Weekend round-up – some links

First, the Hugo shortlists have been announced. amid some controversy; in particular the presence of Vox Day, Larry Correia and one or two others, not to mention the complete Wheel of Time saga, in their various categories. There’s plenty of commentary about all of this across the web right now, and I’m not adding to it for now.  I’m happy, though, to see the fan categories looking a lot livelier than they’ve done in some years.

Link to the complete list of nominees is here, to save me typing it out again.

The 1939 Retro Hugos shortlist was also announced: the list of nominees is here.

And while I’m about it, more posts about genre, lit fic, the usual.

Chris Beckett, winner of last year’s Clarke Award, in The Atlantic

Juliet McKenna in The Guardian

Seoul Survivors – Naomi Foyle

Seoul Survivors – Naomi Foyle
(London: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013)

I said online recently, while I was reading Seoul Survivors, that I was dissatisfied with it, but that I wasn’t sure what it was precisely that I was dissatisfied with. Having now finished the novel, I realise that my dissatisfaction is not based on one particular thing but an accumulation of irritations, so let me see if I can separate them from one another.

If I were cruel, I might say that Seoul Survivors aspires to have something for everyone while failing to satisfy anyone. Seoul survivors

I am cruel.

What struck me almost immediately about this novel was how it seemed to be utilising very familiar character types. We have the ingenue: Sydney, Canadian, as blonde as blonde can be, an aspiring model, who has been persuaded to travel to South Korea by her lover, Johnny Sandman, to further her career. Because Sydney is ever so slightly naïve, she hasn’t stopped to consider that Johnny Sandman might have an ulterior motive. Instead, with commendable enthusiasm, she throws herself into her modelling work, dreaming of success. The reader sits in on a photo session as the novel opens: it’s pretty clichéd, full of pouting and jutting and pumping bodies. One wonders, and not for the last time, whether this is serious or intended to be some kind of sub-sub-cyberpunk parody. Sydney, though, exists to see the surfaces of everything. She’s got away from her small-town world and she is determined to experience life to the full.

Johnny Sandman? Not one person comments on the absurdity of his name, so either this is perfectly acceptable in this ever-so-slightly futuristic world, or everyone is far too terrified of Sandman’s anger management issues to even mention it. And Johnny Sandman’s anger issues are so bad his employers have sent him on courses to deal with them. Oh, how amusing. Sandman, as his name might suggest, does indeed bring the sleep of forgetfulness, a permanent sleep: he is as much hired killer as he is fixer for a large American company, and a violent one at that. It is difficult though to imagine him as the smoother of ways, the peruser of spreadsheets, and so forth. He talks about the work but we never see him do it. It doesn’t seem to be a fantasy, but for the purposes of the novel, we need the brutal side of Johnny Sandman.

The romantic male lead is Damien, a young wanderer who has fled the UK to get away from pretty much everything, including the death of his sister, Jessica. He travelled to South Korea as a drug mule for a friend, and having transacted business, he has stayed on, teaching English for a living, working hard and saving in order to go to Canada. Damien has an ill-defined but very urgent concern about the future of the world, particularly whether Earth will actually be hit by an asteroid, known as Lucifer’s Hammer (and it is clear that Niven and Porurnelle’s novel of the same name in part provides inspiration for Seoul Survivors). If it happens, he wants to be on high ground, as far from the oceans as possible, and Canada is his destination of choice. There is a kind of clueless earnestness about Damien; throughout the novel he is either mistaken for or else standing in for Hugh Grant, which tells you everything you need to know, as well as giving a neat example of the laziness that seems to underpin so much of this novel.

And to complete the quartet, there is Dr Kim Da Mi, a mysterious Korean woman, working with the same company that Johnny Sandman works for. Dr Kim, one is not surprised to learn, has a plan. It is a plan that might bring about world peace but it is of course highly illegal. In fact, she has two plans, one of which will fund the other. It does not take a genius to realise that if she is gathering together a group of North Korean women who have been smuggled to South Korea via China, she is almost certainly intending to use them as surrogate mothers, and it doesn’t take much more effort to realise that her mysterious scientific endeavours almost certainly involve cloning, as proves to be the case. Thus, it’s also fairly obvious what parts Sydney and Damien will be contributing to this enterprise, not to mention the North Korean women themselves. These latter, with one exception, appear either to be blissfully unaware of what is to happen to them, or else they know, and are willing to accept the situation, given that it is an improvement on what they have left behind.

