Literary Matters: Tanya Huff: A Confederation of Valor

I’m a long-time fan of military science fiction having read my way through the entire of Neal Asher’s Polity and a much older series as well, Poul Anderson’s Flandry. I however had not known that Tanya Huff whose most excellent urban fantasies I’ve read did military sf. And it appears our reviewer, Robert Tilendis, came to her military sf the same way:

A Confederation of Valor is the omnibus edition of Tanya Huff’s first two novels in the Confederation series, Valor’s Choice and The Better Part of Valor. They demonstrate that Huff, whom I first encountered as a writer of sharp, witty urban fantasy, is equally at home in the realm of military sf.

Go here to read his full review. I expect you, like me, will want to read this book after reading his review!

Literary Matters: Cherie Priest: Jacaranda

Cherie Priest has been doing a bizarre mashup of alternate history, zombie, steampunk, and Old West tropes for sometime now. It’s fun stuff which is popcorn literature at its very best. The latest is Jacaranda which Richard Dansky says that ‘ the most recent entry in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century alternate history, reads like a movie. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. What it does mean, though, is that the beats of the story come in precise and familiar places, and that fans of the people-getting-picked-off-in-a-spooky-location cinematic subgenre are probably going to spot both the ending and the denouement coming.’

Intrigued? If so, read his review here.

Literary Matters: Simon R. Green’s Once in a Blue Moon

Simon R. Green has a number of series set in one complicated metaverse: the Secret Histories with the Droods who protect humanity, the Ghost Finders who deal with the things that do far worse than go bump in the night, the Nightside series which is about John Taylor, a PI operating in the secret, rotten heart of London, the Deathstalker series, a space opera of epic proportions, and the Forest Kingdom series which this novel is set in.

The previous novel in this series, Beyond the Blue Moon, ended this way: ‘And so they rode out of Forest history once again, and back into legend, where they belonged.’ That was thirteen years and I assumed that Green had wrapped the series up. Not so it turns out as Once in a Blue Moon but cleverly advances the story a century in the future thus giving us a new cast of characters.

You can read my review here.

Literary Matters: Clive Barker: Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium

No writers intentionally writes something that a reviewer doesn’t like, and no fan of that writer ever wants to see a review that is not favourable to that writer. Unfortunately this will happen to every writer at some point and so it was with this review by Richard Dansky of this novella:

Everything about the novella feels off-hand and rushed. The over-the-top character names give the distinct sense that they were created for the action figures first and the prose second; Mongroid and Venal Atomica in particular sound like musicians who failed tryouts for GWAR. As for the narrative, it drops loose ends everwhere and regards character motivation as optional. What could have been a magnificent portrait of monstrous love at the heart of a unique setting instead comes across as paint-by-numbers, checking off the boxes that readers expected from Barker in the heady early days of Books of Blood.

Read his full review here.

Literary Matters: Tim Powers’ Nobody’s Home

Tim Powers is well-known for taking an actual historical setting and taking that into something much more fanciful. So listen up as Richard Dansky tells us about his latest review:

Returning to the world of a much-beloved story doesn’t always work; George Lucas can tell us all about that. Any revisiting, especially one done after a long hiatus from that world, runs multiple risks. It can come across as a cheap nostalgia play, lacking the inspiration of the original. Alternately, the author’s style and approach may have changed so much over the intervening years that the new material doesn’t feel like the old stuff, creating dissonance and distance in the fictional space. And sometimes there just isn’t another story to tell that lives up to the first one, and the lesser light of the return diminishes the affection felt for the original.

Then again, every so often it works out. Case in point: Tim Powers’ Nobody’s Home, a novella that serves as a punchy return to the ghost-riddled London of The Anubis Gates.

You can read the full review here.

Music Matters: Up in The Air: Moonshine / Gavin Marwick: The Long Road and The Far Horizon

I’ve seen Gavin perform a half dozen times both in his native Scotland and down London. He never fails to anything but a stellar musician, be he solo or performing with one of the bands that he’s been in.

