Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Throne of the Crescent Moon (DAW), by Saladin Ahmed

By and large, fantasy bores me. The biggest issue I have is that there so rarely appears to be any actual fantasizing involved anymore. For every shinning jewel of Abarat, there is some trite tales of elves, dwarves, dragons and wizards. Plus, I could not give the slightest fart in the wind about the maneuverings and machinations of the great. Kings, Lords, Lordlings and all can rot in my not remotely humble opinion.  Luckily for  you and I, Throne of the Crescent Moon does something different.

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms are in a time of upheaval. The Khalif is an iron fisted ass and a self-styled Falcon Prince is stirring up rebellion in the streets. Then there is the recent rash of supernatural murders, leaving victims torn apart, hearts ripped from their chests. Through this turmoil, a tired and aged Ghul Hunter, a young and self-righteous Dervish, the only living remainder of a mutilated Badawi band, a withering magus and his lithe Alkhemist wife are trying to find a way to survive and maybe hold their part of the city of Damsawaat together.

From the start, Ahmed had me pulled in with a mythology derived not from the staid old standard European tradition but instead pulling from the rich well of Arab and Persian culture. It’s amazing how much of a difference a cultural shift like this makes. The world he drew out became something new and (dare I say it?) interesting. I also appreciated how he makes use of what appears to be an analog of Islam that is clearly an important and pervasive element of the character’s lives without turning the story into one of religious diatribe.

But those surface trappings are not the only things that make this book stand out. Many authors aim for moral ambiguity by making all of the characters into assholes. Instead, here we have people who largely believe they have the best of intentions at heart, even when they are being selfish, petty and cruel. The choices laid out before them are hard ones, with no simple choice and no clear compass. Even some of the bigger douches have their reasons for being douches. It was refreshing to experience in a genre usually coated in black and white.

Of course, all the novelty in the world will only take you so far before you need a sold story, which this has. Ahmed moves along at a brisk pace developing a steadily worsening situation and throwing plenty of sword and sorcery . The action is tight and his prose is poetic without being self indulgent. Plus, he manages to work in the lifeblood of this society, culture and world in a way that never stops the narrative for a convenient infodump. Plus, ghuls, dammit. Ghuls!

Pure and simple, any fan of fantasy should well and truly adore this book and others of you like myself that don’t usually like it will still stand a decent chance of enjoying the hell out of yourself. I just hope that he has a long term goal for the series and that it doesn’t turn into one of those interminable meandering bits of nonsense so many other series have turned into.

buy it here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Last Whisper in the Dark (Bantam), by Tom Piccirilli

My Mother had never turned her back on anyone in the family for a minute. I swallowed down a surge of hatred for her parents. I wanted to meet these people. Along with that came a vague anger toward my father for falling in love with her and stealing her away.

Those of you who read my review of The Last Kind Words (Tom’s previous book about the Rand family) know that it hit me rather personally. The Last Whisper in the Dark is no different and may be a bit more aggressively so. I’m just warning you so that you know this review will be about my personal relationship with this book and will have none of the usual pretend objective hullabaloo.

The blurbs set it up as being about narrator Terrier’s attempt to clear a friend, the same friend who married his long lost love, from a mess of trouble he’s gotten himself into. I don’t agree about that any more than I agreed with the blurbs last time. I couldn’t step away from the interactions of the Rands and the intrusion of the in-law, less officially outlaw, Crowe family along with Terrier’s continued struggle to find himself amidst fears of being bound my DNA and history. That’s just where my own obsessions lie.

The introduction of the Crowes throws an interesting wrinkle into the already fairly complicated equation of Terrier’s psyche. The Crowes are the upright, uptight wealthy and fully legal family that once kicked the Rand matron out for marrying into a family of low down crooks and grafters. They provide what seems to be a foil for Terry, a view of life on the other side. They could be a glimpse at what he can’t be but in some dim way wants to. Of course, like all good illusions, these walls prove to be a bit less sturdy than expected and the differences between the families are both more and less than they initially appear. The emergence of a potential budding relationship mirrors his relationship with Kimmy in much the same way.

