Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold, Reviewed

Cryoburn is the latest Miles Vorkosigan novel, the thirteenth in a series stretching back a quarter of a century.

Miles is now an Imperial Auditor with responsibility for investigating a company specializing in cryogenic storage that are planning on opening branches on Komarr.

Miles becomes suspicious and travels to Kibou-daini, a world dominated by a populace who want to evade death by going into suspended hibernation, then further skewed by the cryo-corps thawing some of their sleepers early, effectively creating a generation of temporally displaced refugees.

Cryoburnl opens with Miles hiding from a gang of would-be kidnappers, when he is then helped by a young boy hiding among the displaced, whose mother disappeared some eighteen months earlier.

When Miles is reunited with his team, he learns that the cryogenic corporations are involved in a web of corruption that extends to the economic conquest of Komarr.

Lois McMaster Bujold writes deceptively simple  fiction; the characters are likeable, the settings are well depicted, just different enough to be exotic, without ever being so alien that the reader is baffled or put off. the plot issues resolve  smoothly, before looping into the next problem. While it’s tempting to classify Cryoburn as a middle-ranking Vorkosigan novel, it’s worth remembering that she’s already won three Hugos, and Cryoburn has a couple of points that raise it above the norm; one is Jin, who as a supporting character is first rate, and the whole society of Kibou, which Bujold never really exploits to the full, but which is nonetheless fascinating.

All in all, Cryoburn is another excellent read from one of today’s most popular writers.

 

 

• August 12th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Black Static 23 Reviewed

Black Static for June / July 2011 contains the usual reviews and commentary, while the stories are mostly by returning regulars.

V. H. Leslie appears for the second time in three issues, and already looks to be the magazine’s most prominent newcomer of the year. In ‘Time Keeping’ Howard believes that he keeps time running smoothly. It’s a demanding time-consuming job, so when he meets Helen, Howard couldn’t shake the feeling of danger. Leslie has an elegant, assured style, and while the story may need more than one reading, the (initially) opaque timeline does eventually come clear, and the reader learns what the danger is. Recommended.

 

‘Hail’ by Daniel Kaysen is an extremely busy story –there is much more plot than is usual with Black Static stories, which tend to concentrate on atmosphere- but it’s no less effective for all that. The narrator picks up a girl while sheltering under an awning from the rain, and she asks him directly if he wants to go back to her flat. When she has want she wants, she throws him out, from which point the more the nameless protagonist tries to escape his fate, the more tightly he is caught in its web of inevitability. Highly Recommended.

 

From the moment the protagonist (and therefore the reader) gradually awakens to the sound of the underground, it’s clear that Carole Johnstone’s ‘Electric Dreams’ is something special. Eli is a young man accepting food and shelter, and occasionally –perhaps enough to just get him by- money in return for hearing what people need; whether he can work miracles, is a god, or  previous events are just coincidence, Eli’s supplicants believe that he can

kill the wife’s lover

put the office rival out of action (“You won’t kill him, will you?”)

cure a woman’s mother of end-stage breast cancer

save the rats on the Underground.

Now Eli has to decide whether it’s time to change again. To start again. Two years was a long time –the longest yet- and success bred notoriety. It’s a top-notch story, one of the best in recent months.

World Horror Convention

Robert Davies won the 2011 World Horror Convention / Black Static short story contest, and from its opening line of When Jackson Cade woke and felt his right lung missing, he knew the Harvesters had come again, ‘The Harvesting of Jackson Cade’ makes it clear why. There are a couple of irritating non sequiteurs early on, but the story of physical disintegration at the hands (or should that be at the mandibles?) of the nightmarish Harvesters is unrelenting. Recommended.

Joel Lane ends the fiction for this issue with ‘For Their Own Ends,’ in which Barry awakes from a heart attack in a private hospital to find that patient care has taken a back seat to ‘market awareness.’ Lane’s prose is as precise as ever, allowing him to generate that frisson of fear with the most apparently innocent of phrases: a young man took Barry’s left hand and felt his pulse, then jabbed a needle into the vein of his wrist. Without speaking, he attached the syringe to a drip stand holding a bag of crimson fluid. Highly Recommended.

