Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading Philip Kerr's "Field Gray"

Field Gray is a realistic, tightly plotted, multi-level mystery novel, firmly grounded in detail--both historical and geographical--that accomplishes the primary objective of historical fiction: it recreates the past in order to illuminate the present and warns subtly not to commit the same mistakes yet again.And, although it is modern in its approach and structure and  does demonstrate an obvious agenda, it remains true to its subject, its milieu, its characters, and its historical framework.

Kerr, through the interrogation of his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, in five different prisons in 1954 recounts two stories--the lives of Bernie Gunther, ex-Berlin detective, and Erich Mielke, the minister of state security of the German Democratic Republic from 1957 to 1989.

The story begins in Cuba in 1954, where Bernie is working for Meyer Lansky, Jewish crime lord and one of the original founders of Murder Incorporated. Castro is active and Baptista's regime is in serious trouble. After meeting Graham Greene in a local brothel, Bernie sets sail to help a friend of a friend, a young woman, who has killed a police officer, with a United States sailor's stolen weapon. So begins a series of incidences that result in Bernie's incarceration in five different prisons, where he is interrogated by various intelligence agencies and remembers his past, until he finds himself back in Berlin and in the middle of a clandestine operation being conducted by the French, Russians, and the CIA. To survive and also mete out a bit of revenge, Bernie revisits his past and plays one country's intelligence service against another.

As the adage goes, the devil is in the details, and Kerr's command of early twentieth-century history is staggering. He knows what happened when and where; and, when I say "where," I mean he knows the street address. This attention to detail provides a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in many historical crime novels. Kerr seems to be particularly well versed in legal matters and procedure, which in this novel in particular, is used to great effect.

Kerr dominates his corner of the historical/mystery genre.

As an aside, when I was working in Berlin in 1990, his second novel The Pale Criminal appeared and I quickly snapped it up, along with its predecessor March Violets. The novels were exactly the kinds of books that I loved at the time and still do. I was infected with German measles (metaphorically) at the time; I loved all things German, especially German literature and history. And the truth of the matter, after all, was that I was in Germany because of a book. That isn't really accurate: there was more than just one book that fueled my interest in Germany; there were hundreds of them--biographies, histories, and novels. It was a state of mind, an obsession that began earlier than my immersion in literature about the war. Maybe, it had to do with the return of my grandfather, father and two uncles from the war and their attitude of steely silence about it all. Maybe it was the way they held their cigarettes or drank their beers, staring off in the distance, holding their secrets close to their T-shirts. When I try to pinpoint the moment of my obsession, I can see toy German soldiers, or a pocket book edition of Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or Len Deighton's brilliant series set in Berlin. Or maybe it was The Blue Angel or the Blue Max or Cabaret or the poetry of W. H. Auden or Christopher Isherwood's novels and short stories. Eventually, it would become Einstein's Berlin or Döblin's Berlin or the German Expressionists' Berlin or Hitler's. By 1990, however, it was my Berlin; and through my Berlin filter, Field Gray seems both very real, very timely and extremely readable.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Roberto Bolaño's "The Third Reich"

One of my favorite novels of 2011 was Roberto Bolaño's The Third Reich. Anyone who has read my novels or my poetry will know why I found the book so sympatico, and why I find Bolaño not only a great artist--because he is--but why I feel an intuitive closeness to him: his concerns and obsessions are my concerns and obsessions; his tropes and metaphors are mine as well. Perhaps the reason I feel this way is that Bolaño and I were born just a few months apart. And, as we grew up, we eventually, after several moves, didn't really live that far from one another; the Rio Grande divided us, but in the fifties and sixties it was permeable, and we and all of our cultural memes crossed the border with impunity. Eventually, he moved to Spain and I started work in Germany and France. He was an autodidact who loved to read, as did I. And in our obsession we seem to have liked the same writers for the most part, although his passion and his hunger dwarf mine. There seems to be nothing he did not read and absorb into his world view, his Weltanschauung, which for the most part consisted of a Weltschmerz, formed by an understanding of the inherent and sinister fascism of the Capitalist world, which he experienced first hand in Chile. For him the Nazis immigrated to South America and continued their machinations. However, as the novel implies: fascism lives on in various forms, not the least being, in our obsession over its uses and forms during the second world war but most particularly in the Third Reich.

The novel concerns a young German gamer, named Udo Berger, who travels to Spain with his new girlfriend, Ingeborg, to a seaside resort hotel, where he stayed as a youth with his family and fell in love with the wife of the German proprietor. His goal for the summer is to write an article about the game, The Third Reich, a table-top strategy game, obviously modeled on the Avalon Hill games popular in the fifties and sixties. While there, Udo descends into his obsessions--games, the past, crimes, police, detectives, fascists, women--and the novel has the feel, mood and pacing of a Patricia Highsmith novel. The sunny beaches and resort hotel take on a sinister feel like that of Mann's Death in Venice or one of Highsmith's European watering holes. Even a mystery author that Ingeborg is reading is Highsmith-like, emphasizing the obvious connection to mystery, obsession and madness. And there is sickness (Mann's great metaphor) and violence: the owner of the hotel is dying, and several derelicts haunt the hotel and the beach amidst rumors of rape and mayhem, while a fellow German disappears.

The mood of The Third Reich slowly darkens, as we read the notebook entries of Udo through the summer and into the fall. He is, of course, an unreliable narrator but Bolaño's strong voice, one of the strongest and most unique in the latter part of the 20th century, is consistent throughout the novel and leads us inexorably into Udo's descent into fear and failure until we arrive at the logical conclusion--the defeat of the fascist.

Throughout the novel, Bolaño refers to numerous German historical figures, battles, and games. His descriptions are always spot on. He also refers to many writers, which he always does, which shows his auto-didactic tendencies. Autodidacts always have to show off. But for our purposes he reveals his tastes and his influences. We must remember that Bolaño, like Keats, was writing posthumously. In some ways he was writing for himself or for posterity. Consequently, his novels are unique and satisfying in a quirky way. And for my taste, this novel, although not as grand as 2666 or The Savage Detectives, is my favorite of his short novels, equal in beauty and tone to his collection of short stories--Last Evening on Earth.

For more on Bolaño, see my review of 2666 here:, and his collection of poetry, The Romantic Dogs here:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chuck Wendig's "Double Dead" as a Dialectic of Blood or How I got my Kicks on Route 66

As a kid I loved the television series Route 66, maybe because we traveled it, journeying each summer to my father's family home in New Mexico, or maybe because I just liked the idea of a couple of cool guys, speeding along in the hippest car ever made in America, a 1961 corvette, for the simple reason that they could.

Chuck Wendig in his plot-driven, zombie/vampire hybrid, Double Dead, calls upon some of that nostalgic as his vampire hero herds his human flock west to Los Angeles along Route 66 in search of an escape from the zombie apocalypse, not in a corvette but in a run-down, diesel-fueled RV. Rather than escaping their pursuers, however, the travelers, who undertake a quest of sorts, run afoul of the most bizarre, grotesque collection of zombies, cannibals, clowns, and demons, ever assembled in a zombie novel.

Double Dead, although heavily plot driven and grotesque (here I'm relying on the original connotation of the word), is not your usual zombie novel; it overflows with piss and vinegar (Wendig employs this phrase several times in the novel to describe various characters); the prose is super-charged; his chapters are tightly organized,  engineered to lead the reader inexorably into the next; and the story follows a satisfying arc (imagine a snake with its tail in its mouth, the alchemical symbol of wholeness) that begins and ends with the protagonist, the vampire, Coburn. More precisely, as the story unwinds, Coburn comes to understand that if he is to survive he must protect the few humans still alive. His realization is the exciting force of the novel and the girl Kayla, the one who implanted the idea, the reason for the (makeshift or ad hoc) family's journey or quest along Route 66.

The true strength of the novel, however, is the Jamesian turn of the screw that Wendig gives the genre by introducing a vampire, who awakens from a long sleep to discover his food supply has been tainted and destroyed and Wendig's dizzily precise and sometimes comic prose that conjures up brilliantly a red-neck America in the throes of the zombie apocalypse.

As an aside, Wendig will gag if he reads this (because I suspect he is full of piss and vinegar and manly)but I found myself deconstructing the novel, something I rarely do, because I wanted to understand where his book stands within the genre. It was obvious he is well-read in both zombie and vampire literature and that he has a firm grasp on America pop culture. I was particularly taken with the theme of blood as the source of evolution or dialectic (and contagion à la Stoker and Matheson) within the apocalypse and thought it somewhat ingenious. There was, of course, subtle allusions to zombie capitalism, situating the zombies in Walmart, malls, and other shopping areas of America, and a nod to religious imagery and fanaticism in the Sons of Man. Nevertheless, although there is richness underneath the breezy prose and non-stop action, Wendig is too much of a pro to dwell on it and (I suspect) too full of piss and vinegar to admit.

This book demonstrates the usual high standard of editing that Jonathan Oliver and his team at Abaddon are known for and should definitely be on your reading list if you like zombies,vampires or both.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Triumff, Her Majesty's Hero"

I have been talking about my "cunning plan" for some time now to read and review all of Angry Robot Books' releases. The number is nearing fifty and I have reviewed only eleven. As you can see I am woefully in arrears, although I have purchased every book and with some titles I have two editions: big and little. I don't know what that means really except those I have ordered from England are big, i.e., trade paperback, verses, little, mass market.  In regard to Dan Abnett's first novel for Angry Robot Books I have two copies: trade paperback, big, and mass market, little. I chose to read the mass market edition so I could stick it in my suit pocket and carry it around, bend it back and break its spine. That's the way I like to read genre fiction--aggressively. With Triumff my usual methodology, however, was foiled (frustrated), because it is such a rich book, full of puns and literary allusions, characters and details that I had to slow down, read a bit slower, for after all I'm sitting here on the prairie, on the edge of the comancheria, north of the Rio Bravo, where the English language, although rich, is different from that of Elizabethan England and where our vocabulary is mixed with both English and Spanish. Consequently, it took me a while to enter the book, but once I did I realized how nuanced it was. Although I know it is played for laughs, there is a full-blooded mimetic world, an alternate or parallel universe, here, a geography that could be expanded upon, a vast container that could house other stories and other novels. And this created world, along with its rounded characters, is what makes the book more than just a linguistic romp. In this regard, Triumff''s alternate world is as rich and satisfying as Lavie Tidhar's in his The Bookman or Colin Harvey's created planet in Winter Song or, if we are being truthful, most of the Angry Robot titles. Created worlds, mixed genres, and good writing seems to be the common denominator.