The two-dimensionality of the characters is baffling. I did wonder whether Foyle was trying to make some frightfully elegant point about genre fiction’s reliance on stock characters, but if so, I couldn’t quite see what it was. Possibly, she was trying to suggest that most people are driven by very banal impulses, and if that is the case, she certainly succeeded, as I found myself unable to take an interest in any of them beyond accepting that someone needed at any given point to be taking the plot forward.

And yet, Foyle still hints that all of them are driven characters even as she fails utterly to convince the reader of the fact. Fragments of back story rise like scum on a pot of stock, ready for the reader to assemble the narrative for herself if need be, and yet, in the end, there is still nothing there. Just like real life, you might say, but there is at least one reason why fiction is not that much like real life; it is so very, very tedious. Done slightly differently, Sydney’s naivety would be charming rather than annoying, and one might be more impressed with her efforts to make something of her life. Likewise, Damien’s poorly-articulated anxiety about impending apocalypse would perhaps draw a more sympathetic response from the reader. Given what he’s been through over the years, it’s no wonder he feels as he does, and who can blame him for wanting to get away? He is the slightly better developed character of the two, which is frankly not saying that much.

And I really do want to believe this is a specific creative choice, the reasons for which elude me, but in the end, they still just feel like poorly realised characters.

My second major complaint about Seoul Survivors concerns the story itself. There is almost never a moment when it is not entirely obvious what is going on, and what the outcome of the story is going to be. Occasionally, the narrative might seem as though it is about to head off in an unexpected direction, but just as the reader gets excited at the prospect of something different, the plot train switches back to the mainline, and we’re back where we were always going. Indeed, I could rewrite my complaints about the characters, inserting plot instead of character. Again, because it is so pervasive, I want to believe this is an authorial decision rather than the product of poor writing, but again, I cannot see what the point is. The actual story is remarkably conventional; it’s the stuff round the edges that is really interesting but round the edges is precisely where it stays. There is an argument for saying that it is as though Foyle has twisted a story inside out, and deliberately brought the banality of everyday life to the fore, leaving the interesting bits to glitter and catch the sidelong eye from time to time, but if that is the case, it was an ill-made choice.

I was interested, for example, in why Damien, after all those years, is still obsessed with his sister’s death. Instead, I get long descriptions of Damien’s one journey as a drug mule, including half a chapter on how he retrieves the drugs. It’s detailed, I’ll give it that much. There is much devoted to how Damien eschews sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, working hard if illegally to raise money to buy a forged passport.

I was interested too in why Sydney is so driven to make something of herself, establishing a modelling career in South Korea without quite understanding that it is the novelty of her whiteness that makes her so attractive, not any intrinsic talent she might possess. Sydney alas has all the depth of a bidet so instead there are long, almost stream-of-consciousness episodes in which Sydney debates dumping Johnny because the sex is getting too rough and he doesn’t treat her right, not like the Korean artists she’s meeting, who apparently value her for herself.

Johnny Sandman is clearly a psychopath and we might assume he is in South Korea because it’s safer than his being in Los Angeles but while we understand he has a hair trigger temper, an insatiable desire for sex and/or violence, and appears to live in a permanent state of arousal, I would like to have known more, if only to reassure myself that he wasn’t the cartoon character he appeared to be. Dr Kim, being an educated Asian woman, is inevitably unknowable, and thus she remains.

I am deeply uneasy too about the North Korean women, Mee hee and her friends, smuggled into South Korea, to become surrogate mothers for Dr Kim’s cloning scheme. They are represented as having been cast aside by their own society – widows, women who have lost children and so on – which might appear to justify their accepting a set-up where they can have the children they crave, even though they are, as only one girl perceptively realises, prisoners. She, of course, will come to a nasty end, thanks to Johnny Sandman, while the others, seemingly unaware, make merchandise for the gift shop for the virtual experience they are about produce children for. Yes, their collective lot might be better in that no one misses them at home, they are well-fed, well cared-for and happy, but they are also being exploited, unpaid, and nowhere in the novel is this addressed. In this novel the majority of the women, other than Dr Kim (who is so tough she appears to count as an honorary male for the duration), are very poorly treated. Sydney has agency of a sort, it is true, but it is very limited and relies on her using her body.

