Friday, 29 January 2010

Karen Haber (ed), Meditations on Middle-Earth

There may be a trades-descriptions problem with the title here: Meditations on Middle-Earth. The word ‘meditate’ comes from the Latin meditari, which means ‘to contemplate, to consider deeply, to think’. But very few of the seventeen big-name Fantasy authors who have contributed these short pieces on the impact of Tolkien appear to have thought very deeply about the topic. ‘How did he do it?’ ponders Lisa Goldstein. ‘How was he able to write an epic in a time when epics were all but forgotten? How did he tap into the collective unconscious of so many people?’ Her answer? ‘I don’t know. Sorry.’

Right. And Constant Reader is paying her £6.99 for … what exactly?

We might assume these various writers received an editorial brief to keep their ruminations (‘ruminate v. intr. to meditate, ponder’) accessible rather than erudite, to personalise their accounts, to keep it readable. But the resulting volume demonstrates how easily personal reminiscence strays into fatuousness. In this case it has resulted in a book in which many eminent fantasists say the same thing over and over again. ‘I discovered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in summer 1966. I was seventeen … I was utterly entranced’ [Harry Turtledove]; ‘1965? I think that is right. Odd that I cannot put a more precise date to it … I was about thirteen … I have lost track of how many times I have reread it over the years’ [Robin Hobb]; ‘The Lord of the Rings was what started me on my present course of writing’ [Diane Duane]; ‘I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1973, when I was thirteen years old … completely engrossed’ [Douglas A. Anderson]; ‘I don’t remember exactly when it was that I went on to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings … it changed my life’ [Charles de Lint]; ‘it was about 1966 when I discovered Tolkien … it hooked me’ [Raymond E. Feist]—and so on, and on, and on. The overall effect of this is not meditative. It is stupefying. Who did the publishers have in mind as a potential reader for all this mush? Which fantasy fan needs to spend £6.99 and wade through all this in order to learn that Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia owes a great deal to Middle Earth?

I don’t know. Sorry.

Many of these authors stir old tidbits into their goulashes, informing those not in the know that Tolkien wanting to create a mythology for England, that Ace books ripped Tolkien off by publishing a 1960s paperback edition without paying the author copyright, that Tolkien was an Oxford don. But these sorts of details have such wide cultural currency that surely even non-fans know them. Most observe that Tolkien did not invent fantasy. OK. Many deplore the fact that the wicked literary establishment refuses to accept that Tolkien is any good, preferring instead works such as Joyce’s Ulysses. There’s a grain of truth in this tediously repeated caricature of literary studies, but only grain.

Perhaps it really does not occur to Orson Scott Card that many people love Ulysses just as genuinely as he loves Lord of the Rings, but this doesn’t excuse the wincing inverted-snobbery at the very idea—‘you lucky Smart people; you really have it over the rest of us poor peasants who find it to be one long tedious joke … pay no attention to us as we close the door to your little brown study and get back to the party.’ Nowhere is it mooted that it is possible to love both Ulysses and Lord of the Rings, although I can attest from my personal experience that not only that this is the case, but that there are many virtues the two novels share—a fascination with language, a multifarious inventiveness, a deep engagement with the epic underpinnings of seemingly banal and quotidian lives, and with the importance of moral choice. But such a comparison would have involved thought, and thought (‘sober reflection or consideration’) is not the currency of this volume.

Not all the pieces in this collection conform to the general level of awfulness. Michael Swanwick reflects movingly on the centrality of loss to Lord of the Rings (Sam’s last sentence, he says, is ‘the most heartbreaking line in all of modern fantasy’). Terry Pratchett manages to be funny even when rehearsing the same schtick as the others about reading Tolkien as a teenager and the sinful neglect of the wicked literary establishment, because it’s almost impossible for Pratchett to be anything other than funny no matter what he writes. And the great Ursula Le Guin says a number of thoughtful, even meditative, things about the rhythms of Tolkien’s prose, and the larger pulse of his narrative technique. But even she can’t quite keep away the sense that these pieces are toss-offs, to be executed hurriedly: ‘perhaps some day,’ she says with the weary air of somebody who really can’t be bothered, ‘I or a braver reader can identify the larger patterns of repetition and alternation through the narrative.’

Otherwise, this volume is plain not worth its seven-pounds-less-a-penny cover price. I tried (believe me I tried) to suppress the shudder that ran along my spine as I read the ghastly winsomeness of Esther M. Friesner’s ‘If You Give A Girl A Hobbit’, but there’s only so much that human willpower can manage:
Having admitted to the crime of Authoring in the First Degree, with Premeditation and Malice Aforethought, I have no qualms about adding to my scroll of melfeasance by saying that what I write is generally fantasy and science fiction. This would be viewed as bad enough, in most respectable venues (i.e., periodicals such as the Pays-in-Copies Review or the Deconstructionist Quarterly), but I have piled iniquity upon iniquity … I have written funny fantasy and science fiction. On purpose.
Not on the evidence of this piece you haven’t.

