Category Archives: fantasy
The Hum and the Shiver
by Alex Bledsoe
Tor Books (2011)
I received an advance uncorrected proof of this novel early in the summer, eager to read my first Alex Bledsoe novel after hearing good things about Blood Groove and Dark Jenny. But what I wasn’t expecting, even after reading the plot summary on the back of the book, was the kind of story Alex had cooked up in The Hum and the Shiver.
Set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Private Brownyn Hyatt has returned home to great fanfare as a wounded war hero from Iraq. She doesn’t feel like a hero, however, emotionally wounded as well as physically. Her real healing begins once back home with her parents and younger brother in the hills outside of town, among her people, the Tufa, a rather mysterious race with no known origin–they were simply there when the European settlers arrived. Music plays heavily in the Tufa heritage, and it’s through Brownyn’s reintroduction to music through her mandolin, Magda, she hopes to start feeling normal again.
But, a haint is looming around her family’s home, a ghostly omen that waits for Brownyn with a threat of death in the family–and not necessarily hers. If spirits weren’t haunting enough, her past comes back to visit her as well. A wild child with a reputation as “The Brownynator”, her restless spirit is still trying to find its way, as her ex-boyfriend tries to rekindle their hard-edged romance, and reporters lurk around every corner to get her life story. Not to mention, a new preacher in the area is compelled to get to know the aloof war hero, too.
While I originally thought this novel would concern itself primarily with the haint and its deathly premonitions, and what Brownyn must do to prevent someone close to her from dying, the book is much less plot driven than it is hinged on the strength of its characters. Brownyn is at once tough as nails, but vulnerable to her fiery demeanor and aimless recovery. And the specter of death poses as much a threat to her reliving her trauma in the war as it does to enduring any impending tragedy in the family. She’s the kind of girl, who at arm’s length would earn the reputation as promiscuous and an all-round bad seed, but there’s a genuine and sympathetic story to how she earned that reputation.
The supporting characters came off equally strong too, with a steely father who wants to protect his daughter without coddling her, and a mother who is relieved to have her home, yet harbors her own tumultuous emotions around Brownyn’s return and future. The preacher is likable as well, offering a great outsider’s view of Brownyn and the Tufa, as he tries to learn more about her and build a congregation among a people with no need or want of him and his religion. Even the “villains” are spared the standard template and given sincere motivations for their behavior. Her ex-boyfriend might be a grade-A dick, but at least you learn why and can relate to a small degree.
The book does take its fantastical turn about halfway through, and honestly, I found it a bit jarring when it happened. I was worried it might throw the pace of the novel off and send the story veering off into left field, but once those elements were finally brought out into the open, it all seemed to fit quite well. I did find there was one character, the reporter with a Tufa connection, to be a bit tacked on, it didn’t really hinder the story. As a whole, the book is as much a modest bit of magic as the Tufa. Strong storytelling, damn near perfect characterization and dialogue, and a wholly satisfying end. I’m even more eager to read more of Alex’s work after reading The Hum and the Shiver, and I bet you will too.
by R.J. Clark
As if New Orleans hasn’t been through enough in this reality, Ryan Clark has created an alternate reality in which a literal rift into Hell was opened up back in the seventies, turning the city into ground zero for all kinds of demonic carnage. Things are kept in check, however, and a macabre kind of status quo is created. Humans and demons co-existing, more of less, in the Big Easy. And at the center of all, there’s Matt Faustus, a private eye who is possessed–literally.
For Matt Faustus, the whole Hell on Earth takes a very personal turn, particularly since the rift opened on the day he was born–not to mention an especially nasty bugger of a demon became bound to his very soul. Now, he walked with a cross around his neck, and not your run-of-the-mill crucifix necklace either. No, this one basically keeps things relatively in check, though the demon can still do some damage by way of enhancing Matt’s strength and healing abilities.
Having a demon caged in your body is one thing, but trying to hunt another down is something else entirely, and that’s precisely what he has to do when a little girl is abducted from her home by the demon the girl’s affluent family owned. Yeah, some demons wind up as some kind of weird slave labor if you can believe that. As Matt investigates, he crosses paths with all sorts of nasty creatures from the depths of Hell, on this side of the Rift and the other. The worst of which just might be his ex-girlfriend, too.
I gotta say this book was a pleasant surprise. At first glance, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot after reading the plot summary for this one on Amazon. But within the first couple of chapters, with the brash demeanor of Matt Faustus, the fast-paced action he’s thrown into, and the vivid–albeit hellish–landscape R.J. Clark creates in this novel, I was hooked. The pulpy side of things gets a little overdone in spots, and some of Matt’s inner monologue feels way too cliched more than once, but the overall appeal of this book was undeniable.
If you enjoy high-octane action with a heavy dose of the fantastic, you will likely find what you need here.
Miserere: An Autumn Tale
by Teresa Frohock
Night Shade Books (2011)
I’m not a reader who gravitates toward sword-and-sorcery type fantasy, but I’m always up for stepping outside my comfort zone. A good in-road for a guy like me is an element of horror, which in this case comes in the form of demonic possession.