Seoul Survivors is marketed as a science-fiction novel but the science-fictionality of it seems to be rather thin. I note, though, that in various interviews and blog posts, Foyle has talked about a fascination with the domestic in science fiction, and I wonder if the banality, the allusiveness and unspoken assumptions is intended to suggest the ordinariness of the science-fictional world. The idea, I like, but if this is true, its execution leaves something to be desired, not least because we are not yet ready to accept wholesale cloning coupled with surrogacy as an ordinary thing, and the novel is set insufficiently far into the future for the local society to accept it as such. Dr Kim is working in South Korea because the local climate is amenable to this kind of thing, suggesting that elsewhere it is not.

Yet we already live in a world where the discovery of new exoplanets is no longer considered particularly newsworthy, though discoveries about the beginnings of the universe currently are (likewise the confirmation of the probable existence of the Higgs boson), and in a world where we suspect changes in the weather may be caused by global warming, all of which suggesting that the science-fictional can have the capacity to be very quickly absorbed into daily life. Similarly, most people didn’t pay that much attention to the alleged Mayan prophecy that the world would end on 21st December, 2012, trusting instead that the world’s astronomers would inform them if the Earth were about to be hit by an asteroid. I think, in Seoul Survivors, Foyle is trying to mimic some of that apparent insouciance, making the remarkable seem unremarkable, by using rather ignorant and incurious characters. However, her questioning characters, so far as they go, are also ignorant, so there is no sense of an informed critique being offered. Indeed, it turns out, while the surrogate mothers were being inseminated, the rest of the world was indeed being hit by a meteorite but luckily, tucked away in their valley fastness, they are safe from everything, including tsunamis, nuclear strikes, you name it, and all of this is tidied away in less than half a page.

I could go on but having beaten it flat already, it is perhaps time to look for the positive. The one thing that could be said for the novel is that Foyle writes very fluently. The story, however ludicrous its premise, mostly all slides together, at least until the end, when it does fall over quite spectacularly. Foyle is not very inventive in her prose style, but it has to be said that the graphic sex (and there’s a lot of it) is splendidly clichéd. (In between the orgasms, the seemingly endless orgasms, how a man can end up with ‘the tip of his cock sharp as a star inside her’ I do not know; and given Sydney’s enthusiasm for using condoms, one can only speculate as to the problems this might cause.) There is a curious simplicity and artlessness to most of the characters, the portrayal of Sydney in particular, that made me wonder if this wasn’t intended to be a young adult novel, at least until I got to the penises, which are invariably rock hard, or pausing only briefly in their flaccidity before becoming rock hard again. I can’t think how any of the men in this novel do any work; they must be in agony most of the time.

Whatever Foyle’s intentions for it, and from reading her interviews, I think she is quite sincere in her desire to write science fiction, and to be innovative in doing so, but this is nonetheless a disappointing novel.

Archive – Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein

The Uncertain Places
Lisa Goldstein, Tachyon Publications, 2011, 237 pp

The story invariably begins with ‘once upon a time’ and ends ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. The protagonist unthinkingly makes a bad bargain and inadvertently agrees to a sacrifice he or she later realises is unacceptable. Usually, the resourceful hero or heroine manages to trick the fairy into undoing the bargain and restoring the status quo, while conveniently retaining the benefits of the bargain. But what if the fairy is smarter than the protagonist after all, and, in undoing the bad bargain, offers one that was far worse in the long run but without any immediate bad effects? And what if the effects of that bargain persist into the present day? What happens then? These questions sit at the heart of Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places, which intertwines the secret history of a lost fairy story with a period of immense social upheaval in California.

