in Texas, Alex and his two sisters are sent off to live with their grandparents.
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While he would have gladly joined his sisters in going to stay with his maternal grandmother, he's less than thrilled to be told he'll be spending the duration of his time with his dad's mom. When his father casually mentions for him to make sure to take his passport with him because it looks like he'll be going into the heart of the Amazon rain forest with Kate, he's heart sinks even further. When he finds out that he'll be joining an expedition searching for a mythological Yeti like creature, simply referred to as The Beast, who is said to release a scent that paralyses its victims before it cuts them open with huge claws, his only consolation is since nobody has ever found the Yeti, the chances of them finding The Beast will be pretty slim.

However he can't deny that he's not excited about the trip as well. He's been learning in school about the effects of civilization encroaching on the rain forest and the damage being caused to both its human and non-human inhabitants. As he's about to discover the reality of the situation is a lot more deadly and shameful than anything he's read or studied in school. He first hears rumours of it when he and his grandmother reach the small village that serves as their staging post for their exploration. Santa Maria de la Lluvia is considered the last outpost of civilization, and its dominated by the compound of a South American businessman Mauro Carias, who is always accompanied by the commander of the local army barracks, Captain Ariosto. While the army is nominally supposed to be there to protect the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government, the reality is that many of the local officers are in the pay of businessmen like Carias, and act as their personal armies.

Alex is soon taken under the wing of their guide's daughter, Nadia, who is about two years younger, but far more experienced in the ways of the jungle and its people. Shortly after he arrives she introduces him to one of her friends, Walimai, a shaman from one of the local tribes. When she tells Alex that he is accompanied by the spirit of his late wife he doesn't know whether she's teasing him, or simply deluded for believing such nonsense. However shortly before they are to leave he has an experience that forces him to change his attitude somewhat. Carias takes them on a tour of his compound where he has caged a magnificent black jaguar. Standing outside the wire fence looking in at the animal Alex experiences an out of body event where he feels like he becomes one with jaguar. When he explains what happened afterwards to Nadia she tells him that he has discovered his animal totem, and the jaguar will always be part of him.
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As they journey deeper into the jungle and Alex and Nadia encounter more of the people who live there, including a tribe who have had little previous contact with outsiders. The People of the Mist, so named for their ability to seemingly materialize and vanish into thin air, have managed to avoid contact with others until now because of the remote location of their village. However, Carias and Captain Ariosto have plans to exploit their land, and have developed the foolproof means of removing them as an obstacle. It's up to the two young people to come up with a way to foil them, and in the process they discover the secret of the mysterious Beast and other secretes of the Amazon basin.

Allende has done a remarkable job of not only writing an adventure story that will capture the imaginations of young people, but will also introduce them to the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin and the threat they face from the exploitation of their environment. At the same time she opens their eyes to the possibility there is more to the world than what meets their eyes. Both Alex and Nadia experience events that can't be explained away by logic or other rational means, yet at the same time everything that happens to them takes place in what is obviously our modern world not some fantastical creation of the author. However, the most important message that she's able to convey, and all this without once preaching or distracting from the quality of her story, is no one people have the answer as to what is civilization. While the ways of The People of the Mist are obviously completely unsuited for life in a city, that doesn't make them any better or worse than we are, just different.

Travelling around the world with Alex Cold, his grandmother Kate, and his new friend Nadia, will introduce readers to the amazing diversity of life that exists in the world around us. Whether it's on the physical plane experiencing the wonders, both beautiful and frightening, of nature and the importance of learning to co-exist with whatever environment you find yourself in, or the possibility of things existing that defy explanation, Allende opens your eyes to the fact that the world is quite a bit different from what we see every day. With so many amazing things to discover here on earth you may just find yourself wondering who needs fantasy or science fiction after all.

October 26, 2009

Book Review: In His Majesty's Service By Naomi Novik (Omnibus Edition: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, And Black Powder War)

When I was young I was fascinated with European history, especially the Napoleonic wars that changed the shape of Europe from 1798 to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Aside from the fact that he conquered most of Europe he was also responsible for the rise of nationalism among countries that had been former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of those countries he occupied actually looked to him as an example until his troops showed up on their doorstep. However that was knowledge I only came by later when studying the era in school. As a kid I garnered my history lessons from the books of two British authors, Ronald Welsh and C. S Forester. Welsh's books followed the fortunes of the Carey family in war from the Crusades to WWI, while Forester's books traced the career of British naval officer Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral.

It's been a long time since I read any books of that type, and to be honest, I didn't really think there was anyway an author could come up with an original enough way of presenting the same history over again to make it interesting enough to read. Well, I have to tell you that when I'm wrong I'm wrong. As I'm sure many of you have already discovered American author Naomi Novik not only created the means to do just that, but has done so in a manner which recreates everything that made those original books so wonderful to read at the same time. If you're like me and had never read any of her Temeraire series, Random House Inc is releasing the perfect answer on October 27th/09, In His Majesty's Service, an omnibus collection of the first three of the five books so far published; His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War. As a bonus they've also thrown in a previously unpublished short story set in the world she has created "In Autumn A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River"

In the world that Novik has created dragons exist and have the ability to communicate with humans. Not all dragons are fire breathers, some are prized for their weight, some for their manoeuvrability, while others for their ability to spit acid. However, no matter how valuable a resource they might be considered in times of war, in British society it's not the done thing for a gentleman to become an aviator. Buying a commission in the navy, the cavalry, or even the infantry is an acceptable occupation for a younger son of a good family, but Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy knows just what his father's reaction will be when through sheer chance he ends up bonding with a dragon.
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It matters little that his dragon, whom he names Temeraire after the first ship he served on, turns out to be an exceedingly rare dragon of Chinese breeding, a Celestial, he knows his father will look on it as a stain on the family's good name. However he soon discovers that he neither cares, or has time for his father's, or anybody else's, prejudices. For one thing he is astounded at Temeraire's capacity for learning and intelligence. However what amazes him most of all is the emotional bond that develops between him and Temeraire. He soon discovers he prefers his company over that of most humans. While the first book in the omnibus, His Majesty's Dragon is mainly concerned with developing the characters of both Temeraire and Laurence and establishing the world they live in, we do find out pieces of information which will bear significantly on the duos future adventures. Laurence had captured Temeraire's egg from a French vessel that it attacked as it would normally during the course of battle. However what they didn't know at the time was that the egg was meant to be a present for Napoleon from the Chinese Emperor.

So even though Temeraire almost single handed (winged) managed to repulse Napoleon's invasion fleet off the coast of Britain, the British government seriously considers sending him back to the Chinese when the emperor's second son shows up demanding he be handed over. In Throne Of Jade we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they travel to China in an attempt to plead their case. It's while in China that the two come face to face with how unfairly dragons are treated in the West. In European countries dragons are kept at a far remove from humans, and treated with only a little more courtesy than other domesticated animals. However in China they discover the society is set up to accommodate both species, from city streets being wide enough for dragons to stroll through them freely, dragons being paid for their services, knowing how to read and write, to having positions of authority both in the military and civilian life.
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While Black Powder War details their return to Great Britain, we also learn that as a result of their activities in China they have made for themselves, and Britain, a deadly enemy. Lien is a giant albino dragon who holds a personal grudge against them for their role in the death of her rider. That he was trying to kill Laurence and overthrow his father the emperor of China is irrelevant, and now she has offered her services to Napoleon in order to see Britain overthrown and Temeraire dead. What can one dragon do you might wonder? Well plenty once she's able to convince Napoleon to start using dragons the way the Chinese do and teaching them the battle plans she studied in China.

While all dragons carry a certain number of crew, nobody had thought to use them to act as troop and supply transports until Lien suggested it to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire witness the success of her new tactics first hand as they barely escape from the debacle of the defeat of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon while making their way home from China. For using dragons to increase their mobility the French army is able to advance so fast that they take the Prussians by surprise and cut off their planned retreat through Poland to join up with the Russian army. Even though our heroes manage to escape from Europe they are returning to an England totally bereft of allies and faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince the British high command to change their means of employing dragons or fall to Napoleon as surely as Europe did.

What's amazing about these books is how well Novik has managed to not only bring 19th century Europe to life, both in the attitudes of her characters and her descriptions of society, but how seamlessly she has integrated dragons into the mix. As we get to know dragons through the eyes of Laurence, as his awareness of their capabilities and sentience grows, so does ours. Like most people of his class and generation he never had considered dragons beyond their uses in war. Now that his eyes have been opened to the their place in society in China, he knows that things will have to change, We watch with astonishment as Temeraire learns to not only speak Chinese but to write its characters first using a claw. In many ways Temeraire is like an exceptionally bright teenager who is only now beginning to realize just how curtailed his activities have been by the adult world.

At the same time Novik has done an equally credible job of bringing aerial combat with dragons alive. Similar to naval engagements with boarding parties and rifle fire, there's the added thrill of the dragons assaulting each other, and of course the dangers involved with fighting pitched battles on the back of a bucking, twisting, weaving, and roaring dragon. If your guy wire holding you onto your ride is somehow cut, you could very well find yourself tumbling thousands of feet to your death. Like navy crews who spend days on end in the rigging of their ships with the deck seemingly miles away, those wishing to crew a dragon need a good head for heights.

Obviously Novik has taken some liberties with history - there were no dragons present at the battle of Trafalgar as far as I know, but she has done much to bring new life into what had become a moribund and predictable genre. I've never been a fan of alternate history, but instead of floating some what if premise about the course of history, Novik has merely added another ingredient to the mix to make historical fiction that much more interesting and exciting. If you've not read any of her Temeraire series yet, I not only recommend it highly, but can think of no better introduction then the omnibus In His Majesty's Service containing its first three books. The Napoleonic Wars, and historical fiction, will never be the same again.

October 25, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna By Barbara Kingsolver

Everybody has probably heard the expression, "history is written by the winners" in reference to the tendency of history to be told from only one side and to represent a particular point of view. While reading history text books which misrepresent events that happened a hundred years ago is upsetting if you know the truth of what happened, can you imagine what it would be like to live through hearing your own history re-written? Even more disturbing would be to find the re-writes based on innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies.

In the late 1940's, and through the 1950's, many citizens of the United States of America discovered their lives had been ruined by others inventing malicious gossip or making false accussations, about them and their histories. If you were named by a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un American Activities as being either a member of, or a former member of, the Communist party, you could easily find yourself facing social ostracism if not jail time. You weren't tried in a court of law, given a chance to defend yourself in front of an impartial judge, or presumed innocent. In fact if you showed up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities it was generally presumed you were guilty and it was only a matter of figuring out how guilty you were.

Barbara Kingsolver, has never been an author to shy away from controversial subject matter in either her fiction or non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Lacuna published by Harper Collins Canada, is no exception, as she not only takes us behind the scenes of history, she shows us how quickly and easily the truth of events can disappear and lies become reality. Cleverly mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events Kingsolver takes us on a journey that encompasses both Mexico and the United States from the 1930's through the 1950's.
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Lacuna is literally the Spanish word meaning hole, or the space between two objects. However it can also be used to refer to a cave or any other sort of gap; like the gap between truth and what the public perceives to be the truth. In The Lacuna Kingsolver traces the history of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a Mexican mother and American father, from his early days living with his mother in Mexico as she's supported by a series of boyfriends, and then back and forth between the United States and Mexico as the winds of history blow him hither and yonder. For once he is set up on his own - after a brief sojourn in an American military as a teenager which ended under a cloud of suspicion - he enters into service as the cook to the mercurial Mexican painter Frida Khalo and her sometime husband, painter Diego Rivera.

The Riveras aren't just artists, they are political artists, and very Communist. We learn about Shepherd's history via the journals he started keeping when he was young living with his mother. At first the Riveras wonder about their young cook, has he been sent to spy on them? What are all these notes he's making to himself? However when Frida finds out he's merely keeping a diary of events for his own amusement and because he loves to write she encourages him to keep at it. That is until they are to play host to a very special and important guest - the exiled Lev Trotsky. One of the original leaders of the Russian revolution along with Stalin and Lenin, Trotsky had been anointed by Lenin to be his successor. However, Stalin, through lies and quick action, was able to not only supplant Trotsky but also to cast him in the role of traitor to Russia.

Through Shepherd's journals we learn how Trosky comes to live in Mexico with the Riveras and how Shepherd eventually ends up working for Trotsky as cook and translator; a position that will come back to haunt him in later years, and one that puts his life in real danger. For Stalin has ordered that Trotsky be killed, and Communists around the world are eager to carry out his request. Ironically the newspapers in Mexico and the United States refuse to believe that Trotsky is under threat. When his house is machine gunned he is accused of setting it up himself in order to garner sympathy, even when it's proved that the leader in the Communist party of Mexico had been behind the attack. When Trotsky is finally assassinated, it's Frida who arranges the means for Shepherd to leave the country by having him shepherd some of her artwork from Mexico to New York for an exhibit. As he holds dual citizenship she tells him to stay in America until it is safe. Unfortunately America doesn't turn out to be the safe haven they hoped it to be.
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For although he initially enjoys some moderate success as a writer, the America depicted is one scared of its own shadow. First is the round-up of "enemy aliens" - Japanese Americans - during WWII, and then it's the turn of anyone ever suspected of being a Communist, or other sort of un-American activity. Through Shepherd's journals Kingsolver shows how innuendo, hearsay, and lies are used to bring about his downfall, as he details how public opinion is turned against him by the way the hole between the truth and lies is filled in. It's alarming how quickly we see Shepherd go from being a novelist admired by critics and fans alike, to being public enemy number one in the press. People who one moment were fawning over him, can't push him away quick enough.

