Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading C. J. Cherryh's "Foreigner"

Most of the science fiction I have been reading lately is disguised fantasy. The science, when there is science, is make-believe or wishful thinking. Space ships travel millions of miles in short-time increments. Human beings do not suffer the exigencies of space: radiation, bone loss, muscle deterioration. Instead, ships slip into voids, find worm holes, penetrate folds, and pop out somewhere on the other side of the universe. On their voyage, they discover ring worlds or a helix fit for human habitation, where they encounter ancient astronauts similar to ourselves but usually angry, psychotic, and definitely hostile.

This science fiction sans science is couched in modern adventure tropes: mystery in space, western in space, thriller in space, morality tale in space, religious allegory in space, political thriller in space. The true hard science novel is rare and can be boring to some. However, there are some novelists that take the science-based tale and surprise us with an interesting and an arresting story. C. J. Cherryh is one such writer.

I started reading Cherryh in the seventies. Her first novel appeared when I was teaching a course on science fiction at a mid-western university. My syllabus consisted of novels from the giants at the time: Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Herbert, Miller, Sturgeon, and Vonnegut. The first novel of hers  I read was The Faded Sun: Kesrith (DAW1977) and I immediately thought she was equal to the giants.  

The Faded Sun trilogy made such an impression on me that I often direct readers to it today. Her precise world building and the psychology of the characters impress me and fool me into thinking I am learning something even if it is only made-up anthropology. Like Le Guin her aliens live and breathe: think, plot and plan within the logical confines of their alien psychology and the basic rules of physics. She truly leads the reader to a suspension of his or her disbelief.

So lately, after reading a rasher of fantasy and a box  of modern science fiction, I decided to return to Cherryh to see if she was as good as I remembered. I had not read her since the Chanur novels of the 80s and I chose Foreigner (DAW 1994) simply because I had a copy of it mouldering on my bookshelf. But I was immediately charmed by what appears on the surface to be a dense story of first encounter between humans and an alien race known as the atevi. I say "dense" because Cherryh employs an opaque prose style. She uses a very limited third-person point of view that methodically and slowly reveals through repetition the internal ruminations of her protagonist, Bren Cameron.

Cameron is a paidhi, the only human interpreter and diplomat sent to live with atevi, the sentient humanoids that inhabit the world the humans call, Down. Because dropping down is what they did. They fell to Down in drop-ships without any way to return to the space station they constructed over the planet before their ship, the Phoenix, left them to explore the new universe they had discovered.

The novel begins with a crisis two hundred years after the first humans fell to Down: Cameron is marked for legal assassination by one of the planet's many atevi factions. And when he uses an illegal weapon given to him by his patron, the aiji, of the central association, Bren is swept up into a convoluted and murky political plot. Protected by his bodyguards, Banichi and Jago, he travels into the heart of the country and experiences the true mystery and history of the world.

The narrative structure of the novel is slight with only three or four dominant set scenes. On one level it is game-like but the games it resembles are chess and Civilization not Doom or Starcraft. However, the real thrust of the novel is in the interplay between Bren and the millions of aliens that surround him. Through his ruminations the reader is slowly drawn into the atevi world, where mathematics rule all aspects of life and legal assassins operate in the bright sunlight of the planet.

I highly recommend this book, which as it turns out is the first book in a long running series. (She is currently working on the fifteen volume).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading Eric Brown's "Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula"

Abaddon Books has begun a new series, created by Eric Brown, entitled Weird Space, with the first novel--The Devil's Nebula (Abaddon Books 2012)--written by Brown himself. It's a space opera with horror elements and I predict it will be one of Abaddon's most successful franchises for two reasons: (1) Eric Brown is at the wheel; his fertile imagination has already produced some interesting and unusual takes on a well-worn genre: Kéthani (Solaris 2008) and Kings of Eternity (Solaris 2011), as well as more straight forward space opera; and (2) because within this novel Brown has either employed or alluded to all of the major themes and tropes of both classic science fiction (space opera) and space horror through his mixture of Buck Rogers-like adventure and Lovecraftian terror.  

Nebula, unlike Kéthani and Kings of Eternity, falls into the Niven/Vance camp of science fiction and shares similarities and themes with Brown's Bengal Station Trilogy. Although the similarities with other science fiction franchises also seem apparent--Warhammer 40 K, Star Wars, and Star Trek--Abaddon's proclivity toward genre mash-ups, their brilliant editing, and Brown's deft touch make the Weird series feel unique.

The novel at first blush employs well-known tropes and situations: older man with a past commands a spaceship involved in various forms of illegal activity;  young  woman, athletic and lonely, has secret crush on older man; somewhat erratic and cowardly engineer makes up a third in the Trio; crashed space ships (several) with no sign of the inhabitants (mystery and horror); fascistic government; spies and hidden agendas; deserted worlds with evidence of lost civilizations; and, of course, monsters in space. Even the back story feels familiar: The Expansion, a megalithic authoritarian empire consisting of human colonists, continues to grow and colonize planets until it runs afoul of the Vetch; also a growing empire of warlike humanoids.Other worlds and other aliens are either colonized or destroyed by the emerging forces. While humans and Vetch vie for dominance in the same dimension, other dimensions populated by the horrific creatures, the Weird, monstrous creatures hungry for experience and knowledge, collide with human space and open portals.

Even though the tropes and the back story are familiar, the novel feels fresh. I think one reason for this is the deft way in which Brown handles his materials: his novels tend to unwind rather than follow some movie-like script and the characters act naturally in unnatural settings. Another reason is the fact that fusion (genre mash-up) invigorates well-worn tropes: space men sucked through a tentacle to a Tarzan-like habitat at the top of giant trees is fun and unique.