 

Comment

As always the fiction is enhanced by the quality of the non-fiction embracing it. Stephen Volk’s ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’ looks at [moving] the debate about so-called “evil” away from the realm of religion and moral philosophy into the realm of science. Christopher Fowler is interested in how Spanish cinema seems to be adopting the mantle of the main maker of horror movies with the power to move audiences. Finally, Mike O’Driscoll studies the work of political philosopher John Grey, whose latest book is a brilliant dissection of our continuing desire to console ourselves with delusions, either in the form of a secular afterlife, or through the deification of humanity by means of “the abolition of death.”

 

Reviews

Peter Tenant interviews new horror star Tom Fletcher and reviews his novels, The Leaping and The Thing On The Shore, both Cumbrian-set contemporary horror novels. Other Case Notes feature chapbooks from Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon, plus three anthologies; Dark Minds Press offer the eponymous Dark Minds, The End of the Line is published by Solaris, while Tor provide an American perspective in Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow’s Haunted Legends.

 

Finally, Tony Lee reviews DVDs and Blu-Rays, such as Natalie Portman’s appearance in Black Swan, and the Stanley Kubrick boxed set Visionary Filmmaker Collection, as well as a reissue of the classic Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. It’s a good way to round out another excellent issue.

• August 5th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Eric Brown’s Guardians of the Phoenix, Reviewed

The Earth is a barren wasteland; North America and Middle have been razed by nuclear strikes, the oceans have evaporated, and the earth is a barren desert dotted only occasionally by a few shallow oases.

For ten years, Paul has scrabbled for survival among the sand-shrouded ruins of the once-great city of Paris. He is one of thefew  desperate humans still surviving. Some scrape a living in the remains of shattered cities; others resort to murder and cannibalism to survive.

When Paul is rescued from one such group of killers, he joins his benefactors in their journey south in search of water. Guardians of the Phoenix tells the story of the last survivors, their desperate fight for survival and their last hope to save the world.

Brown is a traditional storyteller, concentrating on the virtues of storytelling and characterization. His heroes are comparatively decent people, if compromised, while his villains show no regard for life. In that respect Guardians of the Phoenix carries on a long tradition of British SF as typified by John Wyndham and Edmund Cooper, of scratching an existence from a world-changing disaster.

Brian W. Aldiss once disparagingly referred to such novels as “cozy catastrophes” but there is nothing  cozy about the lives that the characters lead – it’s probably the most relentlessly relentless scrutiny of life after climate change that’s been written. For that alone Guardians of the Phoenix deserves commendation.

• July 29th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, by Andrez Bergen, Reviewed

Cut to Melbourne, Australia–the most glamorous city in the world.It also happens to be the only one left standing… meet your narrator, a certain Floyd Maquina, a likable chap with one hell of a story to share.

Cue guns, intrigue, kidnappings, conspiracy and all sorts of general mayhem that make for cracking good headlines. Does Floyd stop the bad guys? Does he get the girl? Does he make Humphrey Bogart proud? Grab some popcorn and read on.

Notice the instruction to grab some popcorn. Andrez Bergen’s debut novel is a book drenched in film imagery.  From the title, which is taken from the 1956 film That Certain Feeling, in which villain George Sanders utters “Get that tobacco-stained mountain goat out of here,” through a multitude of references, to George Lucas, Marlon Brando, anime and Doctor Who, the reader is left in no doubt what floats Bergen’s boat.

The concept of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is either reassuringly familiar or cliched, depending on one’s perspective;

Sometime in the future the world is drowning in acid rain and near-perpetual darkness. The Seekers are a sort of militia holding back a rising tide of Deviants. Anyone who commits a crime is labelled a Deviant; anyone who falls ill is relocated, and classified in the same way.  Floyd’s wife has lived fro three years with cancer, and the only way he can pay for her care is to work as a Seeker.

There’s not a lot of Novum in  the world of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat - indeed, the background doesn’t bear close examination;  ”Where the heck do they get the grapes to make this? Or the sunlight to grow the grapes?” (p.131) Sadly, no one has the time or inclination to answer the question.

But on the plus side, Floyd Maquina has a distinctive voice, and a likeable character, and i’m a sucker for both. New publisher Oregon-based Another Sky Press have put together an impressive-looking package, and I hope that this quirky novel brings them every success.

 

• July 22nd, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

F&SF August 2011, Reviewed

The August 2011 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is heavier than usual on the science fictional part, with around half the stories -including most of the longer ones- being SF.  

 

‘Bronsky’s Dates With Death’ by Peter David is the story of an old man who can’t stop talking about death. Bronsky is the ultimate salesman, because he’s perfectly sincere. Just as he’s sold beauty products, vacuum cleaners and anything else that a man can sell, so he sells people the idea that he’s reconciled to death by never stopping talking about it. Initially irritating, then laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately poignant. Recommended.