It's always a dangerous thing for a novelist to bring real people into a story because you can't create them from scratch. They have their own histories and personalities already, and trying to fit them into a work of fiction can rapidly become quite convoluted. However, Kingsolver has handled the inclusion of real people into Shepherd's story beautifully by casting him in the role of historian. Instead of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky trying to fit into his fictional life, he finds a place in their history which is not only plausible, but also allows us to see them as real people not just as figures in history. Not only does this bring them to life, but it brings history to life, and fills in the holes - the lacuna - that most history books don't answer. We see how Trotsky was allowed to be made a villain because the West needed Stalin, and in turn how Stalin became the villain when he was no longer needed. The only way that can be accomplished is to ignore history, and according to Kingsolver in this book the United States is a past master at doing just that.

The Lacuna is the story of one man caught up in the tides of history, and the story of how history is created. While beautifully written, with characters who jump off the page they are so alive, it is filled with unpleasant truths about our society. Kingsolver is an intelligent and compassionate writer which allows her to create a story that works both as social commentary and an excellent work of fiction without the former interfering with the latter. You may not like what she has to say, but you can never deny that she says it well and with authority. After reading The Lacuna you may never look at a history book or a newspaper story in quite the same way again, and that's a good thing.

The Lacuna can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or from Amazon.ca or other on line retailers.

September 16, 2009

Book Review: Gods Of War By Ashok Banker

One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.

Thankfully that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15th/09. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and its all the better for it.

For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up, a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders, Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
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While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation as they have fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation. If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is, Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth the red necked lesbian who works in a ship yard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan whose differences are more significant than their similarities.

It seems no matter what they believe, or who they are Ganesha wants the same thing from each of them. To come with him to the ends of the universe in a desperate attempt to save the world, if not all of creation itself, by stopping a war that's being fought for control of what they are told might as well be the City of Heaven. When they reach their destination they discover they aren't the only beings who have been invited along, as there are creatures of all shapes, sizes, smells, and sounds from all over the universe involved as well. Yet what is it they were watching when they witness the war taking place in and around the City of Cities - the home of the Gods? Who would have the nerve to attack the gods?
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In Gods Of War Ashok Banker shows us the great battle line that exists in our world today between faith and science. The war may not actually be taking place in as graphic a manner as he depicts in this book, but what else would you call the actions of people who use the name of God as their justification for rape and murder but an attack on the Gods themselves? Yet in spite of the heavy theme of the book, Banker never forgets he is a story teller, and its within that framework that he delivers his message.

We get to know each of the characters in the book as intimately as possible and we see the story unfold through their eyes. It's because he takes that care his message is so powerful. As readers we are absorbed from the moment we first meet Santosh in Mumbai until the last page because whether we like the characters personally or not, they have become so real for us that it's like we are their sixth companion. While we may not fully grasp the significance of what's happening, or fully appreciate what each character is experiencing, there are enough universal elements to allow us to relate to each of them on some level. Emotions are emotions no matter who you are, and Banker's ability to describe people's emotional reactions to circumstances act as a bridge carrying us into the heart of the action.

Yet in spite of its large scale, he somehow manages to keep the story remarkably personal so that we take in each detail of what his characters are feeling and experiencing. Banker has an unerring knack of being able to bring any scene he describes to life in vivid detail, and although there are times in this book we may wish he wasn't quite so good at this job, the fact that location after location graphically comes to life in our mind's eye pulls us deeper and deeper into the story. In some ways its like watching an epic film unfold as scene after scene comes alive on the page.

Gods Of War proves once again that not only can Ashok Banker describe the great sweeping events of history, but he can do so in such a way that we are all able to relate to them on a personal level. He takes a complicated theme, and instead of dumbing it down or trivializing it, he integrates it into his story in such a way that it comes to life. This is a wonderful story, by a remarkable and gifted storyteller.

September 7, 2009

Book Review: The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet By Arturo Perez-Reverte

S'Blood, tis perilous times for a man to keep tryst with a lady. If proper care isn't maintained, why you could find four feet of the finest Toledo steel has given you a button hole in both the fore and aft of your doublet. While tis true that Madrid under the most blessed Catholic rule of King Philip IV is known to be home to some of the most hot tempered, proud, and boastful rouges in all of Christendom, a man might reasonably expect to make his way to the warm succour offered by his current paramour's arms without worrying that behind each shadow lurks his untimely demise.

Yet when Diego Alatriste, known far and wide by his honorific, Captain Alatriste, sets forth to meet with Maria de Castro, the most beautiful woman to trod the boards of theatres in any country, his sword and dagger are brought into play in order to chase off two ruffians. Now it's widely known that Senora de Castro not only routinely cuckolds her husband, although whispers say he accepts bags of coin in exchange for her favours, she is wont to have more than one gallant "paying" homage to her beauty at any one time. So the good Captain assumes the ruffians attempting to separate. him, his body, and his soul from this mortal coil were merely those hired by one of La Castro's many other suitors blinded by rage, envy, and spite who believed his own path to her delights would be smoother without another already in position.

Alas, if the matter were only so simple for the Captain that having dispatched those two in the shadows of Madrid's night shrouded streets, he could have continued on enjoying the affections of this truly beautiful woman until she bored of his attentions. However as we continue to peruse the pages of The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet, from the noble pen of Arturo Perez-Reverte being published on this forthcoming eighth day of September in the year 2009 by Penguin Canada, we will see the matter is not as cut and dried as thrusts and parries exchanged in the night either by a man and a woman or two men with forged and tapered lengths of steel.
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For while it is one thing to compete with one's fellow man for the affections of a lady, no matter how base or noble her birth, it is another matter all together to vie with God's anointed majesty Philip IV. Where his noble father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were known for their empire building, a sign of Spain's faded glory is that the current Philip is best known for his love of hunting both in the fields by day and bedrooms by night. Alas for Spain, for although to all outward appearances nothing may seem amiss, this king's willingness to put much of the running of the country into the hands of others while his hands are busy elsewhere has weakened her terribly.

Even sixteen year old Inigo Balboa Aguirre, Alatriste's ward and our sometime narrator, whose loyalty to his king and country is unquestioned, can not help but commenting on how the king's failure to attend to matters of state himself has left many another man's pockets filled with gold, the county's coffers barren, and the course Spain pilots through international waters threatening to cast her upon the shoals along side the wrecks of many a lesser country. In fact it is the job of one of the king's closest companions and advisors to ensure his most Catholic Majesty's path to pleasure and sport is cleared of any obstructions that might interfere with his success.

It is this same gentleman, the Count of Gaudalmedina, who discreetly tries to warn Alatriste of the danger he runs by daring to compete with the king for the same woman. However, this being Spain as recreated by Perez-Reverte, plots hatch quicker then chicks from a hen's eggs. Spain in the seventeenth century is a dangerous place even for those God has set higher than the commonality, and there's always a faction looking to find a way to increase their power at the point of a sword even if it means regicide. What better way to throw the scent off the real criminals then to make Philip's death appear to be the work of a lover whose affections were overthrown by a beautiful woman so that she could dally with the King instead?
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However, not even the Count is able to see through the mists of deception that hang over Madrid this season. For although word has reached his ear of a plot against the King, he is of course not privy to the form or shape it would take. For how could anyone, unless gifted with an ability to peek through the curtain of time, been able to foretell what was in store for all concerned. Plots using beautiful women as bait succeed where others might fail, for the principles, blinded to their surroundings. are lucky to even see the sword that impales them .

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet is the fifth recounting of the adventures of Captain Alatriste to be translated from the tongue of Kings into heretical English, but even this can do nothing to diminish the shining light that is the talent of Aturo Perez-Reverte. While in the hands of some lesser writers the protagonist of a series of books may start to take on mythic qualities, the Captain's metamorphosis takes a far different direction. Honour and pride, virtues in some instances, can also prove ones undoing, especially when combined with a streak of stubbornness which prevents a man from retreating from an untenable position. Unfortunately sometimes a man is placed in circumstance where his choices are take away from him, and in those instances his darker side is revealed. When wine and anger form an unholy alliance in Alatriste's woe be any who happen to catch his eye in the wrong way, or even by chance, as he proves when he casually picks a fight with a lout in a bar and with equal casualness runs steel through his heart.

True the fates had made it seem like his friends had all turned against him, and he was being denied what little joy he could get from life by the very person, the King, for whom he had risked his life time and time again in battle fields across Europe and the allies of Madrid. To be so discarded, and thought so little of must have galled a man of such pride, but to go out and commit murder because of it - well that paints a picture of a man inside whom dark forces are at work. Who knows what awaits our Captain in the future, only God and Arturo Perez-Reverte know for sure, but one thing is definite, neither redemption nor peace will ever come easily for one such as he.

Deftly written, with pinches of humour and snatches or ribald poetry scattered throughout to lighten some of the darkness, Perez-Reverte, continues the adventures of Captain Alatriste and Inigo with his usual aplomb and skill. As is usual half the fun are his descriptions of life in Madrid in the waning days of Spain's imperial might. However, like Alatriste himself, when it's time to get down to the business at hand he once again proves there is no one cooler under fire. His plots, while complicated are never convoluted, and we walk down the same paths as his characters only hoping to find our way out in time to save our necks.

For those who have grown tired of the romantic view of history so common in fiction, these books are the perfect antidote as Perez-Reverte does not shirk from showing the foul with the sweet. Very little separates the heroes and the villains in these books in terms of character and motivation save for the side on which they are fighting. While we may be on the side of Alatriste and Inigo, that's only because they are telling us the story - who knows what we'd feel if we heard the same tale from the other side of the table? There's nothing cut and dried about these books, and that's what makes them invaluable. Once you've read one, you'll want to read them all, and then impatiently wait for more.

One can purchase The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet from either Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

August 31, 2009

Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Everybody's waxing nostalgic for Woodstock this year, being how it's the fortieth anniversary and all. At least the record companies sure are, as you can't turn around without seeing yet another commemorative ash tray or roach clip bearing the three days of peace and music logo appearing on the shelves. Yeah there's still lots of money to be made off of all that peace, love and music shit, even forty years later. They might not of cashed in as much as they'd have like to back in the day, but the music industry is making up for lost time now.

Naturally their downplaying the whole drug thing - except for the occasional mention of how tragic it was that so many of those who performed had their lives and careers cut short supposedly because of drugs. Nobody wants to say that drugs were fun, because that's not the message we want to send in this post Just Say No War On Drugs era. Even though we've moved on to bigger and better things like the War On Terror, nobody's forgotten Nancy's message have they. However the reality was that - horror of horrors - people did a shit load of drugs back in the day and no amount of corporate white wash will disguise that fact.

The other bit that they don't seem to want to talk about is how forty years ago, 1969, was when the whole peace and love trip started to wither on the vine.Not only did it mark the ascension to the throne of Richard Nixon in Washington, but the Prince of Darkness himself, Ronald Ray-guns, had been governor of California since 1967. Happy Ronnie, who was only glad to help finger Commies in the fifties for Joe McCarthy and his Un Americans, did his best to fight free love, free speech, and all those other ungodly behaviours those long haired layabouts were engaging in. By the time 1969 washed up on the beach in California, Heads were already looking over their shoulders to see where the long arm of the law was every time they lit up a joint. Of course, with paranoia being such a bosom buddy of most drugs to begin with it didn't take much to fuel the massive rip tides of mistrust that starting pulling folks under in the late sixties.
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While the hucksters and snake oil sales people might not be talking, there are those who are. Timed perfectly to serve as an antidote to the sales pitches, Thomas Pynchon's newest book, Inherent Vice, published by Penguin Canada, offers us ring side seats to the curtain coming down on the dream in California.

Ostensibly a detective story, we follow Pynchon's Private Investigator, Doc Sportello, as he takes on an investigation at the behest of his ex girlfriend, Shasta. She's been seeing a married man, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, and is worried that his wife and her boyfriend are trying to figure out a way to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can grab his loot. Her suspicions are based on the fact they've offered to cut her in if she'll help them out with their scam, but it turns out Shasta really has a thing for Mickey and wants to keep him around. Aside from her natural reluctance to approach the police on principle alone, it seems like there's some sort of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) involvement anyway that's going to prevent anyone from running to the cops for backup on this one.

So we trundle around in Doc's wake as he tries to make head and tail out of this case. Wafting a trail of pot smoke behind him that rivals LA's smog during rush hour, Doc encounters militant black nationalists, neo-nazi bikers with a thing for Ethel Mermon and show tunes, bent cops, Federal agents, surfer musicians gone bad, junkies, and worst of all dentists. Somewhere at the bottom of this pile of people there lurks a mysterious group known as the Golden Fang pulling all the strings. They supply the heroin that's sold on the street and are behind a psychiatric institute where people go to get clean. Of course there's a price to be paid for either the junk or coming clean, and while the former is usually your health and cash, the latter can be even more sinister as Doc discovers.

