Monday, December 27, 2010

Ian Watson's "Space Marine"

Black Library’s novels situated in its 40K universe are dark, claustrophobic, mesmerizing, habit-forming, and purposefully Gothic. Over the last twenty years it has gathered some of the most talented young writers in the intellectual property arena to develop its mythology and fluff; however, before William King, Dan Abnett, Graham MacNeill, and Gav Thorpe penned a word, Barrington J. Bayley and Ian Watson forged through the Warp to create a mythos.

Watson, one of Britain’s most creative science fiction authors, birthed the puissant and baroque world of 40K in his novel, Space Marine, by reading Game Workshop’s table-top games’ manuals and rulebooks. A decade after its release, in an interview with Attila Galambos, Watson testified that in order to make the book believable “he hallucinated himself into the characters.” He imagined the 40K universe as a “place of madness,” ruled by a psychic corpse, and a world, where in order to survive one had to go mad. He likened the 40K universe to a dream world that one escapes to experience a transformational reality, akin to the trance-like states of a shaman.

Although Watson was very proud of his work, the novel went out of print for many years. As a result, a robust market in used copies developed on e-Bay and even I found myself shelling out seventy-five Australian dollars to a bookseller in Sydney many years ago for a ragged copy of the book. But now Black Library has re-issued the novel in an attractive POD (print on demand) edition which cost me considerably less than the used paperback.

Upon re-reading the novel, I must say it is one of the strangest, most bizarre examples of psychotic poetry to emerge from a genre revered and distinguished for its ability to generate unique images and fantastic ideas. Watson writes that David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus is his literary lodestone and its influence is felt.

Unfortunately, I will wager that some of the current die-hard 40K fans will be disappointed because Watson’s fluff does not fit the current mythology and perhaps is more literary than they would like (i.e. poetic). Ultimately, true aficionados of 40K and mainstream science fiction should embrace the novel as a classic and enjoy it for its strengths and inventions.

The novel begins with three young protagonists, citizens of the Trazior Hive, an arcology on the planet Necromunda, engaged in gang warfare. In a spare three pages, Watson introduces his three young protagonists: Yeremi Valence, the son of a technician, Biff Tundrish, a scumnik, and Lexandro d’Arquebus, son of the Calculator Maximus. Each protagonist belongs to a gang and the novel begins with the collision of three levels of the hive, represented by three young gangs, battling each other in brutal warfare.

Because of a trade war between rival hives, the Planetary Defense Force dragoons the gangs to serve in the PDF and, as Watson puts it, fortuitously brings the three warriors within the purview of the Imperial Fists Space Marines. The Imperial Fists are sine qua non of the space marine mythos. Their primarch, Rogal Dorn, during the rebellion, was assigned to guard the Emperor; and, as such, they developed their abilities for defense and attack. They fortified Terra and defended the earth and the Emperor. In the 41st millennium they are based on the Phalanx, a gigantic space ship, and their task is to defend humanity against the incursion of vile aliens and the daemons of Chaos.

From their induction into the Imperial Fists, the three youths struggle to survive and succeed. However, they bring with them their antipathy against the other, although as citizens of Necromunda they are more alike than different. Through the catalyst of marine induction, a bond develops between the three in which they each assume a role in an odd triumvirate and learn that their respective survival depends on the other. Remembering Watson’s analysis of the 41st millennium as a time of madness, the bond between the three men is dysfunctional and psychotic. It is this fact, this psychological nuance, which raises Space Marine from the ranks of space opera to literary science fiction.

In addition to the novel’s psychological complexity, there is also exquisite language. Each sentence is poetical and rigorous. At times, I found myself reading the prose as if it were poetry. Some of the sentences actually scan and Watson uses alliteration to dramatic effect. Here is just one of a myriad of examples: “The triple, bleached spires of Trazior arose from deep drifts of desiccated industrial excrement to pierce foul clouds on the far southerly fringe of the Palatine mega-cluster.” The sense of literariness continues through his use, like Gene Wolfe, of obscure vocabulary and technical terms from science and philosophy, as he quickly follows the three men’s rise to become battle-brothers.
Within the story of their maturation, Watson introduces the reader to the world of 40K. In his mythos, though, orks, the signature villains of the current crop of 40K novels, are simply space-faring pirates, and squats (dwarfs) are minions of Chaos, while the true enemies are the daemons oozing out the Warp and the ruthless Tyranids, who manipulate genes of sentient creatures to create monstrous armies of illimitable size.

Watson’s novel is a thrilling foray into the beginning of the 40K mythos and its literary prose, its psychological underpinnings, and its fantastic images of gore and mayhem make it a fun and unnerving read.

Ultimately, Space Marine contains the gene-seed of all later 40K space marine novels and can properly be called the godfather of its genre. On a literary historical level, it stands with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, and John Steakley’s Armor and illustrates most definitely that the Black Library franchise is one the most literary of the intellectual property imprints. Watson’s pioneering efforts marked the trail for the likes of Abnett, MacNeill, King and Thorpe.

