“Step into the gap, soldier.”

Steven Erikson is a genius. His Malazan Books of the Fallen are the only books I’ve read that rival–possibly exceed–Tolkein for the sheer weight of imagined history.

But Erikson eschews Tolkein’s formality. His characters live and fight and die in the muck and dirt. Generals and soldiers, gods and monsters, ancient races and undead warriors, they all tread the same dusty roads as the rest of us. They feel like real people in a way the Riders of Rohan and the defenders of Gondor, for all their glory, never do. I care about these characters, and I’m excited when a favorite turns up–or is even just mentioned in passing–in one of the novels.

And yet for all that they are military fantasy and dwell on the fate of armies and empires, a streak of incredible compassion runs through Erikson’s work. He’s written some about it here, and I freely admit that Reaper’s Gale is one of the few books in the last ten years to make me tear up.

So I’ve wanted to check out Ian Esselmont’s Malazan books for a while. He and Erikson created the world and many of the characters together, and Erikson’s success provided a springboard for Esselmont to sell his own novels. Having read all of Erikson’s books, I wondered if Esselmont’s would scratch that itch for more.

Night of Knives came close. The novel tells of a pivotal event that closely precedes the start of Erikson’s books. It takes place in the course of a single night and focuses largely on two new, minor characters–a young thief named Kiska, desperate to get out of a town she sees as a dead-end backwater, and a veteran soldier named Temper, semi-retired but unable to let go of old loyalties. Both find themselves caught in a conjunction of powers far beyond their understanding, but both play a key role in the events that follow. Readers familiar with the Malazan mythos will know how the night ends, but not how we get there and who pays what price in the conflict.

Esselmont isn’t the storyteller Erikson is. The prose drags at time. The characters are interesting, but not quite as engaging as Erikson’s. But it’s his first novel. And looking back with honesty, Erikson’s first novel–Gardens of the Moon–has some pretty clunky bits. He honed his craft pretty heavily between that and Deadhouse Gates and continued to grow as a writer throughout all ten Malazan books.

Esselmont has an advantage, though. Where Erikson was introducing readers to the world, Esselmont gets to leverage the weight and gravitas that Erikson has built up around their shared characters. Names like Kellanvad, Dancer, Surly and Tayschrenn still resonate, and when these iconic characters appear and interact with the new characters, the frisson of recognition and wonder is right there.

In the end Night of Knives comes close enough that I plan to pick up the second book and give him another shot.

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“Monster in the Mountains” to see print in Best Of

It is with great pleasure that I announce the impending release of the Heroic Fantasy Quarterly‘s first “Best of…” compilation, which includes my story “Monster in the Mountains.”  The book will be available for pre-order shortly, and they are targeting availability for ebook and Print on Demand versions by Black Friday.

I’m proud of all my stories, but since “Monster” was written and targeted explicitly at HFQ, it’s a special honor to be included in their first print publication.

More links and information on release day.

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That sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known

A group of us got together recently to watch Jupiter Ascending, the recent effort from the Wachowskis. We were less than impressed. The weak characters with unclear, shifting motivations and a non-sensical plot could not be saved by the gonzo world and over-the-top visuals. But the stunning imagery and story revolving around warring family members in a culture that was an odd blend of the mercantile and medieval got me thinking about Frank Herbert’s Dune, and so I picked up the Kindle version of that classic novel and gave it a re-read.

I don’t think I’ve read Dune since 1984 when the David Lynch movie came out and blew my young mind.

Lynch’s Guild Navigator

I still remember how they provided a glossary of terms to the audience. They needed to.  New concepts and terms come at the reader fast and furious–Gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, sietch, Fremen, Landsraad–each evoking the exotic setting.

From Mark Molnar’s Concept Art Project (worth checking out; every painting is a gem)

This time round, I noticed Herbert’s effective use of 3rd person omniscient, a point of view that is largely out of favor these days.  It is often associated with novice writers who just don’t understand point of view, but Herbert uses it to great effect (much like Louis L’Amour, but that’s another post).

