Monday, January 29, 2018

GOD STALK, a 35-year-old first fantasy novel that spawned a series still going today

(Chronicles of the Kencyrath #1)
Baen Books
$6.99 eReader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the first book of the Kencyrath, Jame, a young woman missing her memories, struggles out of the haunted wastes into Tai-tastigon, the old, corrupt, rich and god-infested city between the mountains and the lost lands of the Kencyrath.

Jame's struggle to regain her strength, her memories, and the resources to travel to join her people, the Kencyrath, drag her into several relationships, earning affection, respect, bitter hatred and, as always, haunting memories of friends and enemies dead in her wake.

My Review: I read this 35-year-old fantasy novel because a good LibraryThing friend of mine ran a group read of it. She contended that the book was underfamous and underappreciated. I don't know about you, but I'd say any first-in-series book that's followed by eight others (to date) set in the same universe, and which has an 816 page fandom wiki, isn't exactly a concealed target.


Reading older books in the speculative fiction genre is an education in revised expectations and their invisibility until challenged. Modern fantasy nonillionologies, each volume a minimum of a jillion pages densely packed with made-up language vocabulary and/or Randomly capitalized normal Words that indicate they're being used as something More Than their mundane meaning, are now the minimum standard. This book predates that trend. As a result, its brevity can a 21st century sensibility. There were many, many moments that the author moved through hastily or simply glided past entirely that would, in modern times, be entire novels.

I've complained about book bloat and editing fails so often and so publicly that I expect someone will quite soon point this out with a smug "gotcha!" of some sort. To those legions of carping natterers, I say "oh shut up" and remind them that 1) consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and 2) there's such a thing as a happy medium.

I'm not a huge consumer of fantasy novels at the best of times because magic makes me itch. It seems so nonsensical, so counter to the realities of physical laws under which we live; it flies in the face of experiential existence; but it satisfies a deep need in many people, just not me. Also, almost always, the protagonist is An Exceptional Adolescent (usually female), and that's very much not my favorite kind of person. Adolescence stank, and so do adolescents. Just not where I want to be, or to stay for any length of time.

This novel's magical system got in under my radar because it feels to me, like the magic in Kai Ashante Wilson's marvelous Africa-set fantasy stories, as though any second we're going to be told that it's a form of technology we don't recognize as such. I can hang with that. Most of what the main character does isn't terribly magical, and the city of Tai-Tastigon itself is the source of the overall magic. We're teased with the notion of the city's magic being the reason there are so many gods in it; in fact, there's a truly delicious idea that temples to the gods are actually ways for the mundane people to *trap* the gods, to limit their scope for activity, instead of mere places of worship.

Jame, our main character, even targets one of these gods in an experiment to test the limits of its power. She causes the god to lose its worshipers in the process, and the results prove to Jame that there is something very hinky about the way the gods function. This subplot is played for comedy, but I was happy to note that the very real consequences for this god and its priest were later sources of shame and remorse for Jame. She goes out of her way to fix the damage she's done, and in the process discovers an amazing library of knowledge that this god's temple has hidden for ages. It is one of the wonderful things about the tapestry of Tai-Tastigon created by Author Hodgell.

The city and its quirks, its societal and legal peculiarities, are incredibly enough left to one side as soon as they're revealed! Inconceivable, and that word does mean what I think it means, in today's publishing world. I was intrigued by the Cloudies, a subset of society that's decided to take to the rooftops and not touch the ground: whence came they, what do they do for a living, how come they're not subject to groundling law, and so on and so forth. Never answered. Never addressed. The Thieves' Guild that Jame enters without the smallest tiniest bit of effort on her part is an entire multi-volume storytelling universe! The history that Jame barely skates over with her sort of accidental Thieves' Guild master, one Penari the ancient master thief, is another multi-volume series of novels. I am all for rich texture in a story, and I got it here, but there are way too many delicious side trails that lead nowhere in this book.

At the end of the book came my personal biggest disappointment as Jame left Tai-Tastigon for parts unknown. This was inevitable, given the fact that she enters the city from parts only slightly less unknown and for reasons utterly unclear and unclarified. This is a fantasy novel, and the first in a series. Of course there will be a quest, and of course it will lead away from any one location. That doesn't make me any happier about it. The textures of Tai-Tastigon's tapestry are involving and exciting, and I'd like to stay here please.