As a companion to Space Marine, I also recommend Deathwing, a collection of 40K short stories, and Gav Thorpe’s Angel of Darkness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Corvus" by Paul Kearney

My review is in Issue 133 of Hub Magazine. You can access it here:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Corvus" by Paul Kearney

Hub Magazine has accepted my review of Paul Kearney's Corvus. It should be available this week. By the way the novel is fantastically good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"The Wall" published in Issue 132 of Hub Magazine

You can download it here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kirkus Review on "Cave Gossip"

You can read Kirkus Review's take on my novel Cave Gossip here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rebecca Levene's "The Infernal Game: Ghost Dance"

I had never heard of Rebecca Levene until I stumbled onto Pat Kelleher's Black Hand Gang (Abaddon Books 2010), one of my favorite reads of the year. In that novel there is a reference to the croatoans and Dr. John Dee, which, of course, I am very interested in because of my abiding interest in alchemy, Jung, and depth psychology. So, I googled "croatoan" and "Doctor John Dee" and up pops Levene's The Infernal Game: Ghost Dance (Abbadon Books 2010) and I knew I had to check it out.

I was pleasantly surprised: Ghost Dance is a mixed-genre feast of action, horror, spy-craft, true crime, the supernatural, mythology, time-travel and Christianity. It's all there wrapped up in a nice prose package, tightly plotted and briskly presented.

Levene sets the novel in San Francisco and London, with a sojourn to the Mojave desert. In order to stay true to her settings she also incorporates images from American Indian mythology, along with some of its major memes: tricksters, spirit walking, and spirit animals.

The novel involves three point-of-view characters, with two taking the lead as protagonists: Morgan, a member of the Hermetic Divison of MI6 and Alex of the CIA.

The novel, however, begins with a mass murder committed by an American teenager, named Coby, and the visions of Alex, who has a pre-vision of the killings. Coby's acts become the exciting force that ultimately, years later, set Alex, Morgan, and Coby on a collision course.

Morgan is an assassin without a soul, literally, and he appeared in the first volume of Levene's new series: The Infernal Game: Cold Warriors (Abbadon Books 2010). The title, of course, is a pun because Morgan's partner in Cold Warriors was a zombie. Alex is a rich young woman, recruited as agent in the CIA because she can spirit walk. Her recruitment, however, is really a kidnapping; the CIA press-gang her into the service through blackmail and intimidation; consequently, she is never a willing participant and her participation has to be forced and her powers jump-started through drugs.

Two separate investigations proceed through parallel narratives. Alex investigates a cult based in San Francisco called the Croatoans. The Croatoans have gotten their hands on a shofar, a sacred ram's horn, that belonged to Doctor John Dee, and are using it in some bizarre ritual, which the CIA is interested in stopping. Morgan, in England, is tracking the killer of Dr. Granger, one of the foremost authorities on Doctor John Dee. Her murderer is a Mossad agent, who seems intent on killing not only Granger but her graduate students. Through his special talents Morgan quickly ascertains that Granger seeks an artifact, belonging to Dee, that grants eternal life: a philosopher stone, as it were, that is in the hands of a cult in America--the Croatoans.

As the actions unfolds, the two plots intertwine and then join in the spirit world, where good and evil struggle for control of the shofar and the ability to live for ever. However, in Levene's world, the so-called good is not necessarily good; she seems to adopt Rilke's belief that ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich (that every angel is horrifying/terrible).

My conclusion is that the novel is just downright fun to read. Levene throws almost every meme, metaphor, and trope available into the narrative, even pulling off a nice time travel sub-plot that ties everything together. Alex and her bouts with the trickster reminded me of the novels of Charles de Lint; however, where de Lint's novels are kind-hearted, Levene's are tough, sassy, rugged, and brash. And, frankly, I think that is what she intended.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gav Thorpe's "The Crown of the Blood"

Gav Thorpe, along with Paul Kearney, Stephen Pressfield and David Drake, writes war as it should be written: brutal, dark, bloody, treacherous, confusing, and insane. In The Crown of the Blood (Angry Robot 2010), his first independent novel, Thorpe breaks away from the Warhammer universe and paints his own created fantasy world with a broad brush, so broad in fact that at the end of the novel you feel as if you just began your exploration of the brutal and warring world, controlled, dominated, and threatened by the Empire of Askh.

This broad scope, of course, is what the epic fantasy reader wants and Thorpe sets up the pieces on the board to be played through what will either be a trilogy or a series of books. However, and this is important, in the setting up of his universe, through his own unique creation process, Thorpe employs and distorts the usual fantasy tropes (no elves, wizards or haflings here) to provide a somewhat familiar (but not really) psychological as well as realistic view of a bronze-age world at war, where magic is dark and dangerous--horrific really--and warfare is waged on an epic scale: tens of legions square off in gigantic set pieces involving hundreds of thousands of men across a universe. And the result is that Thorpe writes in a vein closer to Gemmell than Tolkien and, as a result, he seems less interested in the glory of the hero than in the psychological underpinning of the combatants, which provides a view of their inner workings and thereby making the novel seem harder, truer, and grave. The result of his method, of course, is a sense of weight, which is necessary for epic fantasy: epic fantasy must have a sense of psychological depth, as demonstrated through well-rounded characters,operating in a unique universe, and a sense of tragedy.

