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The Night Circus, like many very popular books, seems to divide opinion. Lots of "best of the year" lists and five-star reviews, but quiet a few 1- and 2-star reviews as well. There's a lot of magic here, both in the literal sense and metaphorically in term of atmosphere and wonder. Circus imagery abounds, which is not a surprise given the title, and the "black and white with a dash of red" color scheme of the cover seems to be the color of just about everyone and everything in the story. Descriptions are rich with detail, and it would be fair to say Erin Morgenstern devotes at least as much attention to describing the accoutrements of the circus as developing her major characters.



Le Cirque des Rêves, a seemingly mystical traveling circus which appears without warning, vanishes just as suddenly, and is only open to patrons at night. A pair of young magicians, Celia and Marco, are brought up in lifelong magical training, each by an adoptive father figure, in preparation for between these two older men which will be played out by Celia and Marco, at some time in the future.

If the book has one failing, it's a greater focus on the performances and mechanisms of the circus and the magical contest than on the internal workings of the characters. The story is not perfect, but the writing is so lushly descriptive and image-rich, the setting so attractive, I found myself in love with it all anyway. I believe this is one of those books prospective readers can easily judge by the cover and synopsis. If it doesn't seem like your kind of thing, it almost certainly isn't. Those readers to whom the central conceit seems interesting will likely be enchanted and forgive the book its few shortcomings. Like me, many will adore this book and find themselves eagerly awaiting a followup from this first-time novelist.
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Nightingale Songs is the third story collection from Canadian writer Simon Strantzas, following Beneath the Surface and Cold to the Touch. While these earlier collections might be characterized by more of a Ligotti or Lovecraft vibe, Nightingale Songs takes the reader into quieter, more restrained territory. The influences underlying these stories are acknowledged up-front, in John Langan's introduction, which mentions Ramsay Campbell and Robert Aickman. I perceive more of an Aickman feel here. Robert Aickman is a favorite of many readers of horror fiction, but some consider his work too vague or low-key. The same quality is true of Strantzas's work. His work is so accomplished, so cleanly polished, that he's quickly acquired a devoted following. At the same time, the style and the mood of these stories may not satisfy those readers seeking a more visceral or dynamic experience. This collection is most suited to those who enjoy a subtle, introspective read in which the reader's imagination is called upon to enrich and enliven the experience.

One word that comes to mind, as an overall descriptor for these stories as a group, is restrained. The emotions at play here aren't terror, rage or mania. The characters in Nightingale Songs worry. They suffer anxiety or hesitation. In some cases they doubt, or wonder if they saw what they think they saw, if they can trust their memory. When they obsess, their focus is directed inward. When they act, they do so quietly.

The writing is transparent in style. The simplicity and clarity of the prose is its strength, though some readers will consider this its weakness. Sentences are stripped-down and polished, and convey the sense that a lot more craft and care goes into this almost Zen-like level of straightforwardness than is immediately apparent to the reader. Much writing in the horror community is concerned with splashy set pieces and gotcha moments, so a writer who cares so much about subtler, slower effects stands out from the crowd.

At the same time, I'd argue most of the stories could benefit from a bit more sensory detail. Descriptive passages seem intentionally vague. I'd like to see how a Strantzas story worked, with all the same tension and disquiet, but with greater fleshing-out of the sensory world of the story. The inner world of the character is described with subtlety and nuance, and I think these stories could be improved by giving the reader a more vivid sense (mostly visual) of the characters and their surroundings. This may be completely my own bias, and doesn't indicate Strantzas has failed to achieve his aim with these stories. My impression is that the author has rendered characters and settings in an intentionally elliptical way, leaving many details blank, to be filled-in by the reader's imagination.

There is much to respect here in terms of writerly craft and care. These stories all have a distinctive clarity, a sort of crystalline straightforwardness. I enjoyed this collection and will definitely keep an eye on Strantzas in the future.

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The Orphan Palace smacks the reader in the face from the first page just to resolve any question about who's in charge. Pulver's approach here is to make the story not just something the main character experiences, but a series of thoughts and perceptions. It takes place "in here" rather than "out there." The stream-of-consciousness style took me a while to settle into due to the hyper-saturated poetic style. This may be the most uncompromising narrative I've read in years, but it's worth settling into the groove of this energetic and strongly poetic tale. 

