Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler

NyctophobiaTitle: Nyctophobia
Author: Christopher Fowler
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Solaris Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, gothic
Rating: 7/10

Callie, an unemployed London architect, has just escaped her troubled life and infuriatingly critical mother by marrying a charming, wealthy Spaniard. With no reason to want to stay in London, she’s happy to Andalusian Spain as he has longed to do, and is even more excited when she finds Hyperion House. It’s a fascinating, unique piece of architecture – built into a cliff, most of the house is designed to be flooded with sunlight, while the smaller section within the cliff is left in total darkness.

The house is isolated from the nearest village but comes with a gardener and housekeeper who have worked there for their entire lives. With no job and no obligations except looking after her husband’s young daughter, Bobbie, Callie decides to investigate the mysteries of the house and write a book about it. However, the dark rooms at the back awaken her nyctophobia – fear of the dark – and exploring them fills her with dread. Her fear might not be unfounded – there seem to be ghostly people living in the back of the house, caged in the darkness. At first Callie only catches glimpses of these ghosts, but they become increasingly malevolent, and she’s convinced that what they want is to escape and take over the happy lives of the people living in the light.

When it comes to horror, the stories I find most disturbing are the ones that cut closest to the bone. Zombies might be interesting, but I don’t seriously expect to see one. Bizarre science experiments can offer great ideas, but it’s a bit remote for someone who doesn’t work in that field. But the fear of an unseen presence, in the darkness, at home, is something primal that just comes to me naturally (I’m sure everyone thinks about it at some point), so a story about ghosts in mysterious locked rooms is pretty likely to keep me up at night.

And this is one of the things that I thought the novel did well. It moves very slowly and takes a while to build up any kind of tension or intrigue, but when Callie finally starts exploring those dark rooms, it’s incredibly creepy.

The house itself is interesting, and I particularly like the way the author entwines setting, plot and character. Hyperion House is not just a well-lit house with big windows. It’s designed so that the bright side captures and reflects all the available sunlight, from dawn until the very last moment of the sunset. It’s filled with clocks, so that the housekeeper knows exactly when to start turning on the lights, and the occupants never have to be in dark or even dim light before they go to sleep. Such a marvel is perfectly suited to the hot, sunny Spanish climate. As someone who tends to move around to the warmest, brightest parts of the house, I thought this sounded absolutely wonderful. Nevertheless, it’s clear that it can be disconcerting. Callie notes that the shadows don’t move, which is faintly disturbing. She finds it increasingly difficult to be in the dark, and develops some health problems from the constant exposure to light.

Eventually, Callie figures out that the architect designed the house to protect his wife from her own nyctophobia, the same fear that is being reawakened in Callie. But this raises a critical question – if the architect’s wife suffered from a fear of the dark, and the house was designed so she could avoid darkness, why build perpetually dark rooms at the back?

There’s also something suspicious about the way the construction of the house is based on doubles. It’s a classic horror trope that normally refers to people but works well in architecture too:

The house appeared to have been constructed according to strict principles based on pairs, twins, opposites and doubles. For every statue there was a matching one, every chair was one of two, every ornament had its mate, every tile and section of cornicing had its opposite number. This determined symmetry had a curiously calming effect, as if it was impossible to find anything alone and out of place.

In addition, the rooms at the back are mirror versions of the main house, except that they’re much smaller and decorated with cheap, shabby furniture and ornaments.

The construction of the house mirrors Callie’s personal problems. Like the architect’s wife, she has nyctophobia. There are also parallels with her slightly problematic marriage. She loves Mateo and they seem very happy, but she can’t deny that marrying him has saved her from some of her biggest problems – unemployment and living with her mother. She has a deeply troubled past that she keeps secret for fear of driving him away. Like the house, Callie tries to emphasise the light while keeping the darkness locked away.

Her psychological issues and the threat of ghosts are skilfully echoed in larger social problems, which are frequently mentioned as as an integral part of the Spanish setting. One of the reasons Mateo was able to buy the house is that it become cheaper because of the economic downturn, which “hangs over everything like a spectre”. Spain – and the quiet Andalusian countryside in particular – is described as being full of ghosts because people cling to memories of the Civil War, unable to move on. The little town of Gaucia is described as being old-fashioned and superstitious, no matter how modern they try to be. That struggle between past and present continues throughout the novel – the characters may use iPads, call each other on Skype or listen to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but everything around them seems like it has barely changed in a century. It’s like the past is a weight dragging the present down into the darkness, and Spain, like Callie, can’t or won’t deal with the problems that the past represents.