Thorpe provides the elements of tragedy through his depiction of the machinations of the Bloods: the members of the royal family who rule the Empire with the help and guidance of the Brotherhood, a cult of priests, who use alchemy and astrology to manipulate and control their fate. The chief protagonist, although I would argue that there are several because Thorpe uses multiple points of view to describe the workings of the Empire, is Ullsaard, a native of Enair and a young general, commanding several Askh Legions. It is Ullsaard whose arc provides the tragic theme of the novel and it is Ullsaard, who first demonstrates that Thorpe is not interested in providing us with a epic fantasy stereotype. Ullsaard is a complex man, full of pride and ambition, who, at times, is not particularly smart or honorable. It is his story that propels the plot but he is not always a hero or heroic. Sometimes he is pitiful, cowardly and vainglorious, asking others to do his dirty work or betraying life-long allies, even brothers. In fact, I would argue that there is no real "hero" in the novel; instead, Thorpe provides us with a myriad of flawed individuals, who blindly grope for power on various levels in a brutal world. However, Ullsaard, of course, carries the plot and it is his fortune that furnishes the exciting force of the novel and provides the elements of tragedy.

With tragedy comes complexity and Thorpe has arranged his novel to include characters from every stratum of the empire. In this, you can see either Tolkien's influence or Shakespeare's (take your pick). In fact, there is a beautiful scene near the end of the novel where one of the POV characters, Gelthius, opts out of raping and pillaging and decides to have a bit of drink, food, and sleep, instead. When the conquering Ullsaard enters the city, he finds the tipsy and drowsing Gelthius on the steps leading to the ramparts. The scene illustrates the common legionnaire interacting with the great general and brings to conclusion the multiple points of view approach that allowed us to see the working of the Legions. A nice touch to a book full of nice touches.

In the final analysis, a created world must have created beings; and, although Thorpe has avoided the usual fantasy tropes, he does provide us with some interesting creations: the officers of the legions ride giant cats called ailurs; the cavalry ride Kolubrids, large snake-like creatures; the warriors of Mekha ride reptilian creatures called behemodon; while slavers travel in landships, propelled by oarsmen. The sine qua non of fantasy tropes--the horse--is no where to be found. He also has created a unique social world, where polygamy is the norm, bastards of the Blood are hunted down by the Brotherhood; and debtor prisons common. The magic, too, is different, it seems based on human sacrifice, alchemy, and astrology.

All in all, the novel is well-written, with a complex plot that promises additional books, ruthless, fully-developed characters, and a penchant for psychological realism that makes the book an adult read rather than a childish escape.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ian Whates' "City of Dream and Nightmare"

Hub Magazine, Issue 131, contains my review of Ian Whates' City of Dreams & Nightmare. You can find it here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pat Kelleher's "Black Hand Gang"

Recently, just last week in fact, I was browsing Barnes & Noble when I spied Kelleher's Black Hand Gang (Abaddon Books 2010), a World War I horror/military/fantasy novel, with an arresting cover by Pye Parr. However, a cover does not make a book so I gave it my patented first line test: "there was a Front, but damned if we knew where." Good, I am interested. From the cover I could tell the story takes place during the first Somme offensive and there are giant worms and tanks, and from the first line I could sense the exciting force percolating away, drawing me in to a distinctly unique, created world, so I read on.

The book begins as many novels of the great pulp fiction era do: with a pseudo- history based on some real events; however, here there is more "real" history than usual and this history does not just start with the first world war but goes back even further, raising the specter of other disappeared colonies and a surprising, but believable tie-in, to my old friend, the alchemist and Queen's Conjuror, Doctor John Dee. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought.

Additionally, as I read I determined quickly that the prose is tight and well-honed, and that this guy Kelleher, who I have never heard of, has the chops. I surmise this isn't his first time out.

So I buy the book and read it quickly over the weekend because it is simply one of those books--a page turner--and, once finished, I am not disappointed.

First, it is well-crafted, as I said; Kelleher structures each chapter to create suspense and take us onto the next, and the research spot-on. I believed the early chapters in no man's land implicitly, just as I did later when the situs morphs onto a new world and the heroes find themselves in a hostile environment. This bump, this movement from the known world of France during World War I to the secondary world, makes the novel ultimately a portal novel in the grand tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Norman, David Lindsay, and even C. S. Lewis. Further, the novel is more; it reveals all those earlier influences but it also shares similarities with H.P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne. In fact, during the reading I thought of Verne's Mysterious Island several times, as well as Wells' dystopian novels.

Although there seems to be a resonance of pulp and a direct lineage to the novels of the early 20th century, the novel has its own, post modern sensibility, as it employs pulp, horror, and military tropes to create a cohesive work that stands alone.

There is even a hint of steam punk. By choosing the first world war, which happens to be the situs of many early pulp novels, the novel has at its disposal a plethora of punky weapons, including a Flammenwerfer

Second, when we get to the novel itself, Kelleher has accomplished something that is quite difficult to do. He has given us an entire company of soldiers that we like, hate, or feel despair. Not since First and Only, the debut novel in Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghost series, have we had as intimate a view of the quotidian operations of a company. To juggle these characters is a task that only an experienced writer can accomplish and Kelleher does it well.