In Triumff, the year is 2010; however, it is not our 2010. It is an alternate history in which Queen Elizabeth XXX sits upon the throne and rather than science, alchemy and superstition run the world. To understand the energy and verve of the novel, imagine then an episode of the Tudors, written by Richard Curtis, starring Rowan Atkinson as our narrator, William Beaver, with a young Kevin Kline (as in A Fish Called Wanda), playing Sir Rupert Triumff. Also imagine a teeming London, as dark and dank as any Dickens or Peter Ackroyd novel and then throw in magic and wizardry reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. Stir up the mix and add every clown or buffoon from a Shakespearean comedy or any ork from a Warhammer novel and you will begin to understand the tone and tenor of the work.

This is the invented world in which the action occurs but the book is more than an invented world or a comic bit. There is a plot here and characters. Triumff is back from the Beach, Australia, with his Ishmael-like companion--Uptil. The big secret, which Triumff is concealing, is that Australia is modern and technological, a modern paradise, compared to the teeming squalor of Europe. On one hand he is trying to conceal his discovery and the other, he is involved in trying to protect the queen from a dangerous conspiracy created by masters of mayhem and Goetia. To solve the mystery and defeat the sorcerers Triumff goes underground, masquerading as a French lutenist, as the Queen prepares for the anniversary of her coronation. In the investigation a panoply of Keystone-like police, agents, soldiers and mages appear from all over Europe.

For Abnett fans, the novel is a departure; but, in reality, I think we are seeing an almost full measure of the man. Like most of his novels, this one contains full-bodied characters, rich language, and panoply of arms,  but it also demonstrates or, perhaps better, shares his humor, his verbal intensity and range, along with his heart. Triumff, I think is Abnett's labor of love. It is what he wrote when left to his own devices.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Myth in the Age of Victoria or Steampunk in "The Bookman" by Lavie Tidhar

Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
The Bookman, a mesmerizing tour-de-force, refreshes Steampunk, while adhering to its basic elements and demonstrating the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and his endearing love of literature. Its major theme is myth; however, its subsidiary theme is books or, more, precisely literature. Structurally, it is a quest novel, situated in a Steampunk-like setting, but hiding a Childhood's End-like mystery. Ultimately, it is a novel about novels with the overarching theme being myth. As the character Gilgamesh says: "Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif." Succinctly it is a mystery set in an alternate history of England during a steam age in which automatons, giant lizards, and humans equally abide, while an orphan braves danger in order to find his lost love.

The genre known as Steampunk, strictly speaking, if that is even possible to do, concerns a period of English history from June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, or, more precisely, a period that runs from the birth of Queen Victoria to her death, and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and speculative fiction. Accordingly, Steampunk harkens back to the scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley and emulates, or imitates, their style and content, while concentrating on certain identifiable memes and grand themes of the Victorian age: the industrial revolution, colonialism, revolution, nationalism, science, particularly biological science--Darwinism-- sociology, and the rise of the novel, as well as the flourishing of poetry and art, especially in France. The Victorian age also saw the emergence of the gentleman scholar in England and the rise of capitalism. With all these disparate but potent forces at work, the period is ripe for incorporation into the mise-en-scène of  modern artists.

Lavie Tidhar's steampunk universe is bit larger than the Victorian age. As we said above, it is a novel about myth but it is myth filtered through English or French literature. The exciting force and one of the chief images of the novel is Shakespeare's The Tempest. The ruling power of England comes from Caliban's island and they themselves are monsters in the sense that Caliban was a monster. Caliban is an apt image for Tidhar because he can incorporate through a type of shorthand all the wondrous tropes in Shakespeare's fantasy as well draw on the image of the magician, Prospero, whose powers rely upon books. Magic, after all, is only language spoken to control or change the world, and Prospero is one of the most potent images or symbols of that power. Remember, too, Prospero has a daughter and that The Tempest is a love story. So Tidhar's alternate history begins in the 17th century. At that time, an event occurs that creates the alternate history of the world: the appearance of an alien race. One of the major tropes of science fiction underlies the meaning of the novel. And this is just one of the thousands of threads within the novel. To describe each is to destroy its beauty and complexity. Suffice it to say that the book is worth several readings because the author's vast knowledge and love of literature is on every page. And in this sense the book is a meta-fiction.

The Bookman has not garnered the exposure it deserves. It is an intelligent, clever book, that creates a wonderfully complex secondary world. And most importantly, it is as well-constructed as a Swiss cuckoo clock and as readable as any genre fiction being written today.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Salvation Reach"

Book Thirteen in the Gaunt's Ghosts series marks an end and a beginning. It has the feel of a great Navy ship turning about in a high wind and reminds me of something Norman Mailer said in a television interview he gave after the publication of his novel, Ancient Evenings (Abacus 1997), when asked about its length: "it takes me a hundred pages to turn a barge." What Mailer really meant was that his story and plot were so detailed and rich that it took him time and description to move it along. Salvation's Reach (Games Workshop Ltd. 2011) is not overly long nor complicated; in fact, I wanted more, but the novel does feel like a turning, a shift in the force, as it were: people die and new characters arrive; several new plot lines emerge; and new themes surface. No matter the new elements and the obvious thrust forward, there is also a harkening back to previous stories and the appearance of characters from previous novels that complicate and enrich Gaunt's life. As characters surface from Gaunt's past, the man alone is no longer alone.

Several months ago, I reviewed Nathan Long's latest novel in the Gotrek and Felix series,  Zombieslayer (Games Workshop Ltd. 2010), and made the following observation about long series. I believe the same applies to Gaunt's Ghost and bears repeating.

Growing up on the Louisiana/Texas border in the fifties, I use to watch men, women, and children picking cotton. The process involved their snatching the bolls and placing them in long bags that they dragged behind throughout the day. Every since I have imagined certain tasks (pleasant or otherwise)as metaphorical cotton picking. Usually, these thoughts emerge when the task becomes so tiresome, heavy, and unmanageable that its existence hampers my ability to move. When following long fantasy series, I sometimes see the continual accretion of volumes as being like the bag: the author over decades creates so many characters, so many themes, and so many plot threads, that the work becomes turgid and dense. More often than not I cease following the series, never to return. Sometimes, however, a series continues to be fresh year after year. Two series that continue to delight me are Gaunt's Ghosts and Gotrek and Felix. Both are from Black Library. Dan Abnett writes Gaunt's Ghosts and Nathan Long pens Gotrek and Felix.

The point of this quote is that long series present their own set of problems. Abnett, in both Blood Pact (Games Workshop 2010) and Salvation's Reach, seems to be freshening his series and preparing for closure. After all, this arc is entitled "The Victory."

The novel begins with Rawne and the creation of a new sub-unit within the Tanith Regiment: The Suicide Kings. The Suicide Kings, chosen by Rawne, are vying for the responsibility of protecting the double-triple agent Mabbon Etogaur. Mabbon, once an Imperial Guard, who defected to the Blood Pact and then to the Sons of Sek, a chaos war band, similar to the Blood Pact and loyal to Magister Sek, has devised a plan  with Gaunt and Lord Militant Cybon to create an internecine struggle between the Blood Pact and the Sons of Sek. The plot of the novel might simply be described as Gaunt's planting the cheese in the trap. The trap is Salvation's Reach, a massive construct of space debris, where the Sons of Sek are based. Once again, Abnett has created a fabulous, wondrous battleground.

To set the trap, the Tanith is joined by new units and three Space Marines. Once they arrive at Salvation's Reach great mayhem ensues; however, most of the novel is set in space aboard an ancient ship of the line, refurbished and released from storage, the Highness Ser Armaduke.

Abnett said in a recent video-blog on Youtube that he would like to write an Imperial Navy novel. In his description of the Armaduke's voyage through the Warp and its subsequent battles, he has displayed his sea legs; nevertheless, the heart-rending battle within the narrow corridors of Salvation's Reach is where Abnett shines. Without giving anything away, get out your handkerchiefs because I dare you to finish the novel without a tear.

Salvation's Reach, although transitional, alludes to almost all of Abnett's 40Ks work and creates new themes and introduces new characters that freshen the franchise and open the field for more novels and greater adventures.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Sabbat Worlds"

Dan Abnett begins his introduction to Sabbat Worlds, a collection of short stories set in his created portion of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with the pronouncement: "It seems I can add 'world builder' to my CV." This statement of the obvious should come to no surprise to those readers that have waited with bated-breath for the  next installment of the Gaunt Ghosts series. Abnett has a unique voice and an uncanny ability to create scenarios that suck the reader in like a vortex at the lip of the warp.

I've read most of his work and I'm still trying to define the Abnett "voice" or  Abnett "style." With Sabbat Worlds, he presents us with an opportunity to enter his universe once again, not only through his own writing and his own voice, but through those of six others. He has gifted us with two tasty treats of his own and six other stories that complement the Gaunt series. These stories explore current themes emerging from Abnett's world and introduce new units and planets to the campaign, while presenting other venues of the war against the Ruinous Powers.