To provide maximum fusion (mash-up), I imagine Brown and Abaddon intended to provide a wide platform in which to both utilize and develop familiar tropes. In that respect, knowing this was the beginning of a series, I jotted down just a few possible ideas: Vetch verses Human in military-science fiction; Vetch verses Weird in a Predator-verses-Alien story; individuals battling Weird in Lovecraftian horror tales; humans infected with the Weird rebel against the Expansion; Vetch join Human against Weird; Humans use Weird against Vetch; Human crashes on Vetch world and must survive; spies and rebels carry on clandestine operations on worlds infected by the Weird. Permutations seem infinite. I even imagined a domestic horror like The Shining: one mate infected, the other not, both trapped in a secluded location.

Approaching the novel in this way--as a generative rhetoric--illustrates its game-like quality; however, for the series to succeed and grow, novels with well-developed characters and interesting stories must enflesh it. The Devil's Nebula begins that process and I believe succeeds as both an entertaining space opera/horror (romance) and as a precursor to a larger series.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Pat Kelleher's "No Man's World: The Alleyman" and Defending the Portal Novel

Pat Kelleher returns this month with the third volume of his No Man's World series: The Alleyman (Abaddon 2012). For those unfamiliar with the series:I refer you to my reviews of The Black Hand Gang (Abaddon 2010), for Red Rook Review here, and The Ironclad Prophecy (Abaddon 2011), for Hub Magazine here. As you can plainly see, I love Kelleher's heady melange of alternate military history, Edwardian portal novel, death world adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His intentional genre mishmash makes his novels irresistible. 

The Alleyman
(Abaddon 2012) picks up from where The Ironclad Prophecy ended. Four months have passed since Jeffries, the magus, concocted some spell to transfer a large portion of the Somme battlefield to an unknown world, along with an entire battalion of British infantry, the Pennine Fusiliers, a British tank and its crew, a pilot and his plane, and a hand full of nurses. As you can readily see the cast of the series is large and at the beginning of The Alleyman, they are spread over the map of the death world. A large cast and a gigantic created-world present their own peculiar problems to an extended narrative. I faithfully follow a few series: Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files,  Simon Scarrow's Cato and Macro, the Black Library's Gotrek and Felix, George R.R. Martin's  A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome, and now Abaddon's No Man World. And I have noticed that each one shares a common problem: as the narrative extends in length and complexity, the author must find a way to bring the reader along and remind him or her of all that has come before. They usually accomplish this through dialogue as they situate their characters on the stage. Some simply present a data dump, while others spread the summary through the novel . No matter, the solution always results in a slower beginning and so it is in The Alleyman. But be patient; writing a series is a marathon. The reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. 

The initial scenes of the novel find the fusiliers recovering from a series of disasters: a vicious attack by the local chatts, sentient insectoid creatures that dominate the world, the loss of the tank,
Ivanhoe, in a gigantic crater, the escape of Jeffries, and the discovery of a bizarre metallic wall.  The men are tired, disillusioned, wounded, and angry. So to complicate matters, they mutiny. Lieutenant Everson deals with the mutiny and then turns to his other tasks: the recovery of the tank, the return of a chatt priest to its people in a bid for peace, and the capture of Jeffries. These three problems form the the major prongs of the plot.

And the novel is highly plot driven with a Saturday morning serial vibe. It's pulp trappings (a la Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard) should not dissuade the reader though. Kelleher is a strong writer with a thorough knowledge of World War I; he has  created a multi-level, nuanced death world populated by a plethora of unique creatures, well-rounded Edwardian soldiers, and two indigenous species with their own religions and civilizations. Additionally, as an Abaddon series, Kelleher has also created so many mysteries that it will take a bakers' dozen novels to fully explore them. I will give you just one example of one of his cast-off mysteries: in the first volume, the magus, Jeffries, finds in the chatt city a Roman coin, a denarius, that immediately alerts the reader that throughout time other peoples, besides the Roanoke colonists and the Pennine Fusiliers, have been drawn to the world. Maybe even the chatts are aliens to the world?  And then there is the world itself? With the discovery of the metallic wall and the existence of an underworld, I wonder about its substance and origin.

, The Alleyman introduces new characters and monsters, propels the plot forward, uncovers new mysteries, employs horror motifs (zombie-like creatures appear), and ushers us to the brink of a new chapter in the series.

As an aside, there has been a lot written lately about the death of the portal novel; most recently Rachel Manija in her
Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace  discusses agents' and publishers' distaste for the portal fantasy:  They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world. 

Let's get something straight: the portal novel has been a staple in fantasy and science fiction since the beginning. C. S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Stephen R. Donaldson, among others, have employed the portal novel to transport us from the here and now to the other. There is even an argument that both J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are portal novels.Think about it: Hobbits living safely in the Shire through the machinations of wizards are propelled into a larger more dangerous world. See Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan 2008).  

Portal novels are a rhetorical convention that take the reader from the real to the fantastic. If the characters are well-rounded and the story of their plight compelling we care about them. As to the agent's statement that the story is about the fantasy world, my response is so what. More importantly, MMORPGs have shown us that people like to be transported to other worlds. They enjoy exploring and facing new creatures. In fact,
No Man's World demonstrates a definite game-like quality: one of the pleasures of reading Kelleher is encountering new creatures,  plants, or viruses. The book's biological richness and diversity of the death world plus the attractive characters make the series a delight.

No Man's World fulfills what I suspect is Abaddon's brief: create an exciting, well-written fiction that blends various fantasy memes, motifs, and metaphors into a highly readable narrative.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reading Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs"

Thomas Abbey, a schoolteacher, who says he doesn't know what a gerund is, decides to quit teaching and write a biography of his favorite writer, Marshall France, a writer of children's tales, who died at forty-four. France is his obsession and this obsession forms the impetus of the novel, Carroll's first, published in 1980.