That creeping paranoia Doc feels isn't just because he smokes too much dope, it's because there's something creeping around behind the scenes exerting control over the peace loving, dope smoking, and fun loving community of beach folk. While the King and the Prince Of Darkness clamping down harder and harder to "Make America Safe" means more people getting busted for doing drugs, the drugs are being controlled more and more by the people who put them on the throne. The Golden Fang people see nothing wrong with making a quick buck from people before they end up jail for ten to twenty for using their product.
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On the surface Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride filled with memorable characters. Doc might be perpetually stoned and rely on extrasensory perceptions brought on by certain psychedelic substances for insights, but he's also as persistent as they come when following a trail Pretty much unflappable he's able to weather whatever surprises pop up and goes with the flow no matter what. However even he's a little disconcerted to discover the nasty truth lurking underneath the haze of pot smoke, that the end of innocence is at hand. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and there's no amount of drugs that will allow hum to hide from that reality anymore. The days of trust are over, and he's going to have to get used to looking over his shoulder on a more regular basis.

There's a note of sadness that runs through Inherent Vice that will hopefully have people questioning the neat and tidy image of the sixties that's being packaged these days. Pynchon makes no apologies for where his sympathies lie, with those on the other side of today's right wing moral code. Yet at the same time he doesn't let sentiment or nostalgia prevent him from showing the darker side of that lifestyle. Still, you can't help but feel a pang for what was lost and what might have been when you come to the end of this book. Very few people seem to want to tell the truth about the 1960's but Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. You couldn't ask for a better guide to its demise.

Inherent Vice can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

August 27, 2009

Book Review: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis

Do you know where Uruguay is? What's to know anyway, another backward country that can't even figure out how to run its own affairs. What's to know is that people have lived and died there for as long as people have lived and died anywhere else in this hemisphere. A small country, but still a country, Uruguay sits between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast of South America, whose major port town, Montevideo, takes its name from the Portuguese for " I see a mountain" Monte vide eu.

The Portuguese sailors who had landed there first had seen El Cerro, and perhaps after so long at sea it appeared a mountain to their eyes, but to Ignazio Firielli, freshly arrived from Italy in 1911, compared to the Alps of his former homeland, it's merely a hill. However, seeking to start a new life following the death of his mother and father - the latter had killed the former and then himself - he's not about to overly particular about these things. Finding work and surviving is what's important for him now. After four years of empty work chance takes him into a poker game with the members of a travelling carnival and his eventual employment as their new stable boy. It's thus that he travels inland and meets the woman who will be his wife, Pajarita, who will give birth to Eva, who in her turn will bear Salome, who in turn will give birth to Victoria.

The Invisible Mountain, the new novel by Carolina De Robertis published by Random House Canada, traces the history of Uruguay since 1900 through the eyes of its women. For, while Ignazio plays a necessary role in the proceedings, it's the first three generations of this family's women who we follow through the pages of this story as their struggle to find themselves runs parallel to their country's struggle for freedom. The story begins before Ignazio even sails to South American, and while it could be said to begin with the founding of Uruguay, as according to Pajarita's aunt Tita her great-grandfather was Jose Gervasio Artigas, the great liberator of the country who led the fight for independence with gauchos, Indians, and freed slaves, it really begins with the birth of Pajarita.
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Pajarita's mother died giving birth to her, which was how her aunt Tita came to live with her and her brother Aritgas. However shortly after she was born one night the family laid down to sleep and woke the next morning to find the child had vanished. For the rest of the year Tita scoured the countryside surrounding the small village where they lived for the baby with no success. However, the following New Years Day - 1900 - Pajarita was found in the top of a tree thirty meters above the ground. It was only after Aritgas went to fetch Tita, and she shooed the assembled villagers away from the tree, that it shook itself and Pajarita flew into her aunt's waiting arms. Which is how she was given the name meaning "little bird".

Pajarita, her daughter Eva, and her granddaughter Salome are our guides through the twentieth century in South America. Pajarita listens to her brother as he recounts life in Brazil and the constant battle for power there make her and her friends grateful for their peaceful existence in Uruguay. There are laws protecting workers, unions, and good schools for their children. Eva has opportunities to better herself that her mother lacked. However events, and her father's demons, change the course of her life irrevocably. Hoping to find a better life Eva flees to Argentina and the bright promise offered by the new government of Juan Peron and his wife Evita.

Argentina almost proves a disaster but she's saved from ruin and maybe death by Dr. Robert Santos, who not only nurses her back to health in hospital, but falls in love with her. Instead of doing what other men his class have done for generations, and taking a low born mistress, he shocks and appals his family and friends by breaking off his engagement to a society girl in order to marry Eva. As well as having two children, Robert and Salome, Eva's nascent talent for poetry begins to bloom during her marriage and she even manages to publish the occasional poem. However the shiny promise of the Perons tarnishes with corruption, and when Eva assists a colleague of her husband's in writing a memorandum about the torture and framing of a political prisoner, she and her family are forced into exile. Late one night they steal away on a boat back to Uruguay.
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However the Uruguay that Salome experiences is one heading down the path of oppression, and by the time she graduates from high school she has become a member of an urban guerilla group dedicated to overthrowing the government. After her cell successfully kidnaps an American special advisor to the police - he's teaching them torture techniques to be employed on political prisoners - it's only a matter of time before she is arrested, tortured, and jailed. Part of her torture consisted of rape, and so the fourth generation, Victoria, is born in prison. However at a month old, when the guards take the baby away to be Christened, it is stolen by resistance members who managed to escape, and sent away to live with her brother Robert in California.

The Invisible Mountain is fascinating and beautiful in the way De Robertis is able to mix grim reality with the elements of the fantastic that seems to be a hallmark of the best South American fiction. However what makes the book so effective is the masterful job the author has done with creating the characters populating the story. While it would have been easy and simplistic to make men the villains of the piece, she ensures the reader spends enough time with each that we can no more blame them completely for what happens than we would blame the rock we stub our toe on by accident. Of course the three women are the lead characters, and therefore we know them the best and De Robertis has created masterful portraits of each of them.

While they are the heroines of the piece they are not made out to be specifically heroic or perfect. In each case we are shown their weaknesses as well as their strengths so while we may admire them, we don't idealize them. This is not an attempt to make women out to be anything more than they are, and because of that we respect and admire the characters all the more. For it's in spite of their frailties that they are able to stand up and be proud of themselves, and that's an impressive accomplishment in any character no matter what their gender.

You may not have known much about the small South American country of Uruguay before starting to read The Invisible Mountain, but once you've finished it, you'll not only have a good grasp of its history, buy a deeper understanding of South America in general. For while the three women are the major characters, Uruguay itself is a character who makes its presence felt throughout the book. You'll never think of history as boring and impersonal again after reading this book and its intimate introduction to Uruguay.

The Invisible Mountain can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

August 25, 2009

Book Review: MarsboundBy Joe Haldeman

I've never been much of a fan of what's known as hard science fiction. You know people flying on space ships to distant galaxies and the alien life forms they meet while travelling. Part of that reason was when I started reading them back the in 1960's and 70's the majority of what I picked up always seemed to in some way reflect the cold war mentality that was prevalent at the time. Obviously there were some exceptions to that rule, Ray Bradbury, for instance, is a great story teller who happens to write science fiction and fantasy, but most else what I attempted to read by the supposed big names of the time, read like so much propaganda.

I might have even given up on the genre altogether if I hadn't come across The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. A Vietnam war veteran Haldeman not only took an anti-war stance, he openly questioned the us and them mentality and other black and white visions of the world that were commonplace in other books.
It's been over twenty-five years since I first read one of his books and he's yet to disappoint me, and his most recent release, the mass market paperback edition of Marsbound from Penguin Canada is no exception. Something I've always admired about Haldeman is his ability to take the standard science fiction plot idea and put his own distinct touch to it. In this case its a first contact story between humans and alien life and he's breathed some much needed new life into.

It's some unspecified time in the future when the story starts and eighteen year old Carmen Dula, her mom, dad, and little brother Card are about to go on the longest journey most of them have ever taken. They along with a couple dozen other people - family groups from around the world - have won the chance to join humanity's first tiny outpost on Mars. Carmen and Card had to spend a year studying so they could pass the pre-evaluation test for children and once they proved they wouldn't show any psychotic tendencies from being confined in a small space with a couple dozen other people for six months, it was a matter of hoping they would be chosen.
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At least when they began the process it was a matter of hoping to be chosen but with the voyage immanent Carmen is starting to experience doubts. Some are, naturally enough, trepidation about the trip itself as there are still plenty of things that could go wrong on the voyage. First of all there's the fifty thousand mile ride in the Space Elevator that takes them out of Earth's atmosphere up to where the space ship John Carter is waiting to take them to Mars. If the cable should break on this elevator it's not the impact at the end of the fall that kills you, it's the burning up on re-entry. Carmen's trip to Mars ends up being relatively un-eventful save for a couple of scary minor hiccoughs with the Elevator cable and an oxygen leak on the space ship, and the fact that she began an affair with Paul the pilot of said ship after quite a bit of wine and a zero gravity dance party. Interestingly, the latter ends up setting off a chain of events that not only leads to first contact, but the near destruction of earth.

A drunken tryst in zero gravity nearly bringing about the annihilation of earth could be used by some as an argument against pre-material sex I suppose, except it's just the sort of person who would make an argument like that who actually sets in motion the chain of events leading up to the near cataclysm. Dargo Solingen, the general administrator of the Martian Outpost, takes such a dislike to Carmen because of her dalliance, she monitors all of her conversations either by bugging her room or eavesdropping on her radio when she's in a space suit in the hopes of catching her doing something wrong. Dargo can't punish Carmen and Paul for having sex, but she's in a position to make Carmen's live miserable whenever possible.

It's a fit of pique at the first of these punishments that sends Carmen unwisely out alone onto the surface of Mars. When she falls through the a thin section of the planet's surface and breaks her leg and damages her back-up oxygen supply she figures she's as good as dead. However she's rescued by beings who have been living under the surface of the planet for thousands of years - beings who mysteriously speak most of the main languages spoken on earth. Technically not Martians as they did come from another planet originally, and definitely not descended from any species ever known to exist on earth as they have eight appendages instead of the usual four of most primates and mammals, they're also more than just another life form. They're an organic early warning system put in place to warn their developers when humanity begins space travel and assess their potential as a threat.
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While much of the scenario outlined might sound distressingly familiar to readers of science fiction, Haldeman as usual adds his own flavouring to make it much more interesting than you might think. Experiencing the story through the eyes of an eighteen year old young woman on the verge of adulthood gives the reader a far different perspective on this type of situation than they've probably ever experienced before. Haldeman has created a very realistic young person, filled with the insecurities and worries of all young adults learning how to take responsibility for their actions. Her reactions to Dargo are typical of those of any intelligent teenager to an autocratic and vindictive authority figure, it's just the circumstances and the results that aren't what we're used to.

Haldeman's message in this well told story is there for anyone who wants to see it as Dargo uses security as her excuse for compromising not only Carmen's personal rights, but in the end the safety of the whole human race. He makes it perfectly clear which side of the phone line tapping argument he comes down on, as Dargo's continued, and increased, unauthorized and illegal surveillance of Carmen pushes things dangerously closer to disaster. One person can't take the law into their own hands, no matter what their position or their excuse. While Carmen, as the person who first made contact is designated ambassador to the Martians, is being advised by scientists of all stripes, Dargo's actions are based on her personal prejudices and carried out without consultation with anyone.

One of the things I've always appreciated about Joe Haldeman's writing is his ability to make the extraordinary matter of fact. The worlds he creates in his books are all the more believable because the characters go about their business just as you and I do. We might not recognize the circumstances, but we can see ourselves in the people who are trying to deal with them which makes it much easier for us to believe in what's going on. Marsbound is no exception as Carmen is a teenager much like many teenagers - maybe a little smarter than average, but still filled with the same hopes and doubts. We've all been there - but not all of us have travelled to Mars. Part coming of age story, part romance, and part mystery Marsbound is an excellent read providing a new twist on an old science fiction theme. This is another fine book from one of science fiction's most original and thought provoking writers.

You can purchase a copy of Joe Haldemans' Marsbound either directly from Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

August 5, 2009

Book Review: The Sheriff Of Yrnameer By Michael Rubens

The roots of English language comedic writing can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer put together an extremely odd collection of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, had them tell each other stories to pass the time, and English literary comedy was born. The trail between the Medieval England and present day leads through Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and other great satirists and humorists down through the years.

When this comic sensibility met up with Science Fiction in the twentieth century the possibilities seemed endless. First of all there was the tendency among science fiction aficionados to take themselves and their genre far too seriously creating endless opportunities for satire. However, the potential for absurdity reached new heights with Star Trek and the obsessive fan syndrome it spawned. Of course when adults are prepared to dress up as their favourite species from a fictionalized television show and attend conventions with others so inclined, you don't have to look far to invent absurd situations. In fact one of the great difficulties in creating comic science fiction is absurdity is so thick on the ground in the first place that writers have to be careful not to go over the top and ruin their premise.