Perhaps I’m only breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, except that all these gooey professions of love for Tolkien do attest to an important truth: The Lord of the Rings remains a book that matters profoundly to millions. It would be nice to know why. It would also be nice to have some sense of the ways in which the book is put together, its resonances, its contexts. It would be nice, in short, for some informed and illuminating criticism: but none of the authors here have anything but contempt for criticism, which is a pity; and is doubly a pity when one realises that in place of critical disinterestedness and insight they are offering vague reminiscence, blandly hyperbolic praise and a repeated reference to a notional fannish unity every bit as cliquish, oppressive and blinkered as the ‘literary establishment’ or ‘academy’ they invoke only to deplore.

There are also lots of black-white illustrations, scribbled rather hazily by the excellent John Howe, possibly whilst waiting for his washer-drier to finish its cycle so he could get on with the ironing. I would, generally speaking, walk over broken glass to affirm my admiration for Howe’s art: Peter Jackson’s films, for example, achieved their visual brilliance mostly by carefully reproducing in cinematographic form Howe’s unique vision. But his doodles for this volume are, frankly, poor: his Amon Hen shows Frodo sitting in what looks like a large pram, and his triple-portrait of ‘Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli’ is so rubbish that even I could do better. And that’s the strongest dispraise of visual art in my lexicon.

David Langford once concluded a review with the words ‘do not buy this book, not even to read on trains’. Can I put it more succinctly? Well, can I? I don’t know. Sorry.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Stamping Butterflies (2004)

Another production from Jon Courtenay's dangerous theatre. Here, in our near future, a middle-aged tramp in Marrakech tries to kill the President of the United States. He fails, but why did he try in the first place? Why won’t he communicate with his captors? What cosmic mysteries is his writing, in merde, on the walls of his cell? And here, in another part of the Grim Wood, two young Marrakesh kids in the 1970s struggle to say alive and unviolated in the face of some terrifying circumstances. And yet again here, in a part of the Wood much further away, a young man lives an existence modelled on the old Chinese emperors which may or may not be real: 148 billion individuals dwelling in a fractured dyson sphere circling a distant star seem to depend upon him performing his role properly.

This is a novel in which these seemingly separate strands weave inexorably, and neatly, together. The North African chapters are, as we’d expect from this author, richly atmospheric convincing down to the last smell or sight. The US Presidential chapters chime a little less true, a little more West Wing, and the interrogation of the mysterious Prisoner Zero goes on a little too long. But the real triumph of Stamping Butterflies is its third plot strand. The strange world of Zigin Cheng, the Dyson sphere and its myriad bizarre inhabitants, is a compellingly weird and wonderful creation. It teases the reader with its reality, or unreality, for hundreds of pages without ever becoming tiresome; and, indeed, one of Grimwood’s skills is rooting this strangeness in some brilliantly observed writing about the ‘real’ world, the one we inhabit. The emperor was once a junior human astronaut called Chuang Tzu; for my money the chapters in which we nip back to Chuang’s early life in China, his love for a village girl, his disconnection and running-away, are amongst the best things that Grimwood has yet written.

It’s coolly done: chapter after chapter of elegantly pared and expressive prose, from many lovely little phrases (‘something like fear nictated across his eyes’) to longer passages that chime with rightness. This, for instance, relates to a genetically enhanced climber called Tris who has wrenched her muscles during an arduous trek on her way to try and assassinate the Emperor:
Imagine that someone has cooked thread noodles, the tiny almost translucent kind, so that they are too flexible to snap like dry twigs but need another ten seconds or so to become properly soft. Then imagine that person taking a fat handful of those noodles and twisting, so that some pop, other half rupture and a few, mostly in the middle, stay whole. This was the muscle inside Tris’s shoulders.
That’s not only lovely, vivid writing; it illustrates Grimwood’s recurring fascination with food, and indeed with all the quotidian details of lived existence. He never moves too far from the sensual experiences of eating, sleeping, having sex; not just the way characters look but the way they smell; the qualia of our actual lives. It is his skill with these things that give life and validity to his more fantastic imaginings.

If it’s cool enough, it’s also a fairly grim book. Two of Grimwood’s consistent fascinations return in amplified form in Stamping Butterflies: one is the story of the corruption of innocence, something that forms the core of most of his books, one way or another. Here the narrative of Moz and Malika, sort-of boy-and-girlfriend in 1970s Marrakesh is so eloquent and so unyielding on the terrors of innocence being violated that it makes very painful reading indeed. And in outer space, linked in an inverse ratio, the young Emperor is also disabused of his illusions in a grim-ish way.

