Monday, December 28, 2009

Regression within Progression: A Review of Colin Harvey's "Winter Song"

Several critics have pointed out a similarity between Poul Anderson's The Long Night Series and Colin Harvey's first novel for Angry Robot, Winter Song. I certainly thought of Anderson, who happens to be one my favorite pulp fiction writers from my youth in the fifties, but I did not go there immediately. Instead, I was reminded instantly of the landfall novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover Landfall), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Fall of Angels, and the novels of Iain Banks and Larry Niven. There may even be a hint or shall I say a scent of Asimov here (more on this later). However, curiously, I found the most resonance in a comparison between the science fiction novels of Modesitt and Harvey's; I felt this resonance or perhaps echo not because of content but because of the tone. Modesitt's novels fascinate primarily because of their firm grasp of the way things work: politics, economy, and science. I felt that same attention to world-building in the myriad of details that Harvey sprinkled within the text to intimate or to suggest that a larger canvas, a more complex super-structure of culture, was operating somewhere behind the action of the characters of his novel on the icy world of Isheimur.

The novel concerns a space-trader from the planet Avalon by the name of Karl Allman, who while crossing the Mizar B2 system, is attacked by three Traditional ships. The Traditionals are un-enhanced humans, whereas Karl is a hybrid, an augmented human. With his ship damaged and dying, he ejects into space encased in a "quivering blue jelly, three metres high, and stuffed full of nanos." Before he goes, the ship's computer downloads a plethora of information into Allman, which creates one of the major conceits of the novel. Allman enters space no longer a single entity; instead, he is two beings: one personality is Karl; the other is the ship's computer's download of information, a sentient entity occupying Karl's body and forming its own personality. And whereas Karl is unconscious and asleep at landfall, the other entity is alive and becoming conscious.

Karl floats toward Isheimur, a terraformed world settled before the falling of "the Long night," by Icelandic peoples, seeking to maintain their cultural identity. Two centuries have passed since their arrival and Karl does not know whether any of the settlers have survived; however, the planet is his best bet for survival and he aims for it and lands in a fury of flames. Thus we "fall" into a medieval culture, which for the most part has forgotten modern life. There are computers called "oracles" and a form of the world wide web but for the most part Isheimur is a pre-Christian medieval society, governed by Gothis.

Karl falls to earth near the village of Skorradalur and is discovered by the Gothi Ragnar. Ragnar and his men bring the burnt and unconscious Karl back to the village, unperturbed by the fact that a spaceman has fallen onto their world. This fact is one of the unusual factors of the novel. Even though the settlers have regressed to a primitive state they are cognizant of spacemen, computers, and modern weapons. While they believe in the Norse gods, ghosts, shape shifters, and holy men, they also rely on computers to supply them with parts for their equipment and information. This schizophrenia is one of the major themes of the novel and Harvey consistently develops it throughout his tight narrative. Schizoid behavior underlies the cultural structure of the planet and the personality of the inhabitants.

Once Karl lands, he loses consciousness and the other entity that inhabits his mind, the artificial intelligence from his ship, takes center stage. The natives christen the other being, Loki, and thus begins the schizophrenic struggle between the two beings encased in Karl's body.

During his stay Karl hears of a legend of an ancient ship called the Winter Song and decides to set off on a journey. However, Ragnar declares that Karl is indebted to him and must work off his debt. Karl escapes and Bera, an orphan and dependent of Ragnar, accompanies him; together they uncover several secrets about the colonization of the planet.

In conclusion, I was duly impressed with Winter Song. The prose is direct, strong, and serviceable; the characters are clearly drawn, the world of Isheimur completely realized, and the narrative convincing and satisfying. Ultimately, I was struck by the complexity of the novel. Its complexity, however, does not arise from the plot; it is rather simple. Instead, it is the magnitude of detail that supports the world-building. Harvey has succeeded in creating a fascinating planet with a unique environment, exotic fauna and flora, a medieval culture with its social constructs, traditions, and structures, and three humanoid species, not to mention several off-world cultures.

Finally, at the beginning of this review I suggested that there was a scent of Asimov here and in the preceding paragraph, I said that the "prose is direct." There is a point, a sore spot as it were, that I want to make. There seems to be a tendency in speculative fiction these days to attack the serviceable prose. This same criticism has also been directed against Asimov; however, I for one find the more fantastic the voyage the more material, direct, and clear should be the prose. This is a lesson I learned from studying the surrealists and I think it applies in speculative fiction. Harvey seems to follow the Asimov model. That is he describes the most fantastical things in a clear precise way; he uses short declarative sentences to tell a most outlandish tale.

As a result I found Winter Tale quite convincing and entertaining.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"As Above, So Below," a Review of James Lovegrove's "The Age of Ra"

Carl Jung believed firmly in the ancient expression, "as above, so below," from the alchemical text, The Emerald Tablet. For the follower of ancient hermeticism this expression holds the key to all the mysteries of the universe. Jung used the formula to explain the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind, whereas Hermes Trismegistus, the author of The Emerald Tablet, saw it as a key to open the magic inherent in the world.

The ultimate meaning of the adage is that the macrocosmos is mirrored in the microcosmos and that God is the same as man.

James Lovegrove uses this formula as the organizing principle of his tightly-crafted novel, The Age of Ra, to create two worlds: earth far in the future, where the Egyptian gods have defeated all other gods and divided the earth into warring factions, each aligned with a god from the pantheon; and the pantheon itself, with all its petty struggles and jealousies.

Lovegrove, therefore, tells four tales with four parallel arcs within this format: (1) the story of the gods and their movement in the pantheon; (2) the personal tale of the godly struggle between Set, Osiris, Isis and, Set's wife, Nephthys; (3) the war between the worldly factions and their struggle for dominance; and (4) the personal struggle between Lieutenant David Westwynter, a British soldier, and his younger brother Steven.

Ultimately, the novel is about fratricide and sibling rivalry, both on earth and in heaven.

The novel begins as military science fiction. David Westwynter and his paratroop unit drop behind enemy lines in the Arabian desert to rendezvous with an American unit. The British Commandos, commanded by Westwynter worship Osiris, whereas their American counterparts follow Horus. Together the two factions are waging a secret war against the Nephthysians.

Lovegrove is a good writer and he immediately establishes the rules. The novel is told from the point of view of David Westwynter; it is a tightly-constructed narrative with a no-nonsense prose style. The British commandos are an elite fighting group and we are on solid military science ground here, following the team to the rendezvous point. However, Lovegrove quickly lets us know that he is not writing a standard military science fiction novel. Our first clue is that the men carry Ba weapons and the battle locations are ancient locations, re-animated to a future context. And by the end of the chapter, the mummies arrive.

Even though Lovegrove clearly employs elements of myth, horror, and science fiction, the novel doesn't feel like a post-modernist romp. Instead, it reminds me of the movies and novels I liked as a kid. More particularly, the story of David Westwynter and his brother Steven is reminiscent of films like "Beau Geste," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "The Four Feathers." The difference here, of course, is the blending of three speculative tropes with the traditional British romantic novel of the early twentieth century: military science fiction, Egyptian mythology, and horror (more specifically--the mummy as horror).