So what does our reviewer say about his two latest music undertakings? Quite a bit actually. And she leads off with an apology: ‘Gavin Marwick is a talented and prolific Scottish composer and fiddle player. He’s in or has been in bands including Cantrip, Bellevue Rendezvous, Journeyman, Iron Horse, Ceilidh Minogue and Up in the Air. I’ve seen him perform (with Cantrip) and reviewed his Bellevue Rendezvous outings. So of course I was happy to offer to review these two CDs when offered. I’m just sorry it took me so long to listen and write!’

You can read her review here.

Literary Matters: Steven Brust’s Hawk

Brust-HawkWith Hawk we reach number fourteen in Steven Brust’s Taltos Cycle, and things are about to change. Again.

Vlad Taltos is tired of being on the run. The Organization – House Jhereg – has been hunting him for what seems like most of his life (well, OK, he has broken a couple of the House’s unbreakable rules), he has an eight-year-old son he’s only seen a couple of times, he misses his estranged wife, Cawti, and he’s had just about enough. The final straw comes when, coming surreptitiously into Adrilankha, he discovers a pair of Jhereg assassins lying in wait (not something that assassins normally do, but the bounty on Vlad is significant, with one proviso – it has to be Morganti, the enchanted blades that kill not only your body, but your soul: that’s how pissed off House Jhereg is). There is also a Phoenix Guard standing watch over the house. OK – enough is enough. Being Vlad, of course, he comes up with a plan that should get House Jhereg off his back for good. With a little help from his friends.  (Yes, he still has friends, and some pretty heavy-duty ones at that.)

The novels in the Taltos Cycle have been more and more in chronological order lately – the early installments tended to jump around in time – which enables a larger ongoing narrative, and also makes it easier to spot Vlad’s development as a character – and he does develop. They’re still episodic – each volume can stand alone – but the ongoing story lines are clearer.

Well, as much as anything with Vlad is clear.  As usual, Vlad has a plan, but he’s not letting us in on it, even a little bit – the lead-up to the climax is almost perfectly opaque, to the extent that the denouement is particularly satisfying – it surprises Vlad as much as it does the reader. (And yes, he does use all those implements he’s assembled — well, most of them.)

Speaking of which, this one struck me as particularly lean and focused, even if I had no idea what to expect:  the digressions that could so easily derail the story, but which in Brust’s hands serve to enrich it, are almost totally missing: it’s a series of encounters and errands that provide color but also move the story along, even if we have no idea where it’s going.

What can I say? Except to note once again that not only is Brust fun to read, but it’s obvious that he had fun writing.  If you haven’t read any of Brust’s work, start with the Taltos Cycle; if you’ve not kept up with the Cycle, get on it.

(Tor Books, 2014)

Literary Affairs: Tad Williams: The Very Best of Tad Williams

Tad WilliamsNot every collection has to be earth-shattering. Not every story has to be a mind-blower. Sometimes it’s nice to have something that’s just amusing and easy to read and straightforward, without challenge or morally fraught situations. And that’s where The Very Best of Tad Williams comes in, because that’s precisely where it slots in along the speculative fiction spectrum. Split between shaggy dog stories and Outer Limits-style“Gotcha!”s, the collection speeds along smoothly and without too many hiccups.

The collection opens with “The Old Scale Game”, which is nicely representative of both the level of wordplay and the tone that carries throughout. A story about a knight and a dragon who go into business together rather than duke it out, it features some amusing imagery and resolves like a sitcom when the dragon sets his buddy the knight up with a local witch, staving off his incipient alcoholism so that all three – plus the army of other mythical creatures they’ve adopted along the way, can live happily ever after. The next piece, “The Storm Door”, hits the other side of the equation, as a psychic detective comes home to provide lengthy exposition and receive an unpleasant surprise.