The other topic to which Grimwood returns again and again in his writing is what might be called schizophrenia. Grimwood loves characters who have voices in their head, and usually those voices are real rather than imaginary. He is interested in people who can’t make up their mind about the nature or even reality of the cosmos. ‘Everything was a matter of perspective, Chuang Tzu realised. Ordinary things seen from extraordinary angles held their own meanings and messages.’ In Grimwood, as in Dick (although Grimwood is a much finer stylist and scene-setter than Dick) what appears simple paranoia often leads to deeper truths about the nature of things.
And, again as is characteristic of Grimwood's novels, the plot is structured in such a way as to apply yelping jolts of surprise at unexpected moments: the trundle-trundle-trundle-BANG school of writing which, if its handled well, can be very exciting to read. Grimwood handles it well. The unexpected moments usually involve ultraviolence, or some of the old in-out in-out, or sometimes both together; but the important thing is that they work.

I was, perhaps, a little underwhelmed by the book’s conclusion. The strands are wound together, but (not to drop spoilers) in ways that didn’t entirely satisfy me. But the book lingered in my mind long after reading it; a mature, often alarming, deep and admirable work of fiction. Indeed, all round this is another advance for Grimwood. It’s a reviewerish cliché to say it, but he really does get better with every book. This novel may well snare readers new to Grimwood’s books, but it will be greeted by delight by his already sizeable fanbase.

Read this book. Don’t make its author send his sinister French policeman Claude de Greuze round to knock on your door. You wouldn’t like that at all.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Clarke and Baxter, Time’s Eye (2004)

[Note: what with a new term, and lots of assessed work coming in at once, I currently have more marking to do than God. This means there's no time to write any new reviews this week, so instead I'm reposting reviews that appeared a few years ago in venues, such as the much lamented alienonline, that mean they are no longer available. Your out-of-date reviewerage starts here.]

How do you like your Yarn, sir? madam? Ripping, is it?

And how about your Adventure, madam? sir? How do you like that? High is it? Well step this way, because I’ve just the thing for you: it’s called Time’s Eye, and it’s another collaboration by those two world-figures of SF, Clarke and Baxter. What’s that? You want to know how High the Adventure gets?

It reaches as High as a timequake-world in which the surface of our planet, acting under the influence of a large number of mysterious floating globes, tessellates into a mishmash of historical periods. Early hominids bump into twenty-first century UN peacekeepers, nineteenth-century British imperial officers join the army of Alexander the Great, that sort of thing. Feisty and likeable heroes and heroines, and one excellently hiss-worthy female villain, trek across the changed face of the world, trying to plumb the mystery of what has happened. Rudyard Kipling, Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan all come within spear-chucking distance of one another in a spectacular battle between armies from different time zones at the site of Ancient Babylon, now half-destroyed by the appearance of a mysterious and possibly alien artefact. This is a novel in which characters turn to one another and say things like ‘I suppose all this footslogging seems primitive to you, with your flying machines and thinking boxes, the marvellous war-making devilry of futurity!’ Is that High enough for you?

If you’re looking for a read that rattles along, a book that entertains thoroughly, with well-differentiated characters you come to like caught up in world changing events in the grand old manner, all of it laced with cosmic speculation about the role of time and the possibility that humanity’s future won’t extend much beyond the present century, then this is the book for you.

There’s something very does-what-it-says-on-the-tin about Time’s Eye. It takes its world-shaking premise and its various characters and puts them through exciting and often illuminating adventures, keeping the reader hooked and leaving him or her wanting more. The notion of time warping such that people from different histories interact is hardly a new one in SF, after all: the premise of Time’s Eye recalls such sf warhorses as Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time (1938), Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (1934) or Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late (1964), not to mention Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound (1973). But Clarke and Baxter put their adventure together so well, so entertainingly, that it never feels derivative – except, of course, in one particular.

Because, as an authors’ note at the beginning makes plain, this novel is a riff, or remix, of Clarke’s classic 2001 A Space Odyssey and its various diminishing-return sequels. To be precise, the reader is told that this book ‘neither follows nor precedes the books of the earlier Odyssey’, not prequel or sequel but ‘orthoquel’, a word which apparently means a book ‘taking similar premises in a different direction’. I do hope that so uneuphonious a coinage doesn’t catch on; it’s almost as bad as ‘quadrilogy’. But the idea behind it is a nice one.

There are some sunspots in this generally excellent read. Because it presents itself as sophisticated melodrama rather than psychological realism, we are carried along the improbable plot line without the friction of disbelief. But it perhaps strains credulity a little too far even for Good Honest Pulp SF that, of the twenty-first century characters, the half that falls in with Ghengis Khan just happens to include a man who speaks medieval Mongolian, and the half that falls in with Alexander the Great just happens to include a man who speaks Classical Greek, thereby facilitating the smooth integration of the disparate historical groups. (There are a couple of miniature errors in the Greek as well; the Macedonian soldiers chant ‘Al-e-hand-dreh! Al-e-hand-dreh!’: shouldn’t that be ‘Al-e-hand-ros!’ But I don’t mean to be pedantic.)