The strength of the novel lies in its traditional underpinning and Lovegrove's thorough understanding of myth. To give just one example: David Westwynter rebels against his rich upper-class British family and joins the army when his younger brother dies in a sea battle. After his capture and escape from the Nephthysians, Westwynter is rescued by freedom fighters from Freegypt. The leader of the fighters is a young woman, who tells him that they are followers of the Lightbringer. The Lightbringer is an enigmatic man, who wears a mask to hide his disfigured face. After the protagonist meets the charismatic Lightbringer, he decides to join the Freegyptian's cause to throw off the rule of the gods and to abandon his allegiance to Osiris and England. This is the stuff of British romantic fiction. One novel that I read over and over as a kid was Thomas Costain's The Black Rose. In that novel a young Anglo-Saxon lord flees Norman rule to win fame and fortune in Cathay, find true love, and return to England. A similar plot is working here.

However, this is not to be interpreted as a criticism of Lovegrove's novel. If you like historical adventure stories, with a touch of the British Empire, à la Kipling and Costain, then this book is for you. Additionally, Lovegrove follows the Aristotelian verities throughout to create a well-written, tightly constructed novel.

The only criticism that I have of the novel is that the gods receive short shrift. However, they are so annoying in their childish displays that, ultimately, I was glad to be rid of them.

In the final analysis, The Age of Ra is a tightly-crafted novel, loyal, to the Aristotelian verities, a strong narrative, with well-developed central characters, and a nod to British adventure stories of the forties and fifties.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Andy Remic's Use of Pastiche in Kell's Legend

Kell's Legend is Book I of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles and Andy Remic's sixth novel. Andy Remic sees himself as one of the successors to the Dave Gemmell tradition and, in one interview, talks about meeting Gemmell, his admiration of the writer, and his ultimate friendship with the man. The novel has recently been nominated by Angry Robot for the prestigious Dave Gemmell award.

To appreciate fully Kell's Legend we must first look at the rhetorical device of pastiche and its use and efficacy in science fiction and fantasy,examine the schism which exists between the heroic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and that of Michael Moorcock, and then decide whether Remic accomplished his goal--to compose the Gemmell itself.

Even though, Andy Remic acknowledges his gratitude to and admiration of the works of Dave Gemmell, Kell's Legend demonstrates a firmer grounding in the American pulp fiction of the fifties, filtered through the work of Dave Gemmell but ultimately derived from Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and Robert Howard.

Pastiche is a novel, poem, or painting that incorporates several different styles or is made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources. With this definition in mind, it is safe to say that nearly every fantasy novel is a "pastiche." Every science fiction author or fantasy writer has borrowed heavily not only from the writers that preceded him or her but from myths, legends, fairy tales, sagas, ballads, and history. It is the nature of the beast to borrow and incorporate the themes of the cultural Geist(socius) that swirls within the genre. However, in the case of Kell's Legend, Andy Remic has consciously acknowledged that he is writing a pastiche and that he owes and admires several specific practitioners of heroic fantasy. Through his acknowledgment, adoption, and amalgamation of their styles, themes, images, and even syntax he pays homage and creates pastiche; the result is a creation of something new, startling, crude, and iconoclastic. In many way his narrative is like one of the clockwork beasts that stalk his protagonists--the cankers. The text is chaotic, Dionysian, and drenched in literary testosterone. It is visceral, angry, mean-spirited, and exciting.

The conclusion, then, is that through his use of pastiche Remic has consciously or unconsciously contributed something new to heroic fantasy and widened the split that exists in heroic fantasy between the followers of Moorcock on one hand and the fans of Tolkien on the other. The novel will have its enemies because it is not Tolkien-esque in its themes or obsessions.

Kell's Legend flows from the Moorcock vein and will ultimately widen the psychic split between the gnarled limbs of Tolkien and Moorcockian fantasy.

This schism is not Remic's doing, of course; it began with Moorcock and his gang back in the fifties but they weren't the perpetrators either; they were simply the followers of those other mad iconoclasts: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps, Tolkien himself through his use of deep structure and underlying myth really caused the schism. Nevertheless, the split exists and continues to evolve; the two branches grow apart and one day they may have separate spaces on the bookshelf or in the library.

Pastiche, of course, has come to mean a use of variety of styles and sources to ridicule a particular genre. However, in Kell's Legend, Andy Remic has not chosen to use pastiche to ridicule but to praise or, at least, pay homage to one of his favorite heroic fantasy authors--Dave Gemmell. But a close reading of the text does not only reflect an homage or a wink at Gemmell: the book itself is replete with a resplendent adumbration of his favorite genre authors. This is evident through his use of theme, characters, and settings.

Remic's themes in Kell's Legend mirror those of Gemmell's "Druss" and "Waylander" series; more particularly, a flawed hero, under the influence of a daemon, weighs-in against an invading army to bolster the backbone of an out-manned out-classed innocent culture (cf Moorcock's Elric series). The protagonist is usually accompanied by a small group of professionals who are doomed to die with the hero. However, somewhere there is a deus ex machina moving the heroes across the board of fate. Additionally, Gemmell's novels are materialist and realist within the confines of the text. Although, the hero is sentimental and ultimately a moral soul, living by his own set of mores, he does the practical thing: he kills with impunity and battles wholeheartedly. Gemmell was an unabashed admirer of John Wayne and John Ford. His Druss and Waylander are, ultimately, Indian fighters. There is a literary strand in Gemmell that leads directly to James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and Remic, by absorbing Gemmell, has tapped into that brutal and realistic strain of American Romanticism.

In Kell's Legend, Kell is an aging warrior, who lives in Jalder to be near his grand-daughter Nienna. From her perspective he seems to be a lonely but kind man, who is supporting her and paying for her education. Kell, however, has a blood-bond with a daemon and a history that includes murder, mayhem, alcoholism, valor and adventure. He is not a Tolkien-esque character; he falls squarely in the Moorcock camp of flawed heroes. The other main characters include Nienna, the granddaughter, Saark the thief and rogue, and Illanna, the daemon in the ax. In that Kell is like Druss, Saark is like Sieben in The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, and Illana like Snaga, the resonance with Gemmell is evident and palpable.

The characters and themes are played and moved across a grand landscape; and, within that world, the sides are aligned. To the north, lie the home of the clockwork vampires; to the south Falanor. In between lies the mysterious and magical Black Pike Mountains, home of the insidious and odious engineers.

It is in his creation of the north that Remic shines. Here the clockwork vampires reside. These creatures seem new to me and non-derivative; however, even here there is a sort of pastiche. On one hand there is a definite wink to the Death Dealers of Harry Potter and to the steampunk novels of Tim Powers, S. M. Peters, and Jules Verne; and on the other there is a similarity to the sado-masochistic vampire novels that clog the fantasy and horror shelves of Barnes & Noble. Nevertheless, in Remic's hands, his most vivid characters emerge from the north: Anukis, the clockwork vampire, Graal, the general of the albino vampire army, the cankers, destructive clockwork monsters that are reminiscent of the Black Library's chaotic beasts, the Elric-like albino army, and the Engineers.