Even the best of the contemporary comic writers in the genre, the late Douglas Adams, fell into that trap with Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by going back to that well even when it was tapped out. Setting something in outer space in the future does not automatically make it funny - if a joke doesn't work it doesn't work no matter where you have it being told and who or what's telling it. Of course humour is a highly personal thing and what one of us finds funny another might find stupid. However there's more to writing a funny book than turning it into a series of jokes, or stringing together a series of comedy sketches loosely tied together by the fact the same characters appear in all of them.
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Unfortunately the new novel by Michael Rubens', The Sheriff Of Yernameer (Your name here) published by Random House Canada released August 4th/09, falls into that latter category. For while the novel has a loose over all framework, the characters stumble through a series of unrelated situations while travelling across space to their final destination. This structure isn't surprising when you consider Ruben's previous experience was either producing or writing for television, including sketch comedy shows like the Daily Show With Jon Stewart. However what works for a television sketch comedy show, for all its intelligence and humour, isn't going to necessarily work in a novel.

The story revolves around the misadventures of Cole a failed smuggler and second rate crook. Not only does he owe money to a particularly nasty bounty hunter named Kenneth, his girl friend has just dumped him for his side kick, and his space ship has just been turned to dust for his failure to pay his docking fees. In order to get away from it all, specifically Kenneth whose offered to lay his eggs in Cole's brain in lieu of payment, he steals a fellow, far more successful, crook's ship and in the process inherits its current mission. Transporting a colony of freeze dried orphans to Yernameer, the last unbranded planet in known space.

Everything, from the bullet about to kill you to the crook who fired it at you, are sponsored by somebody. Some items - like the guns that shoot the bullets - even come with little messages telling you how proud they are to be sponsoring this event and how wonderful a job their product is going to do in killing you. Hence the attraction of the last unbranded planet to those who wish a return to simpler times, or who are on the run from the law or other types. However Cole and his clients are in for a rude surprise when they arrive on Yernameer, as its not just happy settlers who have come to this final outpost on the edge of the frontier. It turns out the universe's nastiest gang of inter-species outlaws have crash landed here and are about to start making life miserable for those living in the one town on the planet.
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When Cole does a Dorothy and lands his spaceship on a band of the outlaws delivering an ultimatum to the townsfolk, it's decided he's the one to protect the settlement from the bad guys and he's made sheriff. Which, in spite of his best intentions otherwise, he somehow manages to do. Even Kenneth showing up looking to do some nesting doesn't change matters, and Cole stumbles through to the end a winner and a loser all at once. While Cole's character is likeable enough, in a he's really pathetic sort of way, everything about him and his adventures have a strong air of deja-vu written all over them. Even though some of the scenarios might be original, there's the constant feeling of, I've read this before, permeating the whole book.

As a result the humour quickly becomes tired as the jokes sound all too familiar. From the space station full of middle management types on a training course who have turned into cannibals because of an implant to the world's stupidest computer named Peter, nothing about the book is really that funny. It's unfortunate because the potential is there for a very funny book about branding, logos, and sponsorship, but Rubens opted for easy jokes instead of exploring the topic with any depth.

While there's nothing wrong with The Sheriff Of Yrnameer, there's also nothing about it that is of particular interest to hold your attention. While the comparisons to the work of the late Douglas Adams are inevitable they're not going to be favourable as this book lacks the freshness that made his initial works so captivating. There's a galaxy of humour out there waiting to be discovered, but unfortunately this book goes places where far too many have gone before and the scenery has become boring.

You can purchase a copy of The Sheriff Of Yrnameer either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

July 5, 2009

Book Review: The Lees Of Laughter's End By Steven Erikson

There's nothing like the sea air for rejuvenating you, so you'd figure an ocean voyage would be just what the doctor ordered for Emancipor Reece. The luckless servant of necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach is in need of the tranquillity and peace that is supposedly offered to those who travel those wide open expanses. Sure he has gainful employment that takes him far away from his wife and the children she claims are his, but as we've seen in previous titles featuring him and his masters, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead, working for necromancers hasn't been without its disadvantages.

Having to leave town in a hurry when their habits have disturbed the locals too much is the least of the tribulations that has driven Reece to find various means to render himself insensate. It was one such occasion which forced him to book passage for his masters and himself on a vessel not asking many questions about its passenger's reason for travel or recent history. Unfortunately for Reece the captain and crew of the good ship Suncurl haven't been completely forthcoming when it comes to their own provenance, meaning they're all in for some unpleasant surprises during the course of the voyage.

While not much can ruffle Bauchelain's equanimity, after all his travelling companion in an effort to compensate for the loss of his manhood (Broach is a eunuch) has constructed a child out of living organs that he's removed from other humans, even he is a little put out to find that not only has a lich manifested on board, but a god is after the little ship as well. While the lich, a being composed of a multitude of souls that manifests as the bodies of said souls mashed together, is trouble enough when it starts grabbing crew members in an effort to bulk up, the god and the reason it's chasing the ship could be more than even the combined talents of Bauchelain and Broach together can handle.
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Welcome to author Steven Erikson's third book devoted to the adventures of three characters who played a small roll in his epic series The Malzan Book Of The Fallen. Published by Nightshade Books The Lees Of Laughter's End reunites readers with the two most likeable evil characters you're liable to ever meet. As long as you skirt over their nastier habits, and the fact that their very presence sends shivers up and down most people's spines, as evil necromancers go these two aren't such bad sorts, even when you get to know them. Why Bauchelain is probably one of the most urbane and witty types you'll ever meet. All right so he has any number of demons that he has summoned at his disposal, and could probably peel the flesh from your bone with a spell if he was so inclined, but everybody has their little foibles.

It's unfortunate that Korbal Broach doesn't share any of his partners more redeeming features when it comes to social interactions, but he's shy by nature and prefers to skulk in the shadows and avoids most company. On the other hand it's doubtful you'd want to meet him under those circumstances either, because he's usually out hunting for "components" to add to his child. So unless you're prepared to become an unwilling live organ donor, you'd best avoid dark allies when Korbal is in town.

Needless to say both gentlemen are also exceptionally handy to have on your side in a fight, so the crew of the Suncurl are quite prepared to overlook any and all of the duo's nastier habits when the screaming starts and crew members start vanishing in the hold of the ship. However even they can't prevent the lich from wrecking havoc and when the god shows up, from securing his prize. Yet in the end our erstwhile heroes and their faithful manservant come through this scrape relatively unscathed, and with enough of the ship and crew intact to continue their voyage.
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Those who are familiar with Erikson's from the Malazan series have come to know and love his ability to create memorable characters and fascinating story lines. However, what they might not be as aware of is his very macabre sense of humour. It's not often an author can make the actions and behaviour of a blood thirsty monster funny, but listening in on the lich as its various souls complain, voice opinions, and generally argue amongst itself is as funny a bit of writing that will turn your stomach as you've probably ever read.

It's not just the demons who are fun to read about either, the motley assortment of crew are as strange and original as any of the odd characters Erikson has created to populate the fringes of his world in the past. The Captain and her three companions turn out to be something other than just your standard sea faring folk, being ex-members of a city guard who stole from the city they were supposed to be guarding and took to the sea in an effort to put their former employers behind them. Unfortunately aside from just stealing coin of the realm, the also lifted some statues from the treasury, which is what has attracted the attention of the god who is in hot pursuit of the ship.

While the sea voyage might not have agreed with Emancipor Reece so far, and the crew's numbers have been drastically reduced, those of us merely observing the action on board the good ship Suncurl are having a great time. I don't think I've read an author who can make gruesome as funny or bring it to life with such skill and wit as Erikson does in The Lees Of Laughter's End. Others might be as funny, but nobody can match him for intelligence and character creation. His ability to take the absurd to its logical conclusion - if a creature like a lich is made up of multiple souls it only makes sense that it would occasionally argue amongst itself - is what separates him from most others and keeps a reader in stitches.

If you've read other books set in the world of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, you'll appreciate this stand alone story featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the different view of the world it offers. However, even if you've not read anything else by Erikson, you'll find a lot to enjoy in this odd little tale. Originally published in England by PS Publishing, Nightshade Books has now made The Lees Of Laughter's End available to North American readers and it can be purchased either directly from their web-site or any discerning on line retailer.

July 4, 2009

Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk underneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odours that waft out from the bakery she or he passes by on their morning walk, and feel the same cold wind they do bite my cheeks. Sure, it's all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it when I read. If I wanted to just look at something as a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.

Well, if you share any of that sentiment than you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game, that was just published by Random House Canada. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. The book opens in 1917 with our narrator, David Martin, recalling how it was that year, when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. However, instead of this being a pleasant memory, he says from the moment a writer first sells a piece he is doomed and his soul has a price. When soul and price are mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.

However before we take that plunge Zafon makes sure we know why it could happen to David. Not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-soldier, father. However, it's the fact that Zafon manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child - takes away his or her expectations of anything good happening to them, that makes this important for the story. In fact it's a copy of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations that makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous. For he's lucky that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. However, after beating David for wasting money by using electricity in order to read the Dickens novel, his father begins to have a change of heart and starts to allow David to buy books. But as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
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However, as a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for that first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end it's Pedro who finds a publisher who employs David to write an ongoing series of crime fiction adventures. With an income assured, he's able to consider finding a place to live that's not a slum. Ever since he was a child David had been attracted to an old abandoned mansion whose prominent feature was a tower. As soon as he has the money to be able to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.

Although he considers he long ago sold his artistic soul by agreeing to write pulp fiction, the selling of his own soul comes about in a slightly different manner. Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David had started to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These turn out to be from a man who claims to be a book publisher who has a most unusual request; he wants to commission David to write him a religion. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent, and finally David agrees to the contract. Anyway, 100,000 francs is an awfully large amount of money for a years work.

Needless to say agreeing to the job is the beginning of his descent into his personal hell. It turns out that the previous occupant of where he lives died under very mysterious circumstances. When David begins to investigate he discovers that before he died the man had been working on a book for a mysterious publisher who had promised him 100,000 francs. David is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches into the highest ranks of society. The deeper he digs, the deeper he gets into trouble for as corpses start to pile up around him the police begin to blame him. However, he can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all no matter what happens.
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With The Angel's Game Zafon has created a multilayered treat for readers that incorporates all the best elements of gothic horror and murder mysteries while at the same time creating characters who are incredibly realistic. We watch how disappointment after disappointment pushes David into the arms of his tempter. For it's only when the last of his personal dreams and expectations are squashed that he surrenders. As David descends into darkness so does the book. For while the beginning of the book does contain some sadness, the death of his father, there are moments of genuine humour and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light".

Zafon has gone to great pains with this book to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The city, and all the other environments in this book are as much characters, and are as well drawn, as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvellous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martin and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page turner but also as thought provoking as this one. A rare combination that deserves to be savoured and read over and over again.

You can purchase a copy of The Angel's Game either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

June 29, 2009

Book Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Probably the first book about Africa most Westerners my age read was written by a European. Most likely it was Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness with its depiction of the white man who was deemed to have gone crazy because he went "native". The West has been pillaging the various countries of Africa for centuries now. First for their people to use as slaves now their natural resources for our material goods. No matter what we take, poverty, corruption, and all that accompany the two trail behind us like the wake of some malevolent creature who sucks the goodness out of its prey leaving behind a husk containing only the bile and other noxious wastes.

Yet we know nothing at all about Africans as people as we hardly ever read stories that don't have something to do with atrocities or are "heartwarming tales of survival". Of course very few of us even stop to think about just how many cultures we're talking about when we say Africa, although each country is home to at least one or two distinct people with their own histories. The only time its even brought to our attention is when cynical leadership pits one ethnic group against another in a bid for power and violence results. Thankfully over the past couple of years the number of African writers whose work is either being translated into English or written in that language in first place is increasing, and with a little bit of searching you can find a voice that will tell the stories of his or her people.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recently published by Random House Canada is a collection of short fiction travelling across time and geography to give us glimpses into the lives of Nigerian women and their experiences both at home and as immigrants to the United States. Adichie currently divides her time between her homeland and the United States where she attended university, which gives her a perspective on both worlds that very few others are able to offer. The twelve stories are roughly split between the two settings, but no matter where, or when, the story takes place, what struck me most was the emotional honesty she brings to her work.
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Perhaps this is what makes her stories both compelling and believable at the same time. Her characters, no matter what their status or situation, react to their circumstances in ways that we might not understand, but which prove to be true to who they are and their needs. Who are we to say if we were in the same situation as the young bride in "The Arrangers Of Marriage" we wouldn't act like she does. What would you do if upon arriving in America you discover the husband your aunt and uncle had picked out for you had omitted to tell your family details like he had married an American woman to obtain his green card and still hadn't divorced her? What else can she do but stay with him until he obtains the divorce so she can get the papers she needs in order to be legal. Deportation would send her back to a family who would find a way of not only making the marriage's failure her fault, but a sign of her ingratitude for all that they'd done for her.

Although some of these stories, like the one above, feature women in circumstances that cry out victim, none of the women are drawn as such. They might have to do things they don't like, or compromise about certain things, but so does everybody else. Not once do you ever get the feeling that any of Adichie's characters have been created as deliberate objects of sympathy. They deal with their situations with as much dignity and pride as they are capable of under the circumstances. At the same time however, we are told in no uncertain terms that gender and race are still issues that cut both ways.