All this serves to make Nyctophobia a fairly sophisticated, thoughtful horror novel. And it keeps a firm grip on those themes until the very end, rather than unraveling in a chaotic scare-fest, as some horror novels tend to.

That said, Nyctophobia fails to be a great novel. It’s marred by flaws that bug me too much to be overlooked. Firstly, it lacks a pervasive sense of horror until fairly late in the book. In some ways the narrative is constructed like the house, so that the creepy bits are confined to the dark rooms. I might have been on edge when Callie went into the darkness, but I seldom felt any tension when she was out in the light, especially since the plot moves quite slowly. Perhaps this was intentional, but I would have liked a bit more of the uncanny.

Then, a major problem with Nyctophobia is one common to horror stories – information is withheld for the sake of the story, in a way that can be frustrating or seem contrived. Characters who know exactly what’s going on refuse to explain anything, offering no more than a few cryptic clues until the big reveal at the end. The protagonist, in turn, asks the wrong questions or avoids talking about what scares him or her for fear of  being assumed to be insane (this is understandable, but still annoying).

In this case, Callie avoids telling Mateo about her fears, even when it seems perfectly reasonable to do so, like asking him to accompany her while she explores the dark rooms. Mateo, she keeps telling us, is very old-fashioned, and she doesn’t want to risk driving him away with all this unpleasantness. If she starts going on about ghosts, Mateo’s going to see her as a stereotypically irrational woman. Mateo actually knows a few significant details about the house, but he opts to be a patronising twat and keeps silent while Callie puzzles through it herself, so that she has something to keep her occupied. Callie could get help from the housekeeper Rosita, who obviously knows everything, but Rosita is playing a mysterious, cranky old lady and isn’t going offer anything but cryptic clues until Callie has figured it all out for herself (one of those “you wouldn’t have understood” scenarios). Later, after Callie digs up some info from a variety of old documents, we learn that it was mostly common knowledge to the townspeople, but they either did not want to tell her or were prevented from communicating with her.

The only advantage to this is the sense that Callie is being deceived and manipulated, which adds a teeny bit of intrigue. And Callie, with her many insecurities, starts to wonder if people are deliberately toying with her. But mostly it just feels like the author is clumsily regulating the flow of information to suit his story, and I find that irritating.

But despite its shortcomings, Nyctophobia is a decent read. I think it would appeal to fans of gothic fiction, with its measured pace punctuated by intense, otherworldly scares. Personally, I liked it for the intimacy of its horror (at home, in the dark, so it’s going to resonate with me the moment I go to bed), and the way the author entwined this so neatly with social and psychological ‘ghosts’.

War Stories edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War StoriesTitle: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
Editors: Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Apex Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: military science fiction short stories
Rating: 8/10

Military sf is one of the sf subgenres I’m least likely to read, but admittedly I haven’t read very much of it, so I thought it was worth giving this anthology a shot. From what I have read my assumptions are that it tends to be by men and about men, focusing on combat and toying with ideas for badass military tech – big guns, heavy high-tech armour, tanks, spaceships, drones etc. I like action, but it’s usually not enough to carry a story for me and is usually better on a big screen than in a book.

This anthology from Apex Publications was very quick to show me how narrow-minded those assumptions were. Divided into four sections – Wartime Systems, Combat, Amored Force and Aftermath – it shows that this military sf is not just soldiers dealing death with their super tech. Instead, these stories focus on people, soldiers battling with their roles as professional killers, the difficulties that their families and partners go through, the people designing military technology, the people forced to live with war tech even if they’re not fighting, veterans struggling to live in the mundane world. War, as is argued in the introduction, happens in our minds and bodies as well as on battlefields.

This isn’t a male-dominated anthology either. In the acknowledgements, editor Jaym Gates mentions that it focuses on the perspectives of female and LGBTQ characters. So there are plenty of female authors, and most of the stories have major female characters. In fact, when I encountered a story without a major female character, it stood out as distinctly odd and old-fashioned. In addition, there are loads of LGBTQ characters and relationships, most of which are treated as perfectly natural rather than being spotlighted as something radical. I love seeing this in sff, and we could use more of it – LGBTQ relationships and good male/female gender balances that can just exist without having to be justified, as if we need to explain why we’re not sticking to the tired old straight-white-male tradition.

