Friday, August 30, 2013

A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in OlondriaA Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Drenched in equal parts beauty and sorrow, Sofia Samatar's lush first novel makes for compelling reading. I had first journyed to the island of Tinimavet, homeland of Jevick, a pepper merchant's son and subsequent heir, via a chapbook preview given out at WisCon 2012. After reading the first several chapters, I was addicted to Samatar's rich prose, as well as being enamored of the Tea Islands and the titular Olondria, to which Jevick travels after his father dies and he takes over the family trade.

The beauty of the milieu is that, rather than yet another medieval Euro-clone fantasy world, the world of Olondria and the Tea Islands is derived from South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Malaysian or Indonesian frames. Having tangentially studied some of these areas (my Master's Degree is in African History), I was impressed not only by the trappings, but by the cultural honesty and authenticity that informed the characters' actions and attitudes. This is no simplistic rendering of quaint folk-tales, either, though there is a fairy-tale quality to some of the sub-stories that are told within the greater narrative. It is a rich and varied web, a real relief from Eurocentric works and the tired glut of urban fantasy. Sick of Tolkien clones? Give this a try. Love Tolkien clones? Try this.

I must admit that the opiate prose of the chapbook set me up for an emotional fall where the chapbook left off and the rest of the book picked up. I had no idea that I was standing on the edge of an abyss. You see, I waited a full year for the full book to be published and had been lulled into a sense of warmth and security by the beauty of the settings and of Samatar's writing. That warmth and security was soon shattered as I read about Jevick finding himself thrust into a series of mishaps, through no fault of his own, which affect him and those around him, shattering the envelope of innocence and optimism that might have surrounded him in his childhood. Worst of all, he is haunted, literally, by the soul of a young girl, Jissavet, whom he met on his way to Olondria and who subsequently died from the disease kyitna. Her ghost invades his life, ordering him to immortalize her by writing a Vallon, or book. When he reveals to others that Jissavet's ghost has come to visit him, some are convinced that he is insane and in need of confinement and healing, others see him as a saint, an Avneanyi, blessed with the gift to speak with angels. Through all the intervening intrigue, he searches for her body so that he can burn her remains and give her a proper send-off into the afterlife, releasing her from entrapment between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Ultimately, A Stranger in Olondria is about the power of books, both redemptive and destructive. By being taught to read and write in his youth by an Olondrian tutor, Jevick is eventually thrust into his harrowing journey by the books he reads. He is tormented into writing a book and, (view spoiler)

This is a deeply moving book, intellectually stimulating and emotionally poignant. The story, the characters, the overwhelming sense of sweetness, sadness, and nostalgia will stick with me for some time. It is a multi-layered work, with stories within stories like Russian dolls, and this structure works, for the most part. Even the one structural hiccup, the mechanical transition from Jevick's story to Jissavet's, is smoothed out by the overall excellence of the writing, the beauty of the setting and cultures, and the heart-breaking feeling of yearning that tears at the reader's soul. This is clearly the best book I've read thus far this year.

It was worth the wait.

Don't wait. Read it!

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sorcery 2: Khare: Cityport of Traps

Sorcery 2: Khare: Cityport of TrapsSorcery 2: Khare: Cityport of Traps by Steve Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1984, I think it was, when I picked this book up at a store called "The Book Professor" in Papillion, NE. Truth be told, Mom bought it for me as a consolation for JC Penny not having the Star Wars jersey I wanted in stock. If you haven't figured it out yet, I was a bit of a nerd. But I was a nerd going into regression. The metalhead/punk was, instead, coming out. So this book, being an easily-hideable nerd manual, was perfect. Part solo role playing module (think Tunnels & Trolls), part choose-your-own-adventure book (though much better than it's more famous cousins), the sorcery books were two-fists-full-of-six-sided-dice worth of awesome! Now, it was good that I had fairly low self-esteem at that time, too, since the narration could get a little condescending, at times. If you did something dumb, the book let you know it. But, hey, I lived through it, even if my character didn't, and I'm stronger for it. One important caveat: This Steve Jackson (of Games Workshop) is not the same as the Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games (Gurps, Car Wars, Ogre, etc). I just want you to know so that you don't make the same mistake I made while talking to the American Steve Jackson: Me: "Hey, I really liked your Sorcery books. Are you going to do any more of those?" Mr. Jackson (if you're nasty): "Huh?"

I failed my saving throw for putting my foot in my mouth on that one. Temporary loss of dexterity, permanent loss of charisma . . . believe me, you don't want it to happen to you. Thankfully, I've had my share of limited wishes to undo the damage.

