“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.

“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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.)

Necessarium & Satis convertuntur

Culling books and stumbled across this quote from John Donne’s Sermon No. 6:

And, as it is true in religious duties, so is it in interpretation of matters of Religion, Necessarum & Satis convertuntur; when you have done that you ought to doe in your calling, you have done enough…

In other words, do what’s needful, avoid excess which may add only incremental value or even detract from it.  Useful principles in other endeavors as well.

The services of a first-rate mind

I was at my in-laws’ recently, looking for some light vacation reading, and my mother-in-law loaned me A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley.  It’s a classic cozy English village mystery crossed with a Nancy Drew young investigator mystery by way of its heroine, the chemistry-obsessed tween Flavia de Luce.

Red Herring is the third Flavia de Luce mystery, so purists will likely want to start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  I didn’t feel at too much of a loss.  Allusions to earlier events and relationships were relatively clear or easy to sort out, a result of Bradley working firmly within two familiar traditions with all the usual tropes–the dead mother, absent but affectionate father, teasing older sisters, exasperated inspector, and the usual crew of village gossips, idiots, and gentle souls.

Red Herring centers around the arrival in the village of a Gypsy woman who is assaulted and nearly killed.  Thefts, antiques, a missing baby, crackpot Dissenters, local geography, the de Luce family history and finances, tragic pasts, and petty village grievances produce a mish-mash of red herrings, false trails, and genuine clues.  Bradley does a nice job of allowing his police to do police work while Flavia sleuths in a way that only a child–nosy, courageous, and yet knowledgeable of the local players–can.

A reader’s enjoyment of the book depends largely on whether or not they enjoy spending time with Flavia.  I found her precocious, engaging, and fun with enough genuinely “tween” characteristics to counterbalance those necessary to make her a good detective.

She is obsessed with chemistry, and the lessons on the history of chemistry and chemical processes get a little pedantic but also feel a bit like any child talking about their obsession (think of talking to an 11-year-old about Minecraft or Pokemon or superheroes).  There is something a bit odd about this girl, that makes her puzzle-solving believable:

I have no fear of the dead.  Indeed, in my own limited experience I have found them to produce in me a feeling that is quite the opposite of fear.  A dead body is much more fascinating than a live one, and I have learned that most corpses tell better stories.

And yet, she’ll slip just as quickly into typical 11-year-old hyperbole, exclaiming that “Compared with my life, Cinderella was a spoiled brat” when victim of her sisters’ taunts and tricks.

Bradley doesn’t take his protagonist too seriously.  Speaking through other characters, we are regularly reminded that she is a child navigating an adult’s world.  One character tells her to “Spare us the pout.  There’s enough lip in the world without you adding to it.”  In another scene, Flavia’s misreading of the exasperated inspector is clearly aimed at the reader:

Although it sounded like a dry chuckle, the sound I heard must really have been a little cry of dismay from the Inspector at having so foolishly lost the services of a first-rate mind.

He peppers the narrative with clever asides that keep it rolling along nicely, such as:

A few more coarse oaths and my pursuer was gone.  I cannot bring myself to record his exact words, but will keep them in mind against the day I can put them to good use.

And my favorite:

I paused for a moment to stare up at the Poseidon fountain.  Old Neptune, as the Romans called him, all muscles and tummy, was gazing unconcernedly off into the distance, like someone who has broken wind at a banquet and is trying to pretend it wasn’t him.

All the while, Bradley delivers a delightful mystery that goes, in a few key scenes, to some surprisingly dark places without ever getting really grim.  Flavia’s youthful point of view allows Bradley to dance lightly across situations that adult readers will understand as far more dark and tragic than young Flavia perceives them to be.

Mysteries are not really a go-to book genre for me, so it is unlikely I’ll read any further in the series.  However, I’m a sucker for a good BBC mystery, having been obsessed with the old PBS Mystery series since my teenage years, and I am delighted to learn that there is a television series in the works (in very safe hands).  I eagerly await its arrival on Netflix.

Fighting the evil of the present with the weapons of the past

When I was growing up, my father had a big book full of early comic book stories.  It had Superman, Batman, Namor, the Flash, a weird and wide assortment.  One that lodged itself firmly in my brain was Hawkman.  Not the space cop Hawkman, this was the original–a reincarnated Egyptian hero who “fights the evil of the present with the weapons of the past.”  The image of the brooding Carter Hall becoming the Hawkman who wings his way across the desert to rescue Ione Craig from a cult of assassins sat side-by-side with the adventures of Indiana Jones in my personal construct of what the 1940s had to have been like.

My brother gave me the Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Volume One for Christmas last year.  The collection contains the first 22 issues of Hawkman, including that story I remembered so well.