One of my favorite Abnett novels is Double Eagle, a story of the air war. And although it is science fiction, the novel reminds me of the World War II aerial-combat movies I loved as a kid. The first story of Sabbat Worlds, "Apostle's Creed," by Graham McNeill, follows the film formula perfectly but harkens back to an earlier mime--that of the combat ace of World War I. And instead of Phantine XX squadron in Double Eagle McNeill focuses on the Apostle Seven, an elite squadron of ace Thunderbolt pilots. McNeill captures the spirit and excitement of aerial combat in a story that is quite familiar to those of us who love The Blue Max, Dawn Patrol, or Wings.

Matthew Farrer's "The Headstone and the Hammerstone Kings" is the second story in the collection and it is a completely different take on the Sabbat Worlds. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the detritus of the war, following the machinations of the Adeptus Mechanicus. One of the reasons the 40K universe attracted my attention in the first place was because of its dark, Gothic tone; it is a universe of treachery and deceit. Farrer creates a feeling of claustrophobia and angst through his prose style and tone, as he drops us into an alien environment through his use en medias res. As we struggle to understand what is happening, it becomes quite obvious that Farrer is steeped both in the mythos and fluff of 40K and its underlying pathology of paranoia and anxiety.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden's "Regicide" employs the image of  the chess-like game that pops up regularly in the Gaunt series. In this story, we are re-introduced to the Blood Pact and we see the death of Warmaster Slaydo, Gaunt's  mentor. The story reminds me of early Gav Thorpe with its focused battle of wits between a Blood Pact witch and a member of the Argentum, another elite Imperial Guard unit. "Regicide" delineates some of Gaunt's history before the Ghosts.

The next story in the collection, "The Iron Star," by Abnett also fills in some of the blanks. This story, which I will not discuss in detail, is emotional and poignant. I dare you not to cry. It serves as a bridge between Only in Death and Blood Pact.

The "Cell" by Nik Vincent, similar in tone and style to Abnett's work, shares themes with Traitor General, my favorite Gaunt novel. The story is intimate in scope, well-written, and appropriately creepy in a LeCarre sort of way.

Nick Kyme's "Blueblood" is solid 40K, Imperial Guard fiction, focusing on a Volpone Battalion, arriving on a planet in preparation for an invasion. Even behind enemy lines, however, the Ruinous Powers are at work. 'Blueblood" furthers the religious themes that are prevalent throughout the Gaunt series and introduces strong characters that deserve further exposure.Kyme shows he's in total control of his material.

Just as McNeill's story was a bit of a pastiche, so too is Sandy Mitchell's "A Good Man." He very carefully delineates a 40K story following the plot of Graham Greene's and Carol Reed's "The Third Man." There is even zither music playing in the bars and tavernas of the ram-shackled Verghast. A lot of fun and very well-written.

The final piece of the collection is a novella by Abnett, entitled "Of Their Lives in the Ruins of Their Cities." I will not spoil the story for you but simply say it is a brilliant piece of writing. It is a truism now to write that Abnett writes well about soldiers at war. But unlike many hard-core military science fiction novelists, he has a sentimental streak and a heart, which reminds me of John Ford and Rudyard Kipling.

This collection could have been twice the length.  I hope there are additional volumes.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Christian Schad

For over thirty years I have been interested in fauvist, expressionist and surrealist art. Fate seems to have encouraged that interest because I have repeatedly stumbled onto exhibitions at just the right moment.In 2001, I was working in Paris and one free afternoon I set off on a walk. When I reached the Marais I saw a notice for a Giacometti exhibit at the Centre G. Pompidou. Once there I became fascinated with his systematic study of the human skull and I jotted down a sentence from one of his notebooks. I later used the line in my second novel: J’ai passé tout l’hiver dans ma chambre d’hotel à peine le crâne, voulant le preciser….
A few years later, once again in Paris, I was returning to my hotel when I noticed that there was an important exhibit of Picasso's erotic art. I spent the rest of the afternoon lost in Picasso's mythic universe. Since that time I have used his images of the Minotaur over and over again in my work. In fact, the character, Karl Wisent, grew out of my study of Picasso's Vollard Suite.

In the early 90's I was working for a major manufacturing company and I often accompanied the President of the company to New York. During this time I was studying Gustav Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka. One free afternoon as I passed the Guggenheim I noticed that the whole museum was featuring the works of Kokoschka. Fate once again was on my side.

Approximately, a year and half ago in New York, I stumbled onto an exhibit of Christian Schad's work. At the time I had no idea who he was but I was immediately struck by his images and the feeling tone of his work and I knew instantly that he would enter my pantheon of artistic gods. The painting above is one of his. I mention Schad because he, like Celan, was both an expressionist and a surrealist. He was born on August 21, 1894, in Miesbach. In 1913, he studied art in Munich. During the first world war, he fled to Zurich where he joined Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Together with Walter Serner he started the magazine-Sirius. From 1920 to 1925, Schad lived in Rome and Naples where he studied the Italian Renaissance painters and in 1925, he joined with Otto Dix and George Grosz to particpate in the Neuen Sachlichkeit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading Lev Grossman's "The Magicians"

Lev Grossman's The Magicians (Plume 2010) is a Bildungsroman; and, although parallels have been drawn between J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis' Narnia, the comparisons are not apt. These fantasy novels are not "coming of age novels" in the sense or meaning contained within the definition of Bildungsroman or in the same way that Grossman's novel is. Instead, Grossman's use of and reference to them--both internally, within the text, and externally, through paralleling plots--reveal an emerging sub-genre of literary fiction that relies on tropes and memes of genre fiction--science fiction, fantasy, comics, and RPGS-- as a reference to or touchstone for his protagonist's life experiences. Through references to these tropes or memes, Grossman, like Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, interacts, on one hand, with a genre that basically defines "virtual" through a rich and vertiginous simulacra and, on the other, the protagonist's "real" life experiences. These genre-specific allusions serve as a short-hand to their audience--people raised at the same time on the same fare--but transcend those genres in which they define their "coming of age." This melange results in a richer, more complete and complex, text that transcends its putative genre, grounds both the reader and the text in the here and now, and, hopefully, broadens the novel's readership.

This is not to say, of course, that The Magicians cannot be read as fantasy; it can be. Awe-inducing set pieces are sprinkled throughout the text and it is easy for the reader to suspend his/her disbelief and accept the work as fantasy. But that would be too easy. From the very beginning, the protagonist Quentin, an unhappy teenager, is subverting the reader's expeditions by showing that magic, although powerful, does not solve his very human problems.There is a constant call home to the reality of the everyday--There is nowhere like home.

As the novel begins, Quentin is in high school in Brooklyn. He is intelligent, preparing for college, but he is not happy.

Quentin knew he wasn't happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. (p.65)

To deal with his unhappiness, Quentin repeatedly reads Christopher Plover's Fillory and Further, a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s. The books provide him with an escape from his quotidian existence as well as a location and container for his imagination. As he is walking with his two friends, James and Julia, to their Princeton interview, Quentin states that the cold of the day did not bother him because: He was in Fillory. (p.6) This reference to the Fillory novel is meant to be an allusion to C. S. Lewis' Narnia novels, as well as an indication of Quentin's state of mind and a self-referencing device. It is also a tip-off to the beginning of a portal novel, a rhetorical device used in fantasy literature and a clear example of the recursive or self-reflecting nature of the novel.

Additionally, it signals another significant theme: books, writing and reading. Through the internal construction of faux books, in this case, fantasy books, Grossman comments on books and reading. The reference, along with the map at the beginning of the novel, alerts us to the fact that The Magicians, like the Narnia series, is also a  portal novel. As Farah Mendlesohn states in Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan University Press 2008), “the portal fantasy is about entry, transition and exploration (p.2). Portal novels and the Bildungsroman are compatible rhetorical devices and they are popular in children fantasies such as NarniaThe Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and Through the Looking Glass. Some critics even argue that Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring is a portal novel: Frodo and his friends leave the Eden-like shire and enter the chaotic world of Sauron and Saruman. So from the outset of the novel the reader is reminded of the pivotal portal novels of his/her childhood and on a deeper level reminds us that novels are portals as well.

The novel's impetus--off to college--quickly changes with Quentin's and his friends' discovery of a dead man, the interviewer. The plot moves almost instantly from reality to a supra-reality. He (Quentin) kept the back of his skull pressed firmly against the cool solid wall like it was his last point of connection to a same reality. (p. 10) And, frankly, it is his last point of connection with the everyday world. From this point on, Quentin's world changes: forces draw him toward the first portal, the portal that leads him to the school for magicians--Brakebill's.

Brakebill's appears to be the first of several worlds that Quentin passes through on his journey to maturation and self-knowledge; however, this supposed duality—between one world and another--is false. Because of Quentin's obsession with the world of Fillory all of his actions, all of his thoughts, reside there. Ultimately, one way to view the story is that it is the unpublished Fillory novel, The Magicians. In other words, Quentin is a character within a novel that he thinks he is reading. This interpretation furthers the idea of recursion, or the idea of fiction reflecting or reading itself. A Borgesian mirror effect exists within this very post-modern experiment in fantasy fiction.