 

Peter S. Beagle’s ‘The Way It Works Out And All’ is a tribute to the late Avram Davidson, and like its hero, the story meanders like few other writers can manage. As evidence of the authors’ skill, take the word “Overneath” which Beagle uses to portray the magical realm through which Davidson shortcuts in his globe trotting – just that one word sums up all the strangeness of the realm, while the story itself is charming, and the circumlocutory style reminiscent of Lafferty at his best, as well as Davidson. Outstanding.

 

In Rob Chilson’s ‘Less Stately Mansions’ the last member of the Mannheim family continues farming the land in the face of glacier advances, buy-out offers from Earth’s now-independent colonies, and  greedy grandchildren scheduling a competency hearing. Infused with the spirit of Clifford D. Simak, it strikes a suitably timeless agrarian feel. Recommended.

 

In ‘The Ants of Flanders’ by Robert Reed, our world faces the strangest alien invasion since Gardner Dozois’ classic ‘Chains of the Sea.’ But the tone is entirely different, and with Bloch, the six-foot-five sixteen year-old “mental defective” who feels no fear, Reed has written perhaps his most engaging protagonist. As well as terror in the face of the apocalypse, Reed writes of wonder and joy in one of the best novellas of the year; Their driver was barely three weeks older than Bloch and barely half his size, nothing could be more astonishing than the extraordinary luck that had put him in this wondrous place. “I can’t fucking believe this,” said the driver, lifting up on the brake and letting them roll forward. “I’m having the adventure of a lifetime. That’s what this craziness is.”

 

Joan Aiken’s ‘Hair’ is a splendidly Gothic piece about the widower of a young woman who has burnt out and died too young. It manages to unsettle without ever actually offering any overt threat. Outstanding.

 

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Witch Of Corinth’ is one of F & SF’s regular excursion’s into historical fantasy, but by depicting the setting in no small detail and combining it with a mystery and a true historical event –the fall of Corinth- it’s a considerably above average of the sub-genre. Recommended.

 

‘Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons And Other Things’ by Richard Bowes is a curious Arthurian tale filtered through a science-fictional perspective.

 

Michael Alexander’s ‘Someone Like You’ isn’t quite up to the standard’s of last year’s ‘Ware of the Worlds,’ or ‘Advances in Modern Chemotherapy,’ but it’s still one of the better time travel stories with a new take on The Grandfather Paradox.

 

In ‘The Ramshead Algorithm’ by KJ Kabza an inter-reality traveller based on earth comes into contact with his family when his father decides to rip out the hedge which is the basis for his being able to slip between planes.

 

With Book Reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand and Films reviewed by Lucius Shepard,    science from Paul Doherty And Pat Murphy, and humour from Paul Di Filippo, it’s another enjoyable issue, at times edging the sublime.

• July 15th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Embassytown by China Mieville, Reviewed

China Mieville has built a whole career on writing novels that blur genres. Embassytown, his first unequivocal venture into SF, takes the reader to a city on the edge of the universe.

Avice Banner Cho is an immerser, a traveller on the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her homeworld. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie.

Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language to the Hosts, and connect the two communities. Then an alien learns haltingly to lie, and is killed by both sides. Hard on the heels of that devekopment, an unimaginable new arrival comes to Embassytown. And when this new Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that’s impossible.

Mieville examines in some detail concepts behind language, in an attempt to create some truly alien aliens – this is something that writers such as Benford have spent years grappling with – and manages to do so without infodumping, using a text packed with neologisms that are just about comprehensible, such as autom and artminds – although floaking eluded me. It’s as if we can only understand one another through a mutual misunderstanding. (p.114) 

Mieville dissects both the limitations of language, and the potentialities inherent in something we take for granted, such as a lie. ‘They were yanking it around,’ Bren said. ‘It was impossible for it not to know what they meant; they were shoving it and pointing the same way. They made it obey them. Maybe you need violence for language to take.’

‘Bren,’ I said. ‘That’s crap. We were all running the same way. We were all trying to get out. We had the same intentions. That’s how it knew what we were doing.’