This particular story begins in 1971, with best friends, Will and Ben, who are students at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. We often look back to that time with nostalgia, as though it were some kind of magical period, but for Will in particular, ‘There was never music like that, never those intense discussions, never so many people so passionately committed to changing the world.’ In the middle of this is Will, ‘stupified with wonder, startled and delighted at every turn’, and never more so than when he travels with Ben, north out of San Francisco and into the wine country of Napa Valley to visit the Feierabends, the family of Ben’s new girlfriend, Maddie.

The Feierabend house seems also to have emerged from a fairytale, ‘as if Hansel and Gretel’s witch had taken a correspondence course in architecture’. It is not so much a house as a series of houses, each one concealing something older behind it, and this, as it turns out, provides a useful metaphor for the Feierabend family and for its stories. Livvy, Rose, Maddie and their mother, Sylvie, seem to live at a tangent to the world, engaging with it but remaining somehow untroubled by it. They live comfortably, almost unthinkingly, among beautiful things. Whatever they turn their hands to, they are successful, and indeed expect to be, none more so than Maddie, who sees no reason to doubt that she will have a career in Hollywood. Livvy and Rose are more self-effacing but neither do they question their luck, perhaps simply because this is how their lives have always been. Theirs is an enviable lifestyle, almost a dream in itself, and Will finds it difficult to believe that he too has become part of the fairytale when he and Livvy begin a relationship.

However, from the outset, Will suspects that there is something odd about the family. In the house and the countryside around, he meets strange people whose presence cannot be accounted for. When Livvy inexplicably falls asleep and the family refuse to do anything about this, instead behaving as though it is entirely normal, he realises that something is indeed very wrong. It is thanks to Ben that Will learns about the lost Grimms’ fairytale, the story of the Bondmaid, told by Klara Feierabend to the Grimm brothers but then apparently suppressed before it could be published. The original Bondmaid fell permanently asleep as payment for her family being rescued from poverty; later her father renegotiated the bargain so that she would sleep for only seven years, on the understanding that in all future generations of the family, one member would at some point fall asleep for seven years to continue the payment. While asleep, the bondmaid would help the fairy folk to wage war against their enemies and keep magic alive in the world, or so the story went. Subsequent generations did not question the renegotiated bargain and even when they did, their misgivings have been brushed to one side. It falls to Will, the outsider, to question the Feierabends’ complacent acceptance of this situation, and to ask whether such an old bargain can persisist in the modern world.

It’s an interesting question that Goldstein poses, and there is no easy answer to be found. What constitutes a ‘happy ever after’ for one person may bring misery to another. Perhaps the stories of one continent cannot survive transplantation to another without being somehow changed in the process. No matter how carefully hidden away they might be, sooner or later, as the territory is charted, they’re brought into the light of day. It’s what happens then that Goldstein has so intriguingly explored in this deeply absorbing novel.

Rereading Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, Chapters 13-16

Our Lady of the Streets, the third part of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series, will be published by Jo Fletcher Books in August 2014. To celebrate this, they’re conducting a reread of The City’s Son (2012) and The Glass Republic (2013), which I’ve agreed to take part in.

The story so far: Beth Bradley has taken to the London streets after being betrayed by her best friend, Parva Khan. Pen has confessed that she and Beth sprayed an unflattering portrait of a much-hated teacher on the school playground. Beth’s father has withdrawn from the world since his wife’s, Beth’s mother’s death, and Beth has no one else to support her. In the streets Beth meets a strange grey-skinned boy, Filius Viae, the so-called Son of the Streets, and begins to discover a London she has never known before, one inhabited by Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and other surprising creatures. Filius’s mother, the Lady of the Streets, has been missing since he was a baby, and without her to defend the city, it is under threat from Reach, the Crane-King. Now there are rumours that Mater Viae is returning and Filius is preparing for her return. In this section of The City’s Son, Filius and Beth begin to recruit an army to fight Reach.

Now read on (and there are inevitably spoilers).

Chapter 13

something was crawling up her lamppost

Chapter 13 is short but extremely interesting, the first complete chapter that is not told from the viewpoint of a human being or, in the case of Filius, someone who appears to be human. Before now, with one exception – the episode concerning the fate of the lost Whitey – everything has been shown either from the third-person narrative viewpoints of Beth or Pen, or else from Filius’s first-person viewpoint. So what does this shift to an omniscient viewpoint give us?