Obsession, by a reader, for a writer is a prevalent device in modern literature. Recent examples include Roberto Bolano's 2666 and Lev Grossman's The Magicians. However, in this novel, obsession and writing combine to create a fantasy world, where the artist is the creator and the puppet-master. In fact, puppets and manipulation are major tropes in the work, where France, the demi-urge, created and orchestrated not only the fictional lives of his creations but even the citizens of his hometown of Galen, Missouri.

The novel begins with Abbey's finding a rare copy of France's The Green Dog's Sorrow.  However, the fly in the ointment is that someone else has already purchased the book, placed it on hold until she can raise the requisite cash. Thus begins the meeting of Saxony Gardner and Thomas Abbey and the first steps of the incredible tale of The Land of Laughs.

Saxony collects and carves marionettes and reads the novels of Marshall France; whereas, Abbey collects masks and reads Marshall France. He is also the son of the very famous actor, Stephen Abbey, who died in a tragic airplane crash. Soon after their meeting, it becomes apparent that Thomas needs Saxony's ability as a researcher and editor and she needs his creative ability, his power to create descriptions that bring the subject alive. Together, they leave their home in Connecticut and drive cross country to Galen, Missouri. During the trip they fall in love.

Carroll's description of their romance is very realistic; and, although Thomas is a bit of "dick," I found the scenes between Sax and Thomas believable and realistic. This was made more poignant to me because I had just finished reading three novels by Douglas Kennedy and two by Jim Butcher, who both seem incapable of writing a believable love scene.

Once the two reach Galen, realty begins to immediately warp into a world, less than real, a world perhaps more literary than literal. Galen seems to be ruled by Anna France, Marshall's daughter, who unexpectedly takes a real interest in Thomas. She accepts him as her father's potential biographer and sets a task for him to complete: write the first chapter of the biography.

Carroll's novel, although surreal, seems based on reality. Part of this stems from his use of the first person. Somewhat like Borges, the weirder things become the more realistic and prosaic the language.Ultimately, The Land of Laughs is meta-fiction. It is a book about writing and the creative process. It is also a book about readers, who even after the death of their favorite authors, continue to generate creative energy that enlivens the works and characters of their beloved stories. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reading Douglas Kennedy's "The Moment" and "The Woman in the Fifth"

Douglas Kennedy in The Woman in the Fifth (Atria Paperback 2007) and The Moment (Atria Paperback 2011) demonstrates some of his strongest themes, tropes, and peculiarities in two books that are seemingly very different and yet, at the same time, strangely similar. Both stories are told in the first person; both books concern men experiencing failed relationships with cold, decisive women; both men flee to Europe to hide from their problems and re-invent themselves through writing; both texts are ultimately perceived by the reader as the very text that the novelist/protagonist is writing, resulting in a self-reflexive modernist experiment; both novels are melodramatic in the same way that a Douglas Sirk film is melodramatic; both novels contain exuberant, somewhat Technicolor-like descriptions; both novels are explicitly sexual to the point of almost being  embarrassing; both novels rely of the quotidian to form the foundation of the tawdry events that follow; both novels possess unlikeable and weak-willed male protagonists; and, as a result, both novels seem like cleverly concealed roman à clefs, but are probably not; and, ultimately, both novels are very readable, full of suspense, narrative-driven, although the characters are well-defined and believable, and emotionally manipulative.

The protagonist of The Woman in the Fifth is Harry Ricks, a professor of film at an Ohio university, who flees a domestic disaster to Paris, where he intends to write a novel and look for work. He escapes with all his worldly goods, which amount to a few thousand dollars, and lands in a Paris hotel, sick with the flu. One employee of the hotel takes advantage of him and slowly siphons off most of his money, while another helps him to find a cheap chambre de bonne in a sleazy quartier inhabited by immigrants. Rick's plight worsens with every step he takes until he descends into a dangerous underworld of Turkish mobsters. However, his luck (or destiny) changes when he meets a strange woman at a weekly salon held by an American expatriate. Suddenly, he experiences a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt of attraction. This thunderbolt is a common experience in  the novels of Douglas Kennedy. It usually signals a passionate relationship destined to lead to tragedy and heartbreak. Kennedy is too much of a pro to say it but I suspect he is suspicious of what Goethe called the "elective affinity," "an indescribable, almost magical force of attraction." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1971), 286. The turn of the screw in The Woman in the Fifth is that Harry Ricks is haunted, both literally and figuratively, and his coup de foudre with its attendant madness leads to an existential trap. No one in the love affairs of Douglas Kennedy escape unscathed.

In The Moment, Thomas Nesbitt, a travel writer in Maine is going through a nasty divorce from a successful woman, who he never really loved. After a half-hearted suicide attempt on a cross-country ski trail in Quebec, he reflects on the past, when he receives a package from Berlin. The novel then consists of one story told through two first-person narratives: one narrated by Nesbitt ( the novel we are reading) and the other by Petra in epistolary form. Once again, we have the coup de foudre. Nesbitt meets Petra, a political pawn expelled from East Germany by the Stasi, in Berlin several years before the fall of the wall. They fall madly in love, while working for a CIA-funded radio station, but it is Berlin, during the cold war, and Petra has too many secrets for this story to end well.

Both novels are well written, replete with full-bodied characters, and a rich array of local color. Kennedy started out as a travel writer and his attention to the detail of place is precise and complete. As he said in an interview on French TV, my locations are also characters.

