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.

GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!

____________________

The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.

 

    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.

 

    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!

 

    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.

 

  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.

 

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely FineTitle: We Are All Completely Fine
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror
Rating: 7/10

Daryl Gregory’s novella is only 192 pages long, and I finished it all in a rather enjoyable rainy Sunday morning. It’s horror, but it’s fairly light horror. It’s got monsters and suffering and appalling torture, but it’s also got lots of humour and hope.

It begins with six unusual people coming together for group therapy. Harrison became famous as ‘The Monster Detective’, a hero who inspired a series of novels. Stan became equally famous after being imprisoned by a family of cannibals who ate his limbs (and his friends). Barbara claims that someone known as the Scrimshander cut her open and peeled back her flesh to carve messages on her bones. Greta’s body is covered in dense, intricately carved scars. Martin refuses to ever take off his sunglasses, but sees things others don’t.

Each of these patients are sole survivors, marked by scars inside and out. They’ve all faced monsters, but Dr. Jan Sayer is the only therapist who has not dismissed their experiences as delusion. She’s brought them together, hoping that their knowledge of a monstrous other world will enable them to help each other live in the normal one.

I requested this book because the blurb suggested that it could be a fantastic character study, and the novella certainly delivers on that point. For the first half or so, there isn’t much of a plot. The characters just tell their stories and we get brief glances into their current lives. And it works very, very well.

Gregory’s writing is excellent, masterfully detailing the characters – Harrison’s awkward tendency to overthink everything; the polite, well-groomed appearance that covers Barbara’s tortured past; the way Martin immediately develops an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group. For a while Greta is noticeable only because of her persistent silence, while Stan, on the other hand, dominates every session with indulgent monologues about his suffering.

Whether I liked these characters I can’t quite say, but I was instantly invested in hearing their stories, understanding who they were, and how the hidden world of demons and monsters had shaped them. We Are All Completely Fine is, first and foremost, a character-driven story and it works brilliantly as such.

But there is a plot and, unfortunately, when this starts to develop about halfway through, the novella begins to falter. This is partly because it’s not a great plot. Although it ties the characters individual stories together quite neatly and gives us a bit of action, it’s just so… dull. Like something from a B-grade horror movie.

A second problem is that the plot comes to dominate the story when it’s actually the weakest element. The characters, who were strong enough to drive a narrative on their own, fade into the background of a plot that’s not nearly as interesting as they were. I still enjoyed reading about them, especially as Martin comes out of his shell and Stan’s old-man grumpiness lends a  wonderful dose of humour, but it just wasn’t the same.

The novel starts out feeling fresh and well-crafted, and then degenerates into something totally forgettable. I was left with the odd feeling of being very pleased and terribly disappointed at the same time. Since it’s so short though, I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot.

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural EnhancementsTitle: The Supernatural Enhancements
Author: Edgar Cantero
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: gothic, mystery, adventure
Rating: 6/10

Our protagonist – known only as “A.” – inherits a huge mansion from an American “second-cousin twice-removed”. A. had never even heard of Ambrose Wells until after the man committed suicide by throwing himself from his bedroom window at the age of 50. Incidentally, Ambrose’s father threw himself from the same window, at the same age.

Now A. finds himself incredibly rich, having gotten Axton House and all its contents. He moves in, along with his ‘companion’ Niamh (pronounced “Neve”; it’s gaelic), a mute teenage punk with blue and violet dreadlocks. Since A. is only 23 he figures he’s got 27 years before Axton House can drive him to suicide, and he and Niamh enthusiastically face the building’s many mysteries – the strange deaths of its previous owners, rumours that the House is haunted, the disappearance of the butler who worked there all his life, the coded messages left by Ambrose Wells, a secret society that met at the House. It’s a House with “supernatural enhancements” (an Edith Wharton quote). Soon, A. starts having disturbingly vivid dreams and nightmares, always featuring the same people, images and events, and these gradually start to affect his health and sanity. There is also an unexplained break-in at the House, after which Niamh gets a dog who she prudently names Help.

A. and Niamh go to great lengths to record their experiences. A. keeps a diary, a dream journal, and regularly writes letters to an Aunt Liza, detailing everything that happens to them and the steps they’re taking to solve the mystery. Because she’s mute, Niamh communicates using a notebook, and in her spare time she fills in the other speakers’ parts of the conversation, so that she’s basically got a written record of all her conversations. She also buys a voice recorder and video camera, and – when the situation in the House gets more threatening – she sets up surveillance cameras everywhere. These documents, as well as transcriptions of notable audio and video recordings, are what make up the narrative of The Supernatural Enhancements.

The blurb claims that “[w]hat begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in Cantero’s wholly original modern-day adventure”, and this is one of the few occasions where I’d say the blurb is spot-on.

