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.