A more important concern is whether the mysterious impermeable floating globes that give the novel its title work as well as the mysterious impermeable black monoliths of the original 2001. They are certainly intriguingly rendered; although I can’t get my head around the idea, adduced several times in the book as evidence of their other-dimensionality, that the ration between their diameters and the circumference of their central circles is not pi but exactly 3.0. Can that be, even in other dimensions? If we swallow that, wouldn’t it also mean that ‘in another dimensions’ two plus two might equal six thousand and seventy, or that a triangle might have four sides? (But wouldn’t that make it a square?). Isn’t circumference equals pi times diameter just the way things are for circles and spheres? But it would ill behove me to disagree with such eminent scientists and SF writers as Clarke and Baxter.

More to the point, I wonder whether the globes work as well as the monoliths simply on a level of the frisson sent along readers spines. They are, perhaps, more logical (as in Banks’s Excession, a shaft dropped through four dimensions would appear as a sphere in three, just as a sphere intersecting a 2-D world would appear as a circle to the flatland inhabitants of that plane). But they lack the tombstone chilly rightness of Clarke-Kubrick’s original monoliths. Still: good stuff.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (2009)

Basically the same pleasantly strum-chuntering rhythmtappy Mexican guitar track (this one) eleven times. But that doesn't matter; it's a very nice track.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Mark Charan Newton, Legends of the Red Sun 1: Nights of Villjamur (2009)

There’s a lot to like here; and if there are some flaws too they are either functions of overenthusiasm or overambition, neither of which are deplorable things. Nights of Villjamur is an occasionally hobbledehoy, sometimes rich and atmospheric Fenrir-Devouring-The-Sun Dying Earth fantasy. So, yes, the ice age is coming, sun zooming in, meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin, engines stop running, and whilst *I* have no fear thousands of refugees are less sanguine, swamping the ancient city of Villjamur in the hope of sanctuary. But the city has problems aplenty already: the emperor's suicide; a serial killer on the loose; war going badly; political infighting and the like. Humans rub shoulders with cultists and various bizarre lifeforms.

Some negatives: it's about 100 pages too long, and its plotlines tangle and multiply to the point where, like a plughole clotted with hairs, the flow gets interrupted. Some of the writing shows evidence of clumsiness, something more noticeable than it otherwise might be because, when he wants to, Newton can write very well indeed. But once you’ve settled into it Nights of Villjamur manages some notable effects, and builds like an accumulating snowdrift in your imagination. It is, in short, a very promising book. Hard to say that without it sounding condescending, but there you go.

One thing struck me as I read, something trivial in itself but which might, I suppose, be symptomatic of a larger problem. It seemed to me that there’s too much shagging in the novel, too many descriptions of lovers obsessively tracing the lines of their lovers’ bodies—to which I object, here, not on grounds of prudishness so much as the mismatch between this coltish, adolescent randiness and the Ancient of Days dying world vibe of the book as a whole. Still, for a book much more likely to be read by coltish, randy adolescents than nonagenarians, that may be a canny choice.

Or perhaps there’s something more defensible about this: a deliberate creative mistmatch of tones, pitching for a sort of interference pattern – decrepitude told via youthful energy; the end of the world parsed as teenage adventure. Something along those lines might be going on in the paraphernalia of this world, partly standard Fantasy archaicism – bows and arrows and so on – partly a series of oddly anachronistic touches (people wear dressing gowns, eat in bistros, smoke cigarettes, attend poetry readings), as if Newton either can’t decide between Heroic and Bourgeois modes, or else has deliberately opted to mash together the two.