In "Jumping Monkey Hill" a Nigerian novelist attends a writer's workshop with a number of other "promising" African writers given by an eminent, white, British scholar where they each are to write and present a story. The scholar turns out to be the type who knows more about Africa than Africans. He criticizes one person's work because stories about homosexuals coming out to their families aren't representative of "the real" Africa. When the protagonist reads a story based on her experiences as a bank employee and how she had been expected to trade sexual favours in order to secure accounts for her bank, the scholar informs everybody that women are never victims in that crude sort of way, and certainly not in Nigeria. In fact her story, he says, has no basis in reality.
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On the other hand in the title story, "The Thing Around Your Neck", a young woman who immigrates to America has a hard time believing in the sincerity of a young white man's affection for her. Even when she realizes he is genuine, she is constantly suspicious of perfectly innocent things he does or says, as she's looking for any signs of a condescending or patronizing attitude. However just as she starts to relax, to let go of that thing around her neck, her suspicion, that is choking her, she finds out her father died five months earlier and has to return to Nigeria. Her young man asks if she'll return and although she hugs him hard at the airport - she lets him go. The differences in their class, he's from inherited wealth and her father lived in fear of people higher up on the social scale than him, and race, might just be barriers that she can't overcome.

Adichie's stories are all extremely well written and offer us a perspective of the world that we don't often see. What's even more refreshing is that her characters are neither victims or super heroes. They are humans dealing with situations that come up in their lives just like we all have to. We might not be familiar with some of the circumstances, but we can still identify with the emotions they are experiencing, and they serve as our bridge into their world. It's a world we don't often have a chance to explore, and when an opportunity of this quality comes along it would be a shame to ignore it.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

June 10, 2009

Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

June 8, 2009

Book Review: Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories that are tied together by their location. By creating a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals who live in a community the author attempts to leave readers with an overall impression of what life is like in the locale. Probably the most famous of these types of collections were Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners. Although from different worlds, and stylistically miles apart, both men brought their chosen cities to life in ways that left indelible impressions upon the reader.

In Between The Assassinations, published by Simon And Schuster Canada, Aravind Adiga tries his hand at the same thing with the city of Kittur on the south west coast of India. The assassinations of the title refer to the 1984 death of Indira Gandhi and the killing of her son Rajiv seven years later in 1991. While neither event has any direct bearing on the course of action in this book, they were of course important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga, are a history of a sort that you don't normally read in text books.

Adiga has laid the book out as if it were a tourist guide to the region. He starts off by telling you that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days, and the book is divided up into those seven days. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others only take part of a day, so you'll find some chapters will take a whole day and others only a morning or an afternoon. Needless to say the guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue in cheek as the landmarks include a pornographic movie theatre, a cathedral that's never been completed, a historic monument that's fallen into disrepair, and violent slum. Kittur seems best known for being half way between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. In fact of the total population of Kittur only 89 people self identify as being without religion or caste.
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Therefore it shouldn't be of much surprise that caste, class, and religion play a role in the majority of the stories. Everything that occurs in the city does under their shadow and they're a constant presence lurking in the backs of people's minds. For in Kittur your place is very closely defined and even thinking about crossing the line could result in disaster. It's all right for a servant to make himself indispensable, but to try and be treated as an equal and see what happens.

Like any good tour guide Between The Assassinations divides your seven day sojourn in Kittur up by location. However your guides change by day and location, and the perspective they offer on the sites they are responsible for showing off isn't one that you'd normally find offered by the standard tour companies. How many companies would use an unskilled labourer like George D'Souza to show you around the famous unfinished cathedral? Nor would many be likely to hire the student who exploded a bomb in his science class to show you around the well known Jesuit school St. Alfonso's Boys' High School and Junior College. No they'd be more likely to hire the assistant headmaster Mr. D'Mello instead, a firm disciplinarian who after more than thirty years of teaching can anticipate what mischief young men can get up to before they even know themselves. Although they may not have had him lead a group of adolescent boys on a tour of the infamous "Angels' Talkies" pornographic cinema.

I'm also certain most tour companies wouldn't have on their agendas the sights our guides show us in and around the locales they represent. How many tourists are going to want visit the back allies where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a sideline selling fake cures for venereal diseases or included visits to clinics euphemistically named "Happy Life" as part of the tour of the historic fort The Sultan's Battery. However it's these guides and their lives that give our tour of Kittur the authenticity that most lack.
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While the majority of the characters we meet in Between The Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class the heaviest on their shoulders Adiga doesn't become just give us one group's perspective as so many others seem to have developed a habit of doing. For it's a factory owner who gives us a tour of The Bunder, the area of town where criminal activity is concentrated. It's not that he's involved in anything illegal, but among the drug runners and smugglers he finds a sympathetic audience to unburden himself to about the number of bribes he has to pay in order to stay open.

However, no matter whose eyes we see the city through the picture is not a pretty one. Corruption is rampant and poverty is a child's normal inheritance. Even the poorest having to pay off someone for the privilege of sleeping in a back alley. Adiga's characters aren't always the nicest of people, but they're what their world made them and the connection between who they are and the conditions that shaped them is drawn accurately without being sensationalized. Although it's is beginning to feel like every book released in North America set in India is mainly concerned with recounting social ills that tarnish the economic miracle image that is trumpeted in the press, Adiga's study of life in Kittur only does so indirectly. For instead of themes like religious violence or corruption being the focus, they are simply part and parcel of the lives his characters live.

Like Joyce and Anderson before him Adiga has concentrated his energies on the people of Kittur. By giving us glimpses into their lives; opening their hearts and minds to us so that we the city through their eyes, we are given a multi-dimensional view of life there. In the same way turning the tube of a kaleidoscope changes the image that one sees through its viewfinder, each chapter offers a different perspective. As a result, this is a remarkably well developed picture of life in a specific city and a number of the people who live in it. Although we may mark history with designated dates like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual's stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

Between The Assassinations is being released in North America on June 9th/2009 by Simon and Schuster and can either be purchased directly from them or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 28, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium By Tanya Huff

Most authors end up being identified with a specific type of writing. He's a horror writer, she writes romance novels, and he writes historical fiction. There aren't too many writers out there who are able to switch between genres easily and create stories as credible in one as they do in another. One of the exceptions to this is Canadian fantasy/science fiction/horror novelist Tanya Huff. She's not only capable of delivering well crafted stories and plots in every genre she attempts, but she also consistently creates memorable characters whom her readers can identify with whether they're the bastard vampire son of Henry VIII of England or a Marine Staff Sergeant fighting in deep space.

Therefore, whenever a new novel by Huff is released I always look forward to discovering what she's planned for us this time. For while she does have some continuing series, she also can be counted on to bring out something apart from them at regular intervals. That's the case with her latest release from Penguin Canada, The Enchantment Emporium. Like so many others of her books this one is set primarily in a landscape that will be alien to most of us, the city of Calgary in the province of Alberta Canada.

The second largest city in the province best known for being the home to Canada's largest population of cowboys, and the largest producer of Natural Gas and Oil, seems at first glance to be an unlikely place to set a fantasy novel. Yet that's just what Huff has managed to do with her usual flair. It seems that beneath its rather roughneck surface Calgary is home to a rather large population of fantastical beings and they all seem connected to the Enchantment Emporium of the title. However, there's also something not quite right in Calgary, and it looks like some sort of deadly convergence of powers is about to take place that could end up levelling the city.
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Alysha Catherine Gale isn't to know this when she receives a mysterious letter from her grandmother saying that if she's reading it that means her grandmother is probably dead, and could she come out to Calgary and take care of her store, The Enchantment Emporium. Now while the news of a grandmother's death might come as a shock to most families, the Gales, by anyone's stretch of imagination, aren't most families. They are a family of magic users who can change the course of events with the charms they cast. However there's more to them than just being spell casters. The men of the family having a tendency to manifest antlers when they exert power and butting heads with each other on occasion being only one example.

If the thought of the Gale men growing a rack the dream of every weekend hunter gives you pause, than what the women who are the real power in the family can do with pie and cakes is better left alone. Sufficient to say that evil sorcerers will go into hiding for years on end in order to avoid being sniffed out by just one of the Gale woman, let alone the older women known as the aunties who try to control the family. To the younger generation like Alysha, the aunties as a group are a combination matchmaker and interfering busybody who ninety percent of the time you wish would stay the hell out of your business. However, the other ten percent, when the you know what is about to hit the fan, you couldn't find a better group for guarding your back.

It's mainly because of their annoying tendencies that Alysha jumps at the opportunity to go and check out what's going on in Calgary. While no one really believes that there's anything out there that could have put grandma down, something did make her disappear which makes it worth looking into. So with the help of Joe, a rather oversized leprechaun, she takes up the job of both running the Enchantment Emporium, and trying to figure out what happened to her grandmother. Her job would be a lot easier of course if she didn't have to deal with any number of her cousins "helping", and trying to figure out a way of preventing the aunties from killing the new love of her life just because he happens to work for an evil sorcerer.

While said evil sorcerer doesn't appear to have had anything directly to do with her grandmother's disappearance, after all been he's hiding from her for the last ten years, (The Gales kills sorcerers just on principal alone because they are the epitome of the saying, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) something he's done just might be be behind it. Of course the fact that there's a gateway open between the other realms - places where demons and other assorted nastiness lives - in the middle of downtown Calgary might also have something to do with it. It also might explain the presence of the twelve dragon lords who keep buzzing the Enchantment Emporium every morning and giving the local pigeons heart attacks.
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If it sounds like there's a lot going on in The Enchantment Emporium, you're right there is. However, one of the wonderful things about Tanya Huff is her ability to build a story like a giant jig-saw puzzle, and each piece that's supplied makes the picture that much clearer, not more confusing. So as Alysha, and her compatriots, gradually figure our what's going on, so do we. In this way Huff not only has created a story that's easy to follow, she also pulls us into it by keeping us involved with its development. Even better is the fact we are able to enjoy the ride at the same time.

Part of what makes the ride so enjoyable is that all of the characters, from Alysha to the dragon lords, are a pleasure to read about. They are funny, smart, and not without their flaws; all of which makes them real to us no matter how outlandish they might be. The depiction of a dragon lord in his human form, a being who could destroy the city of Calgary without thinking twice, white knuckling through his first car ride is a great example of not only Huff's humour, but her ability to create multidimensional characters.

Tanya Huff fans will be pleased to know that The Enchantment Emporium is filled with examples of her rather offbeat humour like the scene described above, and that her slightly askew world view hasn't changed in the least. While there's nothing normal about the Gale family in terms of our world, within the covers of this book their reality is normal and it just might change the way you look at things. It's not very often that you find a book that's not only hugely entertaining, an exciting adventure, and that also provides you an opportunity to change your perspective on the way the world works, but that's what Tanya Huff does here. If you've never read anything by Huff before, this is as good a place as any to start, and if you're a long time devotee you won't be disappointed either. This is one fantasy book that is genuinely fantastic.

Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or another on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 10, 2009

Book Review: Sivler Phoenix By Cindy Pon

To the eyes of us in the West the geographical area of the world we know as China has been long a mystery. I'm sure the majority of North Americans still think of breaded chicken covered in lurid red sauce and badly dubbed Kung-fu movies as the epitome of Chinese culture. Those who are slightly more enlightened maybe able to tell you that its one of the world's most populated countries and has recently developed into an economic giant. Depending on your view point she's either an oppressive regime using slave labour to flood the world with cheap merchandise, or the land of opportunity where a shrewd businessman can make his fortune.

Thankfully things are different when it comes to books, and we've seen the publication of numerous works translated into English from Chinese starting to show up on the shelves of bookstores. Even better, is that after years of silence the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants are also beginning to create art which honours their heritage. Cindy Pon, whose first novel Silver Phoenix was just released by Harper Collins Canada doesn't quite technically fit into either of the above categories as she was born in Taipei Taiwan, but her family immigrated to the US in 1980 and she writes in English.

I'm no authority on Chinese culture, particularly folk tales, but in Silver Phoenix it appears like Pon has drawn upon her knowledge of figures from myths and tales to create her story. She has elected to set the novel in an era a Western audience would be familiar with as it sounds like the typical feudal society depicted in many of the better Karate movies, but has included the added touch of making it obvious that initial contact has been made with people from beyond China's borders.
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At seventeen Ai Ling is feeling unwanted. As the daughter of a respected scholar and former advisor to the Emperor you would think her parents wouldn't have any trouble arranging a marriage for her. However seventeen is old, and when that is combined with the fact she is a little tall, somewhat wilful, and rumours of her father having left the court in disgrace, it's fast becoming apparent that finding her a husband is going to be a lot more difficult than her parents anticipated. While Ai Ling feels somewhat badly for her parents, she is also relieved, as the thought of having to surrender the freedom she's enjoyed up to now to marry someone she doesn't know hasn't been filling her with great joy anyway. Unlike most young woman of her age she's been taught to read and write and has a great deal of independence.

Just as she's resigned herself to a life with her parents, her father is called away mysteriously to return to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams - the court of the Emperor. While saying his good byes, Ai Ling's father gives her a beautiful jade pennant with the instructions that she's never to remove it while they are separated. Although slightly bemused at the request she complies and a good thing to. For, after a couple of months she is forced to flee her house to escape the attempts of a loathsome local merchant to force her to marry him, and sets out to bring her father home, and the pennant becomes a key to her survival.