Which is how I know Author Hodgell created a wonderful thing in this book, and why it's no real surprise that her fantasy universe has spawned an 816-page wiki. She understands her readers' need to feel immersed and invested in more than a simple, surface-gleaming world. She delivers those goods. My various dissatisfactions with the execution of this tale aside, I admire her ability and her vision. I won't continue reading the series because I'm less interested in Jame than I am in Tai-Tastigon, but I will likely pick up any future book that returns to this setting.

Monday, January 22, 2018

PASSING SHADOWS, prequel of the Taking Shield series of space operas

(Taking Shield #0.5)
Glass Hat Press
$2.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Li Liang has found a berth to suit her: chief pilot and first officer of the all-female crew of an old space freighter, the Sappho. Then one ordinary, unremarkable morning, Liang retunes the Sappho’s communications systems just in time to catch the breathless, terrible accounts from Mars of the total destruction of Earth.

Earth’s a cinder. The unknown alien race that destroyed it has left Mars, too, in flames and is ravening outward from the solar system, devouring every human colony on the way. Liang’s one of the few survivors, racing ahead of the Devourers, rescuing as many frightened, shocked people as she can. Will Liang and the pitiful remnants of humanity find a new haven, somewhere to start again? Or will she, too, echo the dreadful last message coming out of their dead home?

They’re coming. Oh God, they’re coming.

My Review: Oh my. Yes, Author Butler has done it, she's done my poor old man's heart muscle permanent injury this time.

Remember how much I liked the first four books? If not, refresh yourself by reading up on the pleasures of Bennet and Finn's world coming crashing down around their ears as they, fine fighting men that they are, do their dead-level best to mitigate or even prevent it from happening. That was Author Butler's first assault on me.

The second was making Bennet and Finn fall head-over-heels in love with each other. Despite Bennet's long-term relationship with Joss, Finn's love-'em-and-leave-'em history, Bennet's career in the spy corps, Finn's posting to Bennet's anti-gay father's ship....

And now, with this lovely tale of Liang and Alice and Matt and his loves...well...the damage, she is irretrievable. Because now we find out what happened to Earth, what this has done to the survivors, how the men and women of Humanity's diaspora likely lost their belief in the monotheistic gawd I so ridicule them for bothering themselves to believe in in the first place. I mean really, how could one take seriously a gawd that allowed the original home of your species to get utterly blown into ash and smithereens?

Of course the question of how they found and resurrected the Egyptian pantheon will niggle at me until Author Butler gets sick of my emails alternately demanding and supplying ideas for that lacuna's filling-upping. My current favorite: Bennet, retired from Shield, takes Finn, retired from Fleet, on a honeymoon to an archaeological dig on a newly relocated planet where Humanity stopped for a while and left behind clues about the Egyptian pantheon's recrudescence.

Hijinks ensue.

Hmm? Well, whadda y'all think?

Yeah, Author Butler's quiet about it too. *sigh*

Anyway. This novella is an afternoon's read, it sets the stakes for Bennet and Finn's world, and it contains this author's trademark homophile characters complete with real-life reasons to do what the plot tells them to. I like the series. I like the prequel. I suspect the Devourers have not vanished from Taking Shield. And I am eager to get the next full novel.

Like, REAL SOON. *glowers Blightyward*

Saturday, January 13, 2018

MY BROTHER'S HUSBAND, manga by gay man about eww-ick homophobia

(trans. Anne Ishii)
Pantheon Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Yaichi is a work-at-home suburban dad in contemporary Tokyo; formerly married to Natsuki, father to their young daughter, Kana. Their lives suddenly change with the arrival at their doorstep of a hulking, affable Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who declares himself the widower of Yaichi's estranged gay twin, Ryoji. Mike is on a quest to explore Ryoji's past, and the family reluctantly but dutifully takes him in. What follows is an unprecedented and heartbreaking look at the state of a largely still-closeted Japanese gay culture: how it's been affected by the West, and how the next generation can change the preconceptions about it and prejudices against it.

My Review: In my ongoing quest to retard the ossification of my brain, I made it my business to choose a graphic novel to read. I detest graphic novels. It's hard for me to follow the story, what there is of it, and I am routinely unimpressed by the artwork. I keep trying because there are occasions where the graphic format is the only one that can tell a particular story, and once in a while it's a pleasant discovery to learn that not everything in a given format is as tooth-grindingly annoying as I expect it to be.

The story is one I relate to. I've been Mike Flanagan, the Canadian bear whose dead husband's family he's meeting by his own insistence, in relationships. (Y'all shoulda seen the 24-year-old's father's face when he caught us kissing. And incidentally, Dad's a decade younger than I am, hot, and I would totally trade up.) (Just kidding about that last part, honey!) (It says here.) It's weird to see that experience told from this point of view, that is, the family that's being invaded by strangeness.