He shook his head. ‘Language` is the continuation of coercion by other means.’ ‘Bullshit. It’s co-operation.’ Both theories explained what had happened plausibly. I resisted, because it felt trite , saying that they weren’t as contradictory as they sounded. (p.454)  

Mieville’s  characters live in this future, rather than tell us about it, in the same way that major novelists such as Beryl Bainbridge have their characters inhabit the past, rather than lecture their readers, or contemporary novelists just get on with life. Who has time to stop and explain an iPod or a netbook to a stranger?

He demonstrates through such actions such as children’s games (who can run furthest into the alien atmosphere, leave a mark and return) and behaviour at parties (checking on acquaintances bios online) just how it feels to live on this world.

I haven’t felt such a sense of how different -but still [just] comprehensible the future will be since reading Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels almost two decades ago.

The downside for some readers is that it demands far greater concentration to understand what is going on, something that many will not care for. But for those prepared to make the effort, Embassytown is well worth the investment. It also nails any idea that writing fantasy has been a soft option for a writer who couldn’t cope with writing proper SF.  It’ll be on the Nebula Ballot at the end of this year, or a major injustice will have been done.

• July 8th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Crimewave Eleven [Ghosts], Reviewed

A baker’s dozen of atmospheric stories, half from TTA Press regulars including Nina Allan, Christopher Fowler, Cody Goodfellow, British Fantasy Award winner Joel Lane, Alison J. Littlewood and Steve Rasnic Tem, all wrapped in a haunting Ben Baldwin cover.

 

Dave Hoing is an Interzone regular from TTA’s early involvement with the magazine, but the opening –and closing- story of the anthology, ‘Plainview’ is his first crime story. The opening segment, ‘The Shoe Store’ depicts small–town America 1975; Plainview is archetypically sleepy, so quiet that the sheriff plays finger football with pieces of paper, and the most excitement to be had is that the Farm Expo was coming to the hippodrome in nearby Ridgemont in January. All the latest farm equipment would be on display. When a young girl goes missing, attention focuses on the sleazy owner of the local shoe shop. The second part, ‘The Blood Cools’ which concludes the anthology, is set thirty-four years later and has a very different tone.

 

Nina Allan’s ‘Wilkolak’ is another of her trademark South East London stories, most recently visited in ‘Silver Wind.’ Kip is an ordinary teenager living in Manor Park who photographs a man he is sure is a paedophile, and becomes increasingly fascinated by the so-called Manor Park Monster; He knew his interest in the monster was growing. He disliked this feeling, distrusted it, but was unable to let it go. He would have liked to have discussed it with Sonia, but was afraid that she might start to think he was weird, one of the lonely serial killer types who bought true crime magazines. Kip has the opportunity to report his discovery, but doesn’t. Utterly compelling.

 

In ‘The Conspirators,’ by Christopher Fowler, a meeting in one of the new super hotelsof two senior executives and an expensive whore turns deadly serious. Cynical, dryly witty and Highly Recommended.

 

From a desert to another wasteland for Mikal Trimm’s  ‘Who’s Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone?’ Desmond is a thirty-something jailbird living with his parents in abject poverty, in a metal shack in the Florida panhandle whose floor is rusting beneath the family. There are no great surprises about the revelation of Desmond’s family secrets, but Trimm handles his protagonist’s redemption with great sensitivity, and in the end uses the stereotypes in his story to work something marvellous. Outstanding.

 

As is Richard Butner’s ‘Holderhaven’ which is packed with red herrings; prestignatory former Black Panther members, the restoration of an old house built at the turn of the last century and the revelation of its secrets in a leisurely stroll through history and house alike.    

 

‘Eleven Eleven’ by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero offers a child’s eye view of the symbolism of numbers, a murder, amnesia and revelation, all wrapped in the crypto-logic of childhood: No parents were with her that day, so she assumed that she didn’t have any, which ordinary people have, which was more proof that Alsie was un-ordinary.

 

Ilsa J. Beck’s terrific ‘Where the Bodies Are’ opens in a wintry Michigan cemetery where the local Jewish population are all buried. Miriam watches from her psychiatrist’s office just across the street; Miriam wasn’t particularly morbid –or Jewish for that matter- and she wasn’t one of those sicko graveyard junkies. Just kept an eye on the place. When her old lover is assigned to the case of a young mother brought into hospital bearing signs of recent childbirth, he and Miriam clash, and they take the first steps toward revelation. Outstanding.

 

Many of the stories in the book deal with child molestation, abduction and murder. ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ by Cody Goodfellow is perhaps the only one to look at ways of stopping it. Set in a deceptively quiet suburb, the narrator is a retired security guard who, since his wife died five years before maintains a lonely vigil over his neighbours, and shows to what lengths the truly committed will go to protect the innocent.