In summary, the novel involves a company of British soldiers on the western front that, through some apparatus (magic or alchemical), are transported to another world where they battle to survive its hostile environment and its strange sentient beings. The steam punk elements (biplanes, tanks, Flammenwerfer, gas, and trench warfare itself)and the historical accuracies, along with the Edwardian behavior of the men and women, create a unique reading experience. More particularly, the novel is action-packed; the world upon which the characters land is a brilliantly created "death" world that portends other books and adventures, evidenced by several plot lines left unsolved: a reference to the god Croatoan (which ties this novel to the mystery of the disappeared Roanoke colony in 1590), an escaped magus, not to mention an entire stranded company, and some crazy gods--alluded to and worshiped but not seen, yet.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes

In August 2009, Red Rook Review highly recommended Ms Beukes' first book, Moxyland. Moxyland is just now appearing in the United States to high acclaim and you can read my review here:

Her second novel, Zoo City, which will soon be available in the United Kingdom, however, is a better book for reasons that might confuse some of the die-hard urban fantasists but will please those readers who yearn for well-written, thoughtful, and reality-based fantasy.

To begin, Beukes just writes well. Her novel is a first-person narrative that shares and incorporates most of the tropes of noir fiction but also possesses a well-thought-out and heavily researched psychological underpinning, which elevates the novel from the category of simple noir to psychological noir with an element of the uncanny (using Freud's definition of "uncanny" here). If we put these elements together to categorize the novel, it is a psychological thriller based in the present with an underlying theme of the uncanny that approaches the horrific. And because of the the uncanny elements, which function both literally and figuratively in the tale, it falls within the category of urban fantasy on the one hand but it also demonstrates elements of a 19th century romance (cf: The Scarlet Letter and The Woman in White)on the other. Her facile mixture of genre types, of course, makes the novel post-modern in a very literal sense and as a result of her genre-bending and exquisite prose, Ms Beukes must be taken seriously, not only as an urban fantasist but as a serious writer of ideas.

Irrespective of the literary impulses that inform the novel and raise it, in my eyes, above the usual fare we find in the science fiction and fantasy ghetto of our local bookstore, Zoo City is on the most fundamental level a fun read. The characters are interesting, the setting unique, especially to Western eyes, the mystery is really a mystery, and the magic is based on existing human belief systems.

In regard to characters, the protagonist, rather than a down-on-his-luck PI, is a twenty-something black woman by the name of Zinzi December. Zinzi is an ex-journalist, drug-addicted, convicted felon, who uses her uncanny skill to track down lost objects in Johannesburg. Zinzi lives in a neighborhood called Zoo City and Zoo City is, in reality, a ghetto, where aposymbiots congregate. Aposymbiots possess mashavi, which is an African word that describes both the preternatural talents of a aposymbiot and the aposymbiot's familiar. An aposymbiot is a sinner (felon), whose sin is manifest in the literal form of an animal, who lives symbiotically with the human. The animal, in effect, makes tangible the tort and is to be seen like Hester Prynne's "A" as a sign of her penance and a warning to all others. In other words, the greater the sin the more dangerous the familiar animal. Zinzi's animal is a cute sloth, whereas other possess much more formidable creatures: crocodiles and buzzards. The animals in Zoo City, however, are not figurative as in Pullman, nor are they to be seen as a part of the soul; they are living, breathing creatures that are connected intrinsically with the the physical body of the sinner.

The novel begins with Zinzi being asked to find a ring. She takes the job because she is in debt to some loan sharks, who are running an internet scam, and forcing her to use her journalist skills to write copy for their schemes. Because of her past crime and her animal she is unable to find legitimate work.

The job of finding the ring brings her into contact with members of the music business, who hire her to find a lost teenage singer. The singer is a twin and Zinzi's search allows us to see the inner workings of the South African music business, the world of nightclubs, and the workings of Johannesburg. It is here that the novel feels very real. Ms Beukes is a journalist and she creates a vivid picture of present day Johannesburg. We see the crime on the streets, the rich in their protected environment, and the every day lives of the poor. Hers is a world new to most Western eyes. Just her literal description of an existing milieu makes the novel unique. However, within this context, she also serves up the magic of Africa, the folklore and the witchcraft. This underlying texture of the uncanny hardly intrudes on the fictional realty of the present day world until the very end.

As in all crime fiction, we soon learn that Zinzi is being used and that there is more going on than just the search for a lost girl. This plot device creates suspense and surprise; and, when the denouement comes near the end of the novel Beukes does not serve up a rosy ending; instead, she writes a brutal conclusion, which in its internal logic, is satisfying but horrific.

Finally, Beukes' characters are hip and sexy and her protagonist acts like a real woman. The sex scenes are believable, just as the action scenes are taut, believable, and bloody. Zinzi December is a keeper. Maybe she will appear again with the sloth. I hope so.

At this point I usually recommend other books similar to the author's. Strangely, the two books I thought of while I was reading the novel were Bernard Malamud's The Tenants and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. You figure it out.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Issue 125-Hub Magazine

Issue 125 of Hub Magazine contains my review of Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon: Amulet of the Mad God"s Amulet. Check it out at

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"The City"

The City is now available in Issue # 124 of Hub Magazine.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Border Princes" by Dan Abnett

Almost smack middle in the Border Princes, a BBC Book, featuring the team from Torchwood, Dan Abnett, author of the Gaunt's Ghosts series for Black Library, various comics for Marvel, and Triumff from the British imprint Angry Robot Books, demonstrates his greatest strength: the ability to present a scene of horrific violence without actually describing the violence. The trick, of course, is that the reader imagines the horrific machinations that occurred offstage and fills in the details, thereby heightening or magnifying the sensation of violence. Here is a portion of the scene: "The bodies--there were no whole bodies, just pieces--had been scattered in front of his shed. It looked like a direct hit by an 88 round, except there was no crater, no litter of cordite ash. The poor bastards looked like they had been pushed through a wood chipper. Bits of bone and half-limbs, some still partly clothed in meat, protruded from the soil as though they were heads of celery, carefully planted. (p. 148)"