Oh my...poor Mike...hugging a straight man in a foreign country...Yaichi shouts at him to let go, of course, and everyone's thoroughly flustered and freaked. Yeah, this'll go well.

But it does, after the two men are joined by Yaichi's daughter Kana. She just wants to know why she never knew she had an uncle, why men can't get married in Japan, how Mike got so hairy...

...everything a kid wants to know, in short, about someone new in her life. Who was the wife, Kana wonders, and when Mike explains that there was no wife but there were two husbands Yaichi goes into a reverie about how he always wondered the same thing only about their sex life...and then Yaichi snaps out of it and reprimands himself for wondering such a crude thing when he wouldn't question a mixed marriage's sex life.

Yaichi's "acceptance" of his identical twin's sexual nature was, in fact, simply refusal to think about it or process it.

Now here's this big gaijin staying in his home, charming his daughter, making his ex-wife laugh and smile when she pays a visit, and generally going out of his way to be sweet and agreeable. Yaichi the orphan, now siblingless, is getting to grips with the cost of his absence of acceptance. By the end of this fat little volume, he's on a major journey into what his brother's husband has done to his future life.

Reading the manga way is weird for Westerners, or at any rate old ones like me. Back to front, right to left...and add in the graphic parts! Well, it was a read outside my comfort zone. The more alert among you will have noticed a favorable star rating atop the review's text. I liked the story of a man's journey from unquestioning homophobia to questioning discomfort through to earnest effort to understand and integrate The Other into his world. I wasn't comfortable with the format and I'm not a bit convinced that the story couldn't have been told another way, but the story itself is a good and timely one for 45's America as well as for Japan at any time.

I most certainly will not buy the book for $25 but checked out of the library it's a well-spent afternoon. I'd say graphically oriented consumers would do well to visit Yaichi, Kana, and Uncle Mike. They are good company and the world they find themselves working to understand and create is one I'd say is very, very important for us all to visit. Who knows, y'all might wanna set a spell.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BAKING WITH KAFKA, cartoons for the intelligent and the bookish


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A best-of collection of literary humour cartoons from the critically-acclaimed Guardian cartoonist

In his inimitable style, British cartoonist Tom Gauld has opened comics to a crossover audience and challenged perceptions of what the medium can be. Noted as a "book-lover's cartoonist," Gauld's weekly strips in The Guardian, Britain's most well-regarded newspaper, stitch together the worlds of literary criticism and pop culture to create brilliantly executed, concise comics. Simultaneously silly and serious, Gauld adds an undeniable lightness to traditionally highbrow themes. From sarcastic panels about the health hazards of being a best-selling writer to a list of magical items for fantasy writers (such as the Amulet of Attraction, which summons mainstream acceptance, Hollywood money, and fresh coffee), Gauld's cartoons are timely and droll—his trademark British humour, impeccable timing, and distinctive visual style sets him apart from the rest.

Lauded both for his frequent contributions to New Scientist, The Guardian and The New York Times, and his Eisner-nominated graphic novels, Tom Gauld is one of the most celebrated cartoonists working today. In Baking with Kafka, he proves this with one witty, sly, ridiculous comic after another.

My Review: You already know who Tom Gauld is, since I reviewed his earlier works this past Booksgiving. I expect you knew beforehand, since you're reading my blog. I love Tom Gauld's work largely because it's so witty and so sly. I am his fanboy for life because he's got no truck with dumbing down his humor. That's so rare in this life, and it always was. Why do you think Hollywood versions of novels were always excoriated for grafting happy endings onto stories? Mass entertainment is always bland. So let's revel in the counterculture's High Priest of Snark!

You're welcome. Now go buy one.

Monday, January 8, 2018


(River of Teeth #2) Publishing
$3.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the damn that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.

Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."

In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.

My Review: This quote about sums up the basic operating principle of this follow-up to River of Teeth:
"Alone and lonely ain’t the same thing at all," Hero said, shaking their head.
At the end of River of Teeth, the dramatis personae are forcibly scattered when the pardon me, operation...reaches a satisfying if not successful conclusion. I say "not successful" because Winslow Houndstooth's carefully planned...operation, all perfectly aboveboard, not a caper at all...for the elimination of feral hippos (HIPPOS!!!) from a section of the Mighty Mississippi goes quite wrong and ends up making the feral-hippos problem more widespread.