Within this fantastic world, the two forces collide and within that collision lies a quest. The quest, of course, will take us to the underworld.

So, in conclusion, Kell's Legend is an iconoclastic melange of themes that incorporates devices from various genres--Moorcock/Gemmell heroic fantasy, steampunk, and horror. It is an exciting, brutal novel, soaked in testosterone and paced like a roller coaster. The sex and violence is visceral and the action is non-stop. It is not your grandpa's heroic fantasy; it is something else: cruder, rougher, more violent, realistic and materialistic. In other words, it will be addictive to the modern reader with a taste for Moorcockian fantasy.

I want to close with an address to those who are criticizing Remic for not being Gemmell or trying to be like Gemmell. First of all, all writing is pastiche. Remic, like Babe Ruth, signaled to the reader where he intended to go--straight to Gemmell country. He then hit the ball:a scorching line drive to center field. Whether it is a home-run depends on the subsequent book; however, he is definitely a player to watch and read. I imagine him scurrying around second base, heading toward home, yelling obscenities like a banshee, and peeing his pants with glee. Second, any material in the hands of another is going to be different. As Borges said in Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote, "he did not want to compose another Quixote--which is easy--but the Quixote itself." To paraphrase, Remic did not want to compose another Gemmell; he wants to compose the Gemmell--the work--he loves--itself. It will be different from Gemmell but it certainly seems Gemmell-like. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quaternity in the Works of Dan Abnett

He is bounden to beleue in ye trinite. And ye felowe beleueth in a quaternitie: Sir Thomas More

Dan Abnett's "Blood Pact" is the twelfth novel in his Gaunt's Ghost series and, in my mind, his most intimate investigation into the psyche of Gaunt. For the nervous, superstitious, conspiratorial among you, let's add another "Double Eagle," to make the series contain thirteen.

So there are thirteen novels in the series to date. However, Mr. Abnett tends to write quaternities with a single over-arching arc, so that brings us to two completed quaternities, a trilogy, and two extras--"Blood Pact," and "Double Eagle." Of these two, one is hors série--"Double Eagle"--and the other, "Blood Pact" is the beginning of a new quarternity.

The last quaternity began with the novel,"Traitor General" and ended with "Only in Death." In "Traitor General" an Imperial General, who is condemned to death, is captured (rescued)by the Chaos equivalent of the Imperial Guard--the Blood Pact--and taken to the planet Gereon. Gaunt and a select team travel to Gereon to assassinate the general.

Gereon is one of Abnett's greatest creations. It is here that Abnett begins to show what happens to a planet that is conquered by Chaos. Of course, we have seen the images of conquered planets before through the battles but we have not seen the day-to-day existence of those who live under the rule of Chaos before nor have we seen the chain of command of Chaos or its administrative echelons to the degree that we now do.

In "Traitor General,' Abnett begins a descent into detail and world-building that he carries through to the last book in the quaternity--"Only in Death." The third quaternity now called the "The Lost," contains some of the best writing that Abnett has done. Not only does he envision several remarkable worlds but he creates languages and cultures in way that would make Ursula K. LeGuin smile. He also begins to transform Gaunt.

To be true to the Aristotelian verities Gaunt must grow and change. In that Abnett has an almost limitless space in which to develop his story arc, the changes are slow. At book eleven, we reach the tale-tell sign of conversion--blindness. Book eleven is the pivot; the book of changes. The story must change and in "Blood Pact" it does.

"Blood Pact" is a different type of book than the others. Of course, it contains all the usual suspects; however, it is smaller in scope. This novel begins two years after the horrendous battles on Jago. The Ghosts are on Balhaut, an important location for Gaunt. This is where it all began, where things went bad for Gaunt. In fact, the people of Balhaut celebrate the bravery of the "dead" hero Gaunt. So, in effect, Gaunt is a ghost of sorts. Abnett is telling us that before "Blood Pact" Gaunt was a ghost, lost in the campaigns and blind to his greater role. Now, in this new quaternity, things are changing; Gaunt can see again; and, as is usually the case, in this most literary of tropes, Gaunt can see what other men cannot. He has a second sight. He sees the future and he sees into others.

The plot of "Blood Pact," revolves around a "pheguth," a traitor, just as "Traitor General" revolved around a "pheguth." This time, however, the "pheguth" is a member of the Blood Pact, and unlike Sturm, the traitor general, Mabbon is a good man or at least that is what we are told.

A Blood Pact unit, along with a warp witch, is sent to Balhaut, like Gaunt was sent to Gereon, to assassinate the pheguth. So the plot focuses on a battle between a small specialized force of Chaos assassins and Gaunt. Because the battle field is small and intimate, the novel feels different; and it is different in some fundamental ways. It does not have the sweeping battles of "The Lost Quaternity;" however, it does set the ground for the next arc and it continues to enflesh the series with new themes and revealed characteristics of the major characters. It also foreshadows the death of several characters and points to a Gaunt reborn with an enhanced reputation among his commanders.

The series has always been dialectical: good versus evil; light verses dark; twins--Rawne verses Gaunt; Blood Pact versus Ghosts--and Chaos versus Order. However, Abnett is the most material of the Black Library writers; he does not go easily into the horrible wastes of the warp. However, with Blood Pact he seems to be saying--all right--there is something supernatural out there and now I see it. With Maggs and his visions of the old dam and Gaunt's pre-conscious sight, Abnett is leaving his material universe and stepping over into the world of Chaos. Is he tainted or is he able to mediate between the forces of good and evil? And, of course, there is always that ultimate question: what is the good?

So, in conclusion, "Blood Pact," is an intimate transitional novel, focusing on Gaunt, his past, and his present. It also further develops the character and humanity of the forces of Chaos and through this enfleshment ennobles them to an extent not seen before in Abnett's work. This ennoblement then deepens the themes and enriches the texts that have preceded the novel. For instance, when we read "Double Eagle," and we read of the dog fights between the Blood Pact pilots and the Imperial pilots, we can now imagine them as corrupt but human, both brave and ruthless.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Roberto Bolano's "2666"

Bolano's 1100 page (Spanish Edition) magnus opus is mesmerizing and hypnotic; full of magical stories, violence, sex, meta-fiction, and lies--a lot of lies and a great deal of misdirection.

When I finished the novel I started again; it was the only thing to do; there was too much to absorb on the first reading; too many themes--writing, violence, detectives, murder, identity, travel, death, books, libraries, biographies, success, failure, race, fascism, Nazis, and war.

The writing in itself is beautiful, a poet's book, written by a poet, and translated beautifully by Natasha Wimmer.

The story, in a nutshell, is the life story of a German soldier by the name of Hans Reiter, who, in mid-life in the bombed-out city of Cologne, after the Second World War, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes his first novel. This story seems to be a conflation of several writers' biographies--Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, and surely Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau (I don't think you will see this in any other critique of the book but Bolano gives a brilliant clue at the end of the novel and the parallels between Benno and Prince Herman are quite interesting to trace. Why did he chose him? Because he is better remembered for the ice cream named after him than the books he a wrote and the life he lived.)