For no sooner has she set out then inexplicably demons from ancient folk tales start showing up where she is travelling. At first she only sees one in action, but soon she realizes they have taken an unhealthy interest in her. She barely escapes drowning when a young man pulls her from the lake where the first demon that attacked her was attempting to drown her. Naturally as a young woman travelling alone she is at first wary of Chen Yong, but he eventually wins her trust. This is partially due to the fact that he's as much an oddity as she, due to the fact that he is obviously of mixed blood. It turns out he's never met either of his birth parents, but he knows his father was a foreigner from the lands to the north where they have hair that's so pale it's almost white and eyes the colour of the sky.
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Like Ai Ling he's hunting for information about his father, and they decide to join forces. Along the way they are joined by his younger step-brother, Li Rong, and the three of them continue to encounter beings, both benign and evil, from myth as they make their way to the palace. As the journey continues and they find out more about why Ai Ling is the target of these attacks, they also discover that she and Chen Yong's fates have been intertwined since before she was born. However if they have any hope of discovering the truth, and finding Ai Ling's father, they are going to have to survive the hidden danger that awaits her at the Palace of Fragrant Dreams.

In Silver Phoenix Cindy Pon has done the remarkable job of not only telling a wonderful fantasy story with believable characters, but bringing alive a period of a culture's history. It comes as no surprise to learn that she is a student of Chinese brush painting, as she has a gift for bringing a scene to life in a reader's mind's eye. As only a few perfectly selected brush strokes of a water colour painting can create a picture, Pon's words bring each scene in her book to life vividly. Whether she describing the beauties of a garden, the intricate patterns of the two brothers sparring in unarmed combat, or the evil incarnate of one of the demons who attack the trio, a reader has no trouble visualizing what she's written.

While Silver Phoenix is nominally a book for young adults, the story is sophisticated enough and interesting enough for anybody who not only appreciates good fantasy, but who thinks there might be something more to Chinese culture than take out food and action movies. While it may only be a represent a sliver of time in the history of that country, and a glimpse at a few of their folk tales, its far more than what we are used to seeing and might just whet your appetite to find out more on your own. An adventure story with a taste of romance and an author with an ear for dialogue and an eye for description are a combination that's hard to beat, and that's what you'll find in Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 7, 2009

Book Review: Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The imagination has always been the enemy of repressive regimes or any group hoping to dictate the way people think. For, how can you control a person's thoughts if they are constantly wondering, "What If"? The time honoured method employed for controlling people's imagination is to control those who do their best to inspire them to pose the question which opens the door to a million possibilities. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, and anyone else involved in artistic creation, have always been the target of those wishing to ensure a population's thoughts don't stray in directions they shouldn't.

From the pressure groups who try to have films and books banned because they disagree with their message, to governments who prevent works from seeing the light of day because they encourage people to think in ways that they don't approve of, censorship has been the favoured means of controlling artists. Whether it's by the simple expedient of locking troublesome individuals up, dictating what is permissible to be published, or editing work to make it acceptable for public consumption, they do their best to stifle anything that would encourage thinking they deem unacceptable. Yet such is the creative impulse, that artists of all stripes will continue to try and produce works no matter what the circumstances, and attempt to encourage those flights of fancy considered so dangerous.

In its first English translation Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, that was just released by Random House Canada, depicts an author's attempt to write the novel he wants while doing his best to assure its approval by Iran's censors. In a society where it is forbidden for men and women not married or related to be seen in public together, writing a love story that will win permission to be published is fraught with difficulties. Simply figuring out the logistics of how a couple can meet in a way that's acceptable to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under these circumstances is probably more of a creative challenge then most writers face writing an entire novel.
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Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story is written from the point of view of an author as he tries to tell the story of how Sara and Dara meet and fall in love. Told in the form of a conversation with the reader, our protagonist guides us through the ins and outs of writing one thing and meaning another, the importance of "..." at the end of an incomplete sentence in contemporary Iranian literature, and how to best make use of stream of conscience to express forbidden thoughts. While the author is telling us the story of his two characters, he reproduces excerpts from the manuscript he's writing recounting the same events in a manner he hopes will meet the approval of Mr. Petrovich, the censor who decides if a book can be published or not.

Obviously he can't include such details as Dara's history of being a political prisoner for selling illegal videos, as Mr. Petrovich would never allow such a morally degenerate character to be the a romantic hero. Nor can he describe their clandestine meetings in Internet Cafes, their fear of arrest for being seen in public, or any of the thoughts they might have of each other. For Mr. Petrovich couldn't allow anything to be published that would encourage people to commit similar offences or encourage immoral thoughts. However, instead of dampening people's imaginations, it seems as if censorship has had the opposite result. For according to our author the modern Iranian reader has become very adept at filling in the blanks left by those three dots at the end of a sentence and interpreting the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent phrases.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Censoring An Iranian Love Story is the way in which the relationship between the author and the censor Mr. Petrovich is described. For instead of hearing the voice of a muse of inspiration in his ear while he is writing, our narrator carries on an internal conversation with his censor. The manuscript he periodically shows us is full of sentences with lines through them where he's gone back over his text and censored it himself in anticipation of what Petrovich won't allow. While most writers only have to struggle with finding the words they require to tell their story, our author spends a great deal of his creative energy on devising the means to tell his story in such a way that it will be published or marshalling his arguments to convince the censor that a sentence will not lead anybody to have sinful thoughts.
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While Mandanipour's book does nothing to dispel the image we have of Iran as an autocratic theocracy, it brings to life the faces normally hidden behind the veils and beards imposed on its population. The Persian culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has a tradition of poetry dating back more than a thousand years that was redolent with sensuality and passion. However, we also learn that the Sufis, who were the greatest of the Persian poets, almost never used explicit language. Instead they wrote in such a way that their words could be interpreted as praise for the divine as well as more earthy matters. So, ironically, a modern Iranian writer who is forced to write one thing and mean another, is actually carrying on the legacy of these long dead poets.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story is a beautifully written book in which moments of satire rub up against examples of humanity found in the most unlikely of places. (The blind film censor "watching" Al Pacino playing a blind character in Scent Of A Woman, understanding and appreciating it better than his sighted advisors and demanding they leave him alone to watch it.) While it could have easily been a bitter and angry book that railed against the tyranny of censorship and the Iranian regime in general that merely reenforced our perceptions of a monochrome society, he's elected to take a different approach. By focusing on the dilemma of the author trying to write his story, and the efforts his characters go through to establish their relationship, Mandanipour has infused a difficult subject with warmth, love, and humanity. This is not the Iran we read about in the media, and that makes his message even more powerful.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

May 1, 2009

Graphic Novel Review Tank Girl One & Two Re-mastered Editions Alan C. Martin & Jamie Hewlett

Nowadays when people speak of graphic novels they mean that the item in question is usually a comic book with the equivalent number of pages as a prose novel. Therefore the graphic they are referring to is the media in question not the content of the work. However, there are instances when the word graphic does double duty in describing both the content and the form of a graphic novel. One of the earliest, and still one of the best, of those comics, was Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl.

Giving new definition to the three "Rs", Raunchy, rebellious, and more than a little revolting, Tank Girl, her main squeeze Booga the kangaroo, Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and friends (and enemies) first saw the light of day in the late 1980's. She flaunted her stuff in black and white and colour for a while before disappearing in a cloud of dust into the Australian Outback where she first appeared. Along the way she managed to confront and confound authority and hypocrisy while propagating her own version of anarchy from behind the wheel of the super charged and heavily armed tank she took her name from. While the original individual comics were packaged together into five graphic novel sized issues a number of years ago, Hewlett and Martin and Titan Books have now begun the process of reissuing them chock full of all sorts of added bonuses.

Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition and Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition have now been released for a new generation of malcontents and disgruntled types to enjoy the havoc she wrecks upon the forces of conformity and normalcy. However these new books aren't for new readers only for not only do they contain the stories that appeared in the original books, they also include new illustrated introductions from the Alan Martin and reproductions of rare Tank Girl artwork.
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Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition includes the first thirteen issues of the comic originally published from 1988 through 1990. Watch as she deals with a gang of desperado kangaroo bikers, fails in her top secret mission to deliver a colostomy bags to the president of Australia, and then in subsequent issues has to deal with the consequences of her failure. However neither a bounty hunter come to collect the reward placed on her head for allowing President Hogan to mess himself in public, nor her former boss in the Australian Armed Forces, Sergeant Small Unit, and his team of special operatives can defeat our heroine.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised by that, for how could they stand up to anyone able to out wit the devil by trading him God's bathrobe for three wishes and using one of her wishes to trick him into performing a charity marathon instead of invading heaven? Nope, nobody is going to get the drop on Tank Girl, not even the Australian Mafia and their efforts to control the beer market by flooding it with cheap swill and confiscating all the descent brew. No wonder, for as we find out she's the incarnation of the aboriginal earth spirit Tanicha who was first invoked to protect the tribes from white red-necks encroaching even further into their lands.

Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition covers our force of nature's publication history from 1990 through 1992, and this time she's in living colour - at least some of the time. The second collection also sees Tank Girl start to head into deeper water as she rails against conformity by storming a state run "reconditioning" centre and frees the inmates in order to attempt an assault on Tasmania. However the powers that be have other things in mind, and the creators of the comic interrupt the story line to announce their retirement from comics. After taking a few well aimed kicks at the industry - likening it to a British private school run by a demented headmaster - we're returned to the regularly scheduled strip and more adventures of Tank Girl and her band of merry crazies.
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What separates Tank Girl from your more run of the mill graphic comics is not just the gratuitous sex and violence, it's the manner in which Hewlett and Martin present it. Normally comic super heroines always look like they were drawn to fulfill adolescent male fantasies, have zero in the way of sexual identity, and end up doing as good a job of objectifying women as pornography. Tank Girl not only features a heroine with a healthy libido, by featuring a character who is gleefully aware of her own body, and who cheerfully threatens her creators with dismemberment whenever they try and show her naked, they prevent her from becoming anyone's object of desire.

The whole "adult" graphic novel business is lampooned mercilessly in Tank Girl as everything is kept as cartoonish as possible. From the outrageous plot lines to the excessive violence that like a scene from a Monty Python movie verges on the absurd, Hewlett and Martin skewer every last pretension in the business and roast them on a barbecue. Yet, even while they were doing that, they still managed to create stories that were both fun and intelligent in of themselves. Normally reading something like a comic book more then twenty years after it was first released, it feels dated as the world has changed so much since it appeared and its subject matter is no longer relevant. Hewlett and Martin did such an amazing job with Tank Girl that it seems as fresh and irreverent as it did when its first issue hit the shelves in 1988.

While the new introductions to the books and the extra artwork are cool, the best thing about these re-mastered editions of Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two remains the comic itself. Devout fans of the series will want to buy these new editions for the extra bonuses while newcomers will have the luxury of not only enjoying Tank Girl's mayhem for the first time, but also owning the most complete versions of these anthologies published to date.

April 20, 2009

Book Review: Troll's Eye View Edited By Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

"And they all lived happily ever after..." has been for generations of children the unquestioned ending to all fairy stories. The poor, downtrodden, but good, step-daughter wins out in the end while the evil step-sisters and mother get what's coming to them, or the bewitched princess is rescued from some horrible enchantment by her knight in shinning armour, and they all live happily ever after. Except of course the evil step-sisters, the ogre, the giant, the troll, the dragon, or the witch who had the nerve to try and mess with them.

They either come to a rather sticky end or simply vanish from the story never to be heard from again and nobody gives them a second thought. In the black and white reality of fairy tales there is no room for questioning the why's and wherefores of what makes a person do what they do; they are either evil or good with nothing in between. While this world of absolutes might appeal to some people, haven't you ever secretly hoped that the giant might one day catch that interfering Jack as he's stealing all his possessions? Or that Prince Charming would at least fall off his white horse into a mud puddle so he wasn't so damned pure of heart and innocent of evil influence?

If your mind has ever run in those directions, than you're sure to enjoy the collection of stories gathered together by the editing team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, in their new anthology, Troll's Eye View. Being released on April 21/09 by Penguin Canada, it has some of today's best fantasy writers revisiting those old fairy tales, but this time telling them from the so called villains point of view. Ostensibly written for a younger audience, the book's fly-leaf says for readers ten and up, the stories will delight anyone who has never been quite satisfied with the simplicity of "happily ever after".
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The great thing about a Datlow and Windling anthology is their ability to come up with a theme that is sure to inspire a writer's imagination. While they've a history of putting together collections of revised version of fairy tales and other fantastical stories for both adults and children, Troll's Eye View offered those contributing a chance to turn some old favourites inside out. So we get everything from an updated version of Rapunzel, "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix; hearing the other side of the story, "Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" by Peter S. Beagle; to an examination of the whole step-sibling dynamic in "The Cinderella Game" by Kelly Link.