The Magicians respects its antecedent tropes but ultimately the novel transcends them. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, grows, develops, and learns in our world and in our time, irrespective of his abilities as a Magus. His foibles are human failings, not super-human or magical ones. Quentin is closer to Holden Caulfied or one the Glass kids than to Harry Potter. Ultimately, his tale is a moral one: an Erziehungsroman. However, the novel's recursive nature and its sly literary tricks create a puzzle that places this novel in a category outside standard fantasy fiction.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Explication of Colin Wilson's Major Theme with Particular Attention Paid to the Lovecraftian Pastiche: "The Mind Parasites"

Over the last fifty-five years Colin Wilson has stated and restated his major ideas. He has progressed from his thesis of the Outsider in literature, the man who suffers from the rigors of modern life because he sees too clearly and feels too deeply to live in a world of unreality, to a belief in phenomenological existentialism, a positive, optimistic philosophy which borrows from Abraham H. Maslow's existential psychology, Shaw's concept of the life force, Husserl's phenomenology, and themes of occult literature.1 Wilson, who reads widely and prides himself on his ability to assimilate his knowledge into a system of ideas, attempts to foresee man's possible evolution. This evolution does not depend upon biological development, but man's perceptual mutation. To accomplish this evolution, man must establish contact with the vital life force, the élan vital. The only men capable of making this contact, according to Wilson, are Outsiders. These men function as a link between the sleeping masses and the evolutionary Supermen.

Wilson summarizes these ideas in the introduction to his non-fiction work, Strange Powers: "I believed that if 'the Outsider' could learn to know himself, and make a determined effort to control his life instead of drifting, he might end as a leader of civilization instead of one of its rejects."2 In his novels (The Violent World of Hugh Greene, Adrift in Soho, The Glass Cage, The Black Room, The Space Vampires, Ritual in the Dark, The Philosopher's Stone), Wilson pictures Outsiders struggling to control their lives and expand their consciousness. Their fight, however, is always difficult, for man's consciousness is an unmapped region, filled with obstacles. To illustrate the nature of the Outsider's struggle, Wilson creates in The Mind Parasites an allegory, in which he shows an Outsider, Gilbert Austin, battling against the personified obstacles of the mind. The parasites symbolize human "blindness," the failure of man to see the value of life and the immense ramifications of expanded consciousness.

In the novel Wilson traces the perceptual development of Dr. Gilbert Austin. Austin, who feels the need to expand his consciousness, progresses from an Outsider to a Superman, who defeats the parasites and leaves the earth in search of other beings like himself. To show Austin's step-by-step progression, Wilson employs sight and perception images throughout the work, but, because the novel deals with the mind, seeing images possess special meaning. When Austin says he "sees" he is actually "feeling": You had to get use to thinking how your mind worked. Not just your 'mind' in the ordinary sense, but your feelings and perceptions as well. I found that by far the most difficult thing, to begin with, was to realize that 'feeling is another form of perception. .., our seeing is also feeling. Before Austin defeats the parasites, he progresses through several levels of understanding. Initially, he exists as an Outsider, who likes the world of the mind better than the external world. He constantly experiments to expand his consciousness. His interest in the mind brings him into contact with Dr. Karel Weissman.Weissman and Austin discuss problems of death and consciousness. Then Weissman dies and Austin receives his papers. By studying these documents, he learns of the parasites. Through his encounter with the parasites, he strengthens his mind, and finally taps into the vital life force. Once he knows how to use the "life force" to gain energy, Austin employs it against the parasites and obtains freedom.

Austin and Weissman are Outsiders. As Outsiders they depend heavily upon their mental and perceptual faculties. They want to dwell in "the land of the mind," for their intelligence and vision alienate them from the somnambulists who live around them. As Outsiders they perceive the phenomenal world as unreal: "Now, both Karel and I[Austin] agreed on one thing--no matter how dissimilar our temperaments might be in others--that our everyday lives had a quality of unreality" (p. 13). This sense of unreality causes them to experiment with their perception; they attempt to expand their knowledge of their consciousness: "We spent a great deal of time discussing problems of human consciousness, and so on" (p. 12).

To explore their minds, they conduct experiments similar to methods which Aldous Huxley and Wilson used to heighten their per­ception:  

For a month or so, Karel Weissman and I tried to "experiment with consciousness." Over the Christmas holiday, we tried the experiment of staying awake for three days on black coffee and cigars. The result was certainly a remark­ able intensity of intellectual perception. I remember saying: "If I could live like this all the time, poetry would become worthless, because I can see so much farther than the poet." (p. 14)

Wilson, here, employs sight imagery to explain the poetic or mystical experience. Later, after they ex­periment with ether and carbon tetrachloride, Austin writes, "I certainly experienced some enormous feelings of in­sights" (p. 14). These insights foreshadow Austin's perceptual development. By showing that Austin and Weissman are Outsiders, interested in perception, Wilson hints at the direction in which their minds are moving. After Weissman's death, Austin undergoes several ex­periments which move him closer to a knowledge of the mind parasites. These "peak experiences" present Austin with glimpses of the "noumenal" world. Wilson uses sight images to explain these almost ineffable impressions. The first "peak experience" Austin recounts involves his decision to become an archaeologist. Wilson employs this example to illustrate that even at an early age Austin possesses exceptional concentration and perception:

I (Austin]had been reading a volume on the civilization of Ninevah by Layard, which I had picked up casually in the bedroom or a farm at which I was staying. Some of my clothes were drying on a line in the yard, and a burst of thunder made me hurry outside to get them in. Just inside the farmyard there was a large pool of gray water, rather muddy. As I was taking the clothes from the line, my mind still in Ninevah, I happened to notice the pool, and forgot, for a moment, where I was or what I was doing there. As I looked at it, the puddle lost all familiarity and became as alien as a sea on Mars. I stood staring at it, and the first drops of rain fell from the sky and wrinkled its surface. At that moment I experi­enced a sensation of happiness and of insight such as I had never known before. Ninevah and all history suddenly became as real and as alien as that pool. History became such a reality that I felt a kind of contempt for my own ex­istence, stand in there with my arms full of clothes.(p. 18)

In this passage, Wilson describes a movement in which Austin feels godlike, excited by his glimpse into the "real" world. As he looks at the pool and feels the power of the storm, his mind turns to the book by Layard. For a moment, the excitement, generated by the storm, blends with his interest in the book. As this blending occurs, he feels elated, set free. As a romantic, he yearns to experience freedom and a sense of reality: "Now I have never tried to hide the powerful element or the romantic in my in my composition. I became an archaeologist through an almost mystical experience" (p. 18).

Austin, hoping to re-experience his initial sense of freedom, becomes an archaeologist. He does not know what instigates these "moments of freedom"; all he knows is that archaeology is somehow responsible. Wilson, in his "Post­-script to the Outsider," recognizes that crisis and chal­lenge initiate "peak experiences." Man, when things are going well, "tends to allow his grip on life to slacken."5 Austin experiences his first insight into reality acci­dentally, but this experience is enough to launch him on a lifetime preoccupation with perception and consciousness. Once he begins thinking deeply, concentrating upon methods to intensify his consciousness, Austin attracts the parasites. The parasites gather wherever men think clearly and deeply; they converge upon the thinking mind like sharks on a swimmer.

Austin's first impression of the parasites occurs on a night when he discusses the rise in the suicide rate with Dr. Reich and Dr. Darga. He feels their "cold eyes" watching him: "But as I listened to him, something happened to me. I felt a touch of coldness inside of me, as if I had suddenly become aware of some dangerous creature" (p. 21). Austin's awareness of the parasites creates a sense of challenge. Suddenly, he feels fear and defeat. He says to Reich, characterizing man as a sleepwalker, "after all, civilization is a kind of a dream. Supposing man suddenly woke up from that dream? Wouldn't it be enough to make him commit suicide?" (p. 21). The parasites inculcate these thoughts. Before Austin becomes aware of their insidious presence, he views life as absurd: "The idea that came to me was terrible. It was that the suicide rate was increasing because thousands of human beings were 'awakening,' like me to the absurdity of human life, and simply refused to go on" (p. 21). These thoughts, instilled by the parasites, seem paradoxical, for later Austin understands that men, who are "awake," do not commit suicide. Only men tormented by the parasites view life as absurd.

After the meeting breaks up, Austin progresses to an­other level of understanding. Still brooding about the meaninglessness of life, he decides to climb the stairs to the top of the wall:

"I admit that my mood was romantic, and that I ex­perienced a need to intensify. So I stood there, hardly breathing, thinking of the dead sentries who stood where I now stood, and of the days when only the Assyrians lay on the other side of the mountains." (p. 30)

He uses history to stimulate another peak experience, but the mental activity attracts the parasites. Once the para­sites appear, they quickly destroy Austin's mood: "All at once my thoughts took a gloomy turn. I felt totally insignificant, meaningless, standing there•••• suddenly it seemed that life was no more than a dream. For human beings, it never became a reality" (p. 30).

Austin plunges deeper into fear, and Wilson employs sight images to emphasize the insights he obtains:

"At this point, I looked at the moon again­ and was suddenly overwhelmed with an inex­pressible fear. I felt like a sleepwalker who wakes up and finds himself balancing on a ledge a thousand feet above the ground•••• But I suddenly seemed to see that men manage to stay sane because they see the world from their own tiny, intensely personal viewpoints, from their worm's eye view. Things impress them or frighten them, but they still see them from behind this windshield of personality. Fear makes them feel less important, but it does not negate them completely; in a strange way, it has the opposite effect, for it in­tensifies their feeling of personal existence. ( p. 31)

By recognizing this "feeling of personal existence," Austin perceives that he is not insignificant. Instead, he feels that he possesses all the "knowledge of the ages" (p. 31). These thoughts astonish him, and he turns "his eyes" inside himself. At this point he discovers an important fact: he sees that the space inside his mind is as great as the external space which surrounds him: "Blake said that eternity opens from the center of the atom. My former terror vanished" (p. 32). When his terror subsides, Austin's thoughts develop rapidly, and he inadvertently stumbles upon another great insight. The irony here lies in the fact that the parasites induce his fear and this fear precipitates his insight. Wilson, in this passage, illustrates the parasites' symbolic purpose; they serve as an impetus to evolution. Wilson understands that man is a lazy creature, who needs a stimulus to grow and evolve. Austin, as he stares at the moon, would not have experi­enced an insight without the impetus of fear. Wilson ex­ presses this concept clearly in his novel The Black Room. In this novel Wilson presents the thesis that if man places himself in a dark room, devoid of external phenomena which affect his perception, he will force his mind to circumvent habit (one of the obstacles the parasites represent) and enter into a new dimension of consciousness. The black room, then, creates a crisis in the individual; it serves the same function as fear and danger, for it awakens the sleeping mind. As in The Mind Parasites, ordinary men can­ not survive the rigors of the black room. Only an Outsider possesses the insight to emerge from the room closer to the truth of consciousness. The black room, therefore, serves the same function as the mind parasites; it operates as an obstacle which enlivens, through crisis and challenge, the sleeping, habit-bound brain.