From this brief synopsis grows a story of the world in the Twentieth Century. It begins with Reiter's birth in Prussia and ends in the present day. The book contains hundreds of characters and their stories, each told by the same voice, a narrator, who Bolano once said was the fictional poet, Arturo Belano, a character in his brilliant novel--"The Savage Detectives."

So, we have a story told, not shown, which covers eighty years.

The novel contains five parts, which are almost self-contained, but when read together fit perfectly. The five parts are: (1) The Part about the Critics; (2) The Part about Amalfitano; (3) The Part about Fate; (4) The Part about the Crimes; and (5) The Part about Archimboldi.

Part One tells the story of four academics reading, studying, and writing about the reclusive Archimboldi, who is being considered for the Nobel Prize. Their study leads them ultimately to Sonora, to Santa Teresa (a conflation of Jaurez and Heroica Nogales), where a serial killer is operating.

Parts Two, Three, and Four take place in Sonora and involve--a university professor, an American journalist, and many detectives. These three sections all involve the killings in Santa Teresa from one view or another.

Part Five is a chronological telling of the life of Archimboldi, which precedes the action in Part One.

Throughout the telling of the story hundreds of books are mentioned and discussed. Some are real books; some are made up; and others are simply conflated. However, ultimately, it is a writer's book or perhaps just a book for readers, real readers, readers interested in mystery and games, language games, and ghastly murders.

The plot of the novel is driven by mysteries: where is Archimboldi, who is Archimboldi, who is killing the women of Santa Teresa? However, the beauty of the book is in the slow telling of the stories and the minutia of the details.

I cannot do the novel justice; it has to be read closely to appreciate it, but there is a clue to its most fundamental theme: throughout the novel people are buried in mass graves, the graves are hidden because more often than not the murderers are trying to hide their crimes. However, in each instance, the graves are discovered and the bodies uncovered; just as stories are told and the secrets revealed. And herein lies the meaning of the title and I think the fundamental theme of a book full of themes and ideas; it arises or it is hidden in a quote from the "Savage Detectives:" "Guerreo, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else."

In other words, our world is more like an uncovered cemetery of the future, full of violence and death. The science of the Twentieth Century devised ways to systematically kill thousands of people. But even now, after the war, the killing continues in the bizarre nightmare milieus of border towns, the situs of the maquiladoras, in refugee camps in Africa, in race wars all over the war, the Fifth Ward, in Compton, in our back yards.

Santa Teresa is supposedly modeled on Juarez where there are 340 maquiladoras operating. Here is the future, stranger than we can imagine, which makes the book in my mind slipstream and connects it to "Moxyland," one of the novels I reviewed last month.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

While reading "Moxyland," Lauren Beukes' dystopian fantasy, published by Angry Robot, I kept asking myself, where are the "parents," the serious people who will take charge and protect these four dysfunctional children; and, therein, I think, lies the rub or at least the theme of the work. The four protagonists, who tell the story in alternating first person segments, are children without supervision in the literal and figurative sense; they are orphans, cut off, without father and mother.

Oh, don't misunderstand me, they have supervision all right, in spades, dealt to them electronically by some disembodied corporation that employs them as consumer fodder; however, in truth they are castaways in a world where the "virtual" and the "real" have converged and melded. They are children, like those of Golding's "Lord of the Flies," left to their own devices or the vagaries of fate within a virtual universe controlled by an unseen hand.

In thinking about the book over the last week, I have concluded that "Moxyland" can be read as a prequel to "Brave New World" or "1984." High praise indeed, I whisper, and yet I think the work deserves it. In that regard, I would not place the book in the science fiction section of my local Borders; instead, I would set it near Huxley and Orwell or maybe next to Sartre's "Nausea" or Camus' "The Plague."

Are you crazy, you might ask. Have you lost your mind? I don't think so but if you insist it is science fiction, then I must conclude that the book is really a book of ideas like John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" or Harry Harrison's "Make Room Make Room." Nevertheless, even here I have trouble, because Beukes' book is more grounded in the here and now and consequently does not amaze as much as Brunner and Harrison; but, instead, warns and points at a near future, almost on our doorstep, that we should take heed of (even though we might be helpless to stop it).

In a nutshell, "Moxyland" involves four protagonists, who tell their stories in the first person. They live in Capetown, South Africa, approximately ten years from today; and, although apartheid is not mentioned, its effects seem obvious.

The protagonists are: Kendra, a young photographer; Tendeka, an activist and would-be terrorist; Lerato, a corporate employee and computer programmer; and Toby, a rich kid, working on his master degree in literature at the local University. Each one is connected to the virtual world and tangentially to each other. However, each one is disconnected from family and friends. Instead, they inhabit the virtual universe, where avatars could hide a fourteen year old or a corporate boss.

As I said above, they are orphans in both literal and literary sense. For instance, Toby's mother cuts off his stipend and he is forced to make money as a "gonzo" reporter; Lerato is an aids baby, raised in an orphanage as a ward of a multi-national corporation.

Beukes sets the four off on a collision course, which ends in disaster for some of the participants.

One of the most telling images in the book is a self-portrait done by Kendra. It is a photograph of herself. Because she uses old, analog equipment and antiquated film stock, the image is black--not blank, black. An interesting image, especially, when the author tells the story in the first person. Here the "cogito" fails; the "I" of the persona refuses to reflect the vision of the constructed other. In other words, no images come to the viewer to instruct or inform the viewer. Isn't that a bit like the avatar of the other in a computer game?

In that regard, another major theme of the novel is the way that the virtual is bleeding into the real. Toby plays various games in which, through his first-person-narration we are not sure if he is in a game or in life. The reader has difficulty determining what is real and what is not and eventually so does Toby.

As the virtual seeps in and absorbs the real, human beings become consuming fodder and living advertisements for certain global products. Within this context, the orphan, un-weaned from the real mother, continues to imbibe the corporate milk, which results in addiction and infantilism.

As I said at the beginning I think "Moxyland" can be read as a prequel to "1984" or "Brave New World." If we project the story line into the future and I think the book invites it; either, a fascistic Big Brother will arise, probably a virtual one, like the Wizard of Oz, or an unseen manipulative hand will continue to control and manipulate as in the Huxley novel.

In conclusion, the novel is a book of ideas; well written, edgy, and prescient.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Chris Roberson's "Book of Secrets"

Over the weekend I received and read two books from Chris Roberson's "Book of Secrets" and Lauren Beukes'"Moxyland."

Both books are from "Angry Robot" and both books are supposedly science fiction. However, no two books could be so different and yet inhabit the same "genre" space. Roberson's book is a look-back at the glorious age of pulp and therefore a meta-fictional exercise in types and sub-categories of genre; whereas Beukes' novel is a peek into a dark and perilous near-future.

Let's say at the outset that I enjoyed both books. Irrespective of the readability of the books--they were both fast reads--I was more intrigued by how different two books in the same genre could be. Their contained and inherent dissimilarity inhabits the same shelf space, so, of course, they begged the question--what is science fiction?