The story's protagonist Cardigan is profoundly damaged, and burns and kills his way across the country in search of redemption or revenge for events long past. That the reader ends up identifying with and caring about such a reckless and even murderous character testifies to the way Pulver's narrative technique takes the reader inside Cardigan's head. The story's events seem like something you're living through, not simply reading. Like the most daring works of art, no summary can do justice to what's happening here. The blurb on the back cover does almost nothing to convey what this book is like. The story is dreamlike, told in language ranging from vivid poetics to a hard-bitten shorthand to incantatory near-ravings. Frequent use of repetition gives a sense of the shattered reality Cardigan inhabits. The effect is cumulative, so that repeated elements and phrases take on a different meaning and carry more weight as the story advances. 


An energetic mix of noir/crime and surrealistic dark fantasy verging on horror, The Orphan Palace feels more like "cinema of the mind" than narrative fiction, and it may be for that reason that I find myself thinking more about filmmakers when I try to find something to compare it to. Pulver's surreal dreamscapes seem to have some precedence in David Lynch (especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire), Alejandro Jodorowky (El Topo and Holy Mountain) and Lars Von Trier (especially Antichrist). I was even reminded of Guillermo Del Toro in some of the novel's more fantastic sections, especially the "night library" scene, which left me wanting more. 

Any narrative so inwardly-directed and uncompromising is bound to leave the reader scratching their head in a few places, but that is more than compensated-for by the vivid effects which simply would not be possible with a more straightforward storytelling style. The Orphan Palace feels like being led by the hand (scratch that -- led by the brain is more like it) through a dark and surreal nightmare, an experience both powerful and disturbing. I can't wait to see what Pulver does next. Highly recommended, at least for readers open to a more experimental storytelling approach.

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There are all kinds of reasons I might read a short fiction anthology. Maybe it's the only place to find new work by some of my favorite writers. Some anthologies serve to introduce readers to unfamiliar writers, either total unknowns, or familiar names I've somehow not yet gotten around to reading. Many readers are motivated by an anthology's theme -- "Oh, I love zombies, and here's another zombie anthology so of course I'll buy it" -- but I usually don't. I didn't buy this because it had to do with vampirism. In fact, I imagine any reader who purchased this hoping for a bunch of straightforward vampire stories would be disappointed. There's not so much "blood" here as there are "other cravings."

I've given some consideration to the overall shape of multi-author anthologies, a subject which interests me to the extent it's similar to the way I've put together various-artists CD collections in the past. Generally it seems editors load the best stories end up at the beginning and the end, and this is no exception. Among the middle stories, the only one I found noteworthy was Melanie Tem's very odd "Keeping Corky," about an enigmatic female character, notable for her mental abnormalities including both strengths and deficiencies, misses the child she was forced to give up for adoption.

Of the early stories, Kaaron Warren's lead-off "All You Can Do is Breathe" is wonderfully creepy and understated. Elizabeth Bear's "Needles" is not so much a story as a well-drawn and entertaining "day in the (undead) life," vividly written but maybe in need of fleshing-out. And Reggie Oliver's amusing yet dark story of a theatrical hotel overrun by very small tenants convinced me to check out more of this writer's work.

The best of this collection comes later. "First Breath" by a new-ish writer, Nicole J. LeBoeuf, is an interesting exploration of a sort of transference of life through breath. And I always love Kathe Koja and Carol Emshwiller, whose contributions here (Emshwiller's is one of only two reprints) are good.

The final four stories alone justify the price of the anthology.

Michael Cisco's "Bread and Water" tells of a captive vampire trying to cope with his appetites, as well as an incapacity to consume what he desires. The creature's gradual transformation, told in Cisco's uniquely intense prose, evokes in the reader an effect like delirium. More than anything else in the book, "Bread and Water" inspired me to seek out more by this writer. That's not to say it was the best story overall, but the best by an author I've previously overlooked.

Margo Lanagan's "The Mulberry Boys" is told like a fable or second-world fantasy more than a horror story, but what's actually happening here has quite a nasty edge. Through some bizarre process of surgery and altered diet, humans or human-like creatures are transformed into passive silk factories. I love the way this story is told. Very effective.