Some of the stories gathered in this book are based on tales you may not be familiar with, while others nearly everyone has heard of. While a few of the offerings come in the form of poems, which younger readers might initially find a little less approachable than the prose selections, they aren't any more difficult to understand than the other tales recounted in the book. In fact Joseph Stanton's "Puss in Boot, the Sequel" is only ten lines long, and manages to capture everything you need to know about Puss's character to change the ending of the original story completely. While technically it's not a case of the bad guy winning out in the end, let's just say that Puss end's up with more than his share of cream this time round then he did in the original.

While Stanton's poem, and the verse contributions of Wendy Froud and Neil Gaiman are fine, it's still the prose stories that are the true delight of this book. While some of them do what we expect of a story like this and tarnish the image of some past hero or heroine, others have eschewed that approach for something slightly more complex. For instead of merely offering a comedic alternative to the original, they stay true to the "Grimm" details, but show them from a new perspective.
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In particular, Catherynne M. Valente's take on "Hansel & Gretel", "A Delicate Architecture", is especially intriguing in the way it creates a highly imaginative explanation for how the gingerbread house in the middle of the forest came into being in the first place. Valente has created a beautifully haunting tale explaining how the "witch" came to be living in the woods that's as fantastic and magical as any of the classic fairy stories. What's truly wonderful is the way in she's able to make her into a genuinely sympathetic character until we realize which story we've ended up in. For it's not until the last few pages that Valente reveals who the story has been about, and what she's planning on doing.

In their introduction to the book Datlow and Windling say they wanted the writers to examine the villains of the old fairy stories. What's the truth behind the stories of all those evil characters and were the heroes and heroines really as noble as they were originally made out to be? What makes the results so intriguing is the variety of ways in which the authors contributing to this anthology have come up with to answer those questions. However, in spite of their different approaches, one thing all of the authors have in common is their love for the original material and the genre. For no matter how they've chosen to retell their story, they never once lose track of what made them such great stories to begin with.

While it's easy to spoof something in order to make fun of it or run it down, it's infinitely harder to rewrite a story in such a way that it brings new appreciation for the original. Troll's Eye View is not only highly entertaining in its own right, but it also reminds the reader what made fairy tales so wonderful to begin with.

Troll's Eye View can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada

March 25, 2009

Book Review: The Dark Volume By Gordon Dahlquist

While it may be true that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, too much of the same thing, no matter how good it is, can get tired after a while. At least this is the case with The Dark Volume, the conclusion to the adventures started by Gordon Dahlquist in his books The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 and The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.2, being published by Random House Canada on March 24th/09. For what was novel in the first volume, had started to wear thin by the end of the second, and is just tedious here in the third instalment.

Set in a fictional England during the Victorian era, the first two books brought together three adventurers from divers social backgrounds as they each accidentally stumbled upon a mysterious cabal who appeared out to control heads of state and captains of industry. Celeste Temple, a proper, upper middle class young woman of independent means; Dr. Abelard Svenson, a military surgeon serving in the navy of the German principality of Macklenburg; and Cardinal Chang, an assassin for hire who is neither Chinese or catholic but takes his name from the red leather coat he wears and the disfigurement a whip caused his eyes, are as an unlikely trio of allies you're liable to find anywhere. However, when circumstances brought them together they set aside their differences in the hopes that together they could thwart the cabal's plans.

Those behind the cabal have developed a process that allows them to distil emotions and experiences as a type of blue glass. When a person touches just a piece of the glass they immediately become immersed in, and relive the details of, whatever was "recorded" onto that piece of glass, which could be anything from sexual experiences to murder. Naturally for an era that prided itself on repressing emotions as much as the Victorians, exposure to these pieces of blue glass was rather an overwhelming experience. However, as shocking as the emotional voyeurism might have been, it was the recording process that was the real danger.
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Advertised as a means of liberating oneself from the constraints of a hide bound society, the "process", was actually a means of a few exerting control over many. For each person who underwent the process had a keyword or phrase implanted into their sub-consciousness that allowed anyone speaking it to assume absolute control over them. Minor modifications to the process allowed the cabal to siphon memories and emotions from their subjects as well to generate the material for the blue glass, while another modification allowed for a subject to be transformed into a being of blue glass who could use their thoughts and emotions to control others.

Over the course of the first two books we followed our erstwhile heroes as they tracked down the ringleaders of the group, first alone, and then working as a team. Each of them in turn experienced the blue glass first hand with differing results. For Celeste it involved the awakening of thoughts and desires that left her reeling, while the Cardinal experienced the dangers the material posed when one is forced to breath in the substance that forms the blue glass and have it crystallize in your system. The Doctor meanwhile discovered that the glass also contained people's memories and saw how the cabal was using them to find out valuable information that could be used for their nefarious purposes.

Initially, especially as the trio were discovering just what was going on, the story was fascinating in the way it depicted the characters reactions to what they were experiencing. This was especially true in the case of Celeste as we observed how she dealt with coming to grips with the pleasure she experienced via the blue glass. As emotionally repressed as any product of her times, she was both appalled and enthralled by her reactions, and continually struggled against this new awareness of herself as a sexual being. However as the books progressed, and neither her experiences or her reactions to them evolved, it began to feel like the author was writing his own version of Victorian pornography, instead of examining the effects of strong emotion on someone whose own have long been kept in check.
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The fact that the plot began to feel like it was meandering towards a conclusion, rather than building steam for a denouement began to make it feel like the author was merely spinning out the tale so he could exercise his fascination with dark eroticism. It was if it was becoming the reason for writing this final chapter, instead of it merely being a by product of the plot, and reading variations on Celeste having to fight her urges became tedious. While the Doctor and Cardinal Chang faired slightly better at the hands of their creator, they too seemed caught in an endless cycle.

Each of them were either in constant pursuit of some quarry or another, which involved innumerable train rides, treks through the corridors of ancient houses, and fits of random violence. While inevitably their journeying did result in them arriving at a destination, it was definitely not a case of getting there being half the fun as it rapidly became an exercise in tedium. What had started off as an interesting voyage in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol. 1 and had continued quite successfully in Vol.2, has become something of a trudge in The Dark Volume.

Far from being the "gripping tale of suspense" that its advertised as, The Dark Volume is a rather tedious exercise whose "dark eroticism" is simply Victorian era pornography revisited. You'd be better off picking up a copy of Fanny Hill, for at least its honest about its nature.

The Dark Volume can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

March 5, 2009

Book Review: A Life Full Of Holes By Driss Ben Hamed Chahadi - Recorded And Translated By Paul Bowles

Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.

It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.

According to the introduction this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
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A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.

What makes this story so powerful is the straight forward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.

There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
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There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" - God wills it - eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.

What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.

A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960's, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special.

A Life Full Of Holes can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

February 21, 2009

Book Review: Fool By Christopher Moore

Some of the best roles in Shakespeare aren't necessarily the title role of a given play. Ask any actor who he'd rather play in Julius Caesar, and old Julius will be well down the list as he doesn't even make it half way through the play. Even in those plays like Othello where the lead has a lot to do, it's Iago, the villain of the piece, who is by far the juicier role to play.

While the part of The Fool in King Lear is not as substantial as that of Iago, he's still one of those secondary characters that many actors would give their eye teeth to play. When Kenneth Branagh was still staging live theatre productions, Emma Thompson, his wife at the time, played the role of the Fool in his staging of King Lear and practically stole the show.

So the idea of retelling the story of Lear from the point of view of the Fool as Christopher Moore has done in his most recent release, Fool, published by Harper Collins Canada, is an interesting idea, especially if one were wanting to turn the story into a bawdy farce that's as much a tribute to British humour as is it is to Shakespeare. Anyone who has read any of Moore's previous works knows that he is as capable of writing intelligent, subtle satire as he is pie in the face slapstick, and often combines the two with great success to write stories that are both thought provoking and hilarious. While Fool tends to lean more towards the outrageous than the subtle, imagine King Lear being staged as an episode of Fawlty Towers, its kept from descending into mindless farce by Moore occasionally injecting doses of reality.
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For those not familiar with the basic plot of Lear, an elderly king of England decides the time has come to split his kingdom between his three daughters, and bases his decision on who gets what on how much each love him. Being a vain old man he allows his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, to flatter him with false words of love. However, when his youngest daughter, Cordelia refuses to play that game he disinherits her and splits his kingdom between his two eldest daughters with the proviso that he live half the year with one, and half the year with the other while Cordelia is married off to a Prince of France and banished from England. As it turns out, of course, Regan and Goneril show their true colours fairly soon and refuse to take care of Lear and end up plotting against each other for sole control of the kingdom.

In Shakespeare's version of events a third character, Edward, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is the one who contrives to set the two daughters against each other by feigning love for both of them. In the version of events as narrated by Pocket, Fool (or Court Jester as we'd call him) to the court of King Lear, he's the puppet master behind the scenes doing his best to manipulate events. Unfortunately too many of his puppets have minds of their own and his plans quickly go awry. Initially he had hoped to ensure that Cordelia, his favourite among the three sisters, would remain at home in England and not be married off to a foreign prince, and when that fails he's left scrambling to find ways to make things right.

While Moore adheres pretty much to the story line of Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, it doesn't stop him from adding in a few extras from other plays as well. There's a vengeful ghost, shades of Hamlet (because there's always a "bloody ghost"), as well as a couple of guest appearances from the three witches of Macbeth, Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary, ("What no Thyme" said Kent. "We've the got the time if you've got the inclination") to help propel the plot along. Of course the major difference between the original and Moore's version is the tone; instead of Lear the tragic hero undone by his flaw of vanity as the main theme we are treated to a ribald adventure along the lines of The Decameron.

In most instances when a modern writer attempts to satirize Shakespeare they fall flat because no matter what they do their efforts pale in comparison to the original. What separates Moore's effort from any of the others that I've read is the fact he is able to reproduce the tone and spirit of the original in his use of language. Even though he is writing in mainly modern vernacular when his characters resort to bawdy language he draws upon the vast and colourful vocabulary of Elizabethan England giving them a verisimilitude lacking in most modern attempts at creating characters from this time period.
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However it's more than just his characterization that makes the story work, it's the fact that underneath all the humour and silliness one can't help but see Moore's admiration for the original work. Whether it's his adherence to the original story line, or the fact he retains some of the more powerful lines from the script - Lear calling on the storm to blast him after he's been betrayed by Regan and Goneril and is wandering upon the heath on the verge of madness for instance - it all adds to the overall sensation that although Moore is having fun with the the text, he's not making fun of it.

In his after-word to the novel, where he explains how and why he came to write Fool, Moore tells us not to bother going back to the original script to compare the two as he's drawn upon a number of Shakespeare's plays as a sources for dialogue. However, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, what Moore managed to do is actually increase my appreciation for the original. Not because he's done such a lousy job that it made me ache for the original in comparison, but because it was so well done that it reminded me what a wonderful play he had based his story upon.

It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but a codicil to that should be added that includes a work like Fool. What Moore has done with Fool is taken one of the great works of literature, King Lear, turned it on its head, and in the process reminded us of Shakespeare's genius. Genuinely funny, and wonderfully irreverent, Fool will appeal to any reader, whether they are familiar with the original work or not.

Fool can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca as of February10th/09.

February 2, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two By Gordon Dahlquist

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume ONe Gordon Dahlquist created a fantastical version of 19th century Europe which he populated with an intriguing cast of heroes and villains. On one side a mysterious cabal of individuals made up of captains of industry, government insiders, high ranking military officers, and the aristocracy of various nations and their diabolical plans for obtaining power. Seeking to thwart their plots an unlikely a trio as you'll ever see; Celeste Temple, a single woman of good breeding and some money, Mr. Chang, also known as The Cardinal (a disfiguring scar from the whip of a young noble that gave his eyes an Asiatic cast and his preferred garb of a long red coat are the genesis of his names), a killer for hire, and Dr. Abelard Svenson, an army doctor attached to the diplomatic mission of the Duchy of Macklenburg, a German principality.

While Volume One explained how each of our heroes became embroiled with the intrigue and gave us a good idea as to what their foes were attempting to do and how they were going about it, The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two, being published by Random House Canada on February 3rd/09, reveals the extent of the cabals plans, and goes into even more explicit detail as to how they aim to fulfill them. Although we had previously learned something of the mysterious alchemy that allows a person's experiences to be recorded in blue glass and that an individual looking into that glass becomes immersed in the emotions recorded, it becomes clear that is only the tip of the ice berg.

After a brief period of working together to discover more information about the cabal the three again split up to pursue separate investigations. Although their parting helps each discover more details of the plot they are up against, it was not the result of considered planning. Instead it was an indication of the emotional fragility that marks each of the three characters. One of the things that Dahlquist has recreated accurately about this era is the state of emotional repression that most people existed in. What's more he also manages to capture the effect that an emotional upheaval has upon people who are normally alienated from their feelings perfectly.
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For when Celeste succumbs to her feelings about finding her ex-fiancee among the cabal, and falls to pieces in front of The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson, she is mortified with thoughts that they might think her weak. Blind to anything else, including reason, she decides that in order to prove herself she must carry out a dangerous adventure on her own. So she slips away to confront the leaders of the cabal. Not having any idea where she might have gone, The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson are forced to separate in the hopes of finding her, with the result that they all end up in deadly peril.