At first the book has a creepy tone, when A. starts to see the rumoured ghost in the bathroom. However, the ghost turns out to be a relatively minor issue, an entry point to grander schemes. As A. and Niamh investigate, the creepy ghost story gives way to mystery and adventure with a bit of action and quite a lot of danger.

What makes the book “wholly original” is, I think, the strangeness of the story that unfolds, a kind of charming metafictional humour (more on that in a bit), and partly the way virtually everything about this book adds to its mystery – the plot, the setting, the characters, the narrative structure, the writing style. I’ve already explained as much of the plot as I can without starting to spoil it. The size and grandeur of Axton House alone gives it an air of mystery, but A. also notes that the house seems to exist in a different time:

when you’re near enough to touch it with your fingertip, it just feels old. Not respectable old, but godforsaken old. Like a sepia-colored photograph, or Roman ruins that miraculously avoided tourist guides. This house ages differently. It’s like those bungalows that endure decades, but are awake only three months a year in summer, so that they live one year, but age four. This happens to Axton House and the things within, “all of its contents.” They stand on the brink of the twenty-first century, but their age pulls them back. Maybe that’s why everything in it is or seems anachronistic; a newspaper in it is outdated; any accessory falls out of fashion; Ambrose Wells lived in 1995 looking like a gentleman from 1910s London. I am starting to feel it myself—like time is running faster than me, and I have to catch up. Like I’m stuck on the bank of a river while the space-time continuum keeps flowing. Like I’m being forgotten from the universe.

A. and Niamh are rather mysterious themselves. We don’t know what A. was studying when he left university in Europe for the States, or where exactly he’s from, although apparently Niamh’s English is better than his. We don’t know exactly why he’s only referred to as “A.” while Niamh gets a name rather than just a letter. We’re told that Niamh comes from Dublin and that she’s had a shit childhood, but little else. It’s not even clear what their relationship is. They sleep in the same bed, but for safety rather than intimacy.

Then there’s the fact that the story is composed only of documents – A.’s diary, his dream journal, Niamh’s notebook, letters to Aunt Liza, transcripts of audio and video recordings, excerpts from academic journals, and news articles. Who compiled this and why? Do these accounts differ from ‘reality’? What would we be reading if we got an omniscient third-person POV? Also, why does A. write so many letters to Aunt Liza? She almost never replies, and it’s not stated whether she is A.’s aunt or Niamh’s, although both seem to have a good relationship with her.

The writing style or voice is also very odd – a somewhat pretentious old-fashioned style used by A. and whoever did the audio and video transcripts. The story is set in 1995, but A. writes like a character from a 19th century gothic novel. This is not a flaw – Cantero does it self-consciously, as a kind of joke that happens to put you in the right frame of mind for a gothic mystery in a giant haunted house. Niamh actually laughs at A.’s prose too, declaring his opening paragraphs to be the “[w]orst beginning ever written and saying he reads too much Lovecraft (he’s not that bad, and he’s quite funny, but you get the point). A. himself mentions several times that this whole story is a bit overdramatic, but it’s clear that this is the point – it’s entertaining.

I have to say though, that the writing style doesn’t always work for me. Some parts of the book were enjoyable to read, while other bits were tedious. The scenes composed mostly of dialogue read very quickly and clearly, even when characters are infodumping. A.’s letters are good too, focused but also amusing. His diary is ok. I found his dream journal tedious, but I generally find dream sequences a pain to read.

The occasions when I completely disliked the writing style were in some of the passages of description provided for the video recordings. The style is very similar to A.’s and sometimes it gets far too lavish for the content. It tends to draw your attention away from the action, and can be very boring to read. Here are some examples:

An extremely indecisive second lingers by, pondering whether to elapse or not, and finally does.

Droning brightness saturates all whites in the image, swelling in a luminous aura like icy embers.

An autumn carpet of white and sepia paper sheets lies over the gallery like war propaganda from an enemy fighter.                              

This style is ok when it’s just a line or two, but for the longer descriptive passages I would have preferred clear, simple prose to allow the action to take centre stage. If Cantero is trying to imply that A. wrote this, with his signature verbosity, then purple prose makes sense, but it still hurts the story. Other pieces of writing dragged the story down too. The academic articles were a bit dull, and there were some very long, dense explanations of code-breaking that I eventually gave up on and just skimmed through.

On the whole, I thought the book was… ok.  It could be playful, exciting and tense, but at other times it dragged or just lost my interest. I liked A., Niamh and their utterly adorable dog Help, but it can be difficult to keep track of other characters. The big reveals didn’t resonate with me much, although I enjoyed the climax and the way Cantero leaves you with fresh questions to ponder at the end. If you’re looking for a gothic adventure, thrilling but not too dark, you might enjoy this.