Trust and betrayal are central themes of the novel. Because Herbert moves seamlessly from one character’s thoughts to another, you get a conversation between a traitor and the soon-to-be betrayed where you see how much and how foolishly the traitor is trusted or a confrontation between two people who suspect each other of being a traitor, when neither is. And the dinner party scene with the local notables and the Duke’s household is like watching an eight-way fencing match.

Knife fights in space!

Herbert’s style is spare, which leaves our minds to fill in the imagery.  And boy do they.  No description could convey the majesty, wonder, and strangeness that resonates with the reader and finds answer in their imagination.  Artists and filmmakers through the years have felt that call and done their best with depictions of strange worlds…

The Atreides homeworld of Caladan by Angelitoon (from deviantart)

…advanced technology…

A spice harvester and escort by Brad Wright (from deviantart)

…exotic heroes and villains…

Character studies for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune movie by the comic artist Moebius

…and the worms.  Everyone loves the worms…

Also from Mark Molnar because his work is just that good

…except this poor donkey.  He doesn’t love the worms…

It’s probably clear that I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Dune and firmly believe it’s time someone tackled it with a new and faithful movie.  Maybe a trilogy.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the new Star Wars films have all paved the way, and the popular audience is ready for the majesty and mystery of Herbert’s imagined future.

(All images copyright their creators or owners and are shared because Dune, and their work depicting it, are visually stunning.)

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A kind of perilous promise, an allure, an immanence

I can’t remember where or how I discovered M. John Harrison. I suspect I read an interview with an author that mentioned him, as Harrison is the literary equivalent of that band you’ve never heard of that all your favorite bands cite as an influence. He is often considered the father of the New Weird, although largely in retrospect, and his stories break down the boundaries of literature and genre, treating science fiction and fantasy tropes as a tools to express ideas and tell stories that both respect and abuse the genres.

For Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Harrison’s early novel, Climbers, a mainstream novel about a man named Mike who leaves London after a divorce and takes up rock climbing.

There are strong autobiographical elements (the M stand for Mike and Harrison was an avid climber), and its depiction of the climbing culture is as engrossing as it is authentic:

I had already seen that, to climbers, climbing was less a sport than an obsession. It was a metaphor by which they hoped to demonstrate something to themselves.  And if this something was only the scale of their own emotional or social isolation, they needed–I believed then–nothing else…. Besides, I had done a fifty-foot classic abseil down a piece of blue polypropylene rope, in shorts and a running shirt: if I needed reminding of that the burns were still there on my neck and thigh.  How could you remain the same when you had stepped off the top backwards in that way, straight out into the air and into whatever was going to happen.

However, the book resists a traditional narrative. There is no arc, no real resolution.  A specific climbing route is referred to by climbers as a “problem” and Harrison structures the book to match.  The narrative moves around in time, fumbling forward, backtracking, moving up, back, sideways, wrestling with the problem of Mike’s life.

Looming over the novel–as it looms over every climb–is the specter of the fall, expressed in the form of two falls whose consequences shape Mike in ways he never fully expresses or understands.  Or to use Harrison’s own words from his essay on “What it Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium”:

No character ever “survives” Viriconium: the best they can hope for after they have been sucked in is to be spat out whole (if changed). Recognise this procedure? It’s called life.