Border Princes is a Torchwood novel, and Torchwood, of course, is the BBC series featuring Captain Jack Harkness. Harkness appeared originally in several Doctor Who episodes and who, through the actions of Rose Tyler, is now immortal and heading up the Torchwood team guarding Cardiff against the denizens and riff-raff that enter our world through the Rift. The Rift in the Doctor Who universe is located at Cardiff Bay, Wales and acts as a generator of stories. It has been defined as a wormhole but it acts as portal contacting various universes. The Rift appeared initially in the Doctor Who episode, entitled "The Unquiet Dead," starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. In that brilliant episode, featuring Simon Callow as Dickens, a rift opens in Victorian Cardiff and allows the Gelth, gaseous humanoid organisms to pass into a funeral parlor, where they inhabit corpses. Additionally, the Rift releases radiation, which grants people psychic powers, including Gwyneth, a servant in the parlor. Gwyneth in the episode is played by Eve Myles, who later plays the current day policewoman Gwen in Torchwood and perhaps is a descendant of the first Gwyneth. In the Doctor Who episode Gwyneth saves humanity by the forfeiture of her life. In Abnett's Border Princes, the modern Gwen is also at the center of the action. This time her forfeiture involves the loss of a lover.

Abnett's novel contains the usual suspects but at the same time it shares and demonstrates all the Abnett tropes and devices. First, Abnett uses multiple points of view. That works well with this novel because it is really about the team. Second, Abnett is the master of delay and suspense. He carries us along to the end by slowly dribbling out the clues. Intertwined with the mystery of the sixth member of the Torchwood team, James, is numerous other stories of Rift mishaps and mayhem. Third, no one writes combat better than Abnett and there is plenty here. His alien creatures sizzle with hardware and battle expertise, causing us to want to know more about them. Fourth, surprisingly, Abnett writes domestic scenes well. My fantasy was that his well-crafted scenes between James and Gwen were echoes from his own relationships.

Needless to say, the novel is well-written, exciting and true to the Torchwood IP. However, it is almost impossible to discuss the plot without giving something away. So I won't. Instead, I will just say that if you like Torchwood, you will like this novel. If you like Abnett, you will be pleased because you get the usual Abnett--plus. The plus is the way in which he describes domestic scenes and relationships. In the Border Princes, Gwen is having trouble with Rhys, her boyfriend. The number of incursions through the Rift has increased her workload and is interfering with her personal life.

Finally, if you haven't read Abnett, I recommend the following novels: the omnibus volume from Black Library, entitled The Saint; the Warhammer novel Riders of the Dead, a personal favorite, and Triumff from Angry Robot.

"The City"

Hub Magazine has accepted the short story, The City, for publication. I will alert you to its appearance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review of Nathan Long's "Bloodborn"

Issue 122 of Hub Magazine contains my review of Nathan Long's Bloodborn. You may read it here:

This is the second of five reviews that I have written for Hub Magazine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mark Chadbourn's "The Ice Wolves," a Hellboy Novel

Hellboy has waged war against diverse antagonists, including Nazis and the witch Baba Yaga, over the years. In Mark Chadbourn's turn at the intellectual property created by Mike Mignola in 1993, Hellboy is pitted against an army of werewolves on the snow-covered streets and hills of Boston.

Because of Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy is almost a household meme; everybody thinks they know Hellboy, although they actually usually know only del Toro's version, as embodied by Ron Perlman.

Chadbourn's Hellboy seems different to me and the novel's setting is pure Chadbourn: haunted houses, ancient races, archetypal creatures, running amok in the major cities of the world. In The Ice Wolves, the eponymous wolves are more the incarnation of the dark, primal instincts of man, released into the modern world through the operation of two occult devices created by a shaman to save his tribe from ravaging wolves in a pre-historical world of Eastern Europe. Through magic, the wolves are absorbed by man and their murderous instincts internalized to lie dormant until their release during the Time of the Black Sun.

The novel begins with Kate Corrigan at the folklore department of New York University, awaiting Hellboy. Through her research, she has determined that certain periods of history have witnessed epidemics of lycanthropy and that these occurrences involve a prophecy of the coming of the Time of the Black Sun. She and a colleague have discerned a pattern of movement and mayhem that indicates that there is a modern epidemic and that the wolves are converging upon the United States.

Hellboy's arrival coincides with the appearance of the wolves in the United States and the death of Kate's colleague, Daniel. Daniel's last act is to materialize to Kate and Hellboy and warn them that the wolves have activated the Heart of Winter and are headed to Boston to retrieve the second relic, the Kiss of Winter, in order to initiate the Time of the Black Sun. Daniel informs them that the Kiss of Winter is hidden in the Grant Mansion in Boston, a house rumored to be the most haunted house in New England.

With the introduction of the Grant House, Chadbourn leads us into H. P. Lovecraft territory. He also delves into several sub-plots: the story of Brad Lynch and his estranged father, now owner of the Grant Mansion; the story of the Grants and the origin story of the Kiss of Winter; the birth of the lycans and their involvement with and search for the two relics; a haunted house story; time shifting and time travel; and a pastiche of Gothic elements that align the novel with the works of Poe, H.P Lovecraft, and Henry James.