So a major drawcard was that War Stories seemed fresh and progressive to me (apologies to military sf fans who already knew the genre was so much more than I assumed it to be). There are some stories that are more conventional than others and as with any anthology I didn’t like everything, but most stories offered something memorable. I’ll go through my favourites and the ones that stood out.

Wartime Systems

This was a great section to start with and I enjoyed it the most. It starts off very strong with “In the Loop” by Ken Liu, my favourite story in the anthology (I’m just a sucker for Ken Liu). Kyra’s father is a drone operator who becomes increasingly traumatised by having to make thousands of cold, calm decisions about whether or not to kill someone by drone strike. When Kyra grows up, she designs a programme to replace the humans controlling the drones, so that no one ever has to bear the responsibility for killing. In designing the programme, Kyra gets right down to the cold reality of war – that it’s about preferring the lives of one group over the lives of another, that different lives have different values. In this case, Americans are assigned the highest value, anyone ‘ethnic’ falls below that, and the lives of the poor and desperate are worth the very least. Kyra doesn’t agree with the ethics of this, but she has to admit that she thinks in similar terms – the life of her father meant far more to her than the thousands of people he killed. As usual, Ken Liu is brilliant at capturing the nuances of these psychological conundrums.

Most of the other stories in this section look very closely at the way tech affects personal lives. In “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, an albino child who would normally have been kidnapped by human traffickers for muti, is protected by a drone left over from a war. In “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow, a cyborg struggles with issues of purpose and identity after the war ends and her side abandons her on the planet as if she were nothing more than a piece of dead tech. “Non-Standard Deviation” by  Richard Dansky also explores the idea of the tech itself as sentient beings affected by war, although in a very different way.

Then “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen shifts the focus from fighters to civilians. In a post-war Syria, Western powers have enforced peace by assigning wasp drones to monitor every adult. The wasp can kill the person it observes, which is exactly what happens to a seventeen-year-old boy at the start of the story. It’s written from the POV of his mother, who was a social media activist during the war. I like this story partly because it depicts a more nuanced Islamic society than you typically see (no one is obsessed with religious propriety) and because it addresses issues of perspective and understanding in war. The Wasp Keepers are considered miraculous because they ended the war and kept the peace, but all the information they gather fails to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make.

Combat
This, of course, conforms more to the idea of what I thought military sf was, but I was still impressed with what I found.

“All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is a bit vague about exactly what conflict is being fought and how the characters fit into that, but I enjoyed it for “the girl and the gun” – the depiction of the relationship between a girl (an assassin) and her sentient sniper rifle. The story has a kind of quiet, assured tone that sticks with me and makes me want to go back and read it again.

“One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer also features a brilliant assassin – a Muslim woman who shoots people through the left breast partly because her culture made it difficult for her to look men in the eye, and partly because her mother – a famous actress – died of breast cancer. That alone is the kind of thing to pique my interest, but this story is also notable for how much worldbuilding, conflict (cultural, military, personal) and character is woven into a few words.

“Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata is a bit heavy on the combat for me, but I do like the tech ideas she explores in this story. Soldiers wear skullcaps that enable monitoring and communication but also alter their mental states, suppressing difficult thoughts and emotions, keeping them calm and focused even when they’re tired and traumatised. Most soldiers find it easier to wear skullcaps all the time, but one woman puts it on only when she absolutely has to, despite the harrowing psychological effects of taking it off.

Armored Force
Like the Combat section, this is another aspect of military sf that I expected to see a lot of, but wasn’t particularly excited about. However, Yoon Ha Lee immediately blew me away with her contribution. Her surreal stories tend to be so bizarre that I often have to read them at least twice to make sense of them, but her weirdly beautiful imagery and incredible ideas are worth the effort. “Warhosts” is by far the most imaginative story in this collection. In a distant future, mankind has developed sentient nanotech that later took control over them (whether this happened planet-wide or only in a small region is unknown and unimportant). Now the nanotech fight their own small-scale wars – or perhaps just war games – using humans as armoured mechs. I don’t mean that the humans wear armour – the nanotech invades their bodies’ systems and forces them to grow terrible plating and protrusions. Their bodies are covered in sores that the tech use as entry and exit points. The humans are in constant pain, but kept alive and fit enough to fight each other. This military horror sf is told from the POV of a nanotech ‘scout’ whose job it is to understand the personalities and culture of the humans in order to improve their fighting abilities.