All this is told with Harrison’s near-magical gift for language. Those interested in his technique should check out Erik Germani’s The Killing Bottle: A Technical Study of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium which provides detailed, insightful analysis of language in the Viriconium novels. I can only stand in silent awe as Harrison creates landscapes that carry as much emotional as visual value…

The sun had always gone in by the time we got where we were going.  The rock was bitter.  Down in Staffordshire knuckles of it break out of the tops of the ridges in the mist like the rocks in a Hammer film.  The wind sweeps up from the Potteries over isolated farms where they are committing incest or patricide or staring into an empty cup listening to the abandoned machinery and banging gates outside.

conveys the passage of time…

The water heater darkens the wallpaper above the sink–this can be said to be wear and tear but not precisely use.  A milk float drifts past each morning–this can be said to be motion but it isn’t change.  The hall and the stairs begin to smell of disinfectant–but this isn’t really a record of occupation, only an enigma.

deftly delineates yet another strange and yet compellingly human character…

Normal was wary of both vagrants and stray dogs, especially if they were at all self–possessed.  He overemphasised their fierceness and undependability, their size and dirtiness.  At the same time he envied it.  He was less afraid of them, I thought at the time, than of his own tendency to stray.

or makes fraught even the simplest actions…

He paused to stare emptily ahead; reached inside the car suddenly and switched on the radio, which then made sobbing complaining noises like someone in the middle of a petty but damaging confession.

Climbers is, on the micro level of the phrase, sentence, and paragraph, a joy to read.

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The smartest one about doing what’s right

On a trip to Florida, I stumbled across about a dozen of Andrew Vachss’s Burke novels in a used book store. I’d been interested in his work for some time, so I picked one up. I burned through it in a couple days, returned to the store, bought all the rest, and took them back home with me. I’ve been working my way through the stack for years.

You see Vachss books aren’t ones you can read one after another. The world he shares is bleak, the characters hard, the situations terrible, gut and heart-wrenching and often uncomfortable. Vachss’s background gives him the ability and experience to write about criminals and victims, abusers and the abused, users and the used with a raw, hard edge and a brutal authenticity that can be difficult to take.

And yet there is thread of decency, loyalty, justice, and compassion in the midst of all this darkness. They’re not happy books, Good people are hurt, often long before the novel starts, and they keep on hurting throughout. But justice is usually served on the worst people–although always at a price.

On a recent trip, I grabbed my copy of Vachss’s The Getaway Man, a short, stand-alone novel that tells the story of a guy named Eddie who just wants to drive.

Vachss follows Eddie from childhood to juvie to crime to prison and out again to more and bigger crime. It’s a classic noir tale, a story of innocence and guilt, of dirty heroes, and squeaky clean villains, of lines crossed, and uncertainty about who should be trusted. Eddie is a likeable character, simple but not stupid, an innocent but not an idiot. Vachss shows the world through his eyes in a way that the astute reader can see more then Eddie sees but never lose sympathy for him. I can never quite say I enjoyed a Vachss novel, but I blazed through this one like I usually do.

Where the Burke novels have become densely-populated and richly textured with recurring characters and the history that shapes them, The Getaway Man is a stand-alone novel and an excellent entry point for readers new to Vachss and wanting to give him a try. It has its tough-to-read stretches and its share of damaged people just trying to get through their broken lives in one piece, but it’s not as brutal as the Burke novels. If you read it and find yourself wanting more of the same, then you’re probably ready to check out the rest of Vachss’s work.

Besides, who could resist the brilliant old-school pulp cover by Richie Fahey.

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Breaking Radio Silence

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, with no other excuse than life getting in the way.  The books to write about are stacking up, and I hope to find some time to post a few soon.

In writing news, I just got the final edits back from my story in the forthcoming second Pen-Ultimate Speculative Fiction Anthology.  It’s the second collection of short stories from participants in Jeffrey Carver and Craig Shaw Gardner’s Ultimate Science Fiction Writing Workshop, which I attended a number of years ago and promises to include even more excellent fiction than the first anthology–including several more from folks from my workshop class.

My story, “Oldest Friends”, appears in the first anthology, which is available in print and e-book on Amazon.  All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) emergency medical fund.

The second promises even more contributors, including several more from my workshop class.  I’ll post updates on release dates here.