Chadbourn handles each narrative level competently; however, sadly, I did not find the parental tales particularly interesting, although they are integral to the plot and must be developed in order to resolve the conflict. Nevertheless, Chadbourn shines when dealing with mythic and archetypal elements and action.

Ultimately, the two stars of the novel are Hellboy and the haunted house and these two characters are worth the journey through the work. Chadbourn writes a smooth crystalline prose and he knows how to tell a story. The Gothic aspects of the novel are true to the genre and the pastiche of Lovecraftian elements is convincing.

I was particularly intrigued by Chadbourn's recreations of the past and the origin of the wolves and the two relics: the Kiss of Winter and the Heart of Winter.

The novel is a fast read, loyal to the genre and its hero--Hellboy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

"The King of the Fields" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Singer in his novel The King of the Fields, written in 1988, just three years before his death, examines religions (Christian, pagan, Jewish), myth, male-female relationships, sex, politics, and man, through a purported history of pre-medieval Poland. The novel is basically an existential examination of man and his beliefs positioned in a fairy-tale world. In many ways it shares themes with the Book of Job and possesses slipstream qualities similar to those in William Golding's The Inheritors and Jack London's Before Adam. But even this comparison is not accurate. Perhaps, a better comparison would be to Kafka's The Castle, Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, or Camus' The Plague. All of these books are philosophic texts examining belief and philosophy. Each of these books illustrates how a novelist can write a philosophic text without sacrificing the essential qualities and pleasures inherent in a novel.

The story is set during the emergence of Poland approximately three or four centuries after the death of Christ, a time when the hunter-gatherers are beginning to cultivate the fields and missionaries from Rome are arriving in the Northern woods to convert the pagans to Christianity. In his created world of the forests near the Vistula, Singer demonstrates dramatically the interaction and absurdities of religion as exercised by untutored, unlettered men, struggling for supremacy and survival in a state of nature. Like Hobbes, Singer shows man in this fantastic world as brutish and deadly; with his survival depending upon strength, intelligence, guile, and luck.

Iron men ravage the land, destroying, murdering and raping; however, our protagonist, Cybula, although a skilled hunter, is not a hero or a warrior. Instead, he seems to be a precursor to the Singer nebbish. He assumes control when fate demands it but he is never comfortable with the mantle. Women control his life, although he seems to have an inordinate success with them. He is not comfortable with the change from hunter-gatherer to sower, farmer, villager, although he quickly sees its advantages.

The action begins when a group of Poles take control of a tribe of Lesniks; hunter-gatherers living near the Zakopane mountains. The Poles led by Krol Rudy, the Red King, descend on the Lesniks like wolves on sheep. They murder the men and rape the women. Some of the Lesniks, led by Cybula, flee to the forests and the mountains but most of the survivors--women and children--fall under the control of the Poles. Eventually, Krol Rudy makes peace with the Lesniks because he needs workers to harvest his wheat. He, then, makes Cybula his head-man and marries his daughter to tie the Lesniks and the Poles together through marriage.

On one level Singer uses this story to study the transformation of the Lesniks from hunter-gatherers to town dwellers and farmers. On another level he follows the progression of man's beliefs in the gods. First Ben Dosa, a Jew, arrives in the village, and he brings the message of the one God. Later, a priest arrives and he preaches Christ and accuses Ben Dosa of killing God.

Suddenly, religious prejudice arises and hatred of the other fills the villagers with rage. The women attack a Mongol woman for her slanted eyes and they beat Ben Dosa for trying to protect her. Within the context of the novel, Singer works in the theme of the scape-goat and hatred of the Jew, as other.

We quickly realize that Singer is using the historical novel to comment on the present, on the way the world is now. Although, the Jew, Ben Dosa, is a decent and moral man, Cybula is the protagonist and the one who carries Singer's ultimate message. Cybula worships only one God and that God is death. Singer's conclusion is:life is short and brutish and the only tangible, living God that man can expect to speak or reveal himself is death. For Cybula there are moments of passion and happiness but these moments are short and rare. There is always another Krol Rudy who wishes to take control and dominate.

Ultimately, the novel is existential in theme. Cybula is a loner, who leaves the village and lives in exile in the woods with his young wife, Kora, and waits for death, which he expects to arrive shortly. Ben Dosa seems to experience a bit of happiness in Rome with his people but even his happiness is overshadowed by superstition and emanations of fate.

Although the themes of the novel are dark and man's future bleak, it is an amazing book. Singer translated it from the Yiddish and the prose is precise and lyrical. He carefully describes the society and its inhabitants. Each character is delineated and articulated. And even though it is a complete fabrication, more a fairy-tale, than a realistic rendition of a historical period, it is so well-wrought that you believe in it and its characters.

Singer's novels, like the novels of Kafka, always seem to have a quality of otherness to them. When the villagers talk about the witch god, Baba Yaga, you expect her to appear. Mystery and magic seem to lurk around the edges, although the novel is meant to be realistic. It is this magical realism that raises the book in my esteem.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Review of Michael Moorcock's "The Jewel in the Skull" in Hub Magazine

Issue 115 of Hub Magazine not only contains an interview with the great Texas writer Joe. R. Lansdale but also my review of Michael Moorcock's The Jewel in the Skull. Please check it out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's "36 Arguments for the Existence of God"

As a novel of ideas, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God succeeds magnificently but as a novel of manners, a Jewish novel, or just a novel it fails to reach its potential.

