Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the novel every sixteen-year-old wants to read. And by "sixteen" I mean anyone who is chronologically sixteen or sixteen at heart. That probably means you (so long as you're not allergic to a lot of swearing and violence - if you can't handle this, find something else). No, it's not a coming of age novel. Not really. I'd pity the sap who had a childhood like Locke Lamora's - an orphan whose "family" was a band of child thieves before being sold to another "family" of thieves. But it is as bawdy, violent, and intelligent as one could ever ask in a fantasy novel. It is also incredibly well-written - elegant, though not baroque or overwrought, limned with brilliant turns of phrase that wrap the reader in the story, rather than pushing them out.

I won't even attempt to go over plot details in this one. First of all, I'm not very good at relating plots; and, second, the many comparisons I've heard to Ocean's Eleven and The Godfather are more than adequate to underscore the complexity of the plot. Suffice it to say that we see the titular thief's beginning, much of his upbringing and those of the other "Gentleman Bastards," we see their exploits as a cocksure gang, including an intricate heist involving the duping of a pair of nobles (brilliantly planned and executed) then, with the entrance of a mysterious figure known as the Gray King, things start to go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

The wonder of this is that the book is written, throughout, with a chronological back-and-forth dance between past and present. Lynch choreographs this dance more deftly than I have ever seen before. The book progresses chronologically, at first, to the point where Locke is sold to his new garrista, or gang boss, Father Chains. From there, we jump to the present, and from there on out, we weave our way back and forth, following Locke and the Gentleman Bastards' heist and the complications presented by the Gray King in a linear fashion, while dipping back into interludes from the past that provide just enough information about the characters' pasts to give the needed background to understand aspects of the present, but not so much information that it feels hokey. Other, less skilled authors, would make these past sections feel like an awkward interpolation, but Lynch's flashbacks never feel like an infodump.

The setting, the city of Camorr, is mysterious and well-realized. I'm not certain if subsequent volumes of the adventures of Locke and Jean (one of the other Gentleman Bastards) also take place in Camorr, but Lynch has definitely not tapped the potential of the city with this one novel. Imagine a city not unlike Venice, but rife with sharks in the water and human sharks in every alleyway. The city itself is built atop the architecture of some past civilization that we know almost nothing about. This alien architecture is made of some unknown material called "Elderglass" that is sometimes translucent, sometimes opaque, and glows with "falselight" in the evening, lending an eerie quality that is used throughout as a sort of time marker indicating nightfall.

While the other Gentleman Bastards, Jean, the twins Calo Sanza and Galdo Sanza, and the young Bug, are all critical to the story, the focus is, as one would expect, on Locke Lamora. Locke is not the most physically deft person (that would be the Sanza twins), nor is he very strong or a good fighter (that would be Jean). But he is absolutely cunning and a fantastic liar. He is brilliant, and he knows it. But he is also very cautious, which saves his hide several times over. He is more cocksure than brave, but never stupid, even as he derides himself for being so. He is the ultimate Scheisster. As with any very intelligent person, he has a cutting wit, which is actually a common trait among all the Gentleman Bastards. The humor is thick and ribald in the first two-thirds of this book, then becomes grim by the end. Expect to laugh a lot at first, then expect to wonder if you should be laughing or not. For the reader with a dark sense of humor (read: me), this is a hilarious read when it needs to be and becomes more serious when it ought to (though it never loses its snarkyness).

I must admit that there are times when I read a book and am just plugging through it to get through it. I started that way with this book. Yes, I had heard it was good, but it took me a moment to "buy-in". But that was a quick moment. Maybe three or four pages, and I was hooked. The story flows quickly, yet uses intelligent, complex syntax with clever twists of irony. Lynch shows a master author's touch in The Lies of Locke Lamora. I haven't been "taken away" by a fantasy like this in some time. This book will demand all your attention, and it should. It is THAT good!