Mostly, though, what interested me here was Newton’s style, something I found far less objectionable than did Martin Lewis in his, um, contested Strange Horizons review of the novel. Lewis is right that the style is uneven: Newton has yet to commit fully to the war on cliché (‘he looked devastatingly handsome’, 392) and sometimes his prose clanks and thuds: ‘a scream that seemed to shatter the blanket of rain’ [14]; ‘people showed signs of moving round the city out of context’ [161]. The worst of it is his dialogue: grey, flavourless exchanges that take up a lot of space in the thick volume without doing anything other than filling that space, or moving the plots along—not, as it might be, characterizing or differentiating the speakers, or adding their own atmosphere or poetry.
‘Mind if I join you?’
‘Well, well. It’s the human Inquisition Officer.’
‘So what brings you here? How’s your friend Jeryd?
‘He’s fine.’
[Offered a cigarette.] She took one, saying ‘Thanks. It’s a nasty habit. So has he got back with his wife yet?’
‘Yes, they’re together again.’ [289]
It’s extruded polystyrene, like this, or else it’s plain ugly (‘But it isn’t that which I’m really pissed off about’). The descriptive prose is much better. Here’s what happens to one unlucky lad:
A ball of purple smoke erupted, extending in every direction. Just enough time to see the skin of the boy peel back before he became a myriad of chunks of flesh and bone, which distorted then liquidized as if it were paint. Dartun had ducked in time before he heard the gentle explosion, bringing his fuligin cloak over his face. He felt the remains of the child hitting him first, then slapping against the cobbles. [155-56]
'A myriad of chunks’ is nonsense (Newton means ‘myriad chunks …’); and the it in ‘as if it were’ doesn’t agree with the subject of the sentence; but apart from that this is nicely done. But what’s neat about this passage is not the gross-out stuff, the chunks of flesh or peeling skin (that kind of thing is fucking ten-a-penny in contemporary fantasy). It’s the gentleness of the explosion. More of that and less over-the-toppishness would have made the book much more effective. Newton perhaps thinks that a kind of Bas-Lag Miévillean excess is a needful part of his evocation of Villjamur here; but I don’t think so. In fact the paragraphs of tell-don’t-show ‘look how busy the city is’ feel extraneous, and this is for a deeper reason. Because what Newton is writing here, or what I take him to be writing, is Götterdämmerung.

At its best, though, this novel is doing something really quite interesting, stylistically speaking. Where Fat-Fantasy convention requires clear, kinetic bright-colour satisfactions, he is aiming for something more alienated, snowed-in and bare. Take this description of sunrise, for instance; right out of Waiting for Godot: ‘dawn broke with ferocious speed, shadows chased off the ice in the blink of an eye’ [315]. The city is most memorably evoked when Newton stops trying to build New Viriconium, and channels instead the unreal city of the Waste Land (and Eliot is somewhere behind this novel: ‘this is the way the world ends—not with a whimper but with a fucking big bang’ 157). I liked this aurora: ‘vivid streaks of red and green drifting across the darkness like sheets of rain’ [182]; and this fire: ‘Night, and a small fire had been built on the surface of the ice, transforming the cultists into strange purple silhouettes.’ The whole needs to be more consistently tonally ragnarökkric, like this, I think. But I enjoyed it, and Newton looks like a writer on his way somewhere very interesting.

[Full disclosure: I’ve never met Newton and have no personal investment in his success or otherwise; but I know him a bit (get me, how very 21st-century) via Twitter. More, he has sent various people, including myself, the MS file of his next novel City of Ruin, which I am reading and will review closer to the publication date. You may feel this fact prejudices the disinterestedness of the above review. Although it seems to me a prejudiced review would be more straightforwardly praising, and less nitpicky, than this one.]

Monday, 18 January 2010

OK Go, Of The Blue Colour of the Sky (2010)

I like OK Go plenty, and I like the songs on this album too; but I can't decide whether the muddy, fumbly, muffled production (their producer used to be in Mercury Rev, which may be some sort of explanation) is a boon or a bore. I suppose it could be argued that, at least with the more relentlessly upbeat tracks like 'This Too Shall Pass' and 'All Is Not Lost', it acts as an effective counterweight to the smiliness. That said, the moment in 'Needing/Getting' when the slushy, grundling noisiness drops away to leave the lyric standing clear ('it don't get much dumber, it don't get much dumber, than trying to forget a girl when you love her') is the moment when the song clarifies into something moving and brilliant; and the music video version of 'This Too Shall Pass', recorded live with an honest-to-goodness American Marching Band is remarkable not least because, thus rendered, the song is much much better than the album version. You can download it from their website, which I would recommend doing. Other highlights: the handclaps during the guitar solo of 'Skyscrapers' (though not the rest of the song); the Prince-lite of the opening track 'WTF' and the distant echoes of Tom-Tom-Club in 'White Knuckles.'

Friday, 15 January 2010

Lavie Tidhar, HebrewPunk (2007)

[Note: Puttering around on my hard drive I came across this, a review I wrote for Strange Horizons a couple of years ago. Back then it was spiked by the reviews' editor, that tall man Niall Harrison, on the grounds that I was a friend of the author. This was fair enough, and indeed the original version of the review concluded with a lengthy disquisition on the desirability of extreme reviewerish candour and the importance of full-disclosure, ending: "my judgment is that this is a very entertaining collection of fast-moving horror-punk, not without flaws but with enough verve to overcome them. That is neither dialed down nor up to spare or otherwise Lavie’s feelings. Besides which, the last I heard he'd moved to an island in the South Pacific where all the computers are made of bamboo; so he may not be in a position to read this anyway." Putting the review out, belatedly, on the wastenotwantnot principle in this venue, I've seen fit to cut all that. AR]

Here’s another collection to add to the large pile of stories about vampires, zombies, golems, werewolves and other creatures of that phylum. The writer who aspires to stand out in this crowded environment needs, of course, to find a way of making it new; and Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk does this by, in effect, Hebraicising the source material. His heroes (or anti-heroes, for there are some pretty nasty characters here) are Jewish: the Rabbi, Tzaddik and the Rat. They possess a number of Semitic magical abilities and wisdoms. Tidhar’s werewolves, on the other hand, are Nazi ‘Wulfkommando’ soldiers, his demons figures from Kabbalistic tradition. It’s a canny angle on material that might otherwise be overfamiliar.