Lucian Negru may be an exorcist, but if you’re expecting something akin to William Peter Blatty, you’re going to be disappointed. This is dark fantasy set in another world–aptly called Woerld–between Hell and Earth. A bastion that guards Heaven from all Hell quite literally breaking loose.
Lucian is a crippled, indentured servant to his sister, Catarina, who schemes to breach the barriers between Hell and Woerld in order to become one of Woerld’s rulers. Bound by an oath of loyalty, he’s betrayed his his mentor, his brothers-in-arms, and his true love, Rachel, literally abandoning her in Hell at Catarina’s behest. So when an opportunity shows itself for redemption, he takes it and flees his sister’s clutches to seek out Rachel and a chance at forgiveness. “Miserere” translates to “mercy” after all.
His chance at redemption comes in the form of a young girl, Lindsey, who has inadvertently stepped through a gateway known as a Veil from Earth into Woerld. His heroic actions come with a price though, and prompt his former comrades to seek his arrest, and Rachel is the one sent to pursue him. But Catarina has dispatched her own forces to find Lucian and drag him back to her, so he can fulfill his role in her evil schemes.
The book gets off to a bit of a slow start, but understandably for the characters and the stakes to be introduced. It was with the introduction of Lindsey that had me nervous for a moment though, because the stark shift from Lucien’s point of view in the medieval Woerld to Lindsey’s present-day Earth. Fortunately, the disparity in setting in brief, just to get Lindsey into Woerld and act as an initiate for readers to experience this strange land through her eyes.
The geography of Woerld was a bit murky for me as a read, but I’m thankful there wasn’t a ton of exposition, and the story focused on the characters. The story is told essentially through Lucien’s eyes, but passages focusing on Rachel, Catarina, and Lindsey offer great vantage points to see what is going on and how everything is interconnected among them and other characters.
The magic and supernatural elements of the story were dealt with in expert fashion, with what I thought was a unique use of prayer and meditation as a way to cast spells. The good guys summon magic from themselves, like an inner light–literally at times–while the villains must resort to using other means like amulets. Aside from a couple instances where Teresa seems to dwell on the minutia of the magic a bit long, she offers a great system for the fantastic to seem plausible.
The story as a whole feels like a stand-alone novel, but Teresa leaves just enough room for a continuation in a likely series of novels for readers who are left wanting more. But the ending is satisfying enough in its own right that readers reluctant to invest in one more fantasy series won’t feel cheated by loose strings at the end of the novel. Fantasy fans of every stripe should be charmed by this story, and those who tend to veer from this kind of story may want to give it a chance, because it’s far more accessible than what preconceptions might tell you.
by Catherynne M. Valente
Tor Books (2011)
Last year I had the chance to read Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, which I found to be a very satisfying traipse through Russian folklore. So I thought I good second visit would be through Catherynne Valente’s Deathless.
The novel is a re-imagining of the fairytale about Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life; and Marya Morevna, a peasant girl whisked away by Koschei to become his bride. It’s set against a backdrop of the early twentieth century in Russia, as the Communist oppression is juxtaposed against the fantastical landscape of Marya’s new kingdom with the Tsar of Life. A goulash of whimsical and fearsome characters adorn this book, as the story of Marya’s very unfairytale romance to Koschei is played out in a fairytale setting.
Valente’s storytelling offers up a very melodic style as the characters are introduced and the plot unfolds. The language used and the rhythmic way it is laid out in key spots give the sense you’re being read a bedtime story of the most hauntingly tragic kind.
For someone unfamiliar with the Koschei fairytale, I really felt like a foreigner reading this book. I suspect a cursory glance at the source material would have offered me an even more rewarding experience, but at least the story, taken at face value, is enjoyable enough despite being ignorant to the winks and nods along the way. And between Deathless and The Secret History of Moscow, I get the feeling there is a wellspring of Russian folklore I’m missing out on.
I’ve had the good fortune to read some of Valente’s short fiction over the last year or so, and I was quite looking forward to a chance to read one of her novels. Now that I have, I am pretty sure I will be actively seeking out her work in the future whenever the chance arises. If you’re a fan of authors with a deft hand at the fantastic, hers is a name to look for.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emmat Watson, and Rupert Grint
directed by David Yates
written by Steve Cloves; based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Warner Bros. (2010)
I was quite resistant to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon a decade ago. What a difference ten years can make.
It’s coming to the end now, and at the end of the summer there won’t be any more Harry Potter movies–lord willin’. I have enjoyed them all, mind you, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
With Deathly Hallows, we’re to be treated to two movies, which is reasonable considering the sizable nature of the source material. The books seem to grow by an extra hundred pages with each installment. This time, Harry is on the run, as Voldemort and his roving band of evil wizards impose their will on the wizarding world and seek to kill the bespectacled “chosen one.”
As the movie played out, I found myself swept up yet again in the adventures of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. And it really was their movie this time around, as they took up the vast majority of the screen time. As I recall from past films, there was plenty of room to feature the long-standing supporting cast. This time, however, much of those familiar characters fell to the wayside, as the teenage trio spent much of the film on the run and on their own.