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Glowburn, Episode 4: Stowaways on the Warden

Glowburn, Episode 4: Stowaways on the Warden

Please fasten your seatbelts at this time and stow any and all artifacts or adventuring equipment underneath your seat or in the overhead compartments: In this episode, we are taking off with the Starship Warden to explore Metamorphosis Alpha. Judge Forrest recounts Gameholecon and we hear an actual voice of the Ancient Ones! Judge Bill and Judge Forrest then unleash an unintentionally horrific pair of artifacts on Terra A.D. Opening and closing theme song is Juno by Chronox.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Tainted Earth

The Tainted EarthThe Tainted Earth by George Berguño
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All short story collections (even my own) have high points and low points. The trick is to find collections where the high points are so good that they pull the other stories "up". If the low points were your average stories, the collection can still be outstanding. And this is the case here. Though some of the stories were, for me, average, there wasn't a stinker among them, and when Berguno shines, his light is bright, by which I mean it is gloomy and ethereal, light gray, if you will.

The title story, "The Tainted Earth," is reminiscent of the decadent writers Gautier or de Gourmont: very capably written, with little originality of plot, and a little twist at the end. I found that same decadent voice throughout the collection, to some degree or another, which is not a bad thing! The framing device for "The Tainted Earth" really is the story, which isn't usually my thing. But it flows so smoothly, one has to admire the writing behind it. I would normally give this sort of story three stars, but the prose is so well-constructed, that I'm giving it four stars.

Ah, Berguno, you trickster, you. Here, in "The Sick Mannes Salve," the author pulls the old bait and switch, though masterfully done. This story's tone is highly evocative of Poe and maybe a touch of M.R. James and a very tiny pinch of Dunsaney. Nicely done, though a touch predictable in hindsight. Four stars for you.

"The Ballad of El Pichon" is a tale of (dark) magic realism every bit as worthy as anything Marquez ever wrote. Surreal like a fever dream. I swear this was the reality I knew as a child when we traveled to Mexico for a day trip. Did I see that old man selling canaries? Or, worse yet, did he see me? Five stars!

"Fugue for Black Thursday," a vortex of respect, social chains, and revenge set in Nazi-occupied Poland, is centered around Bruno Schulz, author of The Street of Crocodiles (brilliantly interpreted in cinema by The Brother's Quay). This story had true pathos, with a plot that creates sympathetic creatures in the most evil of men. It is grim, loathsome, and altogether enjoyable, if you get what I mean - in much the same way that a Brother's Quay movie is, though quite a bit less surreal. This story, the second-strongest in the collection, easily gets five stars.

"Mouse and the Falconer" felt manipulative. This is forgivable, though my resistance to the authors overt attempts to play with my sympathies and fears ironically prevented me from feeling the depths of emotion I was "supposed" to feel. Still,the syntax and vocabulary are exquisite, but not adequate to earn any more than three stars.

"The Rune Stone at Odenslunda" fell flat for me, but was still not a bad story. Imagine if Dunsany and Ovid had written a horror story and set it in Norway. Three stars.

"The Good Samaritan of Prague" is a labyrinth meandering through dream and destiny, with a shadowy figure that may or may not exist as a sort of mystic minotaur. But monster and hero are conflated and indistinguishable from one another. A convoluted, gloomy story which is, at its heart, a brooding on homelessness, but I can't tell if it makes me sad or merely contemplative. Four stars.

"Three Drops of Death" could have been stripped straight out of the pre-Raphaelite short fiction collection, The Dream Weavers, except that Berguno gives the characters much more depth by showing their quirks and flipping reader expectations on their head. Five stars for this clever and endearing piece of dark humor.

The pièce de résistance here is to be found in the absolutely amazing novella "A Spell of Subtle Hunting". Another piece starring a Nazi as its protagonist, this story, written in the second person (a form that I usually hate with a flying passion), is an all-engulfing dreamscape with emotional depth that tugs at the heartstrings and immerses the reader in a hazy fugue state. Ernst Junger, the controversial writer, is the narrator. The war has come and gone, and Junger is old, very, very old, and about to die, so he seeks out a piece of his youth, from the time before he "began to die," when he was dismissed from the German army for his ties to the officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler (referred to as "Kniebolo" throughout) and had to relinquish his post in Paris, where he had become acquainted with such luminaries as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. "A Spell of Subtle Hunting" is a master-class in painting with an airy brush saturated with sadness, regret, and a hint of self-satisfied defiance. This piece is strong enough to cause the most avid reader to ask "why aren't there more novellas in the world"? We get enough of an insight into the character that we can see them from several angles, yet the form is short enough that we don't get mired in minutiae. This is especially important: The tone of the story, a touch grim and yet playful at the same time, is facilitated by the lack of fluff. As Calvino used to say, "I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury". That same impulse is evident in spades in Berguno's longer (but not too long) masterpiece, "A Spell of Subtle Hunting".