HebrewPunk comes in at just under 150 large-print pages, but in part the slenderness is a function of the leanness of Tidhar’s style. We all know the conventions of hardboiled horror—the seamy urban environs, the lumpenproletariat characters, the dark magic and the ultraviolence—and Tidhar doesn’t waste time elaborating this in too much detail; instead, in each of his four brisk narratives, he cracks straight on. ‘The Heist’ (2005) is, as you might guess from its title, a heist story, except that the bank being robbed is a blood bank, and the robbers a collection of vampires and monsters, under the Rabbi’s beardy and slightly mysterious leadership. ‘The Transylvanian Mission’ (2004) pitches us, with ‘The Rat’, in amongst Partisans and Nazis in occupied 1940s mitteleuropa. ‘The Dope Fiend’ (2005) steps back to the London drug-scene of the 1920s, and the adventures of various exotic (and in Tidhar’s treatment, supernatural) decadents. All three stories are fast-moving, twisty, frequently violent and bloodspattered. ‘The Heist’ is rather too short for its own good, its conclusion too rushed, but the other two are well handled examples of horrorpunk given an intriguingly effective Jewish inflection.

The fourth story, the previously unpublished ‘Uganda’, is rather better. The Rabbi is recruited to track a team of Europeans exploring the Uasin Gishu Plateau in East Africa with a view to establishing a Jewish homeland on the Ugandan border. It is a confidently handled piece of storytelling and is the stronger for not giving way, as Tidhar sometimes does in his other pieces, to the ‘bang! bang!’ impulse—the desire, that is to say, to pep the narrative up with injections of violence (from ‘The Transylvanian Mission’: ‘he … drove his razor-like nails into the man’s abdomen, hard, sliding up in a bloody arc through his body, opening a large gaping gash. The man screamed a high, keening howl…’, 37). The rule of thumb for representing violence is that less is usually more; and in ‘Uganda’ Tidhar shows that he can handle less very well indeed when he wants to. The world of the East African plateau is well described; the intertextual allusions to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness subtly handled, and the ending manages a feline uncompleteness that is much more suggestive and effective than a more conventional tying-up of loose ends. In the course of his travels the Rabbi has a vision of the future, which is an alt-historical Ugandan Jewish homeland (one character dismissively names it ‘Jewganda’). It’s somewhat in the manner of Michael Chabon’s alt-historical Jewish Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman Union; except that where that novel groans rather under the weight of specific fictive detail, Tidhar’s ‘Jewganda’ gleams with suggestive concision. It’s a story that delivers more than the slightly by-the-book thrills of the other pieces.

There is a deliberately old-fashioned vibe to these stories; an emphasis on kinetic narrative and intensity. Sometimes the effect is broad-brush, and sometimes the details go askew. So, for example, to declare that ‘even Eternal wanderings must come to an end’ [27] involves a contradiction in terms; and none of Josef Mengele’s staff would be so foolish as to address him as ‘Herr Mengele’ [42] (the proper mode of address would be ‘Hauptsturmführer’, or at the very least ‘Herr Doktor Mengele’). But the energy of the stories carries the reader past occasional hiccoughs; it makes a thoroughly entertaining read.

There’s one further point worth making here, and it has to do with the protocols of book reviewing. The back cover of HebrewPunk is adorned, as books often are nowadays, with endorsements: ‘Lavie Tidhar has staked out (no pun intended) his own territory … these four stories are wondrous, adventurous and thought-provoking’ Ellen Datlow … ‘Lavie Tidhar has a unique and fascinating voice’ Kage Baker … and so on. The last of these blurbs is from ‘Adam Roberts, author of Gradisyl’; and he, despite the fact that I have never written a novel with such a title, is indeed me. The blurb to which my name is appended praises the volume as ‘kick-ass kosher adventures’ and adds that ‘Tidhar writes a sort of intensified supernatural action-surrealism that fair rattles along and is full of surprises’. I wrote that; I thought so; I think so still.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pierre Pevel, The Cardinal's Blades (2009)

Well, this is very jolly: essentially the Trois Mousquetaires plus dragons. So, to be clear, that’s Alexandre Dumas, père:

—not a slim man, as you can see—and dragons:

