Sword and sorcery, mythology, magical realism

The Stranger by Max Frei

The Stranger by Max Frei

The Stranger is a slow-moving, epic dream-work. First published in Russia in 1996, it was finally released in English translation in 2009. The author and narrator, Max Frei, is an underachiever night-owl who has recurring dreams of another world. Near the beginning of the book, Max is rewarded for his persistent dreaming with a job in the dream world, and instructions on how to get there. Skeptical, he tries – and succeeds in entering Echo, the city he’s been dreaming about. He is given a job working the night shift for “The Department of Absolute Order,” something like a city police investigative bureau. He acquires new friends and responsibilities with his new position, and eventually comes into some very strange powers.

It reminds me in some ways of China Miéville’s books about strange cities. And in some ways it reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork city guard, although the humor is not as broad. But mostly, it’s unique and not easy to describe. The language is strangely formal, perhaps an artifact of translation. It has a surreal feel, appropriate for a novel set in a dream. The ‘authorities’ are strangely unmoved by the murders and mysteries they encounter.

I did not discover two additional delightful features of The Stranger until several weeks after I had finished it. First, the author, Max Frei has written many more books set in this dream world called Echo, and second, Max Frei is actually a pen name of Svetlana Martynchik. The bad news is that as of 2010, only this first volume of her many books has been translated into English.

The Wolf and the Crown by A. A. Attanasio

Published in 1998, The Wolf and the Crown is the third book in A. A.  Attanasio’s telling of the King Arthur myths. It follows the young king Arthor through the first year of his reign. He must prove to his subjects that he is a worthy king, and must prove to himself that he is a good man even though he fell prey to his witchy half sister’s seductions. This book is very different from its predecessors. The chapters are short, perfect two-page cliff hangers that whirl the reader between the various characters and situations. This book holds more horror than the ones that came before, but is leavened with great humor. It focuses on Arthor’s humanity, but doesn’t neglect the elements of the strange and magical one would expect from  Attanasio. Gods old and new, ghosts, witches, demons, angels, vampires, dwarfs, elves, stolen and misplaced souls, the hell that is our present day, the fabulous world tree that is the magnetic field surrounding the earth, the hollow hills above the dragon at the heart of the earth, heroic adventure, selfless sacrifice and a monkey, it’s all there in a tapestry of magic and realism. Attanasio isn’t bound by any of the old tellings of this myth; he takes the characters and elements and makes them uniquely believable, uniquely his own. As in many of Attanasio’s books, such as his first novel Radix and 1993’s The Moon’s Wife, the heroes are deeply flawed and take on painful journeys of self-discovery and change.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin’s 2010 debut The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a fascinating speculative fiction, set in a world in which gods not only exist, they also war, fall out of power, and can become enslaved by mortals.

The main character, Yeine, is the nineteen year old leader of her small tribe, a matriarchal culture in which men’s aptitude for glory and bravery is dismissed much like women’s is in contemporary American culture. Daughter of a royal who abdicated her position to marry into the tribe, she is drawn into a deadly competition for a throne and her life changes quickly when she becomes enmeshed in the political intrigues of the capital city.

The world Jemisin builds is rich with mythology. The sibling gods of night and day and the goddess of twilight warred against each other, one dying, another becoming enslaved, and the last used by royalty to rule their world. The exploration of the fate of the gods as it entwines with Yeine’s is engrossing. This is the first of a trilogy, I am looking forward to the next installations.

Shorts – crime, fantasy, horror

Foolproof, a 2009 novel by several authors, Barbara D’Amato, Jeanne M. Dams and, Mark Richard Zubro. It’s a NYC-based mystery/crime novel, which starts out very strongly with an affecting portrait of 9/11 seen through the eyes of two Twin Towers survivors that happened to both be late for work that day. It eventually deteriorates into silliness – the main characters become 007-esque anti-terrorism globetrotters. A Bill Gates analog blackmails the president to further his scheme to take over all the oil in the world. Entertaining but doesn’t really live up to those first chapters.

Vengeance Child by Simon Clark. A nicely done 2009 horror story about a child that accompanies bad fortune. I enjoyed the dilemma the main characters found themselves in. A child is a reluctant harbinger (or is it instigator?) of violence and death. What would you do if confronted with such a child? Can you imagine it ever being right to torture or kill a child?