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus BoschHieronymus Bosch by Walter S. Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

World Fantasy Award-winning author Zoran Zivkovic once described my short fiction as "the contemporary prose equivalent of the wildly imaginative paintings of Heironymus Bosch." For this, I am flattered, grateful, and, before reading this book, woefully ignorant of the artist to whom I am being compared.

Not that I'm unfamiliar with his paintings. I suppose my first exposure to Bosch's work came indirectly by way of a Black Sabbath album cover (remember albums?), that of The Best of Black Sabbath Vol. 1, back in the early '80s. Now, this must have been a bootleg, because I can't, for the life of me, find it now, even though I bought it at the ostensibly-reputable JC Penney store in Westroads Mall in Omaha, NE. At the time I really didn't care whether or not the band received their deserved royalties, as I was thunderstruck by the cover art, "The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Bruegel. I spent long hours listening to "War Pigs," "NIB," and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," while studying this painting. I must have been 12 or 13, and my virgin eyes had never beheld such a thing as this before. Ah, sweet innocent blasphemy in the Spring of youth!

Later, as a result of knowing this Bruegel piece, I was introduced to Bosch, since the two are often compared to each other. In fact, Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" hangs across the aisle from Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death" at the Prado in Madrid. Truth be told, while I appreciate "The Garden of Earthly Delights," I don't think it is Bosch's best painting. That honor, in my feeble eyes, goes to his "Temptation of St. Anthony," wherein Bosch's surreal, nightmare leanings are carefully honed in a technically-precise, symbolically-rich presentation of, well, the temptation of Saint Anthony.

But this is a book review, no? Yes. Let's get to the book.

No, let's not. Before we go further, I need to point something out. When I was an undergraduate, dutifully earning my BA in Humanities (History Emphasis), I developed a sort of snobbery toward Art History majors. I really felt that most of the Art History majors I knew were not-so-well-versed in anything outside of visual art. I was (and still am) pleased that my education encompassed many, many disciplines. I felt that my knowledge of music, theater, literature, dance, cinema, philosophy, and history all informed my appreciation of the static visual arts. Frankly, my conversations with Art History majors usually ended up with them abruptly ending the conversation with an uncomfortable "oh," at which point I knew I had gone too far afield from strictly visual art, in an attempt to contextualize the art itself. Not to slam all Art History majors, as I'm sure there are some that are well-versed in a variety of . . . stuff, but my experience left me with a snob's-eye-view of the "discipline" of Art History in general.

So when I pick up a book that is clearly in the Art History category, I go in with some hesitation. I'm excited about the subject, of course, but am always fearfully anticipating an involuntary intellectual flinch or two or ten along the way. It's purely a visceral reaction conditioned by my snobbery, no doubt. In this case, it's clearly not about the money - I bought this at a garage sale for a buck. Scratch up one point for my tightwadedness frugality!

Thankfully, the Thames & Hudson World of Art series has done something to alleviate my fears over the years. This volume, with commentary by Walter S. Gibson, does much to bolster my faith in the potential of art history as a discipline. Gibson is quick to note that there is much we do not know about Bosch - in essence we have no record of the man's training, though there are hints within his work that point to a couple of possible schools of art (not formal institutions, mind you, but certain perceived movements in certain artistic circles). For the most part, Gibson is careful to note that while certain conclusions about Bosch and his art might be inferred, there is the danger of thinking we understand far more than we actually do understand. Still, that doesn't stop Gibson, in a couple of places, from "projecting" by stating that Bosch "did not view the world as a stage upon which was enacted the struggle between equally powerful forces of good and evil, for this would have denied the omnipotence of God." Well, this may or may not have been true, but Gibson provides little evidence of this other than the fact that Gibson says that Bosch did not view things in this way. Unless Gibson was some sort of necromancer who raised the artist from the dead and personally interviewed him (how do you cite such an interview, anyway?), there is no way to be so sure of Bosch's views, opinions, etc.

Nevertheless, I'm older now, and at least a little bit more mature than in my undergraduate years. So I'm willing to forgive Gibson for falling back on his training a couple of times. Overall, his analysis was brilliant, well-supported, and cohesive. I learned a lot about Bosch and his world from Gibson's analysis. And, of course, the artwork in the book is beautifully dark and surreal - my favorite kind of art, the kind that makes me giddy like a school-child again. So the adult in me can leave his snobbery behind, making way for the 13-year-old, greasy-haired fanboy at the Mall to smile back across all those years.

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