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They keep on trying

There’s something a bit disingenuous about reviewing the tenth book in a series.  After all, if I’ve read this far, obviously I enjoy them.  The best one can do is discuss its merits relative to other books in the series.  Fortunately, as I’ve noted before, these are not reviews so much as thoughts about my reading experience, so I’ll bull ahead anyway.

First, a bit of context.  Glen Cook’s Garrett books began as an homage to Raymond Chandler.  Cook planted a Marlowe-like detective in the midst of a carnivalesque high-fantasy city.  He mixed in his own sense of history, especially working class and military history.  TunFaire is a city in the throes of an extended war.  It’s US in the midst of WWII, with all the men away and their jobs being taken by elves and dwarfs and rat people.  There’s politics, race, PTSD, and socio-economic commentary alongside crazy magic and classic mystery.

Subsequent novels added layers in the form of a dense tapestry of recurring characters.  Minor characters from early books become major ones later on.  Sidekicks become allies and friends.  Lovers come and go.  Secondary characters have their own trajectories–changing careers, falling in and out of love, making connections among themselves.  History progresses, the tides of war shift, and these have an impact on the character of the city and the characters in the city.

Yet Cook never loses the sense of what initially made the series work–wisecracking hero, complex mysteries, beautiful and mysterious women, baleful magic.  In short, all the pieces that make it prime, lightweight summer beach reading (or whatever your equivalent is).

Angry Lead Skies is a pretty straightforward Garrett tale.  It lacks the direct line to Chandler that characterizes Old Tin Sorrows (#4), the gonzo feel of Petty Pewter Gods (#8), or the bleak, paranoia-fueled grimness of Faded Steel Heat (#9).  My initial reaction was that the introduction of bug-eyed aliens was going to be a disaster (minor spoiler there, but it becomes pretty obvious, pretty fast).  But as the book rolls on, Cook turns it into a typical Garret caper with a healthy dose of twists and turns.

A number of favorite characters return, and Cook uses them well to suggest our hero may actually be growing.  The events of the previous novel were pretty grim, even by Garrett’s standards, and left a bit of a hollow feel at the end.  In this one, we see a somewhat more mellow Garrett.  His treatment of Pular Singe, the rat-woman, is especially interesting, as we see Garrett reevaluating his own opinions and focusing a bit more on the needs of others.  Even his interactions with new character, Kip, suggest a growing maturity:

I felt like somebody’s dad, spouting clichés. Then, of course, I felt really awful because I was old enough to understand what the clichés were all about. Embarrassment followed that as I remembered the cocksure boys we’d been when we were getting showered with the stupid stuff that turned out to be Joe Everyman’s way of trying to pass along his accumulated wisdom.  I resented his advice almost as much as I’d resented advice from men of my father’s generation when I was fifteen. I guess neither the old men nor the young men ever learn, but they keep on trying.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few books as there seems to be a gradual character progression going on.  It reminds me a bit of, well, life.  Many books or series show powerful or transformative character arcs, but we all know the real world rarely works that way.  If people change, it is most often by degrees, slowly and gradually, until they wake up and realize they’re in a different place than they were ten years ago.  It feels a bit like Cook is working that sort of magic here.

That sort of magic is Cook’s trademark.  As much as his typical material is fantastical, it feels more real than most fantastic fiction because it fails to deliver standard narratives or arcs.  He messes with time, breaks plot formulas, kills characters in accidents or in ways that are frankly undramatic but have subsequent dramatic impact.  In short, his fiction emulates life in it’s frequent lack of pattern.  Some people see it as a fault in his work, but considering where he learned to write, I see it as a deliberate break from the restrictions of genre and formula.  But I digress.  Some other day I’ll share a longer essay on why I so deeply admire Cook’s work.

For now, I’ll say simply that Angry Lead Skies is another solid entry in an enjoyable series.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll like, if you like this kind of thing.

(And a good example of why you should never judge a book by its cover.  The covers for most editions of this series are just awful.)

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