Up until now it might just have been possible to read Beth’s experiences as a product of her own imagination, arising from her encounters with Filius. We’ve already seen how she and Pen spark off one another creatively, What’s to say she’s not constructed something similar around meeting Filius. Even the Whitey’s encounter with the barbed tentacle could be read as their joint invention. But here no human observers are present, and the reader sees one of the Sodiumites directly. This reinforces the idea planted by the Whitey’s encounter that something strange really is going on. The viscerality of both encounters confirms too that this magical London we’re dealing with is a place that is downright nasty.

And that’s even before we get to the astonishing pathos of this short scene. We’ve already seen the Sodiumites in action, dancing with Filius, suspicious of Beth, generally volatile, and we’ve also seen their antipathy towards the lost Whitey. Attractive as they are in their way, the Sodiumites are also difficult to like; they’re jittery, menacing. Yet here, when we see them under attack, presumably victims of whatever it was that took the Whitey, our feelings towards them must inevitably shift to sympathy. Voltaia’s discovery of Galvanica’s body in particular is made more horrific by the beauty in the details – the body lying half unfolded, the skin frosted with tiny cracks. This moment becomes symbolic of what it is that Filius is fighting against.

Chapter 14

When we return to Filius, we can see already that Beth is setting the pace; while the chapter begins with Filius’s observations, it quickly shifts to third person again as Beth, driven by her desire to help Filius, sets about finding him his army. Although Filius has sent out messages via the Pylon Spiders, this chapter marks the start of their actually visiting people to recruit them to the cause (and here one might think of Lewis’s Prince Caspian and the series of calls that Caspian pays on talking beasts and mythological creatures). The question is, who should they call on?

“Doesn’t your mum have a vicar or two to help us out?” It sounded so simple, so logical.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this section of The City’s Son in particular is because I am fascinated by the Pavement Priests, and this is where we first meet them. The setting is a graveyard – we might be familiar with the big burial grounds of London, like Highgate Cemetery, but there are many smaller graveyards, lost, overgrown, dotted around the place, and Filius has taken Beth to one of these forgotten places. Even as they travel there, Beth notices for the first time the cranes ‘sprouting like malign winter trees across the skyline’.

And suddenly, they are in ‘a clearing filled with gravestones where life-sized statues stood sentinel.’ In particular a ‘stone monk stood at the heart of the crowd, his heavy granite cowl shading his eyes’. This is Petris, another of Filius’s tutors, ‘who taught me nearly every dirty trick I know’. Petris is one more in a long line of English monks who go about God’s business in a particularly worldly way – Friar Tuck is the obvious model. But while it is one thing to encounter a stone monk who can speak, the full horror of the predicament of the Pavement Priests is yet to be revealed. One moment Beth is making artless jokes about having a heart of stone (that ‘Petris’ suggests petrified is left for the reader), the next she looks into the stone monk’s face to see in his mouth, ‘flesh lips, pink, parched and peeling’. It will be hard to look at a statue in the same way ever again.

And it is perhaps at this point that we see most clearly what it means to be Mater Viae. She may be a goddess, this does not mean that she is ‘good’. Filius has already commented how she ‘made’ the Pylon Spiders, who live on human bodies, especially their voices, but now we see first-hand what she is capable of. ‘His mother’, says Petris, ‘is not as merciful as she might be’. The Pavement Priests turn out to be trapped in their stone punishment-skins, their deaths sold on by Mater Viae to ensure they pay their debt to her for whatever sins they committed in past lives, leaving them to be born over and over again.

My life had a beginning, but it has no end to give it shape. That’s what our Goddess took from us in payment for our sins: the outlines, the boundaries, the very definition of a life.

How a life is defined is something that haunts this novel. Thanks to her mother’s death and her father’s inability to accept it and move on, Beth’s life has also lost any sense of outline, and since her meeting with Filius, what she thinks she knows about her world has become uncertain. For Pen the problem is quite the opposite; her life is far too well defined and she works constantly to blur the boundaries. As for Filius, one has the sense that he has been marking time, waiting for his mother to reappear or to be confirmed as dead so that he can assume her role, but perhaps also he is content in a way with this invisible life. Yet, as Petris notes, ‘the infinity [Mater Viae] has condemned us to is rather easier to tolerate without her actually around’. In other words, is it worth the cost to now disrupt the status quo? Does the possibility of a broader freedom outweigh the certainty of a limited freedom inside the punishment-skins?