This book would have been complete had it only contained this last novella and "Fugue for Black Thursday". Thankfully, it has these and much more to commend it. Add to this the exquisite production values I have come to expect from Egaeus Press (if you've never bought and held an Egaeus title, go NOW and do it!), and even the average stories become lifted up such that the The Tainted Earth is well-deserving of five stars.

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I cannot provide a more succinct and excellent summary of the plot of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World than Michael has provided. Nor would I wish to try to describe the plot. It is classic Murakami, which means that several disparate elements are fused together in a surreal totality that somehow works. This may have more to do with the mind's attempt to fuse together disjointed pieces, filling in any logical gaps with its own concoctions, than the intention of the writer. Yes, Murakami supplies many pieces of the puzzle, but the reader's brain must itself invoke any missing pieces from past experience or the subconscious's sheer creation of additional fiction on the fly. Of course, this is the case with any piece of fiction, but the chasms that we willingly cross with Murakami are a testament to his power as a writer - the power to draw one into the story, to fold the reading experience in with the story itself.

That is not to say that the book is not without its flaws. I must admit to having felt "thrown out" of the story for a good portion of the story: an infodump in which one of the characters explains complicated concepts about neurology and consciousness in a highly-distracting, "folksy" voice. For a chapter, I thought I might set the book down, as I found this voice so annoying at what seemed like such a critical juncture. In the end, I'm not certain that the section in question was really even necessary. It could have at least been reduced by half and simplified, in order to keep the flow that I normally enjoy from Murakami.

Still, after that bump in the auctorial road, the story comes together again, as if it has jumped a hurdle and is now racing, quite confidently, to the finish. At a certain point - which I won't reveal - the two stories that comprise the book begin to meld into one, and yet the ending came as an utter surprise to me . . . because it was the ending I was expecting all along and the ending I both most feared and the ending I had secretly hoped for. It "rocked my world" because it did not "rock my world".

Ultimately, this is the sort of bittersweet story I've learned to hope for from Murakami, a sort of Hegelian dialectic in which hope and despair resolve into a sort of triumphant acceptance of inevitability. This has been a timely read for me, and rather poignant, since my father was recently diagnosed with cancer which has not, thankfully, metastasized. He had surgery to have his kidney removed just two weeks before I am writing this review. He is doing well, but, in talking with him on the phone, I can tell that he is finally feeling his age and, while I hope and pray that he will live for many more years (his prognosis is actually quite good), he is being faced with his own mortality. Dad is a fighter. And he won't go without holding on as long as he can. But I think he'll do it with dignity. Do I wish he could live forever? Yes. Do I know that he must eventually die? Yes. And still, there is a quiet beauty to his growing old, not a fear of fate, but not a desperate struggle, either. I can hear a twinge of sadness in his voice when I talk to him, but also an increase of appreciation for Life.

All intellectual concerns aside, I can't think of a more appropriate book to have read at this time.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Fugue XXIX

While I am very happy about and proud of my novel, Heraclix and Pomp, I would be remiss if I didn't point you toward a very different work of mine, Fugue XXIX. Fugue is . . . ahem . . . older now. But I'm still rather fond of it. Those stories are me somewhere between cutting my teeth as a fiction writer and becoming comfortable with my writing voices (no, not the ones in my head - well, sort of). But now that I'm feeling ready to once again take up the short story pen (and have, in fact, done so), I thought it might be good to point you to this collection which you can order from your friendly neighborhood book store, directly through the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, or through the evil (but necessary) empire.

You'll find these stories much more dark than H&P, with little of the playfulness found therein. These are admittedly grim and edgy. I'm told that some of them are "horror" stories, but, to be honest, I think that's an exaggeration. Regardless of genre labels, if you enjoyed the darker moments of H&P and are looking for something a little more post-modern in its forms, then Fugue XXIX might just be for you. But don't say I didn't warn you!