"The Third Always Beside You" by John Langan reminds me a little of Peter Straub's recent novel A Dark Matter in its exploration of a male character trying to piece together disturbing past events. Here a brother and sister discuss their long-held perception that their father might have been unfaithful to their mother, and whether any truth might lie behind this. The fantastic elements along the way are of the subtle "thought I heard a sound, and looked, but nobody was there" variety, yet the story conveys a mysterious and even dreadful sense of secrecy. I own two of Langan's books which I haven't read yet, but this story convinced me to nudge these upward in my "must read soon" list.

The last contribution is by Laird Barron, recently the most consistently excellent writer of horror and dark fantasy novellas and novelettes. "The Siphon" includes elements which may seem familiar to readers of Barron's earlier stories, but this comes across not as repetition, but a fleshing-out of a fictional world which increasingly cross-connects between one story and another. None of the characters, so far as I can determine, appear in prior Barron tales, yet the template of bored, wealthy decadents tantalized by forbidden or occult knowledge is reminiscent of such stories as "Strappado" and "The Forest." Such is Barron's skill that even when he's not trying something entirely new for him (as I believe he did in "The Men From Porlock" and "Blackwood's Baby" which appear in other recent anthologies), the work nonetheless functions at such a high level as to stand clearly apart.

By the end of a relatively mixed collection, it's tempting to think mostly of the more satisfying later stories, but the quality dropped off enough in places that I'd give the collection four rather than five stars. At the same time, I'd recommend the book as worthy of purchase for the better stories at the beginning and especially the end.

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If not for a recommendation on Laird Barron's blog, I might never have picked up this excellent collection (to which Barron provided a foreword). Prior to the release of this collection, all I'd seen from Livia Llewellyn was "Brimstone Orange," too short a piece to give much of a sense of this writer's capabilities. I'm very glad I didn't miss what turned out to be one of the best single author short story collections I've come across in recent years.





Llewellyn's prose style is strongly visual and evocative. Readers who prefer their prose simple and declarative may find this a too rich, but those enjoy a writer with a vibrant, poetic approach to putting words together will love it. Especially as a debut collection, Engines of Desire is noteworthy for the strength and richness of its language.

That's not to say these stories are for everyone. The mood is uniformly dark, at times bitterly so. These stories cover a wide ground from post-apocalyptic science fiction to erotica, from psychological horror to dark fantasy. At first I thought the book might be too scattered genre-wise, but further along I realized the stories here were held together not by genre conventions, but by thematic commonalities and a consistency to the personal concerns of the characters, apart from place, time or the existence of monsters or magic. Whatever the trappings of one story or another, all clearly arise out of a strong, unified creative impetus. In terms of cumulative effect, these stories hold together quite well, both individually and as a collection.

The collection opens with "Horses," a bleak and psychologically extreme piece of post-apocalyptic SF. It effectively lets the reader know what they're in for. This is followed by a dramatic shift to what is effectively (despite the insertion of a few elements that feel vaguely "fantastic" but which are not really part of the story's core) a realistic story of a sexually obsessed and self-destructive college student. Llewellyn depicts the college girl obsessed with the wrong guy with the same raw desperation with which she draws characters beset by a disintegrating.

Among the rest of the collection, the best include "The Four-Hundred," the title story "The Engines of Desire," and "Her Deepness." This last, an ambitious novella, is a really impressive example of fantasy world building. Truly dark, deeply weird and at times surreal.

While a few of these stories were less effective on the level of compelling plot or characters than they were in terms of language and mood, I found none of them less than satisfying overall. If we can extrapolate from an author's debut collection to guess what they may be capable of, I really can't wait to see what Livia Llewellyn does next.

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I fired up ScribeFire and posted those two quick entries just to test it out, but I forgot I actually had something I meant to blog about.

I'm about halfway through Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, and though it started off fairly well, I'm finding it increasingly dull. None of the characters matter to me at all, and I feel I only barely know the two main characters. The rest are just a series of names, often without a single defining characteristic (aside from the senile old coot who thinks his legs have turned to glass for some reason). There are long stretches of political back-and-forth without apparent consequence. The scenes of military maneuvering and battle have a few nifty tech tidbits mixed in, but otherwise fairly flat, as if the outcome is always a foregone conclusion.

Am I nuts here? This fucking book was nominated for a Hugo award, but I don't get it. Not a terrible book, but sort of a C-plus so far, as far as I can tell. Anybody out there who's read Singularity Sky and can point out some angle I'm missing?