Austin, when he emerges from his "revelation," realizes its significance: "It was a movement. . . of overwhelming insight" (p. 32). Even though he feels strengthened and awake, he notices something dart across his consciousness as he strains to look deeper into himself: "But it seemed that, out of the corner of my eye--the eye of attention that was turned inward--I caught the movement of some alien creature" (p. 32). The mind parasites observe Austin's mental activities closely. From this point on they know he threatens them. The next morning when he awakens, he expresses an insight which marks the beginning of his campaign against the parasites: The everyday world demands our attention, and prevents us from "sinking into ourselves.

"As a Romantic, I have always resented this; I like to sink into myself. The problems and anxieties make it difficult. Well, now I had an anxiety that referred to something inside me, and it reminded me that my inner world was just as real and important as the world around me.(p. 32)

Austin, by seeing that something dwells in his consciousness, commences his evolution toward higher consciousness. As P. D. Ouspensky writes in his work The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution,  

to know oneself--this was the first principle and the first demand of old psychological schools...• We think that to know ourselves means to know our peculiarities, our desires, our hates, our capacities, our intentions, when in reality it means to know ourselves as machines, that is, to know the structure of one's machine, its parts, functions of different parts,the conditions governing their work, and so on.6

Like Ouspensky, Austin tries to understand his mind as machine. He attempts to fathom its structure, its hidden processes. By engaging his mind in a search for knowledge, he sets his personal evolution in motion.

One of the most important discoveries Austin makes on his voyage toward self-knowledge is Karel Weissman's notes entitled Historical Reflections. In this work Weissman proves the existence of the parasites and calls these creatures a plague threatening mankind.

As Austin reads Weissman's notes his mind opens to the truth he already suspects. The first sentence shocks him, but as he reads he understands what Weissman has found. Weissman's Historical Reflections seems a parody of Wilson's study of the Outsider and his bout with percep­tion. Weissman states that the parasites appear shortly after the French Revolution. This fact parallels Wilson's conviction that the first Outsiders surfaced during the Romantic period. Weissman notices that until the eighteenth century most Europeans have the ability to renew themselves when depressed or bored. Even though human history before the eighteenth century contains many incidents of horror and terror, man finds a way "to throw it [depression] off as easily as a tired child can sleep off its fatigue" (p. 57). Man, at this time, according to Weissman, considers that he "is a god who will overcome every obstacle" (p. 57). Instead, towards the end of the century, the times drastically change, and "the tremendous, bubbling creativity of Mozart is counterbalanced by the nightmare cruelty of De Sade" (p. 57). Man enters a period of sub­jectivity and depression, for he is unable to throw off his fits of depression. In his work The Strength to Dream, Wilson discusses De Sade, Lovecraft, Greene, and others in an attempt to find the reason for their abject pessimism. In The Mind Parasites, he symbolically employs the para­sites to explain the pessimism of the nineteenth and twen­tieth century. Austin asks why "the new man" has lost faith in life, lost faith in knowledge (p. 58). The answer, confirms Weissman's report, rests in the fact that the mind parasites, who suck the very essence of life from modern man, exist.

Weissman, like Austin, encounters the parasites when he experiments with perception. Initially, Weissman uses drugs, because he feels drugs reach down "to man's most atavistic levels, and release the automatic tensions that make him a slave to his own boredom and to the world around him" (p. 60). The parasites, however, sabotage Weissman's attempts to expand human consciousness. In an experiment he conducts, ten people experiment with drugs. Out of the ten, five commit suicide and two suffer mental breakdowns. Weissman does not know what has happened; he sees no reason for the suicides. Therefore, he undergoes the same experiment. At first he experiences the usual pleasant effect, but when he tries to gain a subjective view of his inner mind, his mood changes drastically:

I attempted to turn my attention inward, to observe the exact state of my mind, percep­tions and emotions. The result was baffling. It was as if I were trying to look through a telescope, and someone was deliberately plac­ing his hand over the other end of it. Every attempt at self-observation failed. And then, with a kind of violent effort, I tried to batter through this wall of darkness. And sud­denly, I had the distinct feeling of something living and alien hurrying out of my sight. I am not, of course speaking of physical sight. This was entirely a "feeling." (p. 62)

This bout with the parasites unnerves Weissman, but he does not give up. Instead, he renews his effort in an attempt to pinpoint the exact nature of the creatures hiding in his consciousness. By using techniques he says he garners from Husserl's phenomenology, he starts afresh, slowly and methodically taking note of man's mental terrain. As he works, he senses "certain inner forces" resisting his investigation (p. 63).

These forces are the parasites, and Weissman engages them in battle. For two weeks he struggles, until he penetrates a region of consciousness which is new to him. He feels terror and defeat, but suddenly the battle turns and he wins a temporary victory. From his victory Weiss man gains an insight:  

And then the realization came to me with such searing force that I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. Everything was clear; I knew everything. I knew why it was so impor­tant to them that no one should suspect their existence. Man possesses enough power to destroy them all. But so long as he is unaware of them they can feed on him, like vampires, sucking away his energies. (p. 64)

Weissman, after his victory, continues to investigate the parasites. He knows that once a man recognizes the problems he faces he can devise methods to overcome these problems. Therefore, his knowledge jeopardizes the para­sites' existence. The parasites, awake to the threat, renew their attack against Weissman, insidiously using other people and external methods to destroy him. Weiss­ man, however, before his death, discovers the most essential fact about the parasites:

I have another theory, which is so absurd that I hardly dare to mention it, This is that the mind parasites are, without intending it, the instruments of some higher force. They may, of course, succeed in destroying any race that be­ comes their host. But if, by any chance, the race should become aware of the danger, the re­sult is bound to be the exact opposite of what is intended. (p. 68)

The mind parasites, then, serve as a means to knowledge. Like man's fall from the Garden of Eden, the parasites denote a flaw in man's character, but in the long run a happy flaw. As man challenges the parasites, he invades new areas of the mind, stumbling upon exciting possibilities. Austin's role in the novel illustrates Wilson's belief that challenges to the human mind serve to develop and benefit the mind, for in his battle to destroy the parasites he becomes godlike.7

As Austin reads, he understands Weissman's notes immediately. Because he is an Outsider and a Romantic, Austin easily adopts the techniques of concentration which Weissman says is necessary to improve the mind:

The odd thing is that, by this time, it wasn't difficult. This exercise of concentrating upon one's own mind had an exhilarating effect. There were certain things that I began to under­ stand immediately. As an unabashed "romantic", I have always been subject to boredom. This boredom arises out of a kind of mistrust of the world ••• well, I now felt that my duty lay in ignoring the outside world. I knew what Karel meant: that it was vital for the parasites to keep us in ignorance of their existence. Merely to become aware of them was to gain a new feeling of strength and purpose. (p. 71)

From this initial insight gained through his study of Weiss- man's notes, Austin's internal vision begins to improve. He enters fully the "land of the mind."

After reviewing Weissman's ideas, Austin decides to enlist his friend, Dr. Reich. Reich, more scientific than Austin, immediately sees possibilities of which Austin is unaware. Reich introduces Jung's concept of the "racial unconscious" and Huxley's idea, stated in Heaven and Hell that the mind "stretches for infinity inside us" in an attempt to logically explain the parasites' existence (p. 39). The concepts Reich introduces play an important role in the novel, for they explain the powers and insights Austin gains as he looks into his own mind. Inside his mind he taps the unconscious of mankind and finds new truths. His ability to tap the vital life of mankind ultimately trans­forms him from Gilbert Austin, an Outsider, to Gilbert Austin, Superman, possessor of godlike perceptions.