And much of what is about to happen is based on worth, even down to those deaths that Mater Viae has traded. Who would buy those deaths, Beth wonders, and is given her answer: the Chemical Synod – ‘traders, bargainers, barterers’. London has long been a place of commerce, a place where everything has a value, even debt, but the Chemical Synod take this to its logical extreme: height, gravity, heartbreak and death – literally everything has a price, but death most of all, given what the Synod can do with it.

Chapter 15

Every step carried Beth further from the city she knew.

There are so many Londons in fiction (there is a useful list here). More than most cities, it’s easy to imagine alternative Londons in which its past comes alive again. So what marks this London as different from the others? For me it is in part the very modernity of the place. We’re dealing with electricity, telegraphy, neon, razor-wire, lampposts, underground trains and of course, cranes. This is not the past re-emerging so much as the present shaping itself in unexpected ways. And to do that it works with a new urban mythology. Other writers may reinscribe older myths on the city – and why not, given it has seen more influxes of immigrants than we can ever imagine – but Tom Pollock’s characters emerge from the more recent fabric of the city.

And if we were ever in doubt of that before, in spite of Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and Pavement Priests, this chapter makes it absolutely explicit, when Filius takes Beth to the Demolition Field. Here we see the remains of the Women in the Walls and the Masonry Men, victims of Reach’s demolition men. This is a fantastically resonant scene. We might think of the layers upon layers of burials under London, that turn up in archaeological digs. We might think too of those who lost their lives during the bombings of World War Two. We might think, too, of all those who are displaced as a result of rapid or inappropriate redevelopment in post-war London, with communities uprooted and scattered.

The Masonry Men and the Women in the Walls stand for all those who are displaced by Reach’s ‘pretty little towers [built] out of glass and steel’; this is a novel that is deeply preoccupied with the ongoing rebuilding of London and what it does to the city. How has the city changed as much as it has done yet seemed to somehow remain the same? The city has survived Reach’s earlier depredations and returned stronger than ever, presumably thanks to Mater Viae. Yet, if Reach is now manifested in the cranes that dot the skyline, we’re prompted to think about how the nature of that rebuilding is changing, not least the speed and scale of it. London’s Walkie-Talkie skyscraper, the one that reflects light and melts cars, may have come after the publication of The City’s Son but it’s clearly one of Reach’s buildings, inimical to the people who have to live and work around it.

Chapter 16

London is, as I’ve said, a layered city. It is also a city in which so many people are invisible. Not just the beggars and the homeless sleeping in doorways, those people we mostly pretend not to see, but there are the people who choose not to be seen, not because they live in the interstices of the city, but because they regard themselves as too important to be seen. Business people, aristocrats, people who regard themselves as part of the fabric of the city too, but not in the same way as ordinary people. Tom Pollock hits on an ingenious way of commenting on this by introducing us to the Mirrorstocracy, hidden London’s so-called nobility, with all that entails.

I find the Mirrorstocracy as fascinating as the Pavement Priests, though they are much less likeable. Here we have a glimpse of a deeply privileged group of people determined not only to maintain the status quo but also willing to exploit the situation to their own ends, reminiscent of all too many people at work in London as we know it (this is a deeply political novel, if you look closely). The romance of the Son of the Streets taking up arms on behalf of his absent mother is countered by a group of people who can see how they will benefit from Reach’s building glass towers. Their contempt for Filius is clear in the way they refer to him as the Urchin Prince. It may be a term others also use too but in the mouths of the Mirrorstocracy it is an insult. Clearly, they see themselves as better than royalty. Which may be the case, given their London is not precisely a mirror of Filius’s. London-Under-Glass seems to stand at an angle to Beth’s London as well, relying on accidental juxtapositions to create new inhabitants. Note too the anxiety when Filius offers to flood London-Under-Glass with new Mirrorstocrats. The parvenu is always the greatest threat to the blue-blooded – like them but not like them, undermining their exclusivity, and how. But the means of their creation can, at the same time, become the means of their destruction.