“Suits” by James L. Sutter is the story without a significant female character, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s told from the POV of a mech technician – a specially cloned midget who is never allowed off the army base and does little more than work on the mechs. He’s knows virtually nothing about the war he’s helping to fight until one traumatic day when his officer takes him out to work on a malfunctioning suit.

Like the Linda Nagata story in the Combat section, “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr shows soldiers who have come to use their military tech as a crutch. Mechs enable people with battered, stitched-together bodies to be brutally functional in the field, and most soldiers prefer to spend all their time in the suits rather use their own faltering bodies. The plot of this story wasn’t particularly memorable, but I liked the idea about the suits.

Aftermath
Naturally the pace slows here. The high-action conflict has been left behind and the protagonists are back home fighting mostly psychological battles that are sometimes harder than facing guns and bombs.

In “War Dog” by Michael Barretta, the genetically engineered weapons of war persist even though the war has ended. This is a huge problem in the case of a deadly, infectious fungus that causes zombie-like behaviour (reminds me of the game The Last of Us). There are also human-dog hybrids who don’t pose a danger but are supposed to be wiped out simply because society considers them abominations. You could compare them to veterans who struggle the most in normal society – no matter how hard they fought or how much they sacrificed, they are ostracised from the societies they protected. In this story, a retired officer tries to protect one of the ‘war dogs’, and begins an intimate relationship with her.

“Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman takes place during a space war fought by the African Federation and it’s worth mentioning for that alone – the battles are in the background, but for once Africa isn’t portrayed as a continent of sad, dusty victims fighting desperately with inferior tech. Sadly, but not implausibly, South Africa’s class and racial politics have not evolved at all (and may even have regressed), as is painfully clear in the protagonist’s personal relationships and experiences when she returns from the war to her family’s struggling farm.

In “Enemy State”, Karin Lowachee tells a story from the POV of a man struggling to have a relationship with a soldier who can’t handle normal life and keeps going back to war. He describes their relationship like a war – putting up defences, trying to break through barriers, treating his heart like fort.

So, overall, an excellent, eye-opening read that goes far beyond what I expected of this genre. War Stories will be published on 7 October and costs $5, but is worth a lot more :)

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsTitle: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy
Rating: 9/10

There’s been a great deal of hype around this novel, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s quite possibly my favourite 2014 publication, competing only with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (a totally different kind of story that shouldn’t otherwise be compared with this one).

The story begins with a relatively simple mystery – in the city of Bulikov a well-known Saypuri historian named Efrem Pangyui is found beaten to death. It’s a shocking but unsurprising crime. Bulikov and the rest of the Continent are occupied by Saypur, and a great deal of their history has been censored and suppressed. Dr Pangyui was hated for being given permission to research all that history by the Saypuri government.

When Special Agent Shara Komayd hears about the death, she immediately travels to Bulikov to take charge of the situation before anyone else can. Shara trained Pangyui for his time in Bulikov, she studied the same history at university, and as a member of the most powerful family in Saypur, she has the authority necessary to solve this crime. Accompanying her is her ‘secretary’/bodyguard Sigrud, a Dreyling (a huge, heavily muscled Viking type who specialises in killing people. Very, very violently.)

To understand the significance of this part of the plot, you need to understand the political and mythological worldbuilding that makes this such an amazing book. Saypur and the Continent have a difficult history resulting in a very tense, tangled present-day relationship. For centuries, the Continent thrived on the power of its Divinities – very real, tangible beings whose miraculous abilities defined and maintained people’s lives on the Continent. The Divinities bent the laws of physics to make the Continent into whatever they wanted it to be, while magic and magical artefacts known as miracles were a part of everyday life for the people.

With the power and protection of the Divine, the Continent was able to colonise Saypur. Saypur was thus enslaved until a hero known as the Kaj found a way to kill the Divinities. His army was small and pathetic, but without the Divinities and all they had built, the Continent was crippled. The colonised quickly became the colonisers, and that oppressive dynamic defines the present-day relationships between the two regions. In addition, the loss of the Divinities reduced the Continent to a primitive society, having always relied on the magic of the gods instead of making their own medical and technological advancements. Saypur enjoyed technological superiority and remained content to keep it that way, while scoffing at the poverty and backwardness of the Continent.