There is a story or stories lurking underneath or behind the action of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel that she does not explicitly present but which I think she consciously alludes to: the story of the search for God in the seventeenth century. The players or protagonists of this hidden story are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, Arnauld, and Newton; but Ms Goldstein keeps this story on the low down, even though she has written one of the best books around on Spinoza, a thinker who is emerging as one of the seminal thinkers of the modern age. There is also another story, just as important as the first, which she doesn't explicitly refer to and that is the role that mathematics and logic play in the theories of God and human understanding. Here too her true protagonists--Wittgenstein, Godel and Newton--are also hidden, although she does create several characters who are mathematicians and she has Cass Seltzer, her revealed protagonist, repeat some of the same conclusions as her hidden protagonists.

What she does reveal on the surface is her dependence or I should say Cass Seltzer's dependence on the writings of William James and Sigmund Freud. And even though Cass Seltzer states that he is indebted to James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Freud's The Future of an Illusion, I would argue that it is really Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise that we should look to understand Cass' position.

But Cass is not just concerned with the arguments for the existence of God but also the psychology of the religious function in man, because he knows that in the long run that it does not matter if we say, like Nietzsche, that God is dead and believe it, the truth of the matter is that man created God and he will resurrect him in one form or another every time that someone buries our God or the current version of our God. The idea of God is immanent in man and cannot be overcome, so we must say, like Rilke, that we are bees producing the honey of god. It is through us that God comes to know himself.

Consequently, I believe that from the standpoint of a book of ideas, Ms Goldstein's book achieves its purpose brilliantly; however, as a novel it fails to achieve its potential. And when I say fails to achieve its potential, I don't mean to say it is uninteresting because it is nor that is not a page-turner because it is. What I mean to say is that it fails as a novel in the sense that it fails to develop its characters and plot fully. There is so much here and yet so much that is undeveloped or ignored.

A story can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies, while a plot can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies of grief. I feel that we get a good story filled with fascinating ideas but we don't get a finished and polished plot.

Ms. Goldstein creates several characters, most of whom are full of potential as characters, but then she lets them wander out of the novel without dramatizing their exit. Her most successful character is Roz Margolis, an anthropologist, and ex-lover of Cass Seltzer; her most unsuccessful characters are Lucinda Mandelbaum and Pascal Puissant, who seem to be caricatures. Two characters that should have dominated the book but seem almost, at the end, as add-ons are Azarya, the Rebbe of the Valdeners, and Jonas Klapper, the maniacal professor, who envisions himself as the latest messiah. Interestedly, both Klapper and Azarya are gaons, geniuses who become to their followers and in the case of Klapper to himself, messiahs. This is an interesting idea and as a theme, perhaps one of the most interesting in a book choc-a-block with interesting themes and ideas. However, it is not fully developed, just mentioned.

Cass, in my opinion, is the weakest character in the novel. His motivations and beliefs should have been our main concern. His conflicts arising from his Hasidic heritage should have been the main thrust. Instead, we get a weak-willed man wandering through Boston, manipulated by wives, lovers, and despots.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, we must judge a novel on how much we think about it after we put it down and how much it disturbs us at night as we try to fall asleep. In the case of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I am still thinking about it days after I finished and I am still arguing with Cass Seltzer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Rynn's World" by Steve Parker

The 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest is now in full swing and I recently downloaded one of their presentations, which purported to break down the difference between genre literature and general fiction or literary fiction. In their view, genre fiction concentrates on plot, whereas literary fiction is about the prose and the character development.

You know, maybe they are right, but if I read a "genre" novel with poor prose I usually throw it down. It is true that we want strong plotting in our mysteries and our science fiction but we also want strong prose, well-developed characters, and emotion. I for one want to feel something and since I have been reading science fiction and fantasy fiction for over forty years I also want something new, not re-warmed beans.

I picked up Rynn's World last Thursday and since my to-be read stack blocks my view of the sun, I didn't anticipate getting to it right away. However, I decided to have a coffee at Barnes & Noble and maybe browse through my purchases, which consisted of James Swallow's Black Tide, a new edition of Robert A. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon and, of course, Rynn's World.

While waiting for my coffee, I found my interest piqued by two things in the Parker book. First of all let me say that I really like its new, larger format. It is easy to read and it just feels good in your hands. And when you are a myopic old guy, the bigger the print, the better. Second, as an amateur military historian and military science fiction fan, I appreciate the colored maps in the center of the book.

Needless to say, I found myself just peeking into the book. After a few moments, I said: a little taste won't hurt me. I will go back home and finish Abnett's Triumff this evening. Forty pages later, I said: damn this is a good book. I guess Abnett will have to wait.

Don't get me wrong, I like Abnett but Steve Parker's new novel is an exciting, bold read. It is not cluttered with a lot of tired psychology; instead, he gets to it. As we said at the beginning, genre fiction runs on plot and Rynn's World is as tightly plotted as a military campaign. There is a clear logical flow to the story and it makes sense militarily.

But it isn't just all action either. The characters are drawn carefully and fully executed.