And this, then, may be counted as a small victory for Beth and Filius. The Mirrorstocracy won’t fight willingly but they have been forced to honour their obligation to Mater Viae.

Chapters 1-4 of The City’s Son are discussed here, chapters 5-8 here and chapters 9-12 here.

Archive – On Stranger Tides – Tim Powers

A short review I did for Interzone in 2011.

On Stranger Tides
Tim Powers, Corvus, 405pp, pb

The occasion for this reissue of Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides is, of course, the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean film of the same name, fourth in the series. At this stage, one can only speculate as to how much of the novel has found its way into the film; one can however marvel at how certain elements of the novel seem curiously familiar to anyone who has seen the earlier films.

Our hero is Jack Chandagnac, puppeteer and bookkeeper, who is travelling to the Caribbean to confront his uncle, Sebastian, who has stolen Jack’s inheritance. However, when Jack’s ship is boarded by pirates his life changes forever. He becomes Jack Shandy, quartermaster to Philip Davies who is not only captain of the Vociferous Carmichael but a magician of sorts, and an associate of Blackbeard, who is planning the most audacious exploit of his career, to locate the Fountain of Youth. Matters are further complicated by the presence of corrupt magicians Benjamin Hurwood and Leo Friend, both of whom have magical designs on Hurwood’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Revisiting this novel after many years, I am struck first by how much fun this novel is to read, and secondly by how well wrought it is. In a narrative that features voodoo, zombies, magic and pirates, it would be all too easy to be carried away by the possibilities for vast dramatic set-pieces but Powers is pleasingly restrained and thoughtful in his story-telling. The historical and the fantastic elements are nicely balanced, and I particularly like the underlying flavour of elegiac nostalgia for the romance of piracy, even as the novel acknowledges the brutal reality. Whatever the film turns out to be like, as a novel On Stranger Tides remains well worth a reader’s attention.

Archive – Sleight of Hand – Peter S Beagle

Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon, 326pp, pb

I first encountered Peter S. Beagle’s writing as a teenager when I read The Last Unicorn. It was love at first sight, a love further strengthened when I read his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, so different in subject matter yet so clearly a product of the same skewed imagination. Beagle laid out his themes early on and his best stories still return to them.

His men are often gauche but blessed with a way of putting right the deeper problems even as they fumble the everyday tasks, maybe learning a little more about themselves as well. Schmendrick, the magician from The Last Unicorn, is the classic example: in ‘The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon’, set prior to the novel, he meets a widow and her two children, grieving for the loss of a husband and father. The story explores ways of dealing with life by telling stories, hardly an uncommon theme, but the encounter between magician and woman is so delicately drawn as to lift it out of the ordinary.

In turn, it picks up another regular theme in Beagle’s work. His characters are rarely the usual noble or evil inhabitants of epic fantasy. Instead, Beagle focuses on the ordinary people, whose smallholdings are destroyed as armies sweep by, or who make their living as servants or artisans. Indeed, the closer that Beagle moves to more conventional fantasy tropes the less interesting his stories seem to become, as though he loses sympathy for the characters. Thus, while I enjoyed the early sections of ‘What Tune The Enchantress Plays’ I found myself less engaged by Breya Drom once she assumed her powers as enchantress.

It is with the offbeat story that Beagle really shines. ‘La Lune T’attend’, in which Arcenaux and Garrigue, two Cajun old-timers who also happen to be werewolves are stalked by a third werewolf, seeking revenge, after they despatched him as punishment for a particularly vile murder, is undoubtedly a well-made werewolf story in its own right. However, what really makes this story is its portrayal of a long friendship between two men. Beagle has always written well about age, and oddly enough he also has a knack for writing about the young, as shown in ‘The Rock in the Park’, where two teenage boys encounter a family of centaurs in a New York park, and ‘The Rabbi’s Hobby’, in which an elderly rabbi and a teenage boy set out to discover the identity of a mysterious woman in a photograph. But again, as Beagle moves closer to the conventional, the stories don’t seem to work so well. ‘The Bridge Partner’ about a stalker promises much but lacks that certain spark while ‘Vanishing’ is saved only by the fact that its ageing protagonist, Jansen, is so well drawn.