In order to force the Continent to submit to a mundane way of life stripped of Divine influence, Saypur imposed the Worldly Regulations, making it illegal not only for anyone to worship the gods, but to acknowledge that they ever existed. Trying to erase history seems to have kept the peace while nourishing a deep-seated hatred for Saypur, especially in Bulikov. Once the magnificent Holy City, it is now a dirty ruin and home to a sect known as the Restorationists, who want to stay true to tradition and reclaim the Continent’s cultural identities even though the gods that made that way of life possible are long gone. So when Pangyui pitched up with permission to study the Divinities, he posed an appalling insult to a society of people who were already poor and oppressed.

This is just the very basics of the worldbuilding – the novel is packed with it, and even toward the end you continue to learn more. Every chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical document, and the investigation itself requires a lot of information about the Divinities, their miraculous artefacts, and their roles on the Continent. It might seem intimidating but as someone who loves mythology, I found every bit of it fascinating. When worldbuilding focuses heavily on politics or complex technology I can get a bit lost, but Bennett’s mythology combines politics, culture and (magical) technology in fantastical narratives that makes all those details as riveting as the most action-packed bits of plot (and there’s plenty of that too).

Equally impressive is the way the worldbuilding just keeps… building. We not just getting random bits of information, or even just information to set the scene, but information that adds depth to the world, the plot and the characters.

For example, the structure of Bulikov itself functions as a powerful image for the way the Worldly Regulations have affected society. The god Taalhavras built a large part of the city, but when the Kaj killed him everything he’d built disappeared immediately, an event known as the Blink. This had the effect of pinching and crumpling the city leaving it with spaces and features that no longer make any sense, including countless staircases leading nowhere (hence, City of Stairs).

In interpersonal terms, this tension arises in the anxious way some Continentals speak to Saypuris, afraid to make any reference to the gods in case they get punished for it. But all this denial of history only serves to emphasise how much it has shaped the present, and this is continually developed in the worldbuilding. For example, a story about the Divinity Kolkan explains why the Continent has such conservative attitudes towards women and sexuality. This, in turn helps us understand Shara’s former lover Vohannes, an aristocrat from the Continent. They fell in love at a university in Saypur, but Vo turned out to be gay (Shara suspects he liked her boyish figure). Homosexuality is banned on the Continent, and this informs Vo’s attitudes towards the gods and his society, which in turn has bearing on the plot.

Shara’s character is perfect for her role because she’s one of very few people in the world who know so much history. In fact, she knows so much about things that people aren’t supposed to know about that she’s not allowed to go home because of how extensively she’ll be questioned. One of the most devastating secrets she holds is the possibility that some of the Divinities are still alive.

What I really, really love about her character, is that all this knowledge makes her a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to compare her to Sigrud. Shara seems unimpressive – small, skinny, bespectacled, always drinking tea. Sigrud is brilliant as the badass of typical badasses – huge, muscular, terrifying. He’s violent, ridiculously hard to kill, but also highly skilled in the stealthier aspects of their work. He’s got some truly awesome action scenes in the book, some of the most entertaining I’ve ever read.

However, there’s a point where Sigrud says that “Shara Komayd is as much a weapon as he is”, and this made me think about her a bit more carefully. What Sigrud says is true, not because she can fight but because she studied obscure subjects. She knows forbidden histories, and she can perform miracles (ie. cast spells) that aren’t supposed to work anymore. In this story, that counts for a lot. Shara Komayd is a badass because she’s a geeky academic. And is that not the perfect heroine for dedicated sff fans?

So we’ve got these incredible characters, fascinating worldbuilding, an intriguing mystery, and lots of action. It also has some very interesting ideas on the nature of gods, religion, and the relationship between humans and the divine. It’s the perfect fantasy book really – highly entertaining, inventive, thought-provoking. Seriously, don’t miss out on this one.