Anyway. We’re in a fantasied-up 17th-century France; Cardinal Richelieu plots and schemes; gentlemen fight duels, quoff in taverns, roister and doister, and the Parisian streets are coated in merde. In this world there are dragons—not only actual dragons (‘the ancestral breed’) but tame dragons, used as a sort of flying horse, and lots of cat-sized dragons who roam the streets of Paris like, well, cats. There are also half-dragon/half-human types, who look human except for something lizard-like about the eyes, and who reminded me rather of the aliens-in-disguise in the original version of TV’s V. Now, these dragons, together with a sinister, shadowy human conspiracy called ‘the Black Claw’, threaten France; and so Richelieu reassembles the disbanded ‘The Cardinals’ Blades’ in the national interest. This is a group of brilliant swordspeople, including the heroic Antoine Leprat (‘Tony the Twit’ in English); the half-dragon Saint-Lucq (confusingly, not actually a saint in this tale), Ballardieu (whose name is presumably a SF in-joke by Pevel, modelled on the ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti) amongst others, under the leadership of grizzled old Capitaine La Fargue (‘Captain Fog’ in English). And off they go, on various adventures.

The result is an enormously thigh-slapping, cheering, toasting, roaring, puking, bawling, galloping, adventuring hearty piece of fiction. If it were any heartier, it would actually suffer from inflammatory cardiomegaly. Perhaps I might have liked a little more about the dragons themselves, if only to justify the decision to write the book as Fantasy rather than straight historical melodrama; but the novel instead chooses to focus mostly on Captain Fog's varied crew, and the scrapes they get into. And into scrapes they do get indeed. Scrapes they do get in—they do get themselves scraped-up in … um.

They get into scrapes.

There’s lots and lots of swordfighting, but it's rather more cliché than touché (aha! ha! you see what I did there?). The whole book, in fact, is prodigiously, momentously clichéd; but so energetically, so forcefully does Pevel inhabit these clichés, and with such aplomb, that you don’t mind. It’s all melodrama, all the time; everything is turned up to onze. Moments that would, in another novel, break the tension through sheer ludicrousness (‘“Dead?” Belle-Trogne asked, to put his mind at rest. “Yes. Strangled while he shat.”’, 221) here only endear the reader to the novel. Except for a few bit-parts, the men are all dashing; and except for a few matronly types the women all gorgeous. This latter fact is not unproblematic, incidentally -- by including badass female characters such as the Baroness Agnès de Vaudreuil, Pevel seems to think he is entitled to unload the sort of sexist claptrap that used to be, and I suppose still largely is, a feature of the sub-genre's representation of its female characters. Take for instance this hideous celebration of the male gaze, which reads like a set-up paragraph in a porn tale:
Marciac immediately attracted the notice of four pretty young ladies who were sitting about in casual dress. The first was an ample blonde; the second a slim brunette; the third was a mischievous redhead; and the last was a Jewish beauty with green eyes and dusky skin. The blonde read from a book, while the brunette embroidered and chattered with the other two … he was welcomed with fervent cries of joy.[73]
There's not too much of that sort of thing, though.

Now, the novel originally appeared in France as Les Lamas du Cardinal (2007)—The Cardinal’s Llamas, a title the otherwise competent English translator Tom Clegg has incomprehensibly rendered as The Cardinal’s Blades. Clegg has also excised all actual llamas from the storyline; although look carefully and you can see one in the background of the original Bragelonne cover-art:

Also, characters are constantly getting out their swords and saying ‘en garde!’—an obscure French idiom that Clegg, astonishingly, omits to translate. These small blots aside, I enjoyed 100% Blades a great deal. Good vulgar fun.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

John Meaney, Absorption (2010)

It’s a scattershot, farflung nest of adventures, some set 1200 years in the past; some 600 years hence (or more), some a few decades ago. Meaney chucks a great deal of stuff at his fictive wall, and a fair proportion sticks. There are many ingenious and cool ideas, some intriguing paraphernalia of his future worlds, and the novel gathers enough narrative curiosity as to how it’s going to gather all the pleats of his wide-flapping curtain and fit them onto one rail to keep you going. That said, it’s a choppy and only intermittently satisfying reading experience. Some of it is written like this:
Sunadomari, in his flyer with two of Helen Eisberg’s tac troopers, could not wait to reach the Via Lucis Institute in reality. There were things he did not want to say, even in Skein, not until he was deep inside the physical as well as the Skeinware barriers available to LuxPrime’s senior people. But he needed to talk with someone now. A Luculentis with golden headgear smiled at him.

‘Keinosuke Sunadomari, you’re on your way here in person.’

‘Hsiu Li-Cheng, I certainly am.’

They used in-Skein audio, zipblips of sound, compressing sentences to millisecond duration
And some like this:
‘Hail,’ he called out. ‘I am Gulbrandr, chieftain of these good folk.’

‘And I am Folkvarm likewise chieftain.’

‘Fellow travelers for the gathering?’

‘That we are.’

Men in both parties relaxed a little as they leaned on their spears.

‘Then if we are peacefully bound for the same destination, good Folkvar, perhaps we should—’

‘Look out!’ yelled someone.