While there have plenty of fantasy and science fiction books that deal with mind control or psychological manipulation of one kind or another, Dahlquist's books are some of the first that I've read that deal with the power of emotions in the same way. Politicians today are past masters of manipulating our emotions at the expense of reason by playing on our fears in order to convince us they are the ones who will keep us safe. What Dahlquist does is take that basic premise and magnify to a degree that is horrifying.

His decision to set the series in a fictional 19th century setting and retain the moral codes of the time have given him the ideal societal conditions to explore the effects of unbridled emotions. In a society where propriety is the foremost consideration and sexuality is sublimated, experiencing sensual pleasure would be like taking a drug. Using their method of recording people's experiences, the cabal feeds its targets undiluted doses of the most stimulating and rawest emotions they can accumulate in order to seduce them to their aims. However the process not only encodes emotions, but all of a person's experiences and thoughts as well. So anybody going through the process allows the cabal access to any knowledge they have stored in their memory.
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Imagine if you have lived your life in a state of near frigidity, and all of a sudden someone promises you that they can not only free you to experience waves of pleasure without any guilt or shame, but also help you achieve any ambitions you might have for power, wealth, or status. Simply undergo "the process" and you will ascend to a higher level of being. If you were an ambitious politician or a greedy industrialist in the 19th century would you be able to resist? It may not sound plausible to our ears put so baldly, but Dahlquist makes it all ring true.

For even our three heroes become ensnared by the strength of the emotions that emanate from the pieces of blue glass which contain a specific moment and the deadlier glass books which are the record of person's entire experiences. Even the ways they are able to overcome the effects of the glass are such that it adds to the verisimilitude of the circumstances. For it's not because they have any superhuman powers or are "better" people than those who surrender, it's because they know that the people behind the scenes don't have their best interests at heart. Remembering you're in deadly peril usually helps prevent you being seduced by your enemy.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two like its predecessor is not only an exciting and alluring adventure, its a terrifying look at the potential to control people through emotions. What was impressive about the first book, an intriguing plot and interesting characters, is improved upon here as Dahlquist not only manages to spin new webs of intrigue in this volume he also unravels them with eloquence. Meanwhile he also allows his three lead characters to learn and grow from both their experiences and their acquaintance with each other and show how it is possible to free your emotions without the aid of alchemeny.

It's not often that a book can be escapist fun and thought provoking at the same time, but that is definitely the case in this instance. I'm looking forward eagerly to the release of the final volume in this series for what promises to be more of the same.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two can be purchased directly from Random House Canada as of February 3rd/09 or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 30, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 By Gordon Dahlquist

There's something about the mid to late nineteenth century that makes it the ideal period for setting a mystery novel. Perhaps it's because of the atmosphere created by the lack of electricity and houses lit by either gas or candles. Even in the best lit houses there are places where the light didn't reach creating pools of shadows in which anything could happen. It was also a period of great political and social unrest as various nationalist interests across Europe strove for independence and the aristocracy were being forced to share power with a merchant class demanding their money give them a voice in government.

A writer couldn't find a better era to create intrigues involving people of power lurking in the shadows seeking to take advantage of the era's industrial and scientific advancements in order to carry out their nefarious plots. It doesn't hurt either of course that cities of that time would have been filled with rundown and desperate neighbourhoods and even in the better parts there would have been plenty of ill lit allies where anything could happen to anyone. It's an age that positively cries out for stories of secret cabals, knives in the dark, and other strange carryings on.

Which is exactly what playwright turned novelist Gordon Dahlquist has done in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume One, published by Random House Canada, that kicks off what promises to be an adventure/fantasy trilogy different from anything you might have read previously. Set in an era much like our nineteenth century Dahlquist has created a tale of gothic splendour to match those written during that time, but laced it with doses of modern awareness. The characters might be governed by the morality of the times, but unlike their counterparts written by authors of the period, these people have thoughts that would never have made it to print in Victoria's time.
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Through coincidence and luck three very disparate characters stumble upon a plot involving people from the highest ranks of the military, government, aristocracy, and industry from countries across Europe. Exactly what the plot is neither Celeste Temple (a single woman of good background and decent money), Mr. Chang, the Cardinal (a killer for hire whose names are derived from his penchant for wearing a long red coat and disfiguring scars he received to his eyes when young), or Dr. Abelard Svenson (a military doctor assigned to the principality of Macklenburg's diplomatic mission as medical baby sitter to the state's heir apparent) are certain, except that it must be dark and nefarious. For even before fate brings them together to pool their resources each of them has escaped a near death situation by the barest of margins.

What they have found out is that this mysterious cabal has discovered some sort of process that allows them to record one person's experiences and memories in such a manner as to allow others to relive them completely. They also discover that the people who undergo the process of having their memories duplicated become malleable to the point of being puppets. The implications of this of course are enormous, especially when Dr. Svenson discovers that his charge, Prince Karl-Horst, has undergone the process and has been taken into the plotter's inner circle.

With The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Gordon Dahlquist has created the perfect opening salvo for what promises to be an intriguing trilogy of books. Not only has he created a tantalizing trail for our three erstwhile heroes to follow, and us to be captivated by, he has created three characters that allow us to have completely different perspectives on the same situation. The experience offered by partaking of the blue glass allows an individual access to another's innermost feelings and passions, and each of the three are effected when they experiment with a shard the doctor finds.
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To a typically repressed person of the era like Celeste a glimpse of raw, unbridled emotion of any kind is both shocking and alluring at the same time. For while her conditioning tells her she should be repulsed by what she is observing, no descent person would give into those types of feelings, a part of her yearns for the freedom of emotion that's she experiences. Each of the three react differently, according to their natures, but they each up end up realizing some sort of regret about their lives as well.

Not only do we begin to understand the allure offered by the process through the experiences of each of our main characters, it also allows Dahlquist the opportunity to give us a deeper insight of our leads. By allowing each of them to explore the feelings that looking into the blue glass awakens in them, he makes them far more interesting to read about. At the same time we also learn why each of them is willing to risk their lives pursuing a matter which they could just as easily have walked away from.

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Dahlquist has done a great job of recreating the world of the nineteenth century through descriptions of the cities that the action takes place in and the behaviour of the characters involved in the story. As you follow his characters into darkened corridors or down dimly lit streets you can almost hear the hissing of the gas lights or the clip-clop of the horse drawn carriages as they proceed along cobbled streets. Even the plot reeks of the time as a key element of the intrigue is offering people the temptation to free themselves to experience emotions and feelings they have long held in check because of the morality of the times.

Not only has Dahlquist created a great period piece, he has managed to imbue it with enough of a modern sensibility to make it exciting and interesting to a contemporary readership. The characters are intriguing, the action exciting, and the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. If the final two books match up the standard set by Volume One, this trilogy promises to be one of the most unusual and unique fantasy rides of the last little while.

You can purchase The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 22, 2009

Interview: R. Scott Bakker - Author Of The Prince Of Nothing & The Aspect Emperor

The last time I had interviewed R. Scott Bakker it was in reference to his book Neuropath that was due to be released. To say that Neuropath was a departure from his previous books - the epic fantasy trilogy The Prince Of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought) was an understatement, so we had lots to talk about at that time.

However, his latest novel, The Judging Eye is not only a return to epic fantasy, but a return to the world he had created in the previous trilogy. The Judging Eye is the first book in a new trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, that picks up a couple of decades after events described in The Thousandfold Thought. So the questions I e-mailed to Scott to answer focused mainly on the forthcoming series, as well as specifics to do with aspect of the books that piqued my interest in particular.

Like his books, Scott's answers are though provoking and intelligent, so enjoy the read.

Can you describe the evolution of what is now I presume going to be a sextet - the three books that make up The Prince Of Nothing and the new trilogy The Aspect Emperor - Had you always visualized six books, or did it gradually take on a life of its own?
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The entire sequence is titled The Second Apocalypse, which in its initial conception way back in the 1980's was to be a trilogy consisting of three books, The Prince Of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor, and The Book That Shall Not Be Named. The Prince Of Nothing, of course, turned into a trilogy in its own right, as has The Aspect-Emperor. The final book will likely be a standalone or a duology, with the second book containing a massive omnibus.

The amount of detail that you provide your readers when it comes to the world you've created is incredible - the history and the various cultures in particular. Was there any specific time period in our own history that you used as a springboard? What's the overall impression you were going for?

Epic fantasy is unique as a literary genre in that it strives to tickle its readers with a sense of awe. The thing I realized long ago–in my teenage D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) days as a matter of fact–was the importance of believability. From that point, I strove to create the most believable world I could–the world that ultimately evolved into Earwa. It’s literally been twenty-five years in the making.

In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy we witness society, for the most part, through the eyes of four characters who are outsiders; Drusus Achamian - as a schoolman (sorcerer) is considered damned by society, and even among schoolmen he is an outsider because his order believes in something no one else does, Esmenet, a prostitute, Kellus, and Cnaiur the barbarian. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and what opportunities did it allow you as a writer?

Great observation. I initially chose my characters because of the generic types they represented–the sorcerer, the barbarian, and the whore–not because they were outsiders. The fact that they were outsiders, of course, afforded more than a few dramatic opportunities. If you think about it, The Prince Of Nothing is a kind of ‘rags to riches’ narrative: I had to have rags (disempowerment) to make the rise to riches (power) dramatic. And now, particularly with Esmenet in The Judging Eye, you have the dilemma of someone bred to subservience finding themselves forced to rule.

I've always loved words just for their own sake, the layers of meaning that can be found within just one word, a sentence, or how you can change meanings just by repositioning one or two letters. The system of magic that you introduced us to in the first trilogy, especially as practised by Achamian's school, reminded me of that and I wondered how and why you devised it.

Humans are born essentialists, which is to say, we generally think things and people are what they are by virtue of their intrinsic properties or characteristics–their ‘immutable essence.’ We think that the way things appear to us are what they are fundamentally–and given the invisibility of ignorance, we generally encounter few reasons to think otherwise. No matter how narrow, how stupid or peevish, our perspectives always strike us as exhaustive.

This (combined with the logical function of language) underwrites the intuition that words have ‘essential meanings,’ that a passage of scripture, say, has one fundamental reading (which always magically happens to be our reading). So for the longest time essentialist interpretations of language ruled the theoretical roost.

In Earwa, however, essentialism is true, words have pure meanings, significations unpolluted by the contextual vicissitudes of circumstance. The idea is that if you can speak from the all-seeing perspective of the God, then you can literally rewrite the world. The different Schools of sorcery are based on the way in which these essences are mined. In the Anagogis, concrete metaphor is the primary mechanism. In the Gnosis, conceptual abstraction is the royal road to sorcerous power. (Both of these are what I call discursive magics in that they are linguistic and compositional, and as such quite distinct from intuitive magics like the Psuke).

Why did I design the world this way? Because I think epic fantasy has to be believable to succeed (and the fact that my fantasy theory of magic has interested a few real occultists (!!) suggests I succeeded). I’m certainly not an essentialist myself. I’m actually starting to think that language as we experience it doesn’t exist, that it’s a kind of epiphenomenal smoke. But the fact is no one knows what the hell language is...

You've allowed nearly twenty years to pass in the world of the books before continuing with the story - while this allowed certain things to be established - Kellus as Aspect Emperor over all the world of The Three Seas - it also left large holes in your reader's knowledge of events leaving them to pick up the information through second hand sources rather than being first hand observers and making them sift through a variety of perceptions to form their impression of the state of the world. What was your intent with disseminating information in that manner?

Since history in the real world is interpretative and fragmentary, I think this approach actually makes the world more believable. This isn’t a license to be lazy–quite the contrary–since you have to continually gauge the way each fact (and I introduce more than a few contradictions) you give will contribute to the reader’s sense of the whole. When you get this right, you can generate and sustain not only some cool atmospherics, a real sense of epic gravitas, but quite a few message board debates as well!

In the first books Kellus was an active character who we saw the world through, but in The Judging Eye he is no longer a character, merely somebody we see through other people's eyes. Why did you make that change?

The original plan was to have Kellhus progressively disappear as a viewpoint character as he gained power throughout The Prince of Nothing. The problem, it turned out, was that all my draft readers began to believe him, rather than continually conditioning everything he said and did with what they had learned from their initial glimpses into his manipulative psyche. So I was forced to go back and to add several viewpoint sections to remind them what Kellhus was up to.
The reader is on their own in The Aspect-Emperor, I’m afraid. This is a lesson I learned from Hawthorne: if you want to create the intimation of power and transcendence, it’s far better to draw down the veil than to lift the skirts. I presume this is why all the ways the Bush Administration has saved America from further terrorist attacks seem to be ‘classified.’
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The Judging Eye of the title can be seen as referring to a talent that one of the characters introduced in this book, Mimara - Esmenet's daughter from when she was a whore- possesses, the ability to see a person's nature - evil or good. Yet in spite of her ability to see these absolutes you've still left a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to good and evil in the book, why?

The thing about fantasy worlds–what makes them fantasy worlds, you might say–is that good and evil are more than projections of human self-interest. But think about a world where good and evil not only exist, but can be intuitively apprehended by everyone. Almost all conflict–and by extension, all narrative–turns on our inability to resolve our incompatible moral claims. If Earwa didn’t share the same problem, it would be so conceptually alien as to be unrecognizable. A hard place to tell interesting stories