I will review Beukes in a later review and start with Mr. Roberson's novel.

"Book of Secrets" is (1) a crime novel, reminiscent of the noir fiction of the thirties; (2) a meta-fiction celebrating American genre fiction of the thirties, forties and fifties; (3) a bildungsroman about the spiritual journey of a young man; (4) a portal fantasy.

As you might glean from the previous paragraph, Mr. Roberson tells several stories in several forms. If we look for "the figure in the carpet" imagine an "x." One bar of the "x" progresses chronologically; that is the first person narrative of an investigative reporter by the name of Spencer Finch. Spencer Finch is on an assignment for the magazine "Logion" to reveal the nefarious dealings of a Houston bigwig by the name of J. Nathan Pierce, known as "Nez."

From this initial information, however, we are alerted that this is not your usual hard-boiled fiction based in the hard-scrabble world of reality. First, "Logion" is an online magazine and its name alerts us (perhaps warns us) that we are in "metaphysical" country. "Logion" refers to the traditional maxims and proverbs told by a sage or prophet. In most instances it is used to describe the maxims of Jesus. So, our protagonist is writing for a metaphysical or a religiously oriented virtual magazine, although that is never stated.

Next, Mr. Pierce, our unseen or barely seen subject, is called "Nez." This is obviously a reference to the Indian tribe--Nez Perce--who not only had their own unique language but a highly developed mythology. Languages and mythologies become a theme and Mr Roberson introduces us to various mysteries revolving around a mysterious book written in many hands and many languages.

Situated in the metaphysical world, we are now alert to possible puzzles of meaning. After all, it is a mystery or is it?

Not to put too fine a point on it and not to scare off any reader, the novel is also a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a novel that has as its main theme the formative years or spiritual education of one person. The one person in this case is Spencer Finch and the purpose of the first leg of the "x" is to take the reader on a chronological journey through his spiritual development.

The second leg of the "x," however, is the fantastical element of the novel. Its narrative moves in reverse toward the past. Just as a good metaphysical investigation, the reader must follow the past through a series of short stories about a family of do-goers named the Black Hand to the “happy” origins of humanity.

Mr. Roberson uses these stories, short stories, to educate the reader, solve the mystery, and display the various genres--short story, pulp fiction, tragedy, etc--that were used in pulp fiction. Additionally, and this is very important because it elevates the novel, Roberson, by actually including the stories rather than describing them, inducts and educates the reader into the pleasure of pulp. This not only shows his versatility and enriches the text of the book but also reveals his inherent connection to the pulp tradition.

Before I move on I think we should illustrate our point and reveal Roberson's genius in actually writing the stories and including them in the narrative. Upon the death of his grandfather, Finch inherits a box of pulp magazines. The first story he reads is "The Talon's Curse" by Walter Reece. This story is the closest in time to the action of the novel and begins the count-down to the journey backwards toward the beginning of man. "The Talon's Curse" is a noir/mystery situated in San Franciso in the thirties. The next story is a Western written in 1918. Each story elicits the qualities and the identity of the members of the Black Hand.

The backward progression through the use of genre ushers the reader ultimately into the "original" world of myth and religion. This point is the intersection of the "x," and to punctuate the point, Roberson takes us through the looking glass to another world, to a world of crystal populated by angels and demi-urges.

Herein lies the fantasy and the speculation that earns the book its classification as "slipstream". If we sub-categorize it, this portion of the novel is a "portal" novel, in the vein of David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus) and C. S. Lewis (Perelandra).

So once we parse the pieces and put them back together, we discover that "Book of Secrets" is a book of genres. In other words, it is a celebration of the age of pulp with a meta-fictional slant. It moves in two directions--a very readable first person narrative in the form of a crime novel that progresses to the conclusion of the mystery and a fantasy novel that moves in reverse to disclose the nature of the universe. The two stories collide at the portal and the protagonist falls through it into a world of angels and gnostic demi-urges. This is the denouement and the moment of fantasy.

In conclusion I will summarize some other things I liked about the novel.

Roberson situates the action in my place--my physical space. I went to school in Houston, practiced law in Austin, and now live in Dallas. I know El Paso like the back of my hand. These western spaces plus New Orleans is Spencer's place and that in itself endeared the novel to me. Roberson described them clearly and truthfully and I felt and saw each city in the telling.

Second, Roberson is just a damn fine writer. He writes a good sentence; the novel is structured like a Swiss watch and paced like a Tennessee walker.

Third, in the time of the post-Tolkienians and the novel as brick, "Book of Secrets" is unique, refreshing, breezy, and fun.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eric Brown's "Kéthani"

My first three impressions in reading "Kéthani" were: (1) this is a collection of short stories, written in the style of Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles"; (2) this is a pleasant, mellow read; and (3) these characters drink a lot.

Upon finishing the book my impression had not changed much, except I realized that for all of the book's genuine "gemutlichkeit," it was a serious meditation on mortality, religion, and ethics. I further realized that the Kéthani for all their apparent benevolence and understated drive, supported by an unspoken belief in manifest destiny, were sinister.

The sinister nature of the mysterious aliens and the underlying sense of danger only surface one or two times in the novel and are quickly ignored or brushed away through the characters' rationalizations. And yet, upon completion of the novel, the feeling remains that the humans have been tricked or duped in some way. In fact, our protagonist, Khalid, says in the final chapter that "I wondered whether to tell Sam and Stuart that we had been lured to the stars by an. . .an impostor." Further, in the epilogue, Khalid says cryptically that "the reason our benefactors selected us for the task was a little more complex than than we first thought." This is the extent of our illumination. At he end of the novel we know no more about the aliens than we did at the beginning. But this of course is the point because ultimately the book is a meditation on religion and life.

As Tolkien pointed out in his short story "A Leaf by Niggle," we are on a journey to death. In "Kéthani," however, the aliens interrupt that journey and substitute a possibility for immortality. Humans with their complex and innate capacity for religion are disturbed by this interruption and thereby have to re-boot. Some incorporate the Kéthani into their religious framework; others de-construct or react violently. The Kéthani could be angels or devils or simply higher sentient beings. We don't know and Brown does not provide an answer.

I recommend the novel but I do have a few reservations. First, the book feels like a collection of short stories. As a result there is a lot of repetition. This repetition arises from the fact that the author has to apprise new readers at the beginning of each story where we are each time he starts a new "story." Second, the author does not give you any answers to your questions for the simple reason that the protagonist does not have any answers. And since the work is a first-person narrative, we only know what the protagonist knows.

All in all, the novel was a pleasant experience; a welcome respite from the hardware of science fiction, with its incipient violence. In some ways the work is a throwback to the science fiction of the fifties and sixties, when science fiction was a place of ideas and we could easily compare the novel with Clarke's "Childhood's End," Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles," or the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nick Kyme's "Honourkeeper" and the post-Tolkien Dwarf

There will be dwarfs and all types of orcs and elves, too, in the post-Tolkien world but will they be good books?