The story concerns the Crimson Fist chapter of the Adeptus Astartes based on Rynn's World. The Crimson Fists are an off-shoot of Rogal Dorn's Imperial Fists.

The action opens en medias res with an active Waaagh! (an invasion of orks) in full swing and heading toward Rynn's World. Pedro Kantor, the Chapter master, must devise a defense for Rynn's world with his small force of space marines. With this premise, the novel promises lots of action; however, Steve Parker is a brave writer. He shakes things up early. One of the best scenes in the book concerns a sniper. From his actions a host of bad things evolve:

It was happening exactly as Captain Drakken had anticipated, and, for the first time since the ork vehicles had shown up, Mishina started to feel truly confident that everything would go according to plan.

That was when he heard Kennon on the comm-link again.

"The warlord is moving, sergeant. I can't wait any longer. I am taking the shot!"

Without giving too much away this is an exciting, well-plotted military science fiction novel about space marines. I frankly feel that the novel will appeal to any science fiction reader, irrespective of the fact that it is a Warhammer novel and that it contains the requisite amount of fluff to satisfy any Warhammer fan.

After three novels Parker seems to be a budding master of what I call a "I hear the pipes, laddie" sequence. The best way to explain this phenomenon is to refer to an old Cecil B. Demille film Unconquered, where just the sound of the pipes and drums raises the spirit of the embattled pioneers at Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War. Many times in this novel, I heard the sound of the pipes and a tear formed. Good writing, sir. Good writing.

Finally, I want to say something about Mr. Parker and orks. I think he might have the flair and the sensibility to write the first Ork novel for Warhammer. In each of his novels, he seems to reveal a little more about the culture of the greenskins. I hope that he continues to think about them and , hopefully, the warlord Snagrod will receive his due. I'm just saying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Reiksguard" by Richard Williams

Reiksguard by Richard Williams is one of the first books in Black Library's new series-- "An Empire Army Novel"-- and as such follows like a good trooper all the requirements, tropes, fluff, and alignments necessary to fit within the parameters of the for-hire IP(intellectual property)novel. It is also a contestant in the Dave Gemmell Legend Contest.

The novel concerns the exploits of several characters; there is no one central protagonist in the novel. Instead, it is a ensemble piece, like most "military" novels. Instead, of the lone hero, Williams focuses on the group--the Reiksguard. The novel begins with a new class of inductees to the Reiksguard, an elite order of knights, based in Altdorf and led by Marshall Kurt Helborg. Williams focuses on the group of young nobles who arrive to train during a major war in the north. The enemy is bleeding the knights of their men and replacements are necessary. Consequently, the initiates' training takes on not only a sense of urgency but also one of intrigue and danger. This tension is underlined by the appearance of a vivid group of mercenaries led by the uncle of one of the major characters of the novel Siebrecht von Matz.

The first part of the book concentrates on the training of young nobles from all the regions of the empire and the petty disputes born of nationalistic prejudices that those young men bring to Altdorf. The second part of the book concerns an expedition in the south to free up supply routes choked by an infestation of goblins led by a mutant goblin by the name of Thorntoad. Thorntoad, like all great villains,almost steals the show from the Reiksguard.

The strength of the novel lies in Williams' faultless prose, his understanding of military actions and behavior, the vivid battle scenes, and the well-described world of the goblin invaders. Additionally, the novel presents a certain psychological complexity: the young nobles are purblind, obstinate, ignorant, and petty; the politicians manipulative, cunning, and cruel, and the generals (except for Helborg) foolish and ambitious. The battle scenes are well wrought and explicit. Williams seems to understand the use of his military arsenal and he describes action scenes in a facile, believable way.And finally, the novel moves organically; every action seems to grow out the scene before it, which makes for an enjoyable, seamless read.

The one problem I had with the book was the conflict or mystery concerning Delmar von Reinhardt; it was one of those problems (so common in genre fiction and the mainstay in romance fiction) that could have been solved simply by having a meaningful conversation between the parties involved.

Reiksguard is a flawless military fantasy novel that involves a well-described, interesting, ensemble cast. However, sometimes the epithet "IP" spells doom to the writer who wants to attract a larger audience; that larger audience being, of course, the general fantasy reader who desires new worlds, new monsters, and new adventures. The moniker "IP" also has a chilling effect for judges of contests like the Dave Gemmell Legend Award. However, in the case of Reiksguard, I hope the readers avoid the stereotype. Yes, the book fulfills its pedigree; it is a Warhammer novel and the fans of Warhammer will enjoy it and applaud the "fluff." However, irrespective of its setting and pedigree, the novel is also a rousing military yarn with interesting, complex characters, operating in a well-wrought fantasy universe, which qualifies it to stand with the other non-IP novels in the Legend contest.

The strength of Gemmell's novels lies not only in his settings and characterization but in his pacing and narrative; he could also describe a fight (any kind of fight--from siege to knife fight) vividly. Further, he had no qualm about letting a character face his fate. Many brilliantly wrought characters died within the narrative structure. Williams has this same talent. There is a scene late in the novel where two characters, who had been enemies, fight back-to-back to survive an onslaught of goblins. It is a touching and at times humorous scene; well executed. As I read it, I felt the Gemmell touch (influence). I think that it is this kind of emotion and execution that the Gemmell reviewers are looking for and will find in Richard Williams' Reiksguard. Because ultimately emotion is what sets the Gemmell novel apart from most fantasy literature.