Sharp Edges by S.A. Partridge

Sharp EdgesTitle: Sharp Edges
Author: S.A. Partridge
Published: 25 August 2013
Publisher: Human & Rousseau
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: YA
Rating: 7/10

For her seventeenth birthday, Demi goes to a music festival in the Cederberg with five of her friends. Sadly, what was supposed to be the best night of her life ends up being the last, and her friends go home traumatised by her tragic death. Her boyfriend Damien feels like he doesn’t have a reason to live anymore. Ashley and Verushka – known as V – has lost their best friend. James and Demi weren’t close, but he’s torn by the fact that her death ruined his relationship with V, who hates that they were together in his tent when Demi died. Siya will never be able to forget being the one to find Demi’s body, but all his father cares about is the fact that he went to a music festival without permission.

Sharp Edges delves into the minds of each of these characters, with each chapter taking us closer to Demi’s death and the events leading up to it. We not only get a sense of how deeply Demi’s death has affected her friends’ lives, but also how a tangled mess of teenage angst, lust and longing brought them all to this fate.

And what South African author Partridge does very well is depict some of the psychological ‘horrors’ of adolescence, like being stuck under the thumb of domineering or inadequate parents, juggling the various aspects of your evoling identity, being constantly awkward and angry and unsure of yourself.

As we move through each character’s POV narrative, you can also how painfully self-absorbed they all are. Each is struggling with their own issues, while almost completely failing to notice what difficulties the others are going through.

I liked some POVs more than others. Damien struck me as melodramatic while James was a bit boring as the typical bad boy hiding deep feelings under a callous exterior. Siya’s story was more interesting though, and Demi became more complex as the book progressed. At first she bothered me because some of the characters remember her as being so perfect – a beautiful, bubbly blonde with an endlessly sunny disposition. She even dyes her hair with a perfect array of rainbow colours. However, we eventually see that this sparkly ray of sunshine isn’t quite as lovely as she initially appears. Demi was perhaps so cheerful because she was a flighty person who never took anything seriously. And there is a problem in the way Damien idolises her as his dream girl – might things have turned out differently if he acknowledged her flaws?

It’s a tragically complicated mess of adolescent feelings, psychologies, personal issues, and mistakes that can’t be easily unravelled for easy answers. It’s the kind of book that presents a great opportunity for arguing back and forth about what the characters did, what they should have done, how culpable they are, what it’s like to be a teenager, etc.

There was one major issue that bothered me though – why is there no investigation into Demi’s death? Was there an autopsy? She’s underage, dies at a music festival, and drowns even though she is able to swim, so surely the authorities – or at least Demi’s parents – would immediately start asking questions about drug abuse and drinking at the very least. I can understand why Partridge might have avoided this – it allows her to focus solely on the characters’ psychological journeys. An investigation might have gotten in the way. But it still seems strange that any legal consequences of Demi’s death are absent.

Nevertheless, Sharp Edges is a good read, and at only 130 pages you can tear through it in an hour or two.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version edited by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers GrimmTitle: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Editor: Philip Pullman
Published: my edition published 29 October 2013; first published 27 September 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: classics, short stories, fairy tales
Rating: 8/10

In 2012, Philip Pullman published a new edition of Grimms’ fairy tales. It’s not, as I first thought, a collection of modern versions of these tales. The Grimm brothers published seven editions of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), with the brothers collecting and editing the tales, not making them up. Pullman is essentially stepping in as a contemporary editor of an English edition.

What this means is that he hasn’t made any fundamental changes to the stories themselves – he hasn’t modernised the language, set them in modern times, or made significant changes to the plots. He describes his approach as such:

But my main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.

I was just a tad worried about this; I love fairy tales, but I have found that reading the ‘originals’ can be tedious. They are very strange, frequently absurd or shocking, sometimes repulsive. Reading them has the odd effect of alienating me from them, unless accompanied by annotations and interpretations that allow me to approach the tales as a scholarly pursuit, rather than trying – and failing – to read them just for pleasure.

But Pullman has given me a fresh appreciation for the tales in their classic form. They are still full of the most insane wtf-moments – like when a king randomly decides that his twelve sons must immediately be executed if his wife gives birth to a girl, and has twelve coffins made to show he’s serious – but I enjoyed reading the anthology in a way I didn’t experience when reading an older one.