There are plenty of dwarf books available. Dragonlance novels are replete with dwarfs of various types and flavors and every would-be Tolkien populates his or her epic fantasy novel with them. Some attempts are successful, others are not.

Nick Kyme's dwarf novels are the most successful exemplars of post-Tolkien dwarf-craft and dwarf-lore on the book stand.

Dwarfs, of course, are archetypal and existed before Tolkien. Whenever they appear they grab the imagination or, at least, they stimulate mine.

I have been a fan of dwarfs for over fifty years but my interest didn't begin with Tolkien. Disney's "Snow White" ignited the spark and then Wagner's Alberich and Mime sealed the deal.

In "Das Rheingold" and "Siegfreid," the dwarfs Alberich and Mime function as "shadow" characters that, through their lust and greed, initiate the events that lead to the finale.

In Wagner and in the early fairy tales and legends dwarfs are dark, primal creatures; however, in modern epic fantasy they have evolved into something quite different. Tolkien is responsible for the movement toward the light, even though he mined his dwarfs from either the "Ruolieb," a German poem of the twelfth century, or the Elder Edda, and brought them gingerly into the modern age. Perhaps, the coup de grace was Peter Jackson's version of the lovable Gimli in his film version of "The Lord of The Rings."

Nevertheless, as I said, I have always been interested in dwarfs and that interest was, of course, fanned into a white hot heat when I read Tolkien's "The Hobbit" in 1965. From that point on I wanted more dwarfs. However, I found subsequent books featuring dwarfs, not written by Tolkien, disappointing. I was particularly bothered by the dwarfs in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realm books. What I desired was a dwarf book that could stand on its on.

A few years ago, I was working out of my Frankfurt office and I took a detour through the Hugendubel Bookshop downtown and discovered "Die Zwerge" by Markus Heitz. I thought I had found a book divorced from the Tolkien influence that tried to situate the dwarf in an epic fantasy setting. However, when I finished the first book I was disappointed. Heitz's book seemed too similar to the Dragonlance/ Forgotten Realm type; it was not serious or dark enough for my taste. The archetypal resonance of the dwarfs was fading in the light of modern publishing. I wanted a good-old Anglo-Saxon beastie that could stand square with Beowulf or the Green Knight and swing a mean ax. I yearned for a pre-Tolkien dwarf.

Nick Kyme, Gav Thorpe, and to a certain extent Nathan Long have created from a post-Tolkien model a pre-Tolkienesque dwarf. Through the combination of the Gothic background of Warhammer and its underlying mythos, a dwarf-type has arisen that I believe is close to the early renditions of dwarfs found in the English, Norse, and Germanic fairy-tales. I began to notice this trend in Nick Kyme's "Oathbreaker" and Gav Thorpe's "Grudge Bearer." However, my theory didn't gel until I read Gav Thorpe's "Malekith." In that novel, he brought the dwarfs to life through a sustained tour-de-force of what Tolkien would call subcreation. This realized dwarf world appears again to great effect in Nathan Long's novel, "Orcslayer."

However, Kyme's "Honourkeeper" is the near masterpiece because he situates his novel in a completely dwarf world. Yes, there are elves and men but the book focuses on and is unified through his disciplined use of a multiple point of view from the major dwarf characters. Within this framework, he explores the Warhammer mythology concerning the dwarfs and their elaborate civilization. Additionally, Kyme presents a rigid and structurally sound plot. In essence, the story is simple: tricky elves deceive dwarf king into warring Norscans on their behalf. When the story is distilled, it falls into four parts: (a) meeting with elves; (b) deceived by elves; (c)war with Norscans; and(d)revelation of deceit and revenge. Within that simple plot, Kyme explores the dwarf environment, the dwarf culture, and even the dwarf language.

"Honourkeeper" transcends its genre through its seriousness. In fact, many of the new Warhammer novels seem imbued with this sense of seriousness; and, ultimately, that is what makes the Warhammer IP series so successful and readable.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steve Parker's "Gunheads"

In Steve Parker's short story "Mercy Run," anthologized in the Warhammer 40,000 collection entitled "Planetkill," we meet Sergeant Wulfe of the Cadian 81st Armoured Regiment and the crew of the "Last Rites," his Leman Russ tank. Wulfe is a cross between Humphrey Bogart in the World War II film "Sahara" and Marvel Comics' Sergeant Fury of The Howling Commandos. He is a tough and savvy veteran, who in many instances knows more than the officers who command him.

In "Mercy Run," Wulfe escorts sisters of Sororitas to save Captain Waltur Kurdheim before Orks destroy Palmeros; however, as in all 40K novels, the Sororitas' agenda is more sinister and treacherous than immediately apparent.

Time clicks ponderously away as three tanks and the Sisters' Chimera rush across the world in panic. Death awaits them at every corner. The story is a nail biter to the final page and its end sets up the premise of the novel, "Gunheads."

In "Gunheads" Sergeant Wulfe has a new tank; he is haunted by a psychic vision, and he has a new nemesis, one corporal Lenck. This time out the 81st Cadian Armoured is dropped onto Golgotha, a death world inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Their mission is to retrieve the "Fortress of Arrogance," a battle tank that belonged to Commissar Yarrick, hero of Hades Hive. Yarrick is an Ork fighter extraordinaire and, in fact, is one of the only humans to master the Ork language.

Once again unscrupulous men and machines manipulate the Imperial Guard to achieve their ruthless ambitions. In "Gunheads," the Adeptus Mechanicus deceives both the Imperial Guard and Yarrick by dangling Yarrick's massive baneblade tank and glory before their eyes.

To achieve the retrieval of the legendary and sacred tank the Adeptus Mechanicus choose General Mohamar Antonius deVries, Supreme Commander, 18th Army Group Exolon. Imagine Henry Fonda, playing Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford's "Fort Apache" and you will understand deVries' motivation and madness. Both men are looking for glory and they are both willing to sacrifice the lives of their men on the battlefield to get it. It is in this dynamic that Steve Parker excels. He captures the rigid, unforgiving organization of the Imperial Guard and the vagaries of the military life of the rank and file.

This ability to capture the day to day life of the military is Parker's strong suit (just as it was Ford's). However, we also know that as soon as he sets his pieces on the board of battle there will be blood.

In the case of "Gunheads," the playing field itself is dangerous. Golgotha soon begins to devour the men sent there. It is red planet, devoid of water and plants. The only life forms are poisonous and ultimately fatal to the guard. Expect good friends to die.

Additionally, just as Thursday in "Fort Apache" goes against the Sioux Nation with a pitifully small force, so too do the Imperial Guard, when they encounter the hundreds of thousand Orks inhabiting the planet. It is immediately evident to the rank and file that the guard is on a suicide mission.

"Gunheads" contains numerous set pieces of thrilling military science fiction. These scenes are the ones that make your scalp tingle. A primary example is at the beginning the novel when Colonel Tidor Storm and his 98th Mechanized Infantry Regiment find themselves surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Parker movingly describes the pathos of battle and captures the beauty of the futile gesture. That early battle scene is just one of many but it is fine piece of writing that immediately hooks the reader.