One of the first changes which occur after Austin adopts Weissman's ideas and utilizes Husserl's phenomenological method to map his unconscious is his experiment with psychokinesis:

I can still remember the greatest experiment of those early days. I was sitting in the library at the A. I. U. at three o'clock one afternoon, reading a new paper on linguistic psychology, and speculating whether its author could be trusted with our secret•••• I started to make shorthand notes. At this moment a mosquito buzzed viciously past my ear with its high-pitched whine; a moment later it passed again. My mind still full of Heidegger, I glanced up at it, and wished that it would find its way to the window. As I did so, I had a distinct sense of my mind encountering the mosquito. It veered suddenly off its course and buzzed across the room to a closed window. My mind kept a firm grasp on it, and steered it across the room to the fan vent in the open window, and outside. (p. 88)

Austin's ability to generate psychic motion demonstrates a definite maturation of mental powers. Psychokinesis, how­ ever, marks only one step. Excitedly, Austin moves in another direction; he desires to map and correlate his new perceptions:

The business of mapping these mental realms was in a way more exciting and rewarding, for it brought a more exciting kind of control. My mind could now command prospects that were beyond anything I had dreamed of before. For example, I had always been bad at mathematics. Now, without the slightest effort, I grasped the theory of function, multidimensional geometry, quantum mechanics, game theory or group theory. (p. 93)

Although Austin's understanding and concentration im­prove rapidly and he sees with very little distortion, he still suffers depressions, inculcated by the parasites. Before he can progress to the highest level of perception, he must accept the fact that life is meaningful. Wilson, from his first novel, Ritual in the Dark to The Mind Parasites, creates characters who undergo a three-part develop­ment. Initially, the characters (the protagonists) exist as Outsiders, who perceive the world differently from most human beings. Next, after examining the world, watching the proceedings like spectators, the characters adopt a nihilistic attitude and suffer from spiritual dyspepsia. John A. Wiegel, in his critical work on Wilson, writes of Gerard Sorme, the protagonist of Ritual in Dark:

Gerard is one of Wilson's most sensitive Out­siders; and, as such he experiences "vastations" in which he doubts his own existence. He is also susceptible to fits of anger and deep depression. Once, when Gerard comes upon his up­stairs neighbor who is quite naked, he is startled to discover an impulse to kill the old man. It is apparent that Gerard's threshold of indifference is low; and Wilson is obviously preparing for significant psycho philosophical perceptions.8

These perceptions come in the third phase of the Outsider's development. In this phase the protagonists see that if they judge life to be useless, they must be using some criteria. In other words, if a man knows something is meaningless, he must possess knowledge of what is mean­ingful in order to judge. Once the characters accept the fact that life contains meaning, they initiate search for that meaning. Hugh Greene, in Wilson's novel The Violent World of Hugh Greene, summarizes this idea: But as I sat in front of the bus, traveling back into town, it came to me that there was an element I had left out of my calculations. If all men are futile, why had I been given a perception of futility? If all men are equally diseased, how had I managed to recognize, if not from an intuitive idea of health? 9

Hugh considers that his concept of health springs from some "ultimate truth." Austin, like Hugh, during a period of crisis, also feels the existence of "ultimate truth." Hugh's impression of an unknown power directs him to assume that life has meaning; so, too, does Austin's glimpse into his unconscious. This glimpse into the unknown eventually enables Austin to defeat the parasites.

Austin's life and death struggle with the parasites occurs on a night when he sits in his room making notes. Suddenly, he "feels" the "shivery" presence of the para­sites (p. 107). He understands, as he tries to deceive them by thinking about mathematics, that they are "watching" at a "deeper level of unconscious" than ever before. Finally, he falls asleep, and the parasites rush in and occupy his mind. To punish him, the parasites induce a feeling of nausea. This feeling parallels what Roquentin experiences in Sartre's novel Nausea. Under the malevolent influence of the parasites, Austin feels that life is meaningless:

Suddenly, abysses of emptiness were open be­neath my feet. It did not even produce fear; that ''culd be too human a reaction. It was like contact with an icy reality that makes everything human seem a masquerade, that makes life itself seem a masquerade. It seemed to strike at the heart of my life, something I had thought untouchable. (p. 113)

At the moment of defeat, the parasites withdraw, and during this respite, Austin obtains an insight which fills him with strength. This insight parallels the "intuitive idea of health" Hugh receives: Now a thought came that helped to turn the tide. It was this: that since these creatures had deliberately induced this feeling of total mean­inglessness, they must be in some way beyond it. As soon as this idea floated into mind, strength began to return. (p. 114)

Austin now sees that the absurdity of life is an illusion. Once he transcends his nihilistic world view and begins to perceive that "the mind ••• was a universe of its own," he grows rapidly; ultimately, contacting a force which he cannot identify. His contact with this force signifies his greatest change. Unable to name the force, he simply labels it as benevolent:

No doubt a religious man would have identified that force with God. For me, this was irrele­vant. I only knew that suddenly that I might have an unexpected ally in this fight•••As soon as it started, it spread like an atomic explosion. I was almost more afraid of it than of the parasites. Yet I also knew that this power was being released from myself. It was not really some "third force", outside me and the parasites. It was some great passive benevolence that I had contacted, something that had no power of action in itself, but which had to be approached and used. (p. 116)

Once Austin taps the vital life force his change is complete. He has not overthrown the parasites completely, but this action is just a matter of time. His perception now improves rapidly, and he moves outside the realm of ordinary perception into the world of extraordinary in­ sights. Austin marks the existence of the first superman; he signifies the direction of man's possible evolution.
He explains what has occurred:

I should try to make this point quite clear. If man had not been an "evolutionary animal", the parasites would have found a permanent host. There never would have been the faintest chance of man discovering their existence••• But a small percentage of the human race--about a twentieth, to be precise--are evolutionary ani­mals with a deep and powerful urge to become truly free. (p. 180)

Austin, with his genuine concern for freedom, obtains the ultimate in human perception. At the end he sees all, knows all. He metaphorically stands as an example of man's greatest potential. He represents the rope which stretches between "seeing" man and Superman. As Nietzsche writes, "man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss. 10

1. Colin Wilson, Voyage to Beginning: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Crown Publishing Inc., 1969). In this work Wilson traces, by subjectively studying his motivations and the sources of his major ideas, his philosophical development.

2  Colin Wilson, Strange Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 13.

3  Colin Wilson, The Mind Parasites (Oakland, Calif.: Oneiric Press, 1967), p. 82. Subsequent references are to this edition, and hereafter page numbers will be included in parentheses in the text.

4  Wilson, Voyage to Beginning, pp. 320-23.

5  Colin Wilson, The Outsider (New York: Delta Book, 1956), p. 294.

6  P. D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 12.

7 Wilson, The Outsider, p. 294. Wilson defines his term St. Neot Margin: "It is the recognition that man's moments of freedom tend to come under crisis or challenge, and that when things are going well, he tends to allowhis grip on life to slacken."

8  John A. Wiegel, Colin Wilson (Boston: Twayne Publisher, 1975),  p. 67.

9  Colin Wilson, The Violent World of Hugh Greene (Boston: Houghton M:lifflin Company, 1963), p. 217.

10 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 43.

Keith William Harvey
All Rights Reserved 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading Nathan Long's "Elfslayer

"Elfslayer" opens in Felix Jaeger's father's Altdorf mansion. After twenty years, Felix and Gotrek have returned to their starting point chronicled in William King's short story, "Geheimnisnacht."

Jaeger's father has a mission for his errant son. The old man is being blackmailed by a Marienburg pirate named Hans Euler and he wants his son to retrieve the incriminating papers. Felix balks at the assignment but he finally agrees to help his father. Meanwhile, Gotrek is down in the dumps, literally, drinking himself into a torpor. As we know from the previous novel "Manslayer," Gotrek missed the evil invasion of Archaon and his chance to face a daemon.

Long quickly alerts us that this novel will be a return to old haunts and a reunion with missing friends, allies, and enemies. It is also a novel replete with Longian themes--drowning, shipwrecks, imprisonment, feckless women, jealousy, bravery, and deception.

Before Felix and Gotrek leave Altdorf, they are attacked by unknown assailants. We soon learn that an old enemy has decided to seek revenge. With the assault, Gotrek begins to awaken from his stupor and the action begins. The two travel to Marienburg pursued by assassins to meet Euler. Felix discovers another enemy in Euler and the plot, as they say, thickens. Before Felix can resolve the problem with Euler, old allies arrive. The wizard Max Schreiber, accompanied by a sorceress and an Elf, offer Gotrek the opportunity to face his glorious end. Felix is torn between serving his father or honoring his oath to Gotrek to be present at his death. He, of course, chooses to stand with Gotrek and they set set off on a quest to save the Empire with Schreiber.

The relic they seek is also being sought by Dark Elves. The action then turns to the sea. From this point, Long engages in what I can only call a melange of Jules Verne steampunk and Sabatini swordplay. He brilliantly describes an underwater city, the Black Ark of the Dark Elves, and the horrors of Dark Elf magic and ritual.

Long has concocted a nightmarish stew of villains and seamlessly presented them to us in a Sabatini-like thriller. He is one of the best writers at the Black Library and I challenge you to find a clunky sentence in the 412 pages of the novel. He ties up all of the plot threads nicely by the end but, of course, he leaves enough plot hanging that we anticipate and yearn for the next chapter of the novel.

Without giving too much away, Long convincingly presents dwarves, skaven, and dark elves. Additionally, never before have we seen a black ark described in such sinister detail.

As you might guess I highly recommend the novel. Not only is it an exciting book but I would postulate that it takes the Gotrek franchise in a new direction. Although Long is a student of William King he is refining King's themes and characters. This observation brings me to the explanation of my title for this review.

The figure in the carpet, as Henry James would say, in this novel is the seesaw. When Felix is up, Gotrek is down and when Gotrek is up, Felix is down, literally. The only time Gotrek is animated is when the likelihood of death and mayhem is near; Felix appreciates the tranquil moments, which in a Gotrek & Felix novel, are very brief indeed. However, Gotrek is the dark submerged animator of the series. It is his strength and resolve that drives the action. Long is aware of this and he consciously builds on it and structures the plot around the "humors" of the two characters in a clear and convincing way.

Finally, if you like this novel, I would suggest Gav Thorpe's "Malekith," Graham McNeill's "Guardian of Ulthuan," William King's "Trollslayer" and "Skavenslayer," and Long's Blackheart Trilogy.

I might also add, that the novels of Sabatini--"Captain Blood" in particular--might also interest you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review of Pat Kelleher's "The Ironclad Prophecy"

In Issue 142 of Hub Magazine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading Harry Sidebottom's "King of Kings"

On February 10, 2011, I reviewed Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East (Overlook 2008). The story takes place in A.D. 255 during the dual reign of Valerian and Gallienus and concerns a siege of a city on the Euphrates called Arete. Arete is based on a real city, Dura-Europos, which was besieged by the Sassanid-Persians in AD 256, and which has been the subject of a great deal of research and excavation.The novel begins with Marcus Clodius Ballista, a former war leader of the Angles and now the Dux Ripae, appointed to defend Arete from the Sassanid and traveling by trireme to the east. As Ballista journeys from city to city, Sidebottom introduces us to the Roman world, its subjects and its enemies. The novel ends with Ballista fleeing the city after Christians betray the occupying and besieged Romans.