I think I criticized the book the same way, but I’ll state again that Deathly Hallows abandons a lot of that childish mystery and wonder, complemented by a mosaic of characters, and instead focuses on a narrowly focused cat-and-mouse chase that really only acts as distraction and time-killing before the ultimate face-off between Harry and Voldemort–you’ll have to wait for Part Two for that gem.
I liked this movie, but the climax isn’t nearly as monumental as past Harry Potter films. That’s to be expected, I suppose, when you chop a book in half and offer up all the stage-setting of the first half as its own movie. It’s worth watching, yes, but I think I should have waited until I could have watched Part One and Part Two back to back.
edited by Ellen Datlow
Dark Horse (2011)
The ARC of this anthology came at the perfect time, as my reading tastes this spring and summer have been tuned to the noir and dark fantasy genres. So, to see a slew of authors each offer up short stories with a blending of elements from both genres, with Ellen Datlow expertly compiling the stories together, well … let’s just say this might have been the perfect summer read for me this year.
Now, being an anthology, this book offers up a mixed bag, even if does seem like the theme narrows the borders in which the authors can play. The truth is that noir fiction can be pretty damned diverse, and throwing in a supernatural bent only offers more freedom. It boils down to tone, I suppose. In any case, an anthologist like Ellen Datlow is about as reliable as they get when it comes to getting the best from the best.
Right off the bat I was charmed by a gritty heist story by Paul Tremblay called “The Getaway.” A getaway driver speeds his cohorts out of town after a botched robbery, only to find the leader of the pack isn’t in the car anymore. He’s just disappeared, and the rest start to wonder just what the guy they robbed might have had to do with it. This was had a good deal of tension and a cool bit of paranoia.
A great little tale of the wayward soul seeking redemption came from Jeffrey Ford’s “The Last Triangle.” A washed-out addict winds up at the end of his rope and going through a rough bit of rehab in an old woman’s house. But she doesn’t throw him out, and instead recruits him into helping her investigate a mystery involving some rune-like symbols graffitied around town. The dichotomy of the two characters felt familiar, but the magical flavoring and Ford’s way of moving the story along made it feel unique. Quite liked this one.
After that came Laird Barron’s “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven.” Young women hiding out in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, hiding out from the law and the men in their lives, are swept up in a local legend and an animal hide with some powers that imbue through whoever wears it. A damned strange story with an ending that really packed a punch. It wound up being one of my favorites from the bunch.
A bit of a quirky one came from Joe Lansdale’s “Dead Sister,” which had a fella hired by an alluring woman to find out who is digging up her sister’s grave each night. I found this one creepy as heck, but with an odd bit of humor to it that kept the rather macabre subject matter from being too gruesome.
Those are just a few samples of what you can expect from the anthology. Sufficed to say that I didn’t really find any of them to be a disappointment, and I was really happy to finally get a chance to sample the works of some authors I’ve not read from yet, but have heard tons of praise for. It’s just about as good as I could ask for from a themed anthology and I hope there is second volume sometime down the road. I suspect Supernatural Noir could be a wellspring of stories if this batch is any indication.
The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You
written by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryant Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch, and Dick Giordano
DC Comics/Vertigo (1993)
Where previous volumes in the Sandman series have walked along a dark path, A Game of You takes a bit more of an adventurous approach through the eyes of a troubled young woman named Barbie, while Morpheus is a minor character who only makes a cameo appearance. The story still has its share of dark elements, but where previous volumes had a clearer horror tinge to them, this volume reminded me more of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
Barbie’s a bit of a washout cover girl reduced to living in a New York City slum with an eclectic band of neighbors, including her transvestite best friend, Wanda. She hasn’t dreamed in a long time, and now–years later–her dreams have come looking for her. So, while a hurricane looms off the coast in her world, Barbie dreams for the first time in ages, back in the same landscape she knew as a little girl. There’s a sinister force called the Cuckoo, however, that wants her destroyed so it can escape the dreamworld and infect Barbie’s world and many others. This leads to a few of Barbie’s friends following into her dream to save her, while Wanda stays behind and guards Barbie’s sleeping self from harm.
This story, while a bit understated compared to other stories with the Sandman, really exemplified Gaiman’s ability to take disparate and seemingly unrelated pieces and bringing them together in such a way that it makes total sense at the end. As for the artwork, it seemed to really carry that early 90s vibe, though don’t press me to explain that. I just remember reading a few comics from that time and seeing some of the frames in this book brought that all back. So, I guess there’s a good nostalgia trip for anyone who read comics back in those days.
The characters, for the most part, were incredibly well defined as the story progressed. Thessaly, one of Barbie’s neighbors with a knack for witchcraft, had to be my favorite from the book. Just imagine a mousy brunette in glasses with no compunction towards snapping the neck of anyone who assaults her. The dreamland characters were a tad annoying, and the one I liked the most even wound up getting killed first–how do ya like that.
A Game of You is basically just one more clear example of how damned good Neil Gaiman is at storytelling. I just hope there’s more of Dream in the sixth volume–or Death. She’s cool too.