Kennedy is a throwback to an earlier time: his books are page-turners. And, although both novels could be classified as genre: The Moment, as thriller or spy novel; The Woman in the Fifth, as horror or urban fantasy. They ultimately are melodramas in the sense of a film by Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbender. And it is their emotional wallop that causes you to stay up past midnight to finish them.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reading Mark Teppo's "Lightbreaker"

Mark Teppo's novel, Lightbreaker: The First Book of the Codex of Souls (Night Shade Books 2009), is an occult thriller and a novel of ideas in the same vein as Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (Jeremy P. Tarcher 1989).  And although its cover--sexy, athletic man, accompanied by equally sexy young woman--is similar to the covers of most modern urban fantasies dominating the shelves of the science fiction/fantasy section these days, the novel does not fit comfortably within that ilk. Rather, it could be re-shelved with the metaphysical fiction, if the bookstore actually had such a category.

Michael Markham, the protagonist, is not anything like Harry Dresden, Felix Castor, or Atticus O’Sullivan; instead, he is like the first figure of the Tarot--the Fool, who appears anywhere in the pack where a difficult transition is imminent. And like the Fool, Markham is on a journey, a journey up the Tree of Life. However, when the novel begins, woefully, I might add, en medias res, Markham journeys in the opposite direction, following not the progression set forth in the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah but in the opposite direction, along the path of the qlipothic tree, the steps that stand in opposition of the sephiroth.

His journey, fueled by anger, darkness and revenge, has led him to Seattle, the place where the odyssey began. So, when the novel opens, the reader suspects, but doesn't really know, that much has happened in Markham's past. However, this past  fuels or excites the current action. Imagine, this back-story, this weighty narrative, contained in the Fool's sack, slung over the Fool's shoulder as an extremely heavy load; its sheer weigh a tangible presence that informs through its hidden-ness that there is much more here than meets the eye.

Teppo divides the book into five "works;" each work different in tone than the other. The novel opens with a realistic, and quite exciting, chase through the woods of an island near Seattle. A disembodied soul has commandeered the body of a deer that springs in front of Markham's car. "The light leaking from the animal was a spiritual overflow, a profusion of energy not meant to be contained in the deer's simple meat sack. The possession of an other. A human spirit." (Lightbreaker, p. 3). Here is the first trope of the novel: souls can be separated from the physical body. Etheric travel in the form of the subtle body is possible. The subtle body, an ethereal creation, is another trope, which I suspect in this novel relies upon Aleister Crowley's version of the concept. Crowley names it the Body of Light: One passes through the veil of the exterior world (which, as in Yoga, but in another sense, becomes "unreal" by comparison as one passes beyond) one creates a subtle body (instrument is a better term) called the body of Light; this one develops and controls; it gains new powers as one progresses, usually by means of what is called "initiation:" finally, one carries on almost one's whole life in this Body of Light, and achieves in its own way the mastery of the Universe.

The deer's appearance, although unsought and surprising, contains elements of synchronicity: Markham is on the island, returning basically to the scene of a crime or injury that occurred many years before; and connected to his return is the spirit, who carries a magical scent that emanated from the same woman, who wounded Markham during a magical ritual gone wrong. The past informs the present and Markham's presence on the island at this time is certainly fated, maybe even woven into the fabric by one of the Watchers.

The Watchers, members of a secret society, an offshoot of the Knights Templar, play an integral role in the novel. Called Watchers, and sometimes "travelers," they are magi or magicians, who not only observe but also strive to keep the occult hidden.The members of La Société Lumineuse were Witnessses, True Seeing observers whose focus was the preservation of magickal knowledge.(Lightbreaker p. 33) Ultimately, it becomes clear that Markham is fated to be in Seattle at this time and place: symbolized by the the Tarot card, the Tower, an imminent transition is in the offing for the fool .

By the Fifth Work the action has become apocalyptic, bombastic, and confusing. So many occult threads run through the novel at this point that the meaning becomes muddied and one doesn't know which tradition to use to distill meaning. Taking a hint from the narrator's allusions to arcane knowledge, I chose Crowley's take on Magick and interpret the novel as a spiritual re-boot: at the beginning, Markam journeys toward darkness and evil, but, by the finale he undergoes a physical and mental reconstruction and is reborn a follower of the light.

In one way the novel could be read as a metaphorical dramatization of the alchemical coniunctio, whereby a spiritual marriage has occurred leading toward the archetype of the Self. In other words, the conuinctio is the combination of soul-spirit-body with the unus mundus. The unus mundus is the potential world of the first day of creation when nothing existed in actu, that is in Two or multiplicity, but only of One. It is an entrance into unity, where one experiences everything as one. In other words, Markham's conuinctio is the beginning of his consciousness: the end of the beginning.

Lightbreaker is disguised as a modern urban fantasy, utilizing the usual tropes; however, it is really a metaphysical novel that dramatizes the Fool's journey toward enlightenment and as such it could be seen as as psychological Bildungsroman. Its appeal arises partially from its occult underpinnings and Teppo's extensive knowledge of the occult.

It is also served by some very good writing. I was particularly taken with an early fight scene on a ferry. I have spent some time, traveling between Vancouver and Victoria, and I felt those scenes keenly realized.

Lightbreaker is not a romp like a Dresden novel; instead, it demands attention. This is not to say that there are not elements of adventure; there are. But if you want to really understand its psychological underpinnings and design, it's going to require a concentrated reading. Although I suppose you could bask in the pyrotechnics and disregard the undertow of arcane themes, because they, too, abound.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Ulrika Trilogy Ends

Ulrika Magdova, heroine of Nathan Long's Vampire Trilogy, 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.

The trilogy is now complete and ready for a summing up. Bloodborn (Games Workshop 2010), Bloodforged (Games Workshop 2011), and Bloodsworn (Game Workshop 2012) are together both a Bildungsroman and a Vampire tale, grounded in sword and sorcery. The Ulrika trilogy employs elements of horror, adventure, and the Bildungsroman to introduce us to a fascinating heroine. Irrespective of the novels' vampire characters and setting or the fact they are a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, they ultimately succeed as adventure tales set in a horrific Gothic environment, where sword and sorcery rule the day.