Pullman’s changes, though small, seem to have made a big difference. He uses a voice that sounds like the classic fairy tale, but feels a bit more natural to the modern ear. The details he’s added (some of his own devising, some borrowed from other versions), made the stories a bit smoother, while keeping them essentially the same. He’s chosen what he considers to be the “cream of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen, so we’re getting some of the best stories. I think it also helps that he’s driven by plot, by the idea of fairy tales as fantastic stories that are wonderful to read because they’re so focused on what happens next.

The anthology opens with a wonderful introduction by Pullman that gives a brief history of the Grimm’s and their decision to collect and publish fairy tales. They didn’t walk around  the countryside transcribing tales told by peasants, but took tales directly from literary sources or transcribed stories told to them by people in the middle class, including family friends.

He then discusses some of the quintessential characteristics of the classic fairy tale. These are things that we all sort of know about fairy tales, but I for one like to see the essentials pinpointed; it makes me appreciate those qualities that much more:

  • Fairy tales are populated by conventional stock figures: “There is no psychology in the fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad.”
    “They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood.”
    When names are used, they’re simple everyman names, like Hans or Jack. Some characters come in multiples – twelve dancing princesses, seven dwarves – with little or no need to distinguish one from another.
  • Celerity: Fairy tales move very quickly, saying only what is needed and no more. “You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc. – is present.” These tales are about what happens and what happens next, seldom pausing for anything else.
  • Imagery and description: Almost none, except for the most obvious, like “white as snow, red as blood”, deep forests, beautiful girls, handsome men, golden hair. “The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread”, says Pullman. “[U]niqueness and originality are of no interest”.
  • This is not a text. Which is why this book can exist in the first place. The words of fairy tales don’t come from any definitive author, so they’re not static. They’re not like short stories or novels that have to be reproduced word for word. They came from an oral tradition, so changed according to the teller and the transcriber. “The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration”, says Pullman, and invites readers to retell these stories as they see fit. This of course, is also why fairy tale retellings are so popular among readers and writers.
  • ‘A tone licked clean’. The classic fairy tale has a kind of purity, in that it’s devoid of personal style. This makes sense, since there is no character psychology, and no imagery, description or anything else that depends so heavily on the writer’s personal style. The individual voices of authors and editors are still bound to creep in, Pullman admits, so he suggests not worrying too much about it.

I’m not going to review any individual stories; we all understand their appeal and the power of their plots and images, so I prefer to just describe the experience of reading them in an anthology. As I said, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. Rather than just reading them as a kind of research, I curled up with my Kindle and just enjoyed the tales as stories.

Perhaps because of the tales Pullman chose, my attention was also drawn to some common tropes and patterns – the way men decide to marry girls after a single glance, the way female beauty is almost always extraordinary (the princess is the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom), the boundless loyalty and determination of certain servant and helper characters. In addition, Pullman frequently draws your attention to certain images, shares variations of the tale (each one comes with a list of similar stories), or discusses interpretations.

Because he sticks closely to the Grimm versions, you’ll find some of the lesser-known – and less romantic – details of the most popular tales. Cinderella doesn’t have a fairy godmother but a magical tree growing over her mother’s grave, and her stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to try and fit into her slipper, a strategy that somehow works until talking birds draw the prince’s attention to the dripping blood. Snow White doesn’t wake up when the handsome prince kisses her; instead he convinces the dwarves to give him her comatose body in its glass coffin (god knows what he wants to do with it), and she wakes up when a servant carrying the coffin trips and dislodges the chunk of apple in her throat. Similarly, the princess doesn’t restore the Frog Prince to his humanity by kissing him; she gets angry and throws him against the wall.

All this not only revived my appreciation of classic fairy tales, but made me want to study them again (I did, for a bit, at varsity). To indulge that urge, I’ve got some great non-fiction review copies lined up:

- Children Into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination by Jan Beveridge, published byMcGill-Queens University Press on 15 October 2014

- Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (who Pullman references several times) published by Oxford University Press on 1 December 2014.

Can’t wait to get into those :)

Short Fiction Review: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker

winter2011-425x561In July I discovered K.J. Parker in Subterranean Magazine’s special K.J. Parker edition, featuring the stories “The Sun and I” (nominated for a World Fantasy Award) and “Illuminated” and the essay “Rich Men’s Skins”. I liked Parker’s work so much that I have since forked out the $48 for a signed limited edition of Academic Exercises, the first collection of Parker’s shorter works (I’ve been helplessly drawn to special editions lately). Justin Landon’s glowing review over at Tor was the final push I needed to buy the book, and stories like “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” convince me that it was money well spent even though I have yet to lay eyes on the book itself.