The opposite of good.

But more to the point of our story here, Winslow's dearly beloved Hero the non-binary munitions and poisons expert, is separated from him. Archie the fat Frenchwoman, Houndstooth's longtime friend and co-caperer, loses contact with Gran the U.S. Marshal that's hunting vanished Adelia the assassin and traitor to their caper...operation...whose interference separates the scooby-group into two pairs. And so our story begins.

It's safe to say that the actual search of the two pairs of conspirators for each other is not the point of the book. It is far more the case that the emotions of the separated lovers are the point. Archie is pining for her big, beautiful lawman, despite the fact that she's a confidence trickster who's given zero apparent thought to how that's going to play out. Houndstooth, her longtime friend, unravels into obsession with his vanished Hero and makes the world around himself into the projection screen of his misery. He tests his friend Archie to and past the breaking point with his rage at the injustice of Hero's disappearance. He takes exactly no notice of Archie's pain in her separation from Gran the lawman.

Adelia and Hero, the second pair of caperers, are left thinking Archie and Houndstooth are dead. They're also the subject of a plot by an unknown bigwig baddie to force assassin Adelia into a murderous plot despite her determination to remain retired from death-dealing. Hero refuses even to think about their beloved Houndstooth, dead in the by-blow of feral hippo killing blasts. They help Adelia with her new baby. They recover from non-fatal but very serious wounds that were dealt them by the aforesaid Adelia. And, all else aside, they stay with Adelia to execute the final stage of the failed caper. Mostly because they need something to do, some action to take in order not to remain still and therefore finally face up to their grief at Houndstooth's loss.

And the spoilery bits are now open.

All is resolved. The unhappy separations are ended. The reveal of the big baddie's identity is quite quickly over and done, along with a condign fate for the rotten asshole. The problem that ignited the entire series...feral hippos in the Mississippi...isn't remotely touched by the plot's hurried and incomplete resolution.

I remain unhappy at the Civil War's insignificance. I'm not going to get happier about it, and I'm not going to get a more completely fleshed out backstory either.


It's $3.99 and it's fun and it's got such promise as a writer's declaration of imagination. Give it a whirl.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

RIVER OF TEETH, implausible, delightful, engaging and entertaining

(River of Teeth #1)
$3.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

My Review: Okay, there's this little-known weirdness about the Congress actually considering the importation of hippos for real in the early 20th century...see my four-year-old review of the Kindle Single for my take on that...but it went nowhere, thankfully.

Also thankfully Sarah Gailey got wind of this deliciously loopy piece of fucked-up thinking. This novella is a terrific playful use of reality's undercooked braining. I can't be any more pleased about that.

I could be a bit more pleased about the novella. No. WINKING! Not at all, not ever, not even the three times in this book. *ahem*

But the main source of my discontent is the slightness of the characterization of Winslow, our "British"-or-maybe-not hero. He's very intriguing which is the source of my mild disgruntlement. Just as we're getting to know him, *whiz* offstage he goes with Archie the stout and stout-hearted confidence trickster...and just as *she* is getting interesting, what with her tendresse for U.S. Marshal Gran! Who barely registers before his search for the evil Adelia fails and he has to get our non-binary fascinator Hero to medical help... I making myself clear? There is a LOT going on in these pages, all of it fun, much of it necessary, and some of it far too glossed over. More room for Mama's goodness, please. Yes, there's a sequel and I will be reading it soonest, but this is literary coitus interruptus.

I was delighted by the comeuppance delivered to the very appropriate party at the end; I was hugely relieved that the author provided us with a timeline at the end of the book; but really, there's only one thing that I can't explain away or make better with rationalizations: Handwaving away the Civil War. This wasn't a fixable slip-up. The fact is that hippos in the Civil War would've changed things drastically given the location of the Harriet (our lawless, feral hippo-infested stretch of Mississippi marsh). Its construction in Louisiana would've made the economy of the state radically different; its slave or free labor demands would've changed the military calculus of the region in extremely significant ways.

So I'll accept a gayish hero, I'll go along with a non-binary person passing unchallenged, yup yup okey dokey mm hmm, but not the unchanged Civil War. That by itself would've cost a less gung-ho gonzo nuts author with a blah little idea all but one star. You, Sarah Gailey, disappointed me where a less talented writer would've made me snort derisively, roll my eyes, and Pearl Rule this bad boy. You're capable of better thinking than this elision of a central fact of US history.