Back To It

Oct. 13th, 2010 04:50 pm
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I've been busy with music/Hypnos, my dad's visit to Portland, writing, and all the rest of life. Funny, when I blog regularly I find it easy to keep on blogging regularly, and once I stop it's very easy to STAY stopped. So many things are like this, especially exercise and creative activities. Running every single day is easy. Taking a week off running, and then starting to run again that first time is much harder.

I still write six days a week, exercise six days a week, work my day job five days a week, listen to tons of music, watch lots of movies with my wife, and don't get enough sleep.

Lately I'm working on a lot of stories simultaneously, even more than usual for me, and the stories are all over the map. I'm writing an SF story about a group of robotic domestic helpers left behind by their humans on an Earth-like colony, a horror-tinged SF story about some weird stuff lurking in the bottom of a deep mine (not started in response to the major news story about miners in Chile), finishing up a dark fantasy or horror bit about a family vacationing at a lake house and coming under the influence of some local entities. I have another odd, dark bit about a married couple who retreat to a cabin out in the wilderness near Mt. Hood and begin to lose all connection to the world they left behind.

I'm also continuing heavy cuts on my two "salvage project" stories I mentioned before... mega-long stories that needed to lose 2/3 of their length before I could even assess how to turn them into something interesting. They're down from 14,000 words to 5,500 and from 11,000 words to 5,300 so they're getting close to where I can see what they need to be. This has been a really useful and interesting test or experiment, but I don't know that I'd do it again. I could have easily rewritten these stories from scratch in less time, and with better result, but then again that wasn't really the point.

I've got the same nine final drafts still circulating among various markets. My two longest-pending submissions are both Writers of the Future, for 2010-q3 (June-ending quarter) and q4 (Sept-ending). Jeez, sending those guys a story means keeping it from other markets for about six months, it appears. I realize they get a lot of submissions but it seems they could finish one quarter's reading before opening it up to the next quarter... and then the one after that. They just announced q2 results, and they're reading stories for q3, q4, and 2011 q1 (quarter ending December) all at once. Sheesh, talk about slush pile.

Reading notes...

I'm still reading Laird Barron's Occultation, an absolutely top-notch collection. Seriously, some of the best strange/dark short fiction I can remember reading, not just recently, but ever. When I get through that last story and a half (I'm reading other stuff in parallel so it's taking a while) I'll write a real review.

Just finished The City & The City by China Mieville, and I'm very impressed. I knew it would be good, based on all the reviews and awards, and interviews I've read with the author. I can tell he's just a super-sharp guy and I've owned copies of several of his books for a while and intended to get to them... but finally dived into one of his newest. Before I move on to Kraken I'll probably jump back to Perdido Street Station since that's been on the "must read soon" list since, you know, a really long time ago.

Lessee, I think I mentioned finishing Old Man's War, which was really good, and not as lightweight or pastiche-y as I expected. I'm on to Charles Stross's Singularity Sky, which is fully of SF-nal goodness, and pretty well written, though at times a little too heavy on the political & military detail. I'm not far into it so I'll reserve judgement.

I did mean to blog a bit more about the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, which was a lot of fun and quite memorable. But this is a "rust buster" blog so I'll wrap it up, and leave stuff to blog about later this week.
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I've been a reader of John Scalzi's blog, Whatever, since long before I had read any of his work. The first thing of his I encountered was his installment in the five-author collection Metatropolis, where I found Scalzi's humorous, breezy blogging style carried over to his narrative fiction. Old Man's War is similar, despite mostly focusing on a more serious subjects such as war and colonialist expansion.

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John Scalzi - Old Man's War

I don't think I've seen a single mention of this book that didn't refer to Robert Heinlein's work, most often Starship Troopers, and after reading this, it's not hard to see why. It really is fairly straightforward in its influence, but that similarity never makes Old Man's War seem derivative in any negative sense. The setup is simple: on Earth a couple of centuries from now, 65 year olds have the option of signing a contract to join the Colonial Defense Force, so that when they turn 75 they undergo some kind of mysterious physical transformation process to become fighting machines, and leave Earth forever to bounce around the galaxy, fighting various weird aliens for control of habitable planets.