You don’t need to spend a cent to read Parker’s short fiction though – most of it is available for free at Subterranean Magazine, and you’ll find “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” in the Winter 2011 edition. The novella won a World Fantasy Award, although it’s really only fantasy because it happens to be set in the same fantasy world of the other Parker stories I read. It reminded me of Amadeus (1984), the Milos Forman movie about the twisted relationship between the brilliant Mozart and his mediocre rival Salieri.

In Parker’s story, a music teacher (our unnamed narrator) visits his student who has been condemned to death for murder. Immediately, you get a sense of the intimately tense relationship between them. The teacher loves, hates, admires, and envies the brilliant Subtilius, and is painfully aware of his own inferiority as a composer. You could say that he didn’t so much teach Subtilius as introduce him to more ways to be exceptional. Subtilius on the other hand is so comfortably, dismissively arrogant. He knows he’s a genius, but he doesn’t care about the music. He knows his teacher envies him, and, most importantly, he knows how badly his teacher needs the money he will make by selling Subtilius’ final composition. It’s unfinished, and there’s a superbly pathetic interaction between the two characters when the narrator suggests finishing the work.

“I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”

[…]

“No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”

“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”

“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”

Subtilius is being cruel and manipulative, but he’s absolutely right about his teacher’s abilities, and they both know it. The narrator’s problem is that he cares too much about the music (whereas Subtilius does not). He reveres it, he’s afraid of it, he feels pressured to create something worthwhile. At the same time he’s constantly stressed out by his work as a music teacher, the security of his post at the Studium, and, of course, his finances. His desire, his need to create is what cripples his ability to do so.

Then comes the loveliest bit of plot. Subtilius escapes and asks the narrator to help him get out of the city. As payment, he has written a symphony that the narrator can pass off has his own. Subtilius copied his style, but elevated it with his own genius so that it’ll be better than anything his teacher every produced.

It’s a relatively simple thing, but it really perverts the already twisted relationship between the two characters. The narrator has devoted his life to music, but remains a mediocre composer whose greatest achievement is a attaining a fairly modest teaching position at a college. Subtilius can write music that will be remembered forever, but makes it look effortless, like “something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers”. When offered the symphony, the narrator is torn. He feels like Subtilius has stolen his soul in imitating him so perfectly. He finds the idea of accepting the transaction shameful and disgusting. But then he thinks of the money.

As I mentioned, money is something that constantly stresses him out and impairs his creativity. He already lives a very spartan existence, and he’s terrified of the possibility of real poverty. He’s also quite proud of having climbed above his very humble beginnings, but those beginnings are always at the back of his mind. This is something that’s developed throughout the story, but I particularly like way Parker hints at it towards the end of the opening scene in Subtilius’ jail cell:

I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This kind of thing is part of why I’ve come to adore Parker’s writing – the image of the narrator’s little white scars from grabbing hot coins, and the way this conveys the sense of superiority and inferiority between student and master. It’s just so masterfully done. Subtilius is not rich, although he could easily be if he wanted to. He is, however, so rich in talent that he can write a brilliant symphony while hiding from the authorities in a bell tower, and then use that as currency. Giving his teacher the symphony is very much like the old duke maliciously tossing burning coins to the poor – the teacher wants that symphony so badly, but it will hurt and scar him to take it. Subtilius knows, and enjoys, his teacher’s anguish.

How the offer of that symphony changes his life is what drives the rest of this magnificent novella, exploring the nature and absurdities of creativity, talent and fame. The title refers to the success and genius that come at a great price, which is considered relatively small in comparison. At the start of the story, for example, Subtilius is in jail for murder, an act that is attributed to his artistic temperament. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” the Master of the college admits, and this is deemed acceptable, to an extent. After all, Subtilius has written music that will endure forever, while the man he killed was just a drunken thief who won’t be missed. “The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” This question is posed several times in the story, but rather than lecture on the morality of the situation, Parker simply depicts it in all its beautifully discomfiting complexity.

After writing this review, I’m even more pleased that I bought the signed limited edition of Academic Exercises. If you’re also interested in it, Book Depository still had stock at the time of posting.