King of Kings (Penguin Books 2010), the second book of the series, continues the narrative from Ballista's escape and his flight across the Syrian desert. The prologue of the novel demonstrates Sidebottom's ability to tell a rollicking tale. However, as we enter the action of the second novel it becomes apparent that Sidebottom is writing a series, similar to Bernard Cromwell's Sharpe series, not a trilogy As a result, my expectations as a reader diminished. Writing a series is a marathon; and, as a result, the reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. The ride will usually consist of a a long narrative arc and a shorter, internal arc to be resolved in each novel. And so it is with King of Kings. The grand narrative arc in Sidebottom's series, entitled Warrior of Rome, involves the life of Ballista and his familia as they struggle in the East during the dual reign of Valerian and his son Gallienus. This arc consists of a mixture of fact and fiction;Ballista and family being the fictional aspects interacting with the history of Rome. In regard to factional accuracy and historical verisimilitude, Sidebottom is superb. As I ask in my earlier review: Has there ever been a man better trained to write a historical novel about Rome in A.D. 255 than Harry Sidebottom? He is a Fellow of St. Benet's Hall and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2004), and an avid student of historical novels.

The action of the second novel divides into three distinct stories with the overarching and nefarious dealings with the emperor Valerian and his aid, Macrianus, serving as the glue. First, Ballista is sent to relieve a siege on Circesium, only to be undermined by arrogant aristocrats who look down on the barbarian general. Second, returning to Antioch the Emperor sends Ballista to Ephesus to rid the city of the Christian atheists but Ballista finds persecuting Christians distasteful and fails. Third, in disgrace and demoted, Ballista accompanies the legions on an ill-fated battle against the Sassanids. Each section of the novel are well-researched and exciting.

In some ways, I found this novel better written than the first, although the three inter-connected stories detract from the continuity of the novel. In the first novel, shifting points-of-view disturbed me; and, although there are fewer abrupt breaks in this novel, the few sudden shifts of POV shatter the narrative spell. Nevertheless, Warrior of Rome is a strong series: well-researched and well-told. The fact that it is a series, however, creates certain logistical problems that distracts from the ultimate strength of the novel. But it is clear that Sidebottom wants to entertain and he accomplishes his goal.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reading Richard Williams' "Imperial Glory"

Richard Williams' Imperial Glory (Games Workshop Limited 2011)satisfies with its strong character development and slam-bang action sequences; however, the ride is rough and sometimes bumpy because of a disjointed plot structure that could have been easily remedied by focusing on a linear story-line at the beginning. An easy fix would have entailed either deleting late-development Ork-POV chapters or moving them to the beginning of the book. Nevertheless, because of the characters' roundness and depth and the thorough world-building, the plot flaws are soon forgotten or excused. Overall, Imperial Glory is a worthy entry into Black Library's Imperial Guard canon.

The novel chronicles the final battle of the last regiment of the Brimlock Dragoons and three of its members: Major Stanhope, a drug-addled survivor of his entire regiment's decimation, Lieutenant Carson, a swash-buckling duelist, and Private Blank, a man with no memory and no history. In addition, as with most Imperial Guard novels, there is a dozen secondary characters, comprised of the usual suspects: ambitious generals, cowardly officers, sergeants and medicaes. And, because this is a 40K novel, there are commissars, ogryns, Navy Pilots, orks, and cool equipment galore.

The structure of the novel seems to allude to Cy Enfield's brilliant military film Zulu(1964); Zulu chronicled the battle of Rorke's Drift (Ork's Rift), where the defense of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, under the command of Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, immediately followed the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. The allusion is furthered through the description of the Voor populace, Afrikaner-like farmers, who have colonized the planet and established a feeble toe-hold. An Ork spacecraft crash lands in the jungle and new orks arise from the spores of the dead creating the exciting force.

The 11th Brimlock is sent in to destroy the orks and remain on the planet, because, once a planet has been infected by ork spores, the threat of contagion is forever present. The pacification proceeds apace but a wild card enters the fray late and complicates the end game. It is this late complication and a flashback to a year before that throws off the rhythm of the novel; however, Williams overcomes the structural stumble and powerfully concludes the novel.

Williams is a strong writer who focuses on character but who also writes thrilling action sequences. His description of the rise of the orks from the crash of their spacecraft and the Imperial Guard's effort to squelch it is evocative and convincing.

For further reviews of Richard Williams' work see my review of his Reiksguard here:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reading Darius Hinks' "Warrior Priest"

Darius Hinks' Warrior Priest (Black Library 2010) is a well-written, well-paced novel set in the northern reaches of the Empire of the Old World. The Empire is once again under attack. This time a Chaos champion named Mormius leads a horde of chaos warriors south against the Imperial army generalled by the Iron Duke, Fabian Wolff. Fabian is the brother of Jakob, the eponymous Warrior priest, and their story and conflict provides the internal struggle and conflict of the novel, while the war supports the external conflict. This neat geometric pairing (brother against brother, chaos against order, North verses South, sanity verses insanity) is repeated throughout the novel, creating a well-balanced narrative, dependent on several point-of-view characters, juxtaposed against their polar opposites.

The narrative begins with Mormius, a beautiful and cruel Chaos champion gathering his troops for another attack. Mormius is on a collision course with the Iron Duke. The story then shifts to a small village where a fanatic witch hunter is about to burn a sister of Shallya at the stake. Enter the Warrior Priest, Jakob Wolff, not to save the sister but to avenge himself on the witch hunter, Otto Sürman. Sürman and his conflict with the Wolff brothers acts as the exciting force that propels the narrative.

Hinks competently uses multiple points of view and flashbacks to tell an intimate tale of the Old World that touches on most of the emblematic themes and symbols (fluff)of the Gothic series. He expertly handles both battles and intimate encounters, while creating well-rounded, full bodied characters. Although Jakob Wolff represents order, Hinks seems to have a real understanding (or sympathy) of Chaos. His descriptions of daemons, demons, and marauders are vibrant and memorable; whereas his descriptions of some of the more egregious fanatics of the Empire border on either contempt or ridicule. As an aside, it is this balance between chaos and order and the richness of the intellectual property that makes the Black Library novels so satisfying.

Warrior Priest is a worthy entry in the Empire Army series; an outstanding first outing from Darius Hinks.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reading Fred Vargas' "The Chalk Circle Man"

The first line of Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man (Penguin 1996)presents us with a shock and ultimately a lie. Mathilde Forestier is writing in her diary about a handsome man standing too close to her at a bar. To her, he is a stranger or is he? So begins a novel--a Le Rompol-- a French police procedural, featuring Commissaire Adamsberg, one of the stranger literary detectives in a genre populated by bizarre detectives. Adamsberg intuits rather than deduces; he is no Sherlock Holmes. Feelings predominate, which causes consternation among his fellow police officers.

The novel moves beyond Mathilde Forestier's meeting with the man in the bar to Adamsberg's appointment as Commissaire of the 5th arrondissement in Paris and his investigation of the death of a textile merchant, murdered in his own warehouse. While other officers use scientific methods, Adamsberg sits and doodles on a pad or the wall, whatever is convenient, and allows the impressions of the case to flow over him. If someone asks him what he thinks, he cannot respond, because he doesn't know; instead, he expresses what he feels and, in this case, he feels that someone harbors a very personal grudge against the deceased. So while the other policemen interview disgruntled clients, Adamsberg keeps an eye on the dead man's stepson, "Patrice Vernoux, a fine-featured, romantic looking young man of twenty-three." He watches the young man until he knows and then he assigns his favorite officer Adrien Danglard, "a man who dressed impeccably in order to compensate for his unprepossessing looks and pear-shaped figure" to bring the young man in and question him. Danglard is logical and does not see a connection between the young man and the murderer; besides, the young man has an alibi, his fiance vouches for his whereabouts. But, of course, this mystery is just the appetizer, a more bizarre tale awaits us. This murder simply introduces Adamsberg and his team.

For four months prior to the resolution of the warehouse murder, Adamsberg has been following newspaper reports of chalk circles appearing throughout Paris. Each circle contains an item of some sort and the populace has become obsessed with their semiotic significance. Adamsberg believes the circles mean one thing--trouble-- and he begins to think about them, trying to anticipate their pattern. Soon he is proven right again when a female corpse, almost beheaded, is found in a chalk circle. Now the game is afoot and Adamsberg works quickly before the next body appears.

Vargas' novel is claustrophobic, dreamlike, and romantic. As Jeanne Guyon writes: Fred Vargas a inventé un genre romanesque qui n’appartient qu’à elle : le Rompol. Objet essentiellement poétique, il n’est pas noir mais nocturne, c’est-à-dire qu’il plonge le lecteur dans le monde onirique de ces nuits d’enfance où l’on joue à se faire peur, mais de façon ô combien grave et sérieuse, car le pouvoir donné à l’imaginaire libéré est total. C’est cette liberté de ton, cette capacité à retrouver la grâce fragile de nos émotions primordiales, cette alchimie verbale qui secoue la pesanteur du réel, qui sont la marque d’une romancière à la voix unique dans le polar d’aujourd’hui. Les personnages qui peuplent ses livres sont aussi anarchistes et lunaires que savants. Qu’ils soient férus d’Antiquité ou océanographes, le regard qu’ils posent sur le monde combat le conformisme et l’ordre établi avec pour arme la fantaisie et l’humour. To quickly paraphrase Guyon, Vargas' novel plunges the reader into a dreamworld, a world where children like to go (imagine) in order to scare themselves but also a world that is sober and serious.