 

O’Neil de Noux’s  ‘K Love’ is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and its lesser known successor Hurricane Rita. Jodie Kintyre of the NOPD finds a ‘jumper’ who has thrown himself off a roof. The suicide note in his pocket tells of a crime he has committed. Despite the snappy dialogue and rich scene setting the story doesn’t really work, reading more as a fragment of a longer piece than a self-contained narrative.

 

Better is ‘Living Arrangements’ by Steve Rasnic Tem. Now an old man reflecting on his inadequacies as a father, Monte is invited by his daughter Lacey to move in with her family.  Monte quickly recognizes new man Pete; Monte had been a guy like Pete, pretty much. Monte guessed if he was healthier, he’d still be a guy like Pete. Pete is a mean drunk, as he demonstrates on Monte, Lacey and grandson Brian one night, but then Lacey unexpectedly offers Monte a shot at redemption.

 

Prison stories have a long and honourable tradition dating back to Dumas, although Stephen King is probably the chief reason for their resurgence. The latest addition to the sub-genre comes from Alison J. Littlewood, whose ‘4A.M., When The Walls Are Thinnest’ features men driven to seek escape, both from prison and from reality.

 

Joel Lane’s ‘The Hostess’ extends the theme of ghosts to the literal in this short but chilling tale of a horrific murder in Birmingham in the early 1980s that ends with a clever twist. Highly Recommended.

 

Luke Sholer’s ‘We Are two Lions’ an assassin agrees to teach his lover his trade, until the pupil begins to eclipse his master; full of twists and double-crosses, it’s clear why Sholer has been Edgar-nominated. The story is as cold and unforgiving as each man’s heart.

 

Crimewave has established a reputation for high quality crime fiction, sometimes with a hint of the macabre. The ghosts in volume eleven are sometimes symbolic, sometimes literal, but always present. The stories are atmospheric, the settings memorable and the characterization acute. They help make Crimewave Eleven a five-star experience.

 

• July 1st, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Osama by Lavie Tidhar, Reviewed

Lavie Tidhar’s new novel depicts a world in which 9/11 never happened, and in which the date is notable only for the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile.

 Joe is an expatriate PI living in Laos, where he passes much of the time drinking Laotian coffee and reading a series of cheap pulp novels titled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. The novels depict as fiction a series of attacks familiar to us as real events, including the attack on US Embassies in East Africa, 7/7, Shoe Bomber Richard Read, and of course, 9/11.

One day a mysterious woman turns up in Joe’s office and commissions him to find Mike Longshott, the author of the Osama series. Joe flies to Paris in search of Papa D, Longshott’s publisher, and from there to London, New York and Afghanistan.

Osama is written in an elliptical tone reminiscent of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories; Tidhar describes the minutae of coffee, cigarettes and clothes, but omits exposition, instead creating a narrative tension through the reader’s need to puzzle out the background; as Joe wonders what the World Trade Centre is, Tidhar starts to explain his alternate world, but slowly, slowly, and always by allusion. Rather like the protagonist, the reader is left with the sense that “The…writer was leaving…a trail of crumbs to follow” (p.120).  

As the novel progresses, it becomes ever more Dickian, as Joe slips between realities, alongside the refugee ‘ghosts’ that he glimpses from the corner of his eye. In the novel’s clearest homage to The Man in the High Castle, Joe undergoes a reality slip that echoes Mr. Tagomi’s, visiting what appears to be ‘our’ London:

[Joe] passed a group of silent dancers: they had gathered by the corner of the street and were dancing with no sound, with no order. They all had the same white wires coming down from their ears…When he came to Shaftesbury Avenue he saw a double-decker bus but it too was wrong, with no pole and open platform at the back, the only way in was through the doors in the front and they were closed and the bus wasn’t stopping. (p.170)

Gradually Tidhar reveals  that this is not simply a world where 9/11 never happened, but rather that it didn’t happen because of an earlier JonBar point. This gradual reveal will have those who prefer straightforward exposition grinding their teeth in frustration, but the novel is worth persevering with.

Lavie Tidhar has been publishing –initially in obscure venues such as Jupiter and Nenonymous- since 2003, but in the last couple of years he has started to become a regular in the major online markets and various Year’s Best SF, while his career has gained momentum with the publication of The Bookman and Camera Obscura.