Beagle strives for variety – there are several entertaining written-to-order pieces included here – but his métier is the closely observed character study. I wonder sometimes if Beagle isn’t a little too careful with his characters. He is very generous to them; they rarely die pointless deaths and they rarely die brutally. Violence is saved for those most deserving of it; Beagle’s is a very traditional view of the moral balance. Some stories teeter on the edge of sentimentality but Beagle invariably pulls back from the brink just in time. If he could be accused of anything, it would be of showing more compassion for his characters than is nowadays fashionable.

One probably either loves Beagle’s writing or else finds it a little maybe a little old-fashioned. Beagle himself has expressed a certain distaste for much modern fantasy writing. Nonetheless, few can match him when it comes to a particular mix of the fantastic and the ordinary, with a tinge of nostalgia. As one character observes, the magic is in the telling, always.

Archive – The Diviner’s Tale – Bradford Morrow

The Diviner’s Tale
Bradford Morrow, Corvus Books, 311pp, £16.99, hb

In The Diviner’s Tale Bradford Morrow’s protagonist is named Cassandra Brooks, reflecting her two primary functions within this novel, to be disbelieved, and to be involved with water. Perhaps too, they suggest that Cass cannot refuse her destiny to be a water diviner but that would suggest this novel follows the familiar track of a character needing to acknowledge her latent powers whereas Cass is all too aware of her abilities. Instead, I think Morrow is essaying a more subtle discussion about the responsibilities that come with certain skills.

A clue to this is the fact that Morrow eschews a fantasy landscape in favour of a contemporary setting. Cass, a teacher and single mother of twin boys, lives in a small close-knit community in the north-east US, the town where she has lived in most of her life. Admittedly, this is almost a stereotype but Morrow ensures this is no small-town idyll. Cass’s skills as a diviner are not remarkable; she is her father’s daughter, and dowsing skills are valued when water is at a premium. When, late on, Neptune tells Cass that he was a fraud, she is not surprised, having based her own work on careful research but one suspects that both have combined knowledge and instinct without ever questioning it. It is the acceptance of the validity of both ways of working that lies at the heart of this novel.

Cass also has precognition, among other things predicting the car crash that killed her brother, but has always kept quiet about this particular skill, understanding that it is not always so welcome. Things change when Cass finds the body of a young girl hanging from a tree while dowsing a client’s land. When she returns with the police, the body has vanished, and she is suspected of an over-active imagination. The police do discover a runaway girl who looks similar to Cass’s description but she is not satisfied with this explanation, not least because she also receives a series of mysterious threats referring to the discovery and the presence of the hanged girl remains. At the same time, the community withdraws from Cass, no longer sure of who or what she is. Cass’s choice lies in attempting to conform to her sense of what the community needs her to be or else in being true to herself and seeking an explanation of events, the key to which lies in events she has suppressed.

As fantasy novels go, this is low-key, to the point where some might wonder if the events aren’t simply the imaginings of a lonely woman. It is Cass’s own matter-of-fact account that convinces us that her experiences are genuine and must be addressed on their own terms. It is also true that Cass’s account of living with her powers is rather stronger than the other strand of plot, where speculation about a possible instigator far too quickly becomes certainty with very little actual evidence until much later on. In the end, I’m not sure it matters, because Cass’s growing acceptance of all her skills is what the novel is primarily about.

Bradford Morrow is the founder and editor of Conjunctions, the literary magazine which, several years ago, published the much-discussed The New Wave Fabulists, guest-edited by Peter Straub. A glance through his backlist indicates that Morrow has incorporated fantastic elements into earlier novels and suggests that its appearance in The Diviner’s Tale is not an outlier but part of a much broader pattern of use. His fiction will probably not be to the taste of those like their fantasy to have epic proportions but I think The Diviner’s Tale will appeal to those interested in the ways in which the fantastic weaves its way in and out of daily life. Certainly, this novel has impressed me sufficiently that I want to read his earlier work.