‘It’s attacking—’

With a grinding screech, the thing cam running from beneath the bridge …
By the Gods, it’s real. Then it was on the other party, crushing two men. Blood spurted.
Rather less of it is like this than the ‘New Space Opera Superstar’ marketing tag had led me to expect:
[Spoiler redacted] detonated inbuilt plasma bombs, and disappeared into blazing vapour, shining nova-bright, a sphere of burning energy. From orbit, Carl Blackstone saw the explosion as a small white dot.
But that's OK. Maybe the next two books in the trilogy will have more Doc Smith-y spacewar bang-bang.

I have a problem, though, and I'd say it's not a trivial problem. Absorption seemed to me morally null. If it were simply an updated tri-planetary space opera/Viking hack-and-slay mashup, that would be alright, and arguably better than alright. But Meaney also spends a deal of time on a mid-20th century Nazi narrative thread that can hardly help but clang discordantly with the rest of the book, and, worse, to dabble offensively in the matter of the Shoah, to boot.

So, postmodernism. Here's a thumbnail definition, in case you're interested: you know that musical flourish, duh-duh-durr!, those three doom-y crashing chords? Once upon a time they worked in context to send genuine tingles of dread through a cinema audience. Now to hear them is to think inevitably of the Dramatic Chipmunk half-turning to look at the camera over his chipmunky shoulder, eyes wild. Which is to say, that musical flourish has lost its original affect; it has become a depthless quotation in a shifting network of signification. It is now comic-bathetic instead of actually thrilling. That, to deploy the technical term, is what we call ‘postmodernism’, and one little-remarked-upon consequence of this state of affairs is the elevation of Godwin’s Law to an aesthetic benchmark. Now, Meaney's fourth Chapter (‘Earth 1926 AD’) ends thuswise:
Not so far away, where the small town of Berchtesgaden crouched amid Bavarian forest, a small feverish man was alone in his room, surrounded by dark insanely energetic paintings, the product of his own hand and strange imaginings.
As Rolf Harris might say: can you tell what it is yet? There are a dozen paragraphs of build-up (‘sweat poured from his skin as he gesticulated, imagining the visions that floated above the multitude’), and then the final lines of the chapter:
Someone tapped at the door. ‘Supper is ready, Herr Hitler.’

He expelled a breath.

‘You may come in.’

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Avatar (2009)

The Word for World is Fourhoursistoolongforamovie.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey (2009)

My review of Fforde's latest title appeared in last Saturday's Guardian, and you can find it online here, under an author photo of a not-very-likey Guy Pearce looky-likey. Not the first time my face has been misrepresented on the Grauniad bsite with this image, either. I'd write to inform them of their error, but that guy has much better teeth than I do.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Doctor Who: the End of Time (2009-2010)

Who disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but
Rubbishy seems the word that most exactly would suit it.
All the foolish destructions, and all the silly emotings,
All the incongruous bollocks of plain incompatible plotting,
Seem to be treasured up here to make fools of both Davies and viewer.
Hoping to heaven that Moffat can make him a better fist of it!
Hope the new Matt Smith guy will come and improve this series!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold (2009)

No amount of bargaining, or wheedling, could persuade Lily to see Avatar with me, so St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold it was, and heavily did I sigh as I handed my hard-earned to the cinema cashier. Now the bar of my expectation was set pretty low for this one, so perhaps it's not entirely surprising that I found myself enjoying it really quite a lot. Better than I had anticipated by quite a wide margin. That said, the producers' ambition (you can almost smell it) to turn this into the Carry On franchise of the 21st century is hamstrung, I'd say, by the fact that Carry On was enormously, superbly smutty, and sometimes downright filthy ('Fakir! Off!') where St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold labours strenuously to purge all 'sex' from the screen (despite the fact that half the cast are twentysomething supermodels in schoolgirl uniforms). This is done, obviously, to avoid stumbling into the mire of borderline paedophile fantasy with which the film's premise inevitably flirts. The directors do a good job too, by and large, as far as that goes: it's a remarkably sexless piece of filmmaking. The panto elements are fun enough, both Colin Frith and Rupert Everett are good value, David Tennant puts Doctor Whamlet behind him to mug up as the villain, and the time passed harmlessly.

To be more specific there were two consolations that made the whole thing more than bearable for me, the Dad-accompanying-his-8-year-old-daughter, and, I think, the only male in the audience. One was a single half-decent joke ('How was your summer?' 'Oh I went to India. A friend of mine is getting married.' 'Really? Hen-do?' 'No, she's Church of England, I think'). And two was the fact that Talulah Reily (playing the head girl) bears a very striking facial resemblance to a young Kate Bush. The same young Kate Bush who did more than any other single human being to shape my nascent heterosexuality. The transcendentally beautiful Kate Bush. That Kate Bush.