But let's not forget that this is a Warhammer novel so there must be treachery, deception, and evil. In this regard, Parker creates two stories: on a larger scale there is the deception of the Adeptus Mechanicus but on a smaller level there is the personal struggle between the luciferian Lenck and our protagonist, Wulfe. Lenck is an opportunist and a barracks rat. Wulfe immediately sizes him up and conflates Lenck with a past nemesis. Bad feelings and suspicions abound until the two clash in a final violent struggle for survival.

In concluding I want to note Parker's rendition of the Orks. Frankly, his description of the greenskins is one of the best in the Warhammer mythos (As a side note Chris Roberson has also created a realistic view in his short-story "Gauntlet Run"). In looking at Parker's oeuvre (yes I said oeuvre) to date, Orks appear again and again. They are the xeno foes of "Rebel Winter," "Head Hunted," "Mercy Run," "Gunheads," and I suspect in the forthcoming "Rynn's World."

Parker seems to be slowly sussing out the inner workings of the green brutes and in a sense I see him ultimately embracing them in the same way that Abnett has fleshed out and made real the "Blood Pact" in his Gaunt's Ghosts series.

All in all "Gunheads" is a satisfying novel with brilliantly drawn characters that convincingly present us with a dynamic rendition of military life in the far Gothic future of Warhammer 40K.

Wulfe is a strong character that could carry his own series. Let's hope we see more of him and the Orks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sins of the Father-A review of Gav Thorpe's "Malekith"

I was very anxious to read Gav Thorpe's new novel "Malekith." In fact, I haunted the bookstores until I found one in Austin at Book People. I quickly started it, although I was already two-thirds through a biography of Robert Frost. It was a good read and I quickly submitted a review to Here is the review.

Although Gav Thorpe's new novel is entitled, "Malekith," its scope is greater than the story of one man. Instead, it delineates the development of the Warhammer world as we know it and recounts the rise and fall of Malekith. In a sense, the story of Malekith is a tragedy rather than an epic. Although the novel has "epic" qualities--the expansion of the elves and the exploration of the unknown world--it is ultimately the story of one man's greed and lust for power. Like Macbeth, a great warrior is lured from the light to the dark by greed and the ministrations of a woman. In Malekith's case it is the greed and ambition of his Mother, Morathi, that taunts him, goads him, and tricks him. Thorpe's Malekith, however, is not one dimensional. Throughout the novel, the reader feels that the means, no matter how despicable, have within Malekith's twisted thinking a logical and noble end--to protect the elves from the Chaos gods. It is this element that raises Thorpe's novel from simply being a good Warhammer story to being a great Warhammer story.

The first novel of the planned trilogy begins with the end of Aenarion and concludes with the death of Bel Shanaar, the Phoenix King. The narrative involves four major set pieces: the expansion of the elves in the east and the alliance with the dwarves; Malekith's exploration of the west and the Chaos waste; Malekith's war against the cultists in Nagarythe; and the betrayal of the Phoenix King.

Thorpe handles the exploration of the east and the establishment of the elven colonies in the old world brilliantly. His description of the dwarven cities is meticulous in its detail. However, the dwarven segment is not simply a side show; it is important to the development of Malekith's character and to the reader's understanding of that character. Although Malekith's anger and ambition are apparent from the beginning of the novel, Malekith truly respects the dwarves and their king. At the end of Part One, Malekith mourns for his lost friend and intends to honor his oath to the Snorri Whitebeard. However, the next section of the novel finds Malekith on his way to the Chaos wastes in the west, where he discovers an ancient city of the Old Ones and discovers a magic circlet that imbues him with new power and insight into the threat of the Chaos gods. From this point on, Malekith moves toward his inevitable fate. His hubris ultimately leads him to the Shrine of Asuryan.

As I read the novel I was struck by several things: the psychological complexity of Malekith's character; the clear detailed descriptions of all the locations; the distinct personality and character of the various Warhammer races; an abiding continuity to Warhammer lore and fluff; and the lucid prose. I have read most of Gav Thorpe's work and I think this may be his best. I am quite anxious to read the second volume of the trilogy.

I highly recommend this novel to both fantasy lovers and gamers. The Warhammer intellectual property is so rich and so developed that it transcends tie-in fiction. With the Time of Legends series, it seems Black Library has decided to up the ante; to create epic works that can proudly compete with any non-IP fantasy fiction. As a companion piece to this work I recommend Graham McNeill's "Guardians of Ulthuan," and "Heldenhammer," Mike Lee and Dan Abnett's Malus Darkblade series, Mike Lee's "Nagash the Sorcerer," and Nathan Long's "Elfslayer."

Review Of Steve Parker's "Rebel Winter"

I rarely cry. It is usually at the end of a war movie where a person has given his or her life for the good of the squad and bagpipes are playing. Like at the end of "Gunga Din" or "Wee Willie Winkie," or even "Saving Private Ryan," although there were sadly no pipes.

While reading Steve Parker's first military science fiction novel, Rebel Winter, I found myself tearing up several times. Each time a well-drawn character sacrifices himself for the unit or a group of men die in a burning Chimera or a beloved colonel runs pell-mell into a mass of orks I felt a tear rolling down my cheek. Consequently, I have to say early in this review that the writing is damn good, the characters are well-drawn, the battle scenes are intense, and Parker's knowledge of Warhammer 40,000 fluff is dead-on accurate.

The novel involves a regiment of Vostroyan Firstborn fighting both rebels and orks on the ice-crusted planet Danik's World. The Vostroyans are similar to Russian Cossacks and their culture is tribal and militaristic. According to their laws, every firstborn son of every household serves in the Vostroyan regiments. Vostroyan soldiers and officers maintain an archaic appearance and their history can be traced back to the Horus Heresy. They pass their weapons down from firstborn to firstborn and are usually worth more than the guardsmen who carry them. They serve ten-year terms but most re-enlist because their persona is based on their identification with the regiment and the company in the regiment in which they serve.

In Rebel Winter Parker plays with the Vostroyan "fluff." First, the Vostroyan leadership is picked from the nobility. Our protagonist Captain Grigorius Sebastev is not a noble; instead, he is a sergeant, elevated to leadership on the battlefield. Second, Vostroyans pick the first-born son to serve the Emperor; Stavin, another important character, possesses a secret, which haunts him: he is a second-born son. Third, the Vostroyans are a close-knit tribal unit. The Commissar of Fifth Company is not a Vostroyan but from Delta Radhima. He is dark and tall and obviously a foil for the short and stocky Sebastev.

Parker begins the novel with a framing device: Captain Sebastev is on trial in the Exedra Udiciarum Seddisvarr for some unspecified crime. The story, then, is a remembering rather than an unfolding. In my opinion, a framing device is a two-edged sword. It either creates suspense by engaging the reader with the question: why is this man on trial, or it dissipates suspense because the reader knows the protagonist will survive. In this novel, the framing device accomplishes three things: one, it is simply a sketch and does not explain who any of the bizarre characters in the courtroom are; therefore, it creates an element of suspense and expectation; two, it begs the question of why this captain is on trial; and, three, at the end of the novel it provides the springboard for a sequel (which I suspect is its primary purpose).