The first novel, Bloodborn (Games Workshop 2010),  begins a few weeks after the events 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. Long shows us her maturation from death to her bid for independence. 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.  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. 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.

Finally, in Bloodsworn,Ulrika has accepted her fate as a Vampire but this fact does not end her quest or her education. The world of Vampires is as nuanced as the human world and Ulrika must choose which group with whom to align. Like a troubled teenager, she has rebelled against the Lahmians, balking against their need to control her. She is torn between feelings of love and hate for her mistress, Countess Gabriella; whereas it was the von Carsteins, who initially entrapped her, turned her, and now threaten both the Empire's and the Lahmians' very existence. Her next move must be one of election: which Vampire group will she align herself. She must ask herself where she belongs in the world. Once again she is forced to evaluate the war against humans, her loyalty to her kind, and her own need for independence.

The three novels are exciting reads: well-plotted, with fully-developed characters. Mr. Long carefully delineates the definitive movements 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 and to a young, somewhat erratic, independent adult in the final installment. Throughout, however, the novels remain true to their sword and sorcery roots: they are rollicking adventure tales that roll along a fair clip like Saturday morning serials, never really pausing to examine the psychological manifestations that occur simultaneously with the full-throttle action of their full-bodied (and charismatic) protagonist.

Mr. Long 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."

Ulrika is definitely one of those heroes. And, although the trilogy is complete, I cannot believe Ulrika is finished. At the end of Bloodsworn, Ulrika is a powerful warrior but that cannot be the end of her education. I can imagine a series of novels where Ulrika grows, matures, and rises through the ranks to become not only a powerful soldier but also a wise and cunning leader.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Riff on Point of View in Historical, Military and Fantasy Fiction with a nod to Joe Abercrombie and Ralph Peters

Ralph Peters, the author of Cain at Gettysburg (Forge 2012), recently stated that  "history deals in externals, where historical fiction delves into the soul of man." With that statement in mind, I would like to look at several  novels--both realistic and fantastic--to illustrate the uses and devices of historical fiction and the way that certain writers achieve the objective suggested by Peters, while others fail. I am primarily interested in the way in which an author, when dealing with a battle or a war complete, attempts to inform the reader, through his or her choice of point of view, of the historical aspect of a battle as well as the participants' emotions.

Some writers employ the first person; however, this rhetorical device is limited in that we can only see what that first-person narrator sees or hears. It is quite difficult for an author to re-create the battle complete, while using the first person point of view, although some have used it and succeeded in creating an intense and entertaining work. The intensity comes, of course, from the immediacy the first person lends to the work. It is especially useful in recounting the persona's moment by moment encounter with death and fear. For instance, Peters, writing under his pen-name, Owen Parry, employs the first-person narrator to great effect in describing the battle of Shiloh in his novel, Call Each River Jordan (HarperTorch 2001). Major Abel Jones, his protagonist, leads the reader through the battle, subjecting us, during the process, to his beliefs, prejudices, perceptions and foibles. The novel begins with Jones remembering his arrival at Savannah just at the moment of attack. He begins his narration: "I remember the burning men. Wounded, and caught like the damned at the reckoning. In brush and bramble lit by battle's sparks." Hearing the sound of guns he quickly boards a paddle boat conveying troops upriver to the fighting and at Pittsburg landing he encounters fleeing Union soldiers: "Now I have seen fear, and felt it, but here is no greater danger for an army than panic." The persona sees it and interprets it for us.

Peters in Cain at Gettysburg and Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels (Random House 1987) both choose the limited omniscient point of view to tell the same story. Each man recounts the same historical facts but by picking different points of view characters to carry their tale, their novels differ. The author, using the third person, knows all but chooses to pick pertinent characters to carry the narrative, revealing only what they think or feel. We know only what they know and nothing more.Additionally, authors have their own themes and their own preoccupations. Peters concentrates on the diversity of the soldiers, choosing, inter alia, the 26th Wisconsin to carry his narrative to great effect. Probably the most exciting point of the book delved into the Irish's defense against Pickett's charge. Shaara, on the other hand, is more interested in the dynamic personality and character of Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlin. Through these real men he ruminates on the mistakes made by leadership and the sacrifices suffered by the common soldier. Shaara's book is romantic and didactic, instilling its chosen POV characters with a metaphorical essence, whereas Peters is tough, dogged, real, earthy, and true.

A variation of this rhetorical device is Shelby Foote's Shiloh (Knopf 1991). Foote minutely describes the battle through a series of short stories, long chapters, each one dealing with a single character. This unique rhetorical choice of interrelated short stories illustrates both sides of the battle and most of the events with a haunting immediacy, somewhat similar to William Faulkner's civil war novel, The Unvanquished (Knopf 1991) and Stephen Crane's A Red Badge of Courage (Penguin Group 2005). However, Crane's novel follows one warrior through the unnamed battle. Here, Crane uses the third-person limited omniscient point of view to great effect. We don't learn much history but we do experience the soul of man.

When a genre novel fails for me, it is usually a failure of point view. Among younger genre writers, there seems to be an attempt to employ the rhetorical devices of film rather than the correct use of point of view. Nothing jars the reader worst than a sudden shift in point of view; similar to a jump cut, these shifts are between characters and point of view, sometimes on the same page and sometimes in the same paragraph.  Perhaps, even more egregious, some follow the strict third-person limited point of view through eighty percent of the novel and then jump over to another character to show us some new aspect of the action. One of the most recent examples that drew my ire was in Simon Scarrow's latest novel. It probably bothered me so much because I love Simon Scarrow's work. I've read everything he's written to this date. However, in his latest novel, Praetorian (Headline Books 2011), Scarrow jumps out of his single limited third-person point of view to follow Macro off on a bit of misadventure. The switch from the character carrying the narrative to another upset me and interrupted my reading rhythm.