Let’s get one thing out of the way:  These stories are dated.  The racial stereotypes are terrible.  Women are typically there to be victims or femme fatales.  Shiera joins Carter on his adventures and investigations, but she mostly just gets into trouble.  When she succeeds, it’s usually because Hawkman is sneaking around in the background lining dominoes up for her.

Accepting all that, the quality of the stories ranges from terrible to great.  Gardener Fox is at his best writing tales of mystery involving relatively mortal villains, where quick wits and quicker fists save the day.  This Hawkman is no superhuman. Sure he can fly, but he’s knocked out by a heavy blow, knocked down by gunshots, and sometimes tricked by two-bit criminals.  A few of the genuinely fantastical tales fail utterly, especially where Foz strays into superhero territory (the one with the giant construct that terrorizes the city is just awful).

A few standout stories include:

  • #5 Ione Craig — The first Hawkman story I ever read–assassins, secret agents, the Sahara desert, everything a growing boy could want
  • #10 Adventures of the Spanish Blunderers — A lost mine, murder, betrayal, a damsel in distress, and Hawkman in the middle of a classic Western tale
  • #15 The Hand — Because, well, a disembodied hand and a surprising twist on the classic super-hero team-up
  • #16 The Graydon Expedition — Echoes of the origin story with it’s lost kingdom and reincarnation plots, easily my second-favorite story and the direction I would have preferred the character to go (as opposed to rebooting him as an alien)
  • #18 The Gold Rush of ’41 — Alaskan gold, man and nature at their worst, and a story in which the most important act of our hero is delivering needed food and supplies (although the portrayal of the one Alaska native is hard to stomach)

A special treat for me was discovering that the story I loved so much in my father’s book was actually the first of a two-parter and getting to read the second part so many years later.

Sheldon Moldoff’s art is beautiful, owing more to Alex Raymond (of Flash Gordon fame) than to other comic book artists of the time. His Hawkman is firmly grounded in reality, a palpable physical presence.

Fierce when geared for battle, suave when in his ordinary identity as Carter Hall, Moldoff’s Hawkman exudes a very human vulnerability, as seen in this sequence where he carries important documents across the Sahara and pauses to cool off and refresh himself.

The final pose is echoed years later by Luke Skywalker watching the sunset on Tatooine, and John Williams could have composed the score to accompany the images.

If I could write one comic book character, this Hawkman would be the one (even more than Batman).  I love the idea of a man burdened by memories and gifts of the past, of a rivalry and love that survives death, of mysteries and matching wits and the heroic more than the super-heroic, of a hero with an edge but not super powers, a world where super science and mysticism walk side-by-side in the shadows of ordinary people.

Looking past the dated portrayals and the occasionally clunky dialogue, that world still lives and breathes in these words and pictures.

(Note: All pictures retain their original copyrights and are shared here for illustrative purposes–no pun intended.)

The perfect world is a journey

With his passing, one could finally write a definitive retrospective on Sir Terry Pratchett.  This isn’t it.  I’ve read many of his books–I can’t say most–and in my opinion, the Tiffany Aching books were the pinnacle of his career, the finest combination of the humor, insight, and storytelling that you saw in all of his work.  I still stand by that.  However, Nation may be his best single book.

It lacks the sweet humor of the Tiffany Aching books (and the presence of Granny Weatherwax, who will always be my favorite of Sir Terry’s characters).  But it makes up for both in raw grappling with ideas.  Pratchett goes head-to-head with notions of faith, reason, God, gods, science, life, death, and civilization and refuses to give easy or facile answers.  If anything, this book is one long acknowledgement that there are no easy answers but that asking the questions important.  Or to put it another way:

He called himself the little blue hermit crab, scuttling across the sand in search of a new shell, but now he looks at the sky and knows that no shell will ever be big enough, ever.

One response to such a revelation, all to common in our world, is fear:

Even our fears make us feel important, because we fear that we might not be.

Finding something in life to fear–whether it is fear of financial ruin, fear of injury, or fear that someone else’s happiness or success will diminish our own–gives us a way to avoid the real fear: Fear of that big blue sky above and of the time it finally goes dark.

Or we can face the world, acknowledge its imperfections and mysteries, and do our part to make it a better place.  As one character says when he’s told the world is far from perfect:

“It’s a little more perfect today.  And there will be more days.”

And he’s told in response:

“Those others I mentioned … They all said the same thing as you did .  They saw that the perfect world is a journey, not a place.”

The best books teach us something or remind us of important truths that we already know.  Nation does both and does it with a blend of adventure, humor, and insight that is peculiarly Sir Terry’s and that remains behind as his gift to our wide open and broken world.

At one point, a character sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and includes one of the less commonly sung later verses:

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark…

Thank you, Sir Terry, for your tiny spark.