Once, we enter the "remembering," we are plunged head-first into the action. The Vostroyans are fighting a battle of attrition against both rebels and orks. Here is where Parker shines. The battle scenes are brutal and beautifully constructed. Very rarely is an author able to manipulate a squad, let alone a company, and Parker does it well and efficiently. Something else that he does well is to describe the strategic elements of a battle. I particularly appreciate the map at the beginning of the book. By referring to it during the reading I was able to see and understand both the strategic and tactical decisions made by the combatants.

In conclusion, I found the novel a brilliant first effort. I enjoyed the mixture of pathos and bravura in the characters and when I say characters I mean many characters, each one is well-drawn and memorable. I have two minor criticisms though: one, the framing device distracts from the strength of the plot and, two, in an attempt to fully handle his "company" of characters, Mr. Parker switches point of view several times, which I found disturbed the smooth progression of the narrative. In that regard,I prefer either a single or at most a double point of view.

As a final word, I would recommend this novel to both Warhammer fans and military science fiction readers. I think Steve Parker now shares the stage with other great military science-fiction writers like Dan Abnett, Andy Remic, Paul Kearney, Chris Roberson, and Steven Pressfield.

I am looking forward to reviewing his latest novel--Gunheads.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bolano's "The Romantic Dogs"

With "2666," Roberto Bolano is now a sensation in the United States. "2666" is a remarkable book, full of engrossing narratives; however, I find "The Romantic Dogs" in some respects more satisfying.

It is common knowledge that Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet and I believe he is right, although his fame here in America will derive from his fiction.

Many reviewers have spent all their time talking about Bolano and Chile, as if "The Romantic Dogs" is only a political book. However, I wonder if the reviewers made it past the first poem. Yes, there are poems that make reference to political events but how can a Latin American not be political. However, politics are only a part of the soup of existence. Bolano writes about being in the sense that a philosopher writes about being.

"The Romantic Dogs" is an amazingly cohesive work. This is not a collection of poems written as one-offs. Instead, the poems hold together through various rhetorical devices: repetition of images, symbols, and themes.

The overall theme of the work is the shortness of life, the cruelty of illness, the fragility of existence, and the the beauty of poetry.

Unifying images are dreams, blackness, white worms, snow, cars, motorcycles, burros, films, detectives.

Bolano announces in the first poem of the collection that the dream of poetry opened up the void of his spirit and accompanied him through his life.

The first poem of the collection, "The Romantic Dogs," announces this theme. "I'd lost a country/but won a dream." He adumbrates the importance of poetry in the penultimate poem of the collection "Muse:" "she's the guardian angel/ of our prayers./ She's the dream that recurs."

"The Romantic Dogs" presents a brave story--because ultimately Bolano is a dramatic poet--of a dying poet fighting to remain here in being "with the romantic dogs."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chris Roberson's "Set the Seas on Fire"

Early in Chris Roberson's "Set the Seas on Fire" (Solaris 2007), an intellectual debate breaks out among the crewmen regarding the question: is there one ocean or many on this watery planet of ours? The protagonist of the novel, Lieutenant Hieronymous Bonaventure, takes the position that "There is, I put to you, but one ocean, around which the lands we know are arranged like a necklace of stone and tree. A true orbis terrarium, the circle of lands of which the ancients spoke, and which we are just now rediscovering to be the truth." Later, at the end of the novel, Bonaventure speaks again of the watery world: "Bonaventure knew well that there was but one sea, vast and unending."

Within the image of the "unending sea" we have the metaphor of the novel. Bonaventure as hero is, in a sense, "unending." As he should be, because, after all, he is a "pulp fiction" hero. However, there is another more important meaning in the image of the unending sea--a literary conclusion about the nature of genre, which I contend is Chris Roberson's true subject. In other words, in his literary weltanschauung there are no boundaries between the various genres. A historical novel can easily morph into a tale of horror and a hero in a tale of horror can step through a portal into another world. So "Set the Seas on Fire" is a "genre" bender, a mélange of pulp fiction tropes.

Chris Roberson, like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, is working within the confines of pulp fiction. Pulp fiction arose in inexpensive magazines in the 1920s and continued through the 1950s in mass market paperbacks. Pulp fiction contained a wide variety of genre topics: fantasy, detective, western, science fiction, adventure and westerns. Some writers of pulp mixed the genres, creating some of the more exciting and enduring stories. Additionally because the stories were short, the pulp writers learned how to tell an intriguing story concisely. Within a sentence or two the writer was knee-deep in the action.

In the first and last analysis, then, "Set the Seas on Fire" is a pulp fiction/heroic fantasy, tending toward horror, and should be read as such. And Chris Roberson is a meta-fictionist skillfully playing with the genre tropes. His precursors, on one hand, arise from film and horror, history and adventure, fantasy and science fiction; and on the other, there seems to be a hidden alliance with Jorge Borges and Paul Auster. To read the novel otherwise is to cause confusion.

Although the uninformed reader might stumble onto the book and think it was historical fiction, which it masquerades as, it is only historical fiction to the extent of setting and costumes. Its true progeny lies closer to the works of Robert E. Howard. In fact, I found myself several times as I was reading remembering Howard's stories of Solomon Kane, the 16th century Puritan adventurer. Roberson even goes so far as to name an island warrior and Bonaventure's adversary in love--Kane. There is also a conscious nod to Michael Moorcock and his von Bek novels.

Yes, it is true that Roberson grounds the novel in facts but that is only to heighten the vertigo you feel when the horror arrives.

The novel begins on a clear day in 1792 in England in one genre--the adventure tale. Children play on a majestic estate, an opening similar to the beginning scene of William Wellman's 1939 production of Beau Geste, which situates us in the world of Wellman and Curtiz. This is the tale of the hero arising from modest circumstances to become a hero. In chapter two, however, we are on a ship in the South Seas. Now we are in the world of the Bounty, on a British frigate, or maybe sailing with Sabatini's Captain Blood. I am sure that many readers compared it to Patrick O'Brien's "Master and Commander." Ah, we say, it is a nautical adventure.

Later the hero lands on an island paradise but there are rumors of monsters and demons. Eventually, Bonaventure falls in love like Fletcher Christian but he encounters grotesque beasts like Howard's Solomon Kane.

So, I think the pleasure of "Set the Seas on Fire" lies in four things: first, the convincing historical setting; two, the purity of the prose and the movement of the plot; three, the mixing of genre; and four, the expectation of surprise that arises from the knowledge that Roberson is playing with genre.

Of these four, I want to expand on the element of surprise or suspense. Roberson establishes the expectation of horror early with Bonaventure's encounter with the two Spanish castaways. From that point on the reader knows the other genre shoe will soon drop. But the question is how soon and exactly when. Roberson leisurely lead the reader down many paradisaical paths.

In conclusion, as a fantasy reader and a fan of pulp fiction, I found "Set the Seas on Fire" satisfying. However, if you are seeking another "Master and Commander" you may be disappointed. But if you like Solomon Kane and von Bek you will be happy with your choice.