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.
Mini-reviews of recent books. 5-star scale.
Bloodshot, Cherie Priest, 2011 ****
A vampire private eye/thief/assassin novel. I know, you’re rolling your eyes. “Another vampire story?” But really it’s pretty good. The narrator is a tough blood-sucker. Unlike the cover illustration, she’s got a flapper haircut and big black eyes. She and her cast of interesting accomplices rack up the body count, yet are generally motivated by loyalty and responsibility. I’m looking forward to the next installment of this series.
Devils’ Due, a Starcraft II novel, Christie Golden, 2011 *
I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft, and have read some of Golden’s WoW novels. They were OK. I have not played Starcraft II but apparently it involves embittered military men-turned-criminals using prostitutes, ripping off prostitutes, then beating up angry prostitutes. It didn’t seem like a game I want to play. I didn’t finish the book so technically it’s possible it got better.
Naked Cruelty, Colleen McCullough, 2010 **
Ms. McCullough has a thoroughly unpleasant imagination. Most of the people in this New York-based police procedural are horrifying in one way or another. I read the whole thing even though it made me feel grimy.
Other Kingdoms, Richard Matheson, 2011 ***
This book tastes like a Charles de Lint novel left out in the sun too long, overripe and fermented. A 80-something author of schlock horror novels reminisces about his teenaged, post-WWI experiences having sex with a witch and a fairy. It’s probably best not to dig too deeply into the meanings behind the voluptuous and vengeful witch-as-mother and the childlike, self-sacrificing, fairy-as-sister love interests. Lots of mythic detail of war and magic, with a likable narrative voice. I’ll probably continue to read anything Matheson cares to write.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is a surreal and melancholy first novel from 1998. A twisted young American named Augustus Rank develops a taste for vivisection and disturbing surgeries on animals. In the 1870s, rather than being jailed as a sociopath, he is taken in by a doctor. He migrates to Canada with a group of fanatical scientists yo fulfill his goal of creating a breed of super-dogs to use as an army. They work on his project for four generations – he is long dead when they finally perfect intelligent dogs, with human hands and voice synthesizers grafted on to them. The dogs revolt and kill their creators, then travel to New York City, where they become celebrities. They build an elaborate castle in the city, move into it, go insane, and die. (Believe it or not, this isn’t really spoiling the story, the main narrator makes most of this clear from very early on.)
The surreal and complex imagery, the themes of mental sickness and murder, evoke Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.
Monster Dogs is a strange slide into oblivion for the dogs. One feels not only sadness for them, but also discomfort from empathizing with something so alien, and a tinge of relief that there is a ‘solution’ to them. Well worth reading.
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.
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.
“Where are all the women SF writers?” you might have heard someone ask. Even though you might think there are few, based on our numbers receiving Nebula and Hugo awards (see this post for more on this issue), there are actually many excellent women SF writers. Here is a totally non-exhaustive list, feel free to add authors that are not here. (“SF” in this case is the broader category of “Speculative Fiction” than strictly “Science Fiction:)
Lois McMaster Bujold
Suzy McKee Charnas
C. J. Cherryh
L Timmel Duchamp
Karen Joy Fowler
C. S. Friedman
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
N. K. Jemisin
Ursala K. LeGuin
Vonda N. McIntyre
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Sheri S. Teppe
James Tiptree Jr.
Catherynne M. Valente
Joan D. Vinge
Michelle M Welch
For specific titles, may I recommend the “Mindblowing SF by women and people-of-color” list.
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.
Who could resist science fiction with a title taken from Yeats and a cover depicting a Godzilla-like creature menacing a radioactive Rising-Sun-rayed skyline?
2009’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a melancholy wisp of a novel, only 170 pages in softcover. James Morrow is lauded by some as the greatest sci-fi satirist currently writing. On the surface, this book seems like a comedic noir satire, starring a 1940’s monster-movie actor, but the framing of the book as a memoir written on yellow legal pads turns out to be quite sad.
The story traces the alternate-universe origins of “Gorgantis,” a Godzilla-like secret WWII weapon the US has developed in parallel with the bomb. You’ll have to read the book to find out why the US government would need a B-movie actor to inhabit a flame-breathing lizard suit to defeat the Japanese.