The Chalk Circle Man surprised me. Several times I thought I had figured the mystery out and then was proven wrong, even though Vargas dropped the clues early. All in all a very satisfying novel with a very unique and appealing detective. But as I said above, it is claustrophobic, closed-in on itself, unrealistic in the sense that no police officer would work as Adamsberg does, but, of course, that is not the point. Ultimately, Vargas wants to talk about character not procedure. Hers is a novel of mood and dream, desire and romance.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Train"

A La Ciudad story, "The Train," appears in Issue 141 of @Hub Magazine.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reading Tim Akers' "The Heart of Veridon"

Tim Akers' The Heart of Veridon ( Solaris 2009) is a mix of fantasy, noir, science fiction, and punk; a novel situated in a strange and unique world, told in the first person, by a cog-works creature named Jacob Burn, whose claim to fame initially is that he has crashed in not one but two zepliners and lived to tell the tale. Burn, an ex-pilot, a graduate of the Academy, works as an enforcer for a shady crime syndicate and is personally managed by a beautiful hooker named Emily, who may or not be a double agent. The novel begins en medias res; a zepliner is in flames and falls into the Reine, a river of some importance, inhabited by unique creatures, the Fehn. The Fehn, although not fully described, are important to the plot, because they, along with the anansi, are indigenous to the world and provide the novel with some of its internal weirdness, especially when juxtaposed against the humans, who seem to be relatively newcomers to the world.

These comparisons and conclusions are not clear because we learn of things through conversation. Uncertainty, however, is not detrimental to the novel's plot or success; instead, I would argue it is one of the novel's strengths: Akers builds his universe slowly, parceling out details of his weird world incrementally, along with the development of the plot. His stylistic choice works because it is consistent with its noir antecedents. The plot takes its energy and impetus from the novels of Hammett and Chandler and first person point-of-view. The result is that these choices create both tension and expectation. Imagine, a half-man, half machine Marlowe in a weird, fantastic world conducting one of his convoluted investigations. And, consistent with noir, further imagine our (somewhat unreliable) narrator wise-cracking and skylarking his way through a brutal and dangerous plot that involves a conflict between two religions and a marauding cogs-work angel. It is this religious struggle that provides the plot's internal complexity and intimates a rich, created world, not yet fully disclosed and the existence of some more serious themes that are not immediately apparent.

First, like Matthew Hughes's The Damned Busters(Angry Robot Books 2011) that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, The Heart of Veridon foregrounds religion. In Akers' novel, two religions, diametrically opposed to each other, vie for control of the city. Within the conflict, technology plays a major role, transforming men into machines. Second, Jacob Burn is an outcast from his class and his family; a member of the aristocracy who works with the criminal element of the city. A father/son conflict is obvious, which adds a further complexity to the novel. Third, there is a game-like quality to the novel. Like a game, part of the pleasure of the plot arises from the ability to explore, to discover new and unique wonders. One of the major plot devices is the discovery of a map, which illuminates another sector of the unknown world and promises further discoveries, new creatures, and more weirdness. Fourth, like most new weird, the city, its structure and its politics function as theme. Veridon is not only socially nuanced and class-burdened, it is virtually multi-layered. Throughout the story we travel from the sewers to the Tower, meeting different types of citizens and creatures. The polis theme complements the game-theme and situates the novel squarely within the sub-genre of new weird.

Heart of Veridon is a controlled work: consistent in theme, voice, and tone. Akers does not overreach himself; he holds back, saving more surprises for further books. Nevertheless, this novel stands on its own. All and all it is a very entertaining read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reading Nathan Long's "Bloodborn" and "Bloodforged"

Ulrika Magdova, a young Kislevite noble woman, first appeared in William King’s Daemonslayer (Games Workshop 2003), and should be familiar to all readers of the Gotrek and Felix novels. Alive, she is brave, beautiful, and maddening, especially for Felix. In death, she is still brave and beautiful but now also ruthless and deadly.

Nathan Long, creator of the Black Hearts trilogy, sets the first novel of this new Vampire series for Black Library a few weeks after the action of William King’s Vampireslayer (Games Workshop 2004). Ulrika’s abductor, Adolphus Krieger, dies at the hands of Snorri Nosebiter, and Ulrika, a fledgling vampire, tormented by an insatiable hunger and under the control of Gabriella, her mistress (figurative mother), is deserted by her friends. Gotrek and Felix, knowing they cannot help her, leave, as she struggles to come to grips with her destiny.

Bloodborn (Games Workshop 2010) and Bloodforged (Games Workshop 2011)are the first two volumes of a Bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel. But this theme is just one aspect of the multi-layered plot. Long has shown himself to be adept at genre fiction and has melded several forms into this novel to great success. On one level it is a vampire story but on another it is the story of a young woman deserted by her friends, who must learn how to live in an alien culture and environment. On another, it is a truly suspenseful detective story accompanied by horror tropes.

In keeping with the idea of the Bildungsroman in Bloodborn, Ulrika is reborn both literally and figuratively. And as a newborn (born of blood), she is, in every sense of the word, a child. At times she is petulant, demanding, selfish, reckless, and stubborn; and, throughout, her mistress, Gabriella, like a stern mother, has to rein her in and instruct her to focus and be disciplined and sensible. In that regard, Long accomplishes the near impossible; he creates an action novel, a swashbuckler, that both demonstrates a feminine voice and churns out a healthy dose of mayhem and action, while clearly delineating the birthing pains of a newborn vampire.

Irrespective of its vampire setting or the fact it operates as a Bildungsroman, the novel ultimately succeeds as a mystery set in a horrific Gothic environment, where sword and sorcery rule the day. Ulrika and Gabriella are sent to the city of Nuln to investigate the very public and brutal murders of several vampires. The exposure of vampires in the midst of the city sets off panic in the streets and Long minutely describes the city and its inhabitants’ fears as well as their brutalities as days pass and the number of corpses increases. He also describes the social castes of the city and the various organizations that run it as well as the empire. Witch hunters follow the vampires and ghouls spring from the cemeteries. Long even sends his characters into the famous sewers of Nuln, the home of the skaven, to ferret out clues.

In Bloodforged, Long moves the action from Nuln to Praag, Ulrika's starting point. Like a petulant teenager now, she rebels against her Lahmian mother, Gabriella, and heads north, vowing to use her supra-human strength to fight the creatures of the Ruinous Powers. Her goal is to be a Vampire avenger, protecting the weaker humans, who she feels a closer affinity to than the vampires that now control and protect her. When she strikes out for home, she is seeking freedom, family, and friendship.

At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Long brilliantly captures the anger and frustration of a young vampire (teenager), showing her virtually tearing apart her safe home in Nuln in a youthful rage and fleeing her sisters for her human home in Praag. Once there she makes contact with Snorri Nosebiter and discovers that Gotrek and Felix have disappeared. She also tracks down Max Schreiber, an ex-lover, only to discover that he is has taken another lover. This discovery results in unnatural paroxysm of jealousy, which demonstrates Ulrika's immaturity. "Quivers of rage made Ulrika's arms shake, and her claws dug deep into the bark of her branch. A growl started low in throat and she crouched forward like a hunting cat. How dare he take another lover!" (Bloodborn p.111)

Without friends and family, Ulrika, now truly alone, takes up residence in an abandoned and ruined bakery; however, because of her self-imposed rule--she can only feed on villains--she finds herself hungry most of the time. When she sees some abusive men, running a protections racket, rob a poor blind singer she quickly acts to avenge the wrong. However, in a scene, somewhat reminiscent of Aragorn's meeting with the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, she is seen by another vampire, a handsome and dashing male. This moment--this discovery by a male--acts as the exciting point of the story's main plot lines: the life and death struggle between the van Carstein vampires and the Lahmians, Ulrika's inability to tell friend from foe, Ulrika's acceptance that she is a vampire and no longer human, and Ulrika's sexual awakening.

Both Bloodborn and Bloodforged are exciting reads: well-plotted, with fully-developed characters. Mr. Long carefully charts out and illustrates a definite movement in Ulrika's character; she matures (very, very slowly) from a child-like creature in the first novel to a figurative teenager in the second. However, the novels stay true to their roots: they are rollicking adventure tales that roll along a fair clip like the Saturday morning serials I watched at the theaters when I was a kid, never really pausing to examine the psychological manifestations that occur simultaneously with the full-throttle action of their full-bodied (and charismatic) protagonist. This is because Mr. Long has demonstrated over and over again that he is the master of what he calls sabrepunk; that is, an adventure tale similar to those written by Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Alexander Dumas, and Raphael Sabatini. To quote Mr. Long's own definition: "Sabrepunk is swashbuckling, street-wise sword and sorcery that draws from low fantasy, hard-boiled pulp, cloak-and-dagger thrillers, and old-fashioned romantic adventure. It is visceral and immediate. It is crude and sly. It is red and black and break-neck. The doings of sorcerers and kings may spark the action, but rarely are they the story themselves. Instead, the tales are of hard men and dangerous women whose lives are mauled by the whims of the powerful, and who must therefore draw swords and fight in order to survive. There are heroes here, but no saints."

Finally, I want to comment on the vampire as meme, which ultimately complicates Mr. Long's job. A vampire by definition is an evil predator that feeds on human beings. Once a writer decides to make one of these beings his/her protagonist, he/she must twist the genre into a virtual pretzel of contra-factual implausibilities. Mr. Long has come up with a nifty solution: Ulrika doesn't really identify with her "family"; she does not yet realize (she knows it but doesn't quite believe it) she is dead. He then uses this devise to form the main psychological thread of his Bildungsroman, which adds depth and weight to this genre fiction.