The CDF initiates discover the nature of the process that allows them to go from elderly to fighting form, and as in Starship Troopers, we follow the new recruits from training to initial skirmishes, and watch them lose friends to the inevitable effects of war. We also learn more about various interesting elements of the CDF, including the "Ghost Brigades" (title and subject of the first sequel to Old Man's War).

Scalzi is a stronger storyteller than a stylist, but the characters and dialogue are entertaining and likable. I find myself ready to follow along in this series and learn more about the CDF and their various interesting technologies (a "Skip Drive" for example, which is more a quantum reality-shift device than a true drive), especially the "ghost brigades." Scalzi has created a great premise, and even if I hadn't come to this book so late that multiple sequels had already appeared, it would have been plain enough to me that subsequent development could definitely be done in this story's world.

Overall, an enjoyable, well-executed work, and one that makes me want to read more by Scalzi, both in and out of this series.
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Recently read Pretty Monsters, a collection of short stories by Kelly Link.  She's one of the most interesting writers working in the fantasy, sf, horror, weird and slipstream/interstitial loose conglomeration of genres.



This is Link's third story collection (she has not yet written a novel, though her stories are acclaimed), and her first geared toward a "young adult" audience.  It incorporates stories from her first two collections, in fact my favorite stories here were already familiar to me from her Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen collections.

The stories here waver between a slightly disturbing dreamlike weirdness reminiscent of David Lynch's films, and a more whimsical, and at times humorous, fairy tale quality.  Link's stories consistently have a casual, friendly narrative voice, and that's a big part of their appeal.  It's a lot like having a funny friend tell you a really interesting, weird story by a campfire.  There is a great deal of imagination and invention on display in these stories, and if any of the above sounds appealing, I'd definitely give Kelly Link a try....

But I'd start with one of her first two books instead, unless you're a young reader.



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Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King's Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy's The Road...

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there's another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough -- and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto -- to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King's work so popular among readers who never read horror except King's work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying "I'll pass on this one -- he's just writing end-of-the-world shit?"

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they're doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters' emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter -- all writers know they're supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level -- yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It's about putting the "people stuff" ahead of the "trans-warp tachyon drive" or "vampire/zombie plague" or "Venusian cloud colony" bullshit. Most genre writers think they're doing this, but they're not. That's because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it's not what drives them.

I haven't read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I'd say he's strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I'm so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it's telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It's incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they're not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don't care about high school football. Normally I don't like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.
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My reading time has been short lately so I've been limited to audiobook listening during my long-ish commute. I just finished Stephen King's Dreamcatcher and I'm about to start The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I've been thinking a lot about writers who create work that transcends genre, and these two writers are noteworthy in that regard. I'll post something about that later today.
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I don't have any one subject I want to focus on here at the moment, but a few things are going on.

My wife is out of town this week, and I'm not with her. This situation is common for lots of married folk, but we almost never travel separately, so it feels weird, and I don't like it!

Here in Portland we finally broke free of over a month of rotten, lousy un-summer-like weather and for a few weeks now it's actually been sunny and warm. This would not normally be considered "news," but this summer at least, the sun coming out has allowed some fun stuff like hiking and trail running and even just lying out in the back yard with a book.

This coming weekend I'll be traveling to the "Writers Weekend" event in Moclips Washington, which I believe I mentioned here around the time I signed up. I've been reading the stories of other participants and making notes, getting ready. It's something I'm looking forward to, but this week has been such a strange one (see above story of wife-lessness) that it doesn't seem quite real. Still, I'll have more to say about that just before, or during, or after, or maybe some combination thereof.

My own writing has been going well, too. I've tried some new things recently, including another effort at a story that can only be called horror. The biggest thing here is that I find the one thing I miss now that I write SF almost exclusively is writing about this world. Not that I'm considering a big shift of emphasis, more like something I'll dip into a few times per year as a change of pace. I can write all kinds of horror-like or at least horrific stuff within SF, so the only real reason to break off and write a "real world, present day" story is that it's fun to write about a people and places, for a change, closer to the people and places I see day to day.

Other than that, I've pulled back two of my short stories that I had previously been sending around, having decided they weren't quite up to the standard of my more recent stories. Very often I find that if I'm not careful, my stories default to a sort of introspective, low-energy grasping at poetics and philosophy, short on plot and conflict. I've been working to address that in my more recent stories, but sometimes I crack open one of these earlier ones and say "gosh, the first scene doesn't accomplish anything, the story doesn't really start until page two or three, and the ending just trails off." So back to the drawing board with these two (one of them is almost completely reworked with a much more compelling and satisfying turn of events at the end, not a twist, but certainly a kick to the protagonist's groin, figuratively).