That is where the crux of the tale fell for me, in the strain between trying to be better while staying to true to who you are. In the attempts to hold onto family and forgive their shortcomings without whitewashing their histories and hold them responsible for their own actions. And a bit of navigating the distinctions between what we think things are and the inevitable disappointment that comes with experience. All through the eyes of someone stumbling around in this maze with equal amounts of the blind certainty and blatant stupidity I too often see in myself. 

Emotionally, it pulled my strings and punched a few soft spots and I was grateful for the experience. However, it might be worth noting that this is more about the experience than the journey. There isn’t a typical story arc (though there is a character arc if you dig deep enough) to grab onto, which is usually something that pisses me off something awful. Of course, I’m sure Piccirilli knows this potential effect. Why else would he have dear daddy Pinscher make that comment about confusing French plays near the end? If nothing else, it says something that I didn’t chuck the damn thing against a wall for the offense.

I’m not sure that enjoy is quite the right term for a story like this, but I had a heck of a time with it. If you dug The Last Kind Words, I’m sure you’ll dig this. If you haven’t read that yet, I can’t particularly recommend starting here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Plow the Bones (Apex), by Douglas Warrick

A common complaint in the genre is that Weird Fiction is no longer weird. That Speculative Fiction no longer speculates. Instead of the bright, dimensional boundary shattering work that started the genres, we’re getting stale, staid and bland rehashes that stick to the established formulas. Nearly every fantasy is a copy of either Tolkein or Howard. Far too much Sci-fi is trying to be Herbert, Asimov or Heinlein. And if I get one more fucking lazy goddamn Lovecraft pastiche, I swear that I may stab someone. But then comes Dougie Fresh here with some of the weirdest speculative fiction I’ve read in years.

Now, if you like your fiction easy, simple and fun, then I will just tell you to stop now. You won’t like this stuff. His stories are dense and, at times, intensely painful. This is not good time reading. At the same time, it is damn good.

If you’ve read either of Apex’s Dark Faith anthologies (shame on you if you haven’t), then You’ll recognize his name among the standouts there. “Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation” (from the first one) presents a bhuddist lesson to a Christian god that manages to avoid didacticism and leaves pretty much everyone feeling cold. “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” (courtesy of Invocations) follows an artist become a god or sorts, who is left weeping over the creations she has poured from her pen and her own petty, empty desires. Both stories are dense, intricate mazes of human misery and hope laid out in bizarre, but not incomprehensible, landscapes that positively wrecked me.

Two of the stories hit a bit too close to home for me. The first was “Come to My Arms, My Beamish Boy”, a tale of an old man, losing everything he was and the few tenuous connections to his own life that remain his to interdimensional lampreys. The portrayal of Alzheimer's from the inside is touching and was possible a bad choice for me to read so shortly after losing a family member to dementia. All the same, the touch of potential hope at the end was needed, and I thank him for that.

The other was “Rattenkonig” about the hidden room in the house with a wall of interwoven rat-type things and the strange guy that shows up asking about them. Or, it’s about the slow, steady, unnoticed dissolution of a relationship until those left feel no connection but can see no way out. He perfectly captured the feelings of alienation and confusion as well as the fear that nothing will get any better for either of you, no matter what you do.

Overall, there seems to be a general theme of disappointment running through these stories. An exploration of a life and a world that does not meet the hopes we were given for it. Don’t look for answers, though. None are given and we (both readers and characters) are left fumbling and tumbling through things we have no hope of comprehending. I told you it wasn’t going to be fun.

As I said, if you are looking for breezy entertainment, you won’t find it here. But fans of Thomas Liggotti and Gary Braunbeck as well as people that want a bit more honest weirdness in their Weird, without the nonsense of Bizarro, may not be happy, but they will consider the experience a worthy one.