In the meantime, I've got a notebook waiting to be filled with words . . .

New Story Beginning?

Indulge me for a moment, please. After a long hiatus, I am taking up the short fiction pen again. And I need to know, since I am rusty, what you might suggest as a potential improvement or improvements to the following. Please note that I might have to take it down in the future, as I get closer to finishing the story and submitting it for publication. In the meantime, what is your reaction, and what do you think might improve this (admittedly incomplete) piece? Please be specific in your comments, and thank you!!!

Work in Progress:

Death masks are the strangest of all mementos, not because of the occasion that precipitates their creation – after all, death is common to all, banal – but because of skin.
                Upon the death of the central nervous system, skin cells continue to live for up to twelve hours, long after nerve cells have gone dark and the other major organs have begun their spiral into eternal decay. Desiccation sets in quickly, which creates the illusion that hair and fingernails are still growing on a days-old corpse. Not so. It’s the recession of the skin, due to dehydration that fosters this folk myth. The proteins in hair and nails, like the perceptive organs of seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing, are effectively dead soon after synaptical shut-down, but the skin – the organ of touch – lives on for hours.
                I wondered, as I looked at my own death mask – a faux affair made as I slept once, a long, long time ago – if the wet plaster applied to the face extends that life further beyond death by giving it the sustaining water of life. Or does the mask, becoming mummified from its very inception, more quickly draw life from that boundary that once simultaneously separated the self-conscious being from, and acted as interface with, the rest of the universe?
                And when does that “soul,” the breath of life, that is, actually, finally, leave the skin? Does it pass through the death mask, dissipating into the past, evaporating into memory, or does the wet mask prevent it from slipping through, barricading it in that liminal space between pore and plaster? And then what? Where does that essence, that energy, go?
                At some point, the end must begin.
                Or so I thought.
                Until the eyes flickered open, filled with void.
                My fingers gripped the edge of the mask, paralyzed. I could not un-clench them. And like the mask itself, I could not, though I tried . . . I tried to shut my eyes. But the panic that seized me forced them open. I stared through those open eyes, and they stared back through me.
                This is what they saw . . .

Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1

Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is going to come as a shock to some of you, but, in the instance of the excellent Kill 6 Billion Demons I actually prefer the webcomic to the physical object. Yes, I am normally quite adamant in my preference for physical artifact over photons, but when I spotted this at my friendly local book store last night and picked it up off the shelf, I realized something . . . about myself . . . and my age . . . and my eyes.

I've been following Tom Parkinson-Morgan's outstanding Kill 6 Billion Demons for quite some time now. I was thrilled to hear that he was publishing the work as a physical book. "Sweet," thought I, "the ultimate edition of this awesome comic". Yes, I already knew that the art was simply amazeballs and the plot had enough twists and turns to wrest it from the often flat and uninteresting landscape of comic book storytelling. I had grown to find some degree of depth in the characters that inhabit the strange heavens/hells of Throne, including the newcomer, Allison, a mortal human pulled into a world beyond her understanding. The setting, I knew, was a hallucinatory swirl of gods (alive, dead, and dying), angels, demiurges, and devils (including Allison's reluctant guide, Cio), colored so richly that one wonders if the very ink was infused with LSD. Parkinson-Morgan's art is finely-detailed, and his sense of scope is, at times, breathtaking, especially when one sees the sweeping vistas he uses to provide a birds-eye "map" view of the environs of throne. I was thrilled to be able to hold the book in my greedy little hands and exchange debit-photons for it.

And this is where the problem of the little book comes in.

Little . . .

It's too little. And my eyes, strained by decades of reading, are not getting any better.

Simply put, though I love the idea of the physical book, I much prefer the webcomic.

I never thought I'd say that. But it must be said.

Should you go buy the book? By all means, feel free. But I didn't. For me, too many intricacies are lost without a large image on a monitor, in this case. This is a world to be explored down to the smallest details, and I can't stand the thought of missing something that I know is there merely because of dogmatic devotion to the physical page. Instead of buying the book, I am supporting the artist by donating at the website. With photon-money that the artist can spend online or transform into real paper money at his leisure.

For once, technology wins.

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