A fantasy novel that impressed me greatly and illustrates the use of multiple limited third-person points of view is Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (Orbit 2011). The novel set in Abercrombie's fantasy universe relies on the same techniques that Shaara and Peters used to re-create the battle of Gettysburg and to delve deeply into their characters' personality. More particularly, even though The Heroes is an example of the new grittiness and realism in fantasy fiction, it is also strongly character driven ( a nod to older fantasy fiction); something that only a dedicated and disciplined point of view can successfully deliver. Just as Peters attempts to reveal the soul of man in his re-creation of Gettysburg, so, too, does Abercrombie. And, even though the two novels arise from two somewhat disparate genres--one realistic and the other fantastic--they feel very similar to me and I would suggest that they be read together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cross-dressing, Sexuality, and Aliens in Anne Lyle's "The Alchemist of Souls"

Hic Mulier and Haer Vir, two pamphlets published in 1620, debate the fad of transvestism in Renaissance London. Anne Lyle, in her alternate-historical fantasy, The Alchemist of Souls (Angry Robot Books 2012), set in Shakespearean London, adopts the debate of that age; and, through our modern prism ( a form of anachronism; cf with my review of Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East and my discussion of the "modernity of anachronism") takes a broader view (at least for some of us) of gender roles, as she engages thematically with cross-dressing, sexuality, otherness, and desire. In other words, by employing transvestism as a major plot point within the structure of her sword and sorcery romance, she elevates her fantasy and addresses directly, through an explicit use of early 17th Century mores and the dramatic tropes of Shakespearean comedy, the issues of race, gender, sexuality, and otherness.

Transvestism, although an important trope and plot point, is not the only Shakespearean device she chooses to include in this very entertaining first novel of her new series; she also casts a set of twins, a homosexual scrivener,  a young male actor, New World monsters (read Calibans), magicians, alchemists, spies, and a group of blood-thirsty villains and conspirators, more appropriate for a Kit Marlowe revenge play, than a Shakespearean comedy, within the boundaries of the 17th century politics of Europe. Ultimately, The Alchemist of Souls is more than a revenge play, a Shakespearean comedy, or an alternate history; it is a sword and sorcery fantasy reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's brilliant short-stories of the sixties, with a definite nod toward the more mature, theme-based novels of "otherness,"  written by C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Lynn Flewelling. Explicit same-sex romance, quite common in Elizabethan London, is employed for both dramatic effect and modern-day gender and sexual exploration, while a race of Calibans, the Skraylings, become the object of fear, loathing, prejudice, and scapegoats.

The Alchemist of Souls, frankly, is a book of ideas; just as Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Lynn Flewelling's Luck in the Shadows, and C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner are theme-based novels. In my mind, The Alchemist of Souls is a bit like the proverbial onion: the first level, the outer skin, is a historical novel set in a very realistic Elizabethan London, with a number of sword and sorcery types and characters from Shakespeare's comedies--swordsman, Maliverny Catlyn, his somewhat idiotic sidekick, Ned Faulkner (like all good companions he is an 'other' like Huck's Joe or Ishmael's Queequeg),  and, a woman, Coby, masquerading as a lower-class boy, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It; the second level is the novel of ideas, focusing on the theme of the outsider or the other and the implicit prejudice and violence directed toward them, as illustrated by the Caliban-like aliens from Vineland, the homosexual Ned and his lovers, and the mentally-ill twin, Sandy; and the third level is that of alternate-history fantasy, which blends the first two levels and mixes them to create a  concoction of wonders, dependent on the answers to a series of speculations--what if the Conquistadors failed? What if an alien race of magicians existed on Thule (Greenland)? What if Elizabeth had married Dudley and birthed sons?

No matter the intelligence of the work, the ultimate question is whether the book is entertaining, and the answer for me is a resounding "yes."

In a lot of ways there is a distinct similarity to Dan Abnett's Triumff (Angry Robot Books 2010): the locale and the concomitant verve of the Elizabethan age, the swashbuckling plot and the fantasy tropes. However, where Abnett mines the humor of the age, Lyle seems to channel the history and the politics. Both novels left  me with the desire to know more about their alternate worlds.

I  am looking forward to the further adventures of Mal, Coby, and Ned. Hopefully, they will travel to France and deal with one of my favorite historical characters: Henri de Bourbon aka Henri IV.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading Lynn Flewelling's "The Bone Doll's Twin"

Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Twin's Doll (Bantam Spectra 2001) is a vivid example of what a good writer can do with a relatively limited plot. A King, afraid of a prophecy, kills every female in the line of succession to secure his position and assure his continued reign.

Flewelling takes this skinny plot and and slowly and lovingly fattens it with character and setting. She uses the traditional Bildungsroman format to show the gradual education of a young boy, Tobin, who is sequestered in the woods, away from the medieval city of his birth, and resides in a crumbling estate with his deranged mother and the angry ghost of his dead brother.

However, as is true in most fairy tales and fantasy novels, prophecy has a way of bypassing or frustrating the political machinations of individuals who attempt to circumvent its workings. Fate, like water, seeks its own level and the same is true for prophecy in this well-written, character-driven, first volume of Flewelling's Tamir Trilogy, where two wizards, a witch, and the brother-in-law of the King perpetrate violent actions and employ dire means to protect an infant from the King's assassins.

Tobin, a strange child, artistic and shy, has a number of secrets: he is haunted and at times tormented by his dead brother's ghost; he has a friend, a witch, named Lhel that lives inside a tree in the woods; he has a doll that his mother has made with which he is abnormally attached; and he seems to have some powers of forethought.