Osama is an unsettling, oddly poignant look at what might have been, a world that is not necessarily better –because human nature precludes that- but simply different; it shows Tidhar’s originality and growing accomplishment in one of the best novels of the year so far.

• June 24th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Feline Queen, Reviewed

Joanne Hall is the author of the Hierath trilogy of fantasy novels, which has attracted a small but loyal following. Her first collection, The Feline Queen, has just been published by Wolfsinger Books.

            Subtitled Tales of Myth and Magic, The Feline Queen is made up of nine short stories published in small press magazines between 2005 and 2008, together with three original stories. The opener, ‘Candlefire’ establishes several recurring themes; a woman accused of witchcraft and threatened by a brutal husband and seeks help from the local witch, who uses cunning to defeat the villain. The villains in these stories are almost always male and use physical brutality as a weapon against women who are unable to adequately fight back, although ‘The Witch On The Wall’ runs counter to this trend (but even here, the witch’s ‘evil’ is explained). In the second story, ‘The Last of A Million Wishes,’ a fairy is trapped by a spoilt young boy who tortures her until she is rescued by her friend in a satisfying twist.

            It’s interesting to see Hall ring the changes on the various archetypes that she uses; the title story is one of two featuring Hoff the Barbarian, a muscle-bound ox of a man who has more cunning than intelligence, but who is amiably entertaining when meeting a lost tribe of amazonian warriors. Better though is ‘The Caves of Otrecht’ in which he undertakes a quest with other warriors, all of whom claim to be ‘the chosen one. The ending is clever and unexpected.

            All but two of the stories are set in a sort of archetypal fantasy kingdom, two of which (at least) share the same setting; ‘The Ship-Breaker’s Daughter’ features a young-girl with a siren-like voice who must choose whether to obey her tyrannical father and cost men their lives, or revolt. In ‘Ismay’s Run,’ runners pass messages from town to town, but Ismay, who loves to run, finds herself betrothed to a local lord.  

            These recurring themes are distilled in ‘The Company of Women,’ the last –and longest- story in the book, in which a quasi-immortal liberates battered women from their oppression and founds an independent and isolated community away from male oppression. But when they try to free the women from a major temple, the violence escalates and threatens to spiral out of control.

            It’s a fine way to conclude a short but effective collection in which fantasy is used to mirror and magnify contemporary concerns, and should establish Jo Hall’s reputation.

Cover art by Andy Bigwood.

• June 17th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Hammer by KJ Parker, Reviewed

KJ Parker’s twelfth novel in thirteen years is detailed, slow-building but ultimately utterly compelling.

Gignomai (known as within the family as Gig) met’Oc, youngest son of the illustrious met’Oc family, is a loner in a family as skewed as anything created by Mervyn Peake. But Parker’s land is more like an early Australia, complete with savages who seem unable to see the settlers, and Gignomai seems at first read a much more ordinary youth.

The Hammer of the title refers to a device that Gignomai begins to build seven years after something happens at home – what it was is only made clear toward the end of the book, but it’s sufficient to cause the young man to run away repeatedly from home, and to bend his whole personality toward exerting a terrible justice.

In this vast, almost empty land, where a lone settlement and outlying farms are overshadowed by the plateau on which the met’Oc mansion rests, the met’Oc live by their own laws, refusing to accept that they no longer live in ‘civilization.’ 

The Hammer is a slow burning book that is laden down with the weight of detail of making things – of swords, carpentry and primitive heavy industry. It is also, with one exception, almost entirely devoid of the Fantastic, save for one important point that could be defined as SF or Fantasy. That the novel is classed as the latter is the rural -but certainly not bucolic setting- and the publisher’s classification.

KJ Parker is perhaps the most self-effacing writer since James Tiptree Jr. entered the field in the late 1960s – even Parker’s gender is unclear, although French publisher Bragelonne’s website implies that Parker the author is female. Without a single piece of short fiction published until 2009, Parker didn’t even have the traditional medium within speculative fiction for building a following – the novels have had to build a base on their own.

What is known about Parker is that she has previously worked in the law and as a journalist; nowadays she “makes things out of wood and metal,” and this fascination with craftsmanship runs right through her prose. The book is so full of the minutiae of manufacturing that initially it threatens to sink the story (though it does give it a refreshing solidity), a handicap that it gradually overcomes. In some ways The Hammer resembles a narrative avalanche; slow to start, almost unstoppable as it roars toward its climax.

• June 10th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0