The best piece is the elegant, emotionally affecting “Monsieur Vergalant’s Canard”, a tale of two brothers and their clockwork duck. Providing a twist that is both unforeseen and entirely appropriate, it is a small miracle of precision. “Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn” is another standout, eschewing easy approaches while remaining satisfying in connecting and resolving its three parallel tales of a doubting priest, an artist and his muse, and a princess out of myth. And there is “Child of an Ancient City”, perhaps the best-known piece in the collection and also a collection of tales-within-a-tale.

The remainder of the book, with the main exception of the screenplay for “Black Sunshine”, a teenagers-keeping-a-terrible-secret horror movie, is more along the line of literary comfort food. “Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air” is perhaps the most over-the-top, a tale of a precocious little girl correcting all of God’s mistakes during creation. “A Stark and Wormy Knight” is another story with a dragon protagonist, this time in the form of a story to dragon young’uns, complete with folksy dialect and a sudden revelation that sucks much of the humor out of the telling. “Omnitron, What Ho” is a flat Jeeves and Wooster pastiche, though I’m fairly certain Bertie never shoved anyone out an airlock, and “Some Thoughts Re: Dark Destructor” takes Hollywood-style script notes and applies them to elementary school kids’ home-brew comic book. With these, your mileage may vary, based on personal experience and appreciation of the subject matter.

“Z is For…” and “Not With A Whimper, Either” fall more on the “gotcha” side of the ledger. The former could easily be a classic-era Twilight Zone episode, while the latter details the rise of an AI through text conversation with an everyman figure. A clever gag at the end saves it from self-seriousness, but the approach to technology feels a bit dated. And the Otherland “The Boy Detective of Oz” also suffers from bumpy tech, as well as a lack of clear stakes in its tale of a virtual Kansas populated by refugees from Oz.

The collection closes with its most unsettling piece, “And Ministers of Grace”. The story of an interplanetary assassin sent by a theocracy to disrupt a secular utopia, it wears its politics on its sleeve. Separated from home and the reassuring voices of its religious leaders, the assassin wreaks havoc, evolves, and plays out the drama of its own rebirth. To its credit, the story ends without a firm conclusion, dialing back the presentation from earlier to present a more nuanced, eerie possibility.

Perhaps Williams simply works better in long form, and the short story model doesn’t allow him the space he needs to unpack his concepts properly. That being said, many of the pieces here are, if not memorable, enjoyable, and the one-two punch of “Vergalant” and “Ministers of Grace” will provide food for thought long after the taste of the other stories has faded.

(Tachyon, 2014)

Literary Matters: Lucius Shepard: Beautiful Blood

There are lessons in Lucius Shepard’s Beautiful Blood, as reviewer Richard Dansky informs us.

It tells us that art slays dragons, no matter how large or powerful they may be.

It tells us that art takes a very long time to slay dragons, and that the dragon will be unaware of the poison that art is oh-so-slowly injecting.

It says that the artist may not live to see the end of their work and the death of the dragon, and that dragon slaying is still a worthwhile goal.

It says that even in dying, dragons can extract a terrible price.

And it says that as appealing as the idea of using the dragon to get rich and powerful is, in the end, it’s the dragon that’s using you.

Sounds sort of scary, but then, it’s dragons. Read Richard’s review to see how these lessons play out — if they do.

Literary Matters: Pierce Brown: Red Rising

With the onslaught (and I use that word advisedly) of dystopian future/supernatural teen-oriented books and/or movies (and sometimes both) recently . . . well, I’m going to let reviewer Denise Kitashima Dutton set the stage:

Another dystopian future full of young adults who don’t know where they fit in? Nooooo, you cry! You’re sick to death of angsty teens navel-gazing their way through revolution, and if you see another love triangle featuring supernatural creatures that take their shirt off for no good reason, you’ll end someone.

However, it seems that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is not what you were expecting, with greater or lesser degrees of trepidation. Read her review to find out why.