Within the context of the plot, Flewelling slowly builds her secondary world; giving it substance and weight gradually by incrementally measuring out descriptions only when the plot demands it. Tobin's world resembles early medieval England sometime around the 12th century: reavers raid the coast and wizards and witches walk the roads between the walled cities, while strange predators inhabit the thick forests.

I picked this book up because I was a bit bored with the usual fantasy fare that is coming out these days. I had heard that Flewelling dealt with human sexuality frankly and I was intrigued. And when I say sexuality, I'm talking about gender and desire, not graphic scenes of sexuality. There are plenty examples of that in the latest fantasy tomes arriving each month. I was more interested in a writer's ability to create believable female and male characters within a fantasy context, illustrating both the similarities and differences that emerge from gender. Flewelling creates indelible characters through detail, through the minute rendering of everyday events within the context and logic of her created secondary world, and thereby illuminates their basic natures. I found myself drawn quickly into Tobin's rough, and lonely life, through the descriptions of his daily activities, his interactions with the other characters, and the psychological struggles that  naturally manifest themselves as he matures within a home, where madness, ghosts, and plain fear reside and rule.

The Bone Doll's Twin seems writ on a smaller canvas than most heroic fantasies but its limited scope enhances its intimacy, making Tobin more real and precious as a character.  I'm looking forward to the second volume. In fact, the ending was so perilous and fraught with danger for Tobin that I'm bit afraid and must know what happens next.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Myth as Theme in Intimate (a Cozy) Historical Mystery: A Reading of Aliette de Bodard's "Servant of the Underworld"

Aliette de Bodard has passed the Angry Robot Test--mix genres, shake but do not stir--by writing an intimate, well-crafted, mystery that fits squarely within the strictures of an English cozy but set in an exotic historical and cultural setting with unique fantasy tropes, arising from Aztec mythology.

Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot Books 2010), a first-person narrative, features Acatl, a High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Underworld and Acatl's patron. Acatl is not a policeman, or a professional crime fighter; instead, he is simply a priest, who has chosen to eschew the heroic life of a warrior like his brother Neutemoc for the quiet life in the Temple, helping the dead make a smooth transition to Mictlan, the underworld. The story begins when Ceyaxochitl, a representative of the Revered Speaker, Ayaxacatl, sends for Acatl to investigate a death where dark magic is evident. Thus Ms de Bodard satisfies one of the first characteristics of the cozy: the detective is an amateur. Acatl is neither a detective nor a warrior; however, the death he has been called to investigate not only concerns Nahual magic but a highly-charge political situation that involves his immediate family. The proximity of the perpetrators is also an element of "cozy" fiction: the mystery usually takes place in a community small enough to make it plausible that the characters know each other and are easily interrogated or examined. Acatl soon learns  his brother is the number one suspect and he rapidly tracks the threads of magic through Tenochtitlan in order to prevent his brother's execution.

Cozy mysteries usually have a thematic underpinning based upon the locale of the action or the profession of the protagonist. For instance, in Ellis Peters' series, the medieval world of his detective, Brother Cadfael, forms the thematic underpinning; whereas, in Servant, the mythic magic of the Aztecs and the internecine struggle of the Gods form the major components. The turn of the screw, however, in Ms de Bodard's work is that the Gods are active participants, creating the fantasy elements, and supporting the magical system at work in the novel. Mictlantecuhtli, although a God, is as vibrant a character as our narrator, which sets this cozy squarely within the category of fantasy. It is this use of the mythic that I found most interesting: the magical system based upon glyphs and blood seemed very real and provided a rich, numinous texture to the novel.

Finally, even though Servant involves several murders, the villains perform their gruesome acts off-stage.Acts of violence and explicit sex, although implied, are not visible. Nevertheless, its realistic depiction of magic situate it squarely within the confines of the best historical fantasy. More often than not, magic just is in fantasy novels; in Servant, magic arises naturally from the culture and the historical setting, making this cozy a very satisfying and magical (in every sense of the word) read.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pocket Universe, Fissure, Hernia, or Portal Novel: A Reading of Adam Christopher's "Empire State"

When I first heard about Adam Christopher's debut novel, Empire State (Angry Robot Books 2012), I immediately began to imagine a world similar to the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, intermixed with a panoply of superheroes à la Alan Moore.

As my imagination took off, I heard Scott Joplin tunes playing in speakeasys in Harlem and wild nights spent at the Cotton Club, listening to Cab Calloway, dancing to Minnie the Moocher. Around the city, Murder Incorporated butchered its enemies and bloated bodies floated on the East River, while out-of-work veterans lived in a make-shift Hooverville in Central Park, forgotten men panhandled on Fifth Avenue, and a William Powell and Myrna Loy film runs at a theater on Sixth Avenue. Communist cells spring up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, enlisting Jewish immigrants, disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Irish cops, maybe one of my relatives, walk their beats in Manhattan and the FBI dukes it out with gangsters bringing in whiskey from Canada. Raymond Chandler writes The Big Sleep and the first-person noir voice is born.

Unfortunately, my imagination got ahead of me. Adam Christopher's novel contains some of the same elements delivered by my fevered imagination but his novel is something different, more original than just a science fiction novel set within a historical period. His novel owes more to the strange, almost bizarre comics that emerged in the thirties and forties. Anyone who grew up in the forties and fifties is familiar with the strange comic world of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Tracy appeared in 1931 and received its impetus and story lines from gangland violence in Chicago. Gould imbued his comic with violence, strange science and villains so evil that they expressed their personalities through their tortured and deformed flesh. Christopher's novel does not allude to Gould but it certainly hums with comic vibrations from the work of Bob Kane. Kane, the creator of Batman, entered the field in 1936. His characters, like those of Gould, are dark, haunted creatures who live in a Gothic universe. Christopher is a young man, who admits that he came to comics late. His sensibilities rely more on Doctor Who, Alan Moore, the Disney film The Rocketeer and Grant Morrison. Consequently, his vision formed in the cauldron of modern pop culture envisions something unique and slightly grotesque; a pocket world, hernia-like, is formed when two superheroes-- disputing lovers--wage a combat to the death over the skies of Manhattan in 1930. From their duel a fissure is formed and a new world created. But it isn't just one world that springs fully formed from New York; it is a mirror image similar to a series of soap bubbles, forming world after world. The first world on the string is Empire State, a pocket world born in 1930.