At the moment my "now reading" and "now listening" are Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Dreamcatcher by Stephen King, respectively. I went through a month-long stretch of listening to book-related podcasts rather than actual audiobooks (really enjoyed Jonathan Strahan's podcasts particularly) but I felt like listening to a good, old-fashioned "grabber" of a story.

Stephen King is great for listening while driving. His voice is so informal and conversational (talking about writer's voice here, not the speaking voice of the guy reading the audiobook) that it's like having friends in the car telling me the story.

Forever War is just fantastic as well, though it's taking me longer than usual as my reading time has been short recently. Technically, I suppose, this is considered Military SF, but it just doesn't have that feel. It's much more restrained and literary in feel, like a quiet, regretful cousin of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Really a very fine book, and it makes me want to read more Haldeman though it doesn't seem people really talk about any of his books other than this and Forever Peace. I'll have to do some research on this guy. I do know he just won a Grand Master award at the last Nebulas, so he's got that going for him, which is nice. Of course, Gene Wolfe doesn't have a Grand Master award, so what the hell?

I'm also starting to re-read Again, Dangerous Visions in little bits. I had forgotten just how much I love Ellison's introductions and little lead-in essays for each story. Is it just me, or are there more people in this book whose careers never really went anywhere, than there are established writers with significant careers?

It's fun sometimes to just blog about a few random little tidbits. I suppose I could Twitter this stuff, but for some reason I'm still using Twitter more to quickly check up on a number of people I'm interested in, than for something to broadcast my own particular brand of whatever. In other words, consuming rather than producing, Twitter-wise. At least I'm blogging relatively consistently. Yeah, I know you're thrilled! More soon.
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I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun Tetrology.



Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun'

This is my first "Science Fiction Academy" entry in a while, partly because I've been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I'll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I've been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I've finished a few books that I haven't gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I've just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I've sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those "classics" in decades before and after that range), and I've been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It's such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a "client" (torture victim) with whom he'd fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it's that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I've seen this series referred to as "science fantasy" and though that's not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related "Long Sun" and "Short Sun" series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I've read in a long time.
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Remember that feeling you had, twelve years old (well, I was twelve at least -- what about you?) walking out of the theater after seeing Star Wars for the first time? Maybe for you it was the first time you read Lord of the Rings, or Catcher in the Rye, or it might have been time you listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall on headphones.

Sometimes in this life -- not too often or else it wouldn't have the same magic -- you come across one of these amazing things you immediately know you'll always love, and revisit over and over. Often you don't recognize it when you first come across the thing, and only looking back later do you try to remember that first encounter, try to remember how it felt the first time you saw that opening image in Blade Runner, with the first spine-tingling notes of the Vangelis score. In other words, we often don't recognize the discover is so special when we first see it, and only get it in retrospect.

Once in a while you may be lucky enough to be told by a sufficient number of people you trust that you have a real special treat in store. In these case you know you should appreciate it, approach with respect and careful attention to your own sense of discovery when you finally get around to listening, reading, watching or whatever it may be.

I've somehow managed to miss Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun these past thirty years. I've seen the thing recommended so many times, with such passion, that of course I know I'm in for something great. The funny thing about approaching a beloved classic like this is that you recognize other people love it, but without understanding exactly what everyone responded to, what made it special, until you actually dig in for yourself. It was this way for me with reading Dune, for example, or watching The Sopranos. In both cases, I didn't really "get" what was so interesting about the idea, but respected the many recommendations enough to finally give in, take a look, be swept away, and become a huge fan myself.

Same thing here, with this book. I've read a bit of Gene Wolfe, just a few short stories, enough to recognize the guy can write as well as anybody inside the Fantasy/SF genres, or even anybody in the mainstream. There's nothing like the dawning recognition when you read something amazing, like Severian's interaction with the blind librarian Ultan.

This isn't so much a blog entry about Wolfe's books (I'll get to that when I'm done reading), but about that amazing experience of bumping up against true greatness. That first recognition is one of the greatest feelings in life, like falling in love, or traveling to a beautiful place for the first time. I'm so excited to continue with this book!

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August 2013

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