The Gates (of Hell are about to open/”want to peek?” or “mind the gap”) by John Connolly. I really wanted to like this 2009 book. It fits my penchant for books about heaven and hell, and it features the Hadron Super Collider. The narration is in a chatty, directly-addressing-the-reader, copiously footnoted style reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, and the episodic adventures of a young main character were evocative of L. Frank Baum. I even appreciated the production quality, the cover art, text fonts and such are quite attractive. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), I fell out of love with it on footnote number 12. “It is a curious fact that small boys are more terrified of their babysitters than small girls are. In part, this is because small girls and babysitters, who are usually slightly larger girls, belong to the same species, and therefore understand each other. Small boys, on the other hand, do not understand girls, and therefore being looked after by one is a little like a hamster being looked after by a shark.” Etcetera. This big spoonful of gender essentialism, topped with a cherry of “women are some strange species that is not human” put me off. Already feeling like this book didn’t like me, I wasn’t as ready to suspend my disbelief of the stereotypes, gender insults, and general derivative nature of the story. This may more about me than about this book, but it took the fun out of it for me.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. A 2010 gothic horror novel masquerading as a “women’s” book. I appreciated the bluntness of the harsh story, the painful explication of a woman who has to marry her rapist, without ever directly naming it for what it is, and how the fallout from this affected an entire town. But, the first-person omniscient narration made me sea-sick. As the narrator described events and thoughts she couldn’t possibly have witnessed, I couldn’t decide if she was supposed to be making things up, or magic or what.  The narrator was a fascinating woman. She had some form of giantism, and the cover made me wonder what the Sociological Images blog would make of it. You can have a look at their post on women’s body types as depicted on book covers  here, but the general gist of it is that even if a fiction book stars a main character who is a “large” woman, the woman pictured on the book cover will be thin. In this case, the book cover features a heavy looking mannequin.  The author may have had little to no input on the cover image, but I still find it fascinating that the publishing house would opt for a headless mannequin rather than actually depict a large woman. Regardless of the cover art, I will be looking forward to Baker’s future books.

The Host: Stephanie Meyer

Not the fabulous South Korean horror/comedy movie of the same name, this is the 2008 book from Stephanie Meyer. If Robert Heinlein had page-counts like Stephen King and rose from the grave to re-write The Puppet Masters as a romance, this might be the book he would have ended up with.

Not having read the sparkly-vampire series, but unable to avoid having heard lots about it, I was not sure what to expect from Ms. Meyer’s “first book for adults.” It turned out to be the perfect book to read on a sick day, with snow and sleet falling outside. Perhaps overly long at 600+ pages in hardcover, it was still a quick read. The main theme of the story was similar to Meyer’s vampire stories – impossible love. “He’ll never love me, I’m a parasitic alien controlling his beloved girlfriend’s body! Perhaps if I try really hard and am the saintliest parasitic alien ever, he will learn to love me the way I love him.” And that’s the way it goes.

The book passes the Bechdel test, (“Does it have more that one named female character? Do they talk to each other? About something besides men?”) presuming multiple women in one body count. The infesting alien and her host converse constantly throughout the book, mostly about men but also about staying alive in a post-alien-invasion world. Meyers is an effective world-builder – the theme of alien parasites isn’t a new one, but she has her own unique twists. The aliens are peaceful and even beautiful when seen outside their host bodies.

Like all zombie/mind-controlling-parasitic-alien stories, there are allegories to be found but they are not as clear cut as say, George Romero’s zombie treatises on race and consumer culture. Meyer’s peace-loving aliens feel justified in taking over the entire human race since the humans are so vicious and murderous to each other and the rest of the planet. Is Meyers making some point about gun control? If you let the pacifists take the guns away, the whole world will be full of boringly nice alien Democrats?

Although the main character alien fulfills her role of self-sacrificing hero, it’s left wide open for a sequel or three, but it’s hard to imagine tweens or adults getting worked up about the main male love interest characters. They are both jerks.  After the inevitable movie comes out, it’ll be harder to make your eyes shine silver than to make your skin glitter for Halloween.

Sandman Slim: Richard Kadrey

I’m not particularly religious, but I’m a sucker for good books about the war between heaven and hell and the folks caught in between. This is a quality entry in that tradition.

I admit, I noticed the William Gibson blurb on the cover of Richard Kadrey’s 2009 Sandman Slim. I like Gibson and if he’s that enthusiastic about it, I figured I could give it a try. I was a little leery of Gibson’s characterization of it as a “dirty-ass masterpiece” – what does that even mean? But I took the chance.

The thank-you to Tom Waits in the Acknowledgments for permission to use lyrics confirmed I had made a good choice. The last time I saw someone thank Tom Waits for such permission was in a Kinky Friedman book, and it was pretty good. I liked that the lyrics Kadrey used were from “Alice,” not the “Nighthawks at the Diner” days. Not that there’s anything wrong with those days, it’s just good to see people are keeping up with the newer stuff.

Maybe Gibson thought the book was “dirty-ass” because in addition to being a writer, Kadrey likes taking pictures of women wrapped in electrical tape. But the book itself doesn’t have any sex scenes. The main character gets involved in a movie rental business but it’s pretty clear that they consider the porn-addled customers losers, not role models. So, I never did figure out what Gibson was getting at.

Anyhow, the book was good. Very visual, easy to imagine it as a movie in the head. It would be entertaining as a movie on the screen, too, as long as it didn’t star Keanu Reeves. Better some unknown with a burnt-up leather jacket.

There are strong women characters (although I am not sure it passes the Bechdel test). Magic and alchemy. Devils, angels, plenty of violence, and did I mention Tom Waits lyrics? The only false note was the title – the “Sandman Slim” moniker doesn’t even appear until halfway into the book. It doesn’t seem to make sense to the main character, either. It’s his celestial lucha libre name, pinned on him by someone else and it never has much meaning for the story. The uncharitable part of my mind wonders if it’s an attempt at pulling in unsuspecting Neil Gaiman fans. The more charitable side says maybe it was a title the author or editor had really wanted to use for years and finally he said “screw it” and pinned it on this book.

There is plenty of room for this book to become a series, and that would be just fine by me.