Within the first fissure, doubles live, unaware of their counterparts above them. It is a strange gaseous place, similar to the world of the film Dark City, where people from both sides of the fissure wander, fall, disappear, and work. The protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a down and out gumshoe, existing without any visible means of support, waiting for that one femme fatale to walk into his seedy office. And , of course, she enters, as sexy as Veronica Lake and as rich as Croesus. Katherine Kopek is looking for her lover, who has disappeared without a trace and she hires Rad to find her. His search will connect him to intrigue emanating from the fissure and the machinations of the cognoscenti within the fissure. So begins his quest and the adventure.

Within the structure of the noir, Christopher creates a comic-book sensibility with enough ideas in this book to fuel a long run of subsequent tales, after all there are a million stories in the Naked City or Empire State.

Empire State, however, is not a re-creation of New York in the 30s; it is a comic book facsimile with modern tonalities and an understanding of various genres--noir, science fiction, portal novel, time travel (of sorts). It is a unique work, although it has borrowed memes from a panoply of authors and genres and it is some-what raw at times, carving its own niche in a field  and a publisher known for its unique works.

Finally, Empire State is a veritable petri dish of ideas and images.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Catabasis into the Underworld or Nykia in Fillory: A Reading of Lev Grossman's "The Magician King"

Lev Grossman sets off on a night-sea journey to skirt the edge of the genre where fantasy literature and literary fiction collide in his second "Fillory" novel. His artistic journey is a dangerous one, fraught with beastly memes and tropes that could scuttle his novelistic vessel at any moment. Always in danger of losing tone and voice, he navigates through the known waters of myth and psychology to give us one of the bravest fantasy novels of 2011.

The Magician King tells of Quentin Coldwater's catabasis into the underworld; a psychological tale wrapped in fantasy. Purporting to be  a"portal" novel, its devices sometimes seem taken from a classic Dungeons and Dragons scenario or mimic the frenetic world hopping of a magus through a series of constructed portals in World of Warcraft . The truth of the matter is that Grossman is well-versed in games, fantasy literature, literary memes, and psychological tropes and he employs them freely and liberally in The Magician King. The result is a somewhat disorienting meta-fiction that is self-referential and self-defining, resulting in a novel that cannot be ghettoized to the fantasy section of the book store or sit comfortably in the literary fiction section.

In this second book in what is developing either as a trilogy or a series, Quentin, the protagonist of both The Magicians and The Magician King, is a whiner; a self-involved, immature jerk, who lacks self-knowledge and whose involvement in magic results more often than not in mayhem and chaos rather than in order. In this novel, Quentin progresses from a student in a bildungsroman to a hero on a journey (a quest). He begins his journey as a blind hero (metaphorically sightless, as in King Lear and Oedipus the King) and as obtuse as that idiot savant--Parsifal. And because it is a second book, he undergoes a series of tests, leading of course to his apotheosis.

In The Magician King, Quentin rules as one of the magical-realm Fillory's four sovereigns--two kings and two queens. He lives in luxury but he yearns to be a hero. However, he has none of the obvious qualities of a hero; instead, he demonstrates a non-delineated yearning for heroics without the requisite skills or mindset at the same moment that he suffers from a solid dose of youthful ennui and a soupcon ( maybe a barrel) of egotism. In other words, he is a twenty-something kid who has had a good education at Brakebills, a secret school of Magic in upstate New York, and some luck, but he hasn't really changed, i.e. matured, yet. It is Quentin's psychological state and Grossman's meticulous control over his material in relating that state that raises The Magician King to a level of adult-fantasy.

Called upon by Ember to launch himself on a quest, Quentin sails east to find the seven golden keys and adventure, while Julia, one of the Queens, accompanies him on his voyage. Her presence and her past interact with the plot of the quest to form a two-fold plot: Quentin's adventure to find the keys and  Julia's education and ultimate apotheosis. Of the two Julia's education as a hedge-Magus informs and supports the action of Quentin's tale. In modern parlance, Quentin went to school, while Julia was schooled. Of the two, she is the more powerful and the strongest at the conclusion of the novel.

Through the telling of Julia's story, Grossman delves into what I think is his ultimate interest: an exploration of the source and meaning of magic and how we respond to it in fiction. His project is ultimately an encounter with the genre literature he loves but a type of literature he is not always comfortable with. At times, I feel him struggling with the genre, wrestling like Jacob and the angel. Rather than jump into fantasy literature head first like George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, Grossman seems to be skirting the edge of the enchanted fountain, checking it out, examining its contours and its depth. He is a thinker and a reader who has emotional ties to C. S. Lewis, also a thinker. His fantasy is based in reality and ultimately a dialogue with the genre itself. We feel him struggling and thinking and we feel his pain as we follow him through the portal and then down the yellow brick road. Hopefully, we find treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Grossman's struggle with genre is not unique. What is unique is that he, along with Jonathan Lethem, Laura Miller, Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, James Hynes, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon (to name only a few), are the first generation of young, articulate, powerful American writers, who were raised during a period in which comics, genre movies, RPGs, MMORPGs, and genre fiction were ubiquitous and wildly seductive.This seduction is obvious and evident in their writing and as a result they are changing the landscape through a re-evaluation of genre and a re-definition of literary fiction.

See my review of The Magicians here: