Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Arabian Nights Trilogy - Craig Shaw Gardner

The Other Sinbad
A Bad Day for Ali Baba
Scheherezade's Night Out

It's always a shame when a good series is let down by its first instalment. There's nothing particularly wrong with The Other Sinbad, but it fulfills its cover's promise as a sub-Pratchett bit of Arabian Nights-themed comic fantasy fluff and doesn't go much further than that. In that respect, it's the most similar to Gardner's more famous work, the Wuntvor & Ebenezum trilogies (A Malady of Magicks etc) about a hapless apprentice wizard, which rely more on a series of silly events than any clever wordplay or plot-structure - more Mr Bean than Frasier. Luckily, the latter two books - belatedly tacked on to make a trilogy out of a standalone - improve matters beyond all recognition.

The Other Sinbad has a very simple premise - young porter Sinbad runs into his more famous merchant-adventurer namesake, now an aging and corpulent travel-bore, who has just run out of funds and needs to go on another voyage. Fleeing the powerful but stupid djinn Ozzie, who wants to kill Sinbad but gets confused when there are two of them, they end up retracing the original Sinbad's previous voyages, and discovering all the embarrassing details he left out of his usual travel tales. It's quite fun, but all the jokes are a bit obvious and it gets rather wearisome after a while. I probably wouldn't bother recommending this at all if it wasn't for the rest of the series being so great.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why A Bad Day For Ali Baba is so much better, but the difference is noticeable within the first couple of pages - possibly because this is written in the third person as opposed to Sinbad's first, giving the humour a more detached tone. It also seems to have much more of a plot, unlike the string of crazy but unconnected antics of the previous book. It starts off by following the original story of Ali Baba, told in a fairly funny way, but starts to diverge when evil brother Kassim gets stuck in the robbers' cave and chopped up - the cave's magic powers keep him alive (in six pieces), and they also seem to be doing strange things to the band of thieves, including magical beard growth and the leader's obsession with the number 40. The thieves turn out to include characters from other Arabian Nights, such as Aladdin and Sinbad the Porter, whose own stories also tie in with the Ali Baba plot, and set the stage for the storytelling showdown in the Palace of Beautiful Women, which turns out to be the frame for the trilogy.

Of course, with a storytelling showdown, the one you want on your side is Scheherezade, whose own tale comes up in the third book. As with Ali Baba, this starts off as a fairly faithful (if comedically enhanced) retelling of the traditional story, but quickly gathers extra trappings of vengeful djinni and sorcerous mothers-in-law. The story here is good and well-told, but the ending is extremely lame, with a dose of deus ex machina and a gaping plot-hole gleefuly papered over - disappointing, but not worth getting too upset over.

Do you need to read the first book of the trilogy to appreciate the rest? Not sure; it helps to understand some of the jokes when Sinbad Jr appears in book 2, but they're not exactly subtle or complicated so you'd probably be OK. I'd recommend starting with book 1 anyway, but you're not missing that much if you decide to skip it; books 2 and 3 I'd recommend to anyone.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bess of Hardwick - Mary S Lovell

Bess of Hardwick is one of those historical figures that you normally only hear about in passing, when her path crosses that of Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots. Whether those glimpses are positive or negative depends on the attitude of the historian, but she's always loomed large in the background, a powerful female magnate in a still male-dominated century. With the current popularity of biographies of queens and other historical women, it was only a matter of time before Bess got the same treatment, and Mary S Lovell has done a sterling job of it.

Bess was never a political figure, which is probably why she gets sidelined in so many more general histories of the period. The only real political involvement she had was when her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was made custodian of Mary Queen of Scots for the bulk of the latter's incarceration, which famously caused the breakdown of their marriage. The book naturally covers this in great detail, but it also gives us the Before and After, with Bess's first three husbands and her rise to power, and her later role as wealthy matriarch and land baroness, fighting to secure inheritances and possible royal marriages for her children and grandchildren.

Lovell tells us in the Foreword about the vast amounts of primary source material on Bess's life, and the tale never strays far from the original texts. Nearly all of Bess's reported actions are backed up by close reference to account books, court records or other correspondence, and Lovell is scrupulous about letting us know when the evidence is absent or even slightly shaky. This straightforward style occasionally feels somewhat Mickey Mouse, but for the most part it's very refreshing, and she never falls into the trap of overdramatising the facts; any inferences she draws are clearly stated and labelled as such, and even the speculation (where the records are thin or absent) is based on sensible extrapolation from other contemporary sources.

Overall, while Bess's life may not be quite as exciting as other events of the 16th Century, this is a comprehensive and sympathetic biography of a remarkable woman.


The Objectivist Wizard of Os

Mountain Goat Productions proudly presents

The Objectivist Wizard of Os

Part One

[cue sweeping music]

On a small black and white farm a teenage girl runs across a grey lawn to a grey fence and stares wistfully at the grey sky.
'Oh Toto, somewhere over the horizon is excitement, adventure, a hunky man who will save me from gang rape and be my perfect hero.'
'Werk?' Said Toto, a small brown chicken pecking the ground nearby. (For those who do not speak chicken I will translate, what Toto said was, 'Hey wasn't I supposed to be a dog? Dammit! You've gotten this confused with Return To Oz haven't you? Honestly what a lame way to crowbar in a chicken-that-is-not-a-chicken joke.' Chickens have a very economical use of language. This one is also hyper-critical.)

'Thats right Toto, I know one day, some day, I will find him.' The girl begins to sing, the music swells.

'Somewhere over the rainbow . . . .'

'Bags! Kahlan!' Screamed an irrate woman's voice interrupting the music which comes to a jarring halt.
'Yes Aunt Em.'
'Stop that singing, there's work to do. Can't you see there is a storm coming in?'

Kahlan looked up and saw a big black cloud bearing down on the farm. Suddenly a huge spiral shot down out of the cloud and instantly struck the ground nearby, throwing dirt high into the air. Kahlan screamed, picked up her beloved chicken and in a panic ran into the farmhouse. The ear shredding sound of high velocity wind got louder and louder as the twister came closer. The whole house rocked on its foundations and with a sudden movement lifted up into the air. Surprisingly the house remained completly intact and Kahlan, suddenly unafraid, walked over to the window to look out.

There was Ada, the unpleasant woman from the next door farm also caught up in the twister and flying through the air. She was screaming and holding onto a broom as though that would help in some way.
'Its not a Nimbus 2000, what is she doing?' Said Kahlan stupidly.
'Werk.' Said Toto. ('Oh God, not a Harry Potter reference.')
Then in a blinding flash of realisation Kahlan realised that it was a Nimbus 2000 and in fact Ada was not screaming but cackling. She also had green skin and a black hat on which was a dead giveaway.
'Shes a witch!' Gasped Kahlan.
'Werk.' ('Seriously if there is a Monty Pyton joke here, I'm leaving.')

All of a sudden the farmhouse suddenly dropped out of the sky, Ada the witch screamed as she also fell straight down. Whump! Everything landed on the ground with a mighty whump. Kahlan stood up. She could no longer hear Ada screaming nor cackling. She walked over to the door and walked outside, blinking in the sudden and dazzling light.

As her eyes adjusted Kahlan was stunned speachless. The world was in brilliant technicolour. The grass was a sparkling green, a garish yellow road spiralled past a brilliant blue stream and a pure white picket fence lined a glorious green and red orchard opposite.

'Everything is in color.' Said Kahlan, 'it is so colorful!'
'Oi, that is spelled colour, you're not in fucking Kansas anymore.' Said a voice.
'Um, who are you?' Said Kahlan uncertainly.
A woman in white who bore a striking resemblance to her Aunt Em appeared and gestured with her white wand grandly.
'I am Verna, the Foul-Mouthed Good Witch.'
'Foul-mouthed?' Definitely not her Aunt Em then.
'Fuckery! That's what I fucking said ain't it? You got chicken shit clogging your ears or something?' Kahlan clutched Toto closer to her as though to protect her beloved chicken from the Foul-Mouthed Good Witch's tirade.

'What the fucking fuck are you doing with that buggering chicken?' Said Verna.
'This isn't just any old chicken, he's my best friend - Toto.'
'A chicken that-is-not-a-chicken but is Toto incarnate?'
'Werk.' ('Groan.')
'Well fuck a duck.'

'So, um, where am I, if this is not Kansas?'
'You my dear are in Yeardikinland, home of the deminutive but loveable Yeardikins. Come out ya wee little fuckers and say hello.'
From behind every tree in sight small men, midgets even, appeared and walked towards Kahlan and the black and white house. One of them pointedly excitedly at the house. Some of the others came over to look. They began jumping up and down, running around in circles, hugging each other and crying tears of unrestrained joy.

'The witch is dead the mean old wicked witch is dead . . . ' they sang.

'What is going on?' Said Kahlan.
'Well bugger my greasy ass with an oiled up agiel, you've only gone and landed your fucking drab farmhouse on that cunt Ada, the Wicked Witch of the fucking East.'
'The what?' Said Kahalan and then she saw two black feet sticking out from underneath the house. She was wearing red slippers which had the word TRUTH embossed on the sole of each slipper.

'The Slippers of Truth - they will be mine, all mine!' Cackled another witch. The Yeardikins yelped with fright and leapt back from the newcomer. This witch looked identical to the dead witch beneath the house in every way.
'Not a fucking chance Shota, the Wicked Witch of the West.' Said Verna, 'Your shit magic does not work here in Yeardikinland and nor will we listen to your pointless fucking vague predictions of doom, got it?'
'Oooh, go on.' Pleaded Shota.
'No! In fact I am going to give the Slippers of Truth to this young slut just to spite you bitch.' With that Verna cast a spell and the red Slippers of Truth magicly transferred from Ada's feet to Kahlan's. The witches feet under the house shrivelled up and shot back under the house with a shrieking shriek. With raptor-like eyes of murderous intent, Shota climbed onto her broom and took off into the sky disappearing from sight.

Kahlan flexed her toes inside the ruby red Slippers of Truth. She could feel power thrumming up her legs from the slippers. It almost seemed like she had some new memories surfacing in her mind.
'I know what I have to do now,' Said Kahlan suddenly full of confidence, 'To get home I must follow this yellow brick road to the city at the other end. Moral-Celery City. There I will find a great man, a wizard. The Objectivist Wizard of Os. Who, despite being really bad at typing coherantly, will be able to send me home!'
'Eg-fucking-zactly.' Said the Foul-Mouthed Good Witch.
'Werk.' ('So we've got a long walk ahead of us and no sensible footwear, great.')
'Thank you Verna for your help, me and Toto have a long way to go and we had best be on our way.'
'You are very welcome Kahlan. Oh fuck it! Those cunting Yeardikins are going to sing again aren't they. I can't stand fucking singing.'

'Hi, ho!' Began one Yeardikin.
'Ooompa, doompa? Sang another uncertainly.
'Werk.' Said Toto, cocking his head. ('These midgets are in the wrong parody!')

'My Slippers of Truth tell me you should be singing a song about Following the Yellow Brick Road.'
'Ah, but we are dedicated objectivists and thus cannot follow anyone or anything except ourselves.' Said one of the Yeardikins, 'Besides its not a Yellow Brick Road, its a Yellow Bone Road.'
Kahlan gasped, Toto would have gasped too but did not feel like joining in.
'Yep the bones of lots of dead people which have been yellowed by exposure to the sun, pretty gruesome eh?'
'Whatever.' Said Kahlan, 'Come on Toto, we're off. Off to see the Wizard.' Inspired Kahlan leapt spontaneously into song.

We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os,
Becuase, becuaes, bcause, ebcausse
Because of the atrocious typing he does,
We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os.

Kahlan and Toto pranced off along the Yellow Bone Road away from Yeardikinland as the Foul-Mouthed Good Witch and the Yeardikins waved them goodbye.

Coming up in Part Two of The Objectivist Wizard of Os - Kahlan meets some travelling companions whilst wearing her travelling pants

Mountain Goat Productions proudly presents

The Objectivist Wizard of Os

Part Two

The Yellow Bone Road meandered through green and verdant valleys for several miles before it arrived at a small village. A large crowd was gathered around a wooden stage shouting and hollering. Kahlan and Toto walked into the village square to see what was going on.

'Ladies and gentleman, what I say to you this day is pure truth, for I am incapable of falsehoods.' Said a man dressed in a black outfit on the stage. 'My name is Richard Rahl and I am The Seeker. There is an evil plaguing this land, blighting its crops, corrupting its citizens and posioning our wells. Colour. Yes thats right, I said it, Colour.'
'Yeah, right on!' Said a loud man in the front of the crowd as the others muttered amongst themselves.
'I stand before you as a symbol of the righteousness of black and white. Right and wrong. Life and death. Good and evil.'
'Dumb and dumber.' Said the voice in the front of the crowd. Richard looked down sharply and then continued.
'What harm does colour do you may ask? Its pretty! But I say to you that colour is confusing the issues. Instead of it being a simple black and white question with an obvious choose life answer, colour is blurring your senses. Making you think in terms of grey areas. Watered down examples of good and evil, thus you cannot make the correct, Objective choice. When you are surrounded on all sides you have only one option, attack! You cannot allow the vague inconsistencies of colour to suggest another plan, another way. To do so is to choose death!'
'Hang on, what are you talking about?' Kahlan could sense that there was something unusual about this man.
'I am talking about depending on the rightness of your own mind. The decision you make is the only true one you can make. There is no such thing as a contradiction. What I propose here today is that colour is outlawed and the world be redifined in absolute black and white and this can only be done by following my rule!'

'But Master Rahl, how can you spout this ridiculous ideaology. Life cannot be simply defined by such rigid absolutes. It is the fundamental reason for the beauty of life, the free will to choose anything is the foremost principle that makes us alive, makes us sentient. Life is not black and white, look at the world around you - it is glorious Technicolor and wishing it were otherwise is not only a complete and pointless waste of time but blinding yourself to the full wonder of existence. I say to you, ones actions are judged and defined by the others around you, by the accepted social order of right and wrong, not by the unsound reasoning of your own mind. Your own selfish desires. It is not a simple life or death choice, it is complicated. It is grey.'
The other people in the crowd agreed loudly with the man at the front and with that turned away from Richard and walked off to carry on with the chores of the day.

Kahlan could now see the man at the front of the crowd. She gasped to discover that he was a Scarecrow made of straw and old clothes with various assorted vegetables for facial features.
Richard jumped down off the platfrom and grabbed the scarecrow by the shirt.
'What kind of a straw man are you anyway? You are supposed to give me an argument I can easily swipe aside, then agree with me and do what I say. Get the others to join in and everyone happily follows my orders. I'll ruin you for this Scarecrow, I will see to it you never work in the Straw Man field again! You are finished, do you hear me - Finished!' Richard storms away angrily towards Kahlan. 'Get out of my way little girl or I will kick you in the jaw!' Kahlan jumps aside.
'Werk.' ('Wow, passion ruling reason right there folks.')

Kahlan turns to hear the sound of sobbing. The scarecrow is on the ground crying his eyes out. Feeling sorry for him Kahlan walks over to try and cheer him up.
'Cheer up Mr. Scarecrow, I thought your argument was good. It sounded right to me.' The scarecrow wails louder in misery. 'Whats the matter? What did I say?'
'You don't understand. I am supposed to be a Straw Man, a tool with a weak position and badly thought out philosophy only there to justify my clients position. But lately I have lost my way. I keep pointing out the logical flaws in arguments and making fools of my clients instead of being the fool and making them look like intellectual giants, even though of course they are stupid as cow muck. Oh, I wish I did not have a brain, I would be a good straw man again.'
'You know, I am on my way to see the Objectivist Wizard of Os, I'm sure he could remove your brain and make you a brilliant straw man again.' Said Kahlan brightly.
'You are? Do you really think he can help me?'
'Sure. My Slippers of Truth tell me so.' The Straw Man leapt into the air and danced a jig, lifting Kahlan up into the air.
'Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. Oh this is simply wonderful, I can't wait!' He put the girl down and smiled happily at her, his tears all forgotten now. Now that she had a good look at him the Straw Man had an uncanny resemblance to Tom, one of the three farmhands from her fathers farm.
'Werk.' ('Would this be the farmhands that should have been introduced in Part One by any chance?')
'Come along Mr. Straw Man its this way along the Yellow Bone Road.' In unison they both leapt into song.

We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os,
Becuase, becuaes, bcause, ebcausse
Because of the atrocious typing he does,
We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os.

They left the village behind and followed the yellowed bone road into some dark and forbidding woods. Suddenly a piercing scream cut through the air. Kahlan and the Straw Man stopped singing. Silence rang as clear as a bell in an empty church.
'What was that?' Said the Straw Man afraid.
'It came from over there, lets go see. Come on.' The Slippers of Truth seemed to be guiding her. Unafraid she walked towards the screams of unbearable pain.

Through the trees Kahlan could see a man tied to a tree. He had various wounds all over his naked body, blood pouring down his face, his head hung in exhuastion. Then she noticed the person torturing this poor man. It was a man made entirely of metal.
'Werk.' ('Tin is a cheap metal anyway, could not afford aluminium?')
The metal man had a large ax in his hands and strode towards the captive menacingly.
'I am going to chop off your bollocks now and then I am going to make you eat them you bastard!' It was a womans voice. This was no tin man, but a Tin Woman!

Unable to watch anymore Kahlan walked out of the trees into the forest clearing.
'Stop! What are you doing this for? Why are you torturing this poor man?' The Tin Woman turned towards the interruption.
'This man is a murderer and rapist. He also kicked a kitten, I saw him.'
'Even so, this is still not right. He should face a public trial and be judged by a jury of his peers, then if found guilty be given a just and deserved sentance. If he is to be executed, it should be in a swift and pain free manner to go meet his maker for higher judgement. Torture is not the answer.'
The Tin Woman looked uncertain. As she thought about this everyone could hear the sound, tick, tock, tick, tock.
'Werk.' ('Look Tick Tock was also in the Return to Os - can you just stick to the original source material or what?')
'Perhaps you are right. I don't know, you see I have no feelings, no emotion. Oh, I wish I had a heart. Then I would know for sure what I should do.'
'Hey we are looking for something too.' Said Kahlan, 'I want to find a way to get home.'
'And I want to lose my brain so I can be a good Straw Man again.'
'I can arrange that . . .' Said the Tin Woman hefting the ax.
'No I meant without losing my head.' Said the Straw Man, 'We are going to see the Objectivist Wizard of Os. He is bound to be able to fix our problems.'
'Then I will go with you and meet this wizard. I so want to be able to feel, to have emotions. Lets go.' The ax flew out of her hand and decapitated the captive man, blood spurting out of his neck like a fountain. 'It slipped.' She said.

As the girl, chicken, Straw Man and the Tin Woman left the clearing Kahlan noticed something hanging from a tree in the background.
'Is that a body hanging from up there?' She asked.
'Werk.' ('Perhaps its one of the stage hands again?')
'Oh, I think thats just the scriptwriter.' Said the Tin Woman, 'Don't worry about it.'

So the three companions resumed their journey along the Yellow Bone Road as it passed through the dark woods. To pass the time they broke into song because it was the only thing to do.

We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os,
Becuase, becuaes, bcause, ebcausse
Because of the atrocious typing he does,
We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os.

It was getting dark fast now. The night settling onto the woods like a black shroud. Things were getting creepy. Ahead through the trees the companions saw torches wavering. They crept forward to see what they might find. What they saw shocked them to the core.

Half a dozen women clothed in black cloaks stood around a naked woman who was tied to the ground. From out of the night a huge beast lumbered forward. Drool fell off its huge forked tongue onto the girls exposed breasts as the dark, brutish animal tasted her skin.
'You have to go through with this girl, to be at one with the Keeper. Now the Namble is going to mount you. Make you his bitch.' The girl shrieked in terror as the Namble clambered into position over her body, an enormous, big, black, barbed Namble Cock hoved into view. His erection growing to nearly two feet in length as the beasts excitement mounted. The barbed head was just about to enter her opening when suddenly it drooped. The women stared in disappointment as the Namble cock shrunk down to a tiny, phlacid member. Wilted and useless.

The women laughed at the Namble. Pointing and hollering at it. In obvious shame the Namble turned and huddled away. The naked girl was untied from the floor and stood up. She gestured with her little finger to indicate what she thought of the black beasts sexual prowess.
'Come on girls, lets find a Namble who can actually get it up.' Laughing and mocking as they went the Dark Sisters walked off into the night. The Namble lay in a ball, crying and shaking.

Feeling sorry for the beast Kahlan crept forward.
'Excuse me, but are you a Cowardly Namble?'
'I'm not cowardly! I just have an erectile disfunction'
'Werk.' ('Oh sure the Namble gets to speak English but not the chicken, huh.')
'I'm sorry, but this has deflated my self esteem and confidence badly. I am so miserable.' Said the Namble, 'Oh I wish I could get it up. Then I would be a big and strong beast again and have disgusting beastiality sex with Dark Sisters who are kinky like that.'
'You should come with us and see the wizard.' Said the Tin Woman.
'The wizard?' Asked the Namble.
'The Objectivist Wizard of Os!' Said Kahlan, 'We are on the way there so he can fix our problems too. Want to come?'
'If only.' Sighed the Namble.
'You have to,' Said the Straw Man, 'It will be fun!'
'Oh alright then. Thank you for inviting me, when do we go?'
'No time like the present, its this way. Say do you like to sing Mr Namble?' And so as they hurried onwards along the Yellow Bone Road, Kahlan and her three travelling companions, who looked so much like the three farmhands she knew, sang a jolly song.

We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os,
Becuase, becuaes, bcause, ebcausse
Because of the atrocious typing he does,
We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os.


The Wicked Witch of the West sat in her dark tower and contemplated her plan to acquire the Slippers of Truth from that damned little brat.

'I have it! My evil flying Gar Monkeys will stop her before she can reach Moral-Celery City.' She walked over and released a dozen Gar Monkeys from their cages. 'Fly, fly my Gar Monkeys. Kill the girl who wears the red Slippers of Truth and her friends. Fly! Fly!' She cackled evilly as they took flight into the dark night and headed for the forbidding forest.

Coming up in Part Three of The Objectivist Wizard of Os - the exciting conclusion to the story!

Mountain Goat Productions proudly presents

The Objectivist Wizard of Os

Part Three

The Yellow Bone Road glowed dimly in the moonlight as it filtered through the dark trees while Kahlan and her three travelling companions walked through the night, desparate to reach Moral-Celery City and an audience with The Objectivist Wizard of Os.
'Werk.' ('So these guys are not tired after all this walking? They just keep going even though its a dark wood perfect for an ambush? Great idea genius.')
They had stopped singing some time ago as the spooky atmosphere of the woods began to get to their nerves. Trees cracked in the night. The wind howled through the trees making Kahlan and the Impotent Namble jump.

There was a shriek from overhead and suddenly the party were engulfed by small flapping creatures with gaping tooth filled maws.
'Garrr, Gratch, daaaiiie!!!' They attacked like a horde of vampire bats, swooping down with no coordination, all chaos. This was their big mistake.
'Slippers be true this day.' Intoned Kahlan as the natural instincts of the previous wearers of the Slippers of Truth took over and guided her actions. She stretched her legs and suddenly a war broke out.
Kahlan danced around the clearing kicking the Gar Monkeys in the jaw sending them sprawling to the ground.

Bringer of dance steps.
Ruler of jaw breakers.

She thwacked Gar Monkeys left and right from off the Impotent Namble's shaking shoulders. Because the Gars fought as a collective swarm with no direction, no coordination, Kahlan was able to slide between them and strike them out of the air with elementary ease. In her mind she heard music and was dancing to the inner sound within. High kicking the flying Gars when they came into range.

The Straw Man was shouting out,
'Go away, you're just a plot device!' To no avail as the naughty Gar Monkeys tried to make off with his carrot nose. Kahlan saved the day with a flying kick from the Slippers of Truth.

The Tin Woman was holding her own and managed to catch one of the flying critters and rip its spine out with her bare metal hands. The Monkey with no spine tried to come back and bite her but she punched it hard causing a melon sized hole to appear where its stomach had been. The enraged Gar Monkey with no spine and a melon-sized hold in its stomach made a rude gesture at the Tin Woman. She gripped it by the head and with her powerful metal arms gave it a thick ear before it fell to the ground dead.

As suddenly as it began, suddenly the war stopped. Breathless from the excertions of dance combat Kahlan checked to make sure her travelling companions, who really did look like those three farmhands from back on her fathers farm, were OK.
'Where did you learn to kick like that?' Asked the Straw Man.
'I know a lot about representational dance designs involving lethality.' Said Kahlan.

Then Kahlan noticed that the Monkey Gars had not left but had settled on the trees all around. Hundreds of eyes blinked at her.
'Werk.' ('Hundreds? But you said at the end of Part Two that the Wicked Witch of the West only let out a dozen Gar Monkeys. Bah! I hate continuity errors like this and don't you try telling me the details are not important, you twat!')
The largest Gar Monkey walked forward and bowed low to Kahlan.
'Garrr's leggggend of twuuue noobble warrryorr is twuuue. Graaatch luurggh Kahlaaannn.'
'I think what they are saying,' Said the Impotent Namble, 'Is that they have a legend stating if a warrior wearing ruby red slippers defeats them in combat that they will know they have found their true lord and master and will stop serving the Wicked Witch forever.'
'Wow, what a cracking bit of luck!' Said the Tin Woman.
'My Straw Man sense is tingling,' Said the Straw Man, 'I wonder what it means?'
'So you are now my followers, right?' Kahlan asked Gratch. The Gar nodded happily, his maw in a rictus smile. 'Then what I want is for you to fly away and live freely away from the evil plans of wicked witches.'

The Monkey Gars became so happy, they jumped up and down excitedly, flew in little cricles and cawed their pleasure to the sky.
'Graaatch luurggh Kahlaaannn.' Said the leader Gar Monkey and he came forward for a hug. There were tears in Kahlan's eyes as she embraced the furry little monkey. Then all the Gars waved their goodbyes and took off into the skies never to be seen again.
'You know we could have used them to help us defeat the Wicked Witch.'
'Shut up Straw Man.' Said Kahlan.

Feeling happier now that the danger was past the companions continued their journey along the Yellow Bone Road and sang their jolly song again.

We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os,
Becuase, becuaes, bcause, ebcausse
Because of the atrocious typing he does,
We're off to see the wizard,
The Objectivist Wizard of Os.

The trees began to thin out as dawn broke overhead lighting up the sky. A great valley sprawled beneath them in the center of which a large green city stood. A central tower shaped like an enormous stick of celery stood out above the rooftops.
'Moral-Celery City.' Said Kahlan, 'we made it!'
'There is no greater hive of moral clairty, we must be careful.' Said the Tin Woman seriously.
'Werk.' ('Oh no, an obscure Star Wars quote, now you've gone too far.')

'Oh I am so glad we are here Kahlan,' The Straw Man said, 'I can't wait to get rid of this rotten intelligent brain so I can be a brilliant Straw Man again.'
'I really hope the Wizard gives me some feelings so that I will know Moral Celery.' Said the Tin Woman.
'And I hope he fixes my erectile disfunction, ' Said the Impotent Namble, 'I can't wait to get my boner back and into some hot bestiality rape scene with a reluctant evil wannabe Black Sister.'
'Oh I hope you all get what you want, I truly do.' Said Kahlan, 'As much as I love it here I do miss my home, lets go.'

'Not so fast my fine slippered friends.' Cackled Shota, the Wicked Witch of the West. 'You have yet to deal with me.'
'Oh dammit and we were so close,' Said the Namble, 'I could almost feel my thing rising.'
'First I want to know how you defeated my Gar Monkeys. How could you have done such a thing it is impossible!'
'Deus ex machina.' Said the Straw Man.
'Oh, fair enough then.' Shota replied. 'But I will stop you from reaching the city, you won't go another step.'
'Yes we will.' Said Kahlan, 'For it is our destiny to defeat you and reach the city. You see we are the good guys and we always win. Its just the way it is.'
'So you think I am just this boring bad, who is bad and is just bad for the sake of being the baddy?'
'Well you do want to kill me and take the Slippers of Truth.'
'Yes but I have deeper motivations. I am fighting for something you know.'
'Such as?'
'Well, erm, I am going to use the power of the slippers to subjucate the world under my tyranny and rule everybody in utter domination for the rest of time. Ah its complicated. I'm not going to explain it to you little girl.'
'But I am not just a little girl while wearing these slippers, I am the Dancer of Truth. Let me tell you a thing of two about what that means . . .'

Kahlan began a long and rambling speach about the powers and responsibilites of being the wearer of the Slippers of Truth. It went on and on, for page after page. Just when you thought she was going to stop she found another branch of the topic and went right on talking some more. The day was passing away, lunchtime came and went. Then, at about teatime, finally Shota wailed,

'Aaah I can't take it anymore, stop it! Stop it! HELP ME, I'M MEEEEELLLLLTING!' The Wicked Witch of the West melted into a small sticky green puddle under the pressure of Kahlan's incredible long winded speach.
'Werk.' ('Well its about as believable as a drop of water I suppose.')

'Come on lets go,' Said Kahlan stepping over the yucky puddle, 'The gates of Moral-Celery City just opened, they must have seen what we did here and will be preparing a parade in our honour through the streets.'
The jubilant companions skipped down the last stretch of the Yellow Bone Road towards the great green city, singing as they go.

Coming up in Part Four of The Objectivist Wizard of Os -

'Werk!' ('Hang on just a God damnned fucking minute, you said the third one was gonna be the last one. You can't have a trilogy in four parts! Seriously how did I get mixed up in this joke of a production. Get my agent on the phone!')

As I was saying, Coming up in Part Four of The Objectivist Wizard of Os - Teh Wiznards peaks!'

Mountain Goat Productions proudly presents

The Objectivist Wizard of Os

Part Four

'Werk.' ('Look, all I'm saying is this had better be the last one, I have got other things to be doing today you know. Oh crap, we're back on.')

The streets of Moral-Celery City were thronged with cheering people as the heroes who dispatched the Wicked Witch of the West made their way in a goat drawn cart to the celery shaped tower at the heart of the city. Kahlan sat at the front besides the driver with her beloved chicken Toto on her lap, waving to the crowd as she passed. The Straw Man was waving enthusiasticly from behind, while the Tin Woman sat absolutely still with no expression on her face and the Impotent Namble stared sheepishly around. Of course they were eager to finally meet the Objectivist Wizard of Os but they were also attention whores and were each stoking up their egos in their own little ways.

A large hastily put up banner overhead read "Concraptulipaitons". Kahlan tittered at the spelling as the cart rattled on up the cobbled street. As the cart pulled into the large square directly outside the vast staircase that lead up to the green celery shaped tower, a large statue came into view at the top of the staircase.

Kahlan gasped, the Straw Man gasped, the Impotent Namble gasped, everybody gasped. Except for Tin Woman who had no emotions and thus did not give a shit.
'Werk.' ('There is no fucking way I'm gasping in this scene. I have my big moment coming up and I need to practice my dialogue, werk. Werk! Hmmm.')

The statue depicted a large and particularly noble goat eating a stick of celery, Moral-Celery to be precise about it. A word hewn into the base of the marble statue read simply LIFE. And true to its word the statue depicted Life in its very rawest essence. The proud jut of the goat's jaw forever caught in the act of chewing, the wild rugged shag of hair running down his shoulders and flanks, the power and stamina of its legs and hooves, ready to climb and overcome any obstacle, no matter how large. So fine was the artistic presence of the statue that it rendered all other statues ever created as mere shadows of obselete pointlessness.

'I have never seen anything so magnificent,' Said Kahlan, 'Tell me driver, who created this fine and perfect rendering of life in stone. Why I could believe the goat might leap away at any moment such is the precise and natural artistic talent of its creator.'
'Well that would be the Wizard Miss, his first and only statue, which he chiseled using a butter knife and a stick of hardened celery in a few spare minutes while he was bored.'
'It is incredible. In fact I would go so far to say that if I were under the yoke of communist oppression I would raise up and risk my life in an active and violent rebellion just because I had seen this statue of the true nobility of life.'
The driver gave Kahlan a sideways glance and said,
'Yeah, whatever. Here we are then Miss.' The cart came to a stop at the foot of the stairs. Kahlan and her friends stepped down from the cart as the crowds surged into the square to get a closer look at the heroes. Kahlan went over to the noble goats who had pulled the cart and ruffled their heads.
'Thank you for bringing us here.' The goats tails wagged in a blur of happy agitation.

Kahlan turned back to face the steps and with her friends at her side began to climb the wide stone staircase towards the tower of Moral-Celery while the crowds of people cheered wildly. They reached the top and passed the statue of the Noble Goat and before they knew it passed through the huge double doors into the tower itself.

After a confusing series of passages, stairs and corridors the heroes were ushered into an enormous chamber. The doors were quickly closed behind them. It seemed odd that there was nobody else here. A huge screen dominated the far wall and Kahlan and her three companions, oh and Toto, walked across the vast field of a stone floor towards it. Suddenly the lights dimmed, the room took on a spooky greenish quality and a disembodied face came into view on the screen. The old man's face had wild white hair sticking out in tufts at odd angles, though he was clean shaven.

'Thants fare nouugh!' The voice boomed out, echoing around the enormous room like a bell in a deserted church. 'I am Zeddicus Zull Zorrandor, The High Objectivist Wizard of Os, hwa tdo yuo wan t wit hme?'
'Werk.' ('Ugh, I thought so. How is somebody unfamiliar with the typing style of board legend OsRavan supposed to get this "in" joke might I ask you? Furthermore, what an obvious and lazy twist to the original source material too.')
'Mr High Objectivist Wizard Zorrandor sir,' Said Kahlan curtseying, 'We have travelled the length of Os, along the Yellow Bone Road to be here today and meet you. We were hoping . . .'
'Hoping that I wolud fix yuor pproblem sfor you! Hmmm. Just ggive ou teh tihing syou you wat iwthougt earning thme as befit ting a true Objectivist? Hav eyou learnde no thing on you rtravels?'
'Why is he speaking like that?' Whispered the Tin Woman, 'Is he retarded?'
'No, I'm sure he is not,' Replied Kahlan, 'remember the statue? He is a Wizard. Perhaps he has too much on his mind to pay much attention to what he says?'
'You don't need to be a failed Straw Man to spot the flaw in that arguement.' Said the Straw Man.

'If yuo wan t my powesr to heal your aliments then you must do pefrom a great qeust to profe your wothriness.'
'We will do whatever you ask Mr Wizard,' Said the Impotent Namble finding some balls, 'I am desparate to get my thing to rise and score again.'
'Very well then. I have a nememsis. A Wicked Witch who lvies to teh West called Shota.'
'Actually we have killed her already. Figured it would save time.' Said the Tin Woman.
'Werk.' ('And cut down the length of this already too bloody long by half parody.')
'Oh.' The great wizard was silent a moment. 'I have decdided that is not godo enuough. You arren ot true Objectivists, if yo uwere you wuould no tneded anybod ys help to overcom your tirvial litlee probelsm. You neeede to chooosee Life!'
'But, but thats not fair!' Said Kahlan.
'My decision is finial.' Shouted the Wizard making the ears of the comrades ring. 'NOW LEAVE HERE IMMEDIATELY. Though plese do stop by my souvenier shope on teh way out. Tnhank you.'
'A souvenier shop?' Said the Straw Man, 'What are you? Some kind of sellout?'

This enraged the Objectivist Wizard of Os to a new level of craziness and he began spouting off the longest, most rambling speach about how they have no proof, and these are just opinions not facts. Just because he has a souvenier shop in his tower of Moral-Celery is no indication that he has sold out at all. Whatsover. Period. Understand?

'Werk.' ('You know what I am fed up of waiting. Here we go then, my big moment.')
Toto took flight out of Kahlan's hands and the chicken flapped his way across to the side of the enormous screen.
'Toto!' Screamed Kahlan in fear for her best friend.
'Werk.' ('Oh do be quiet, I am trying to put an end to this stupidity - and about time too.')
Toto pulled at a rope he saw sticking out the wall and then, very slowly, the rope unwound and when taught pulled down a 6 foot section of wall revealing a small secret chamber inside. The screen and speakers shut off immediately plunging the room into silence.
'Werk!' ('Hah! There you go. My one moment of actual significant action in the whole entire film. So, can I go now?')

Inside the secret chamber was the actual man whose disembodied head had appeared on the screen, now attached to the body of a sprightly older man with white hair. He turned towards the people with an embarressed grin on his face.
'Erm, I am sorry about that. You are not supposed to see this.'
'Hey he sounds normal now.' Said the Straw Man.
'Well that is because I speak as the high wizard using this computer. Its just my typing that is atrocious.'
'But why?' Asked an exasperated Kahlan, 'Why do you hide yourself away behind the screen.'
'Well, because people are stupid and will believe what they see.'
'But Toto found you and he's just a chicken.'
'Thus proving my point!'
'Werk.' ('I don't have to stand here and take insults like this do I? I don't remember that being in the contract.')

'Well listen. I would appreciate it if you would not mention this to anyone. I have a sweet deal here in Moral-Celery City and I don't want my cover story blown. How about if I just give you what you want and we all leave happy, eh?'
'Are you blackmailing us?' Said a shocked Kahlan.
'Bags! No most certainly not. I am choosing life. You want something, I want something. So whats the big deal. Lets start with you Straw Man what do you want?'
'Well, I would like you to remove my brain so that I can become a brilliant Straw Man again. I so want to be good at my job and take part in paper thin veiled excuses for the disgusting and terrible actions of Mary-Sue like hero characters.'
'Very well then.' The Wizard raised his wand and incanted an incantation.


There was a glow of light around the Straw Man's head.
'I can feel it working!' He said excitedly, 'My brain is shrinking, I feel like I could agree with any stupid thing I am told. Thank you Mr Wizard. Right, I am off to perpetuate the stale conviction that fire is bad and we must ban it immediately!' The Straw Man said goodbye to everyone and left to take up his career as a professional Straw Man once again.

'Next.' Said Zedd.
'Please Mr Wizard,' Said the Tin Woman, 'I want to have feelings so that I know what is the right thing to do. Give me a heart please.'
'No problemo.' Once again he raised his magic wand.


'Werk.' ('Oh yeah, very topical.') Sighed Toto.
The Tin Woman gasped as she could feel a heart pumping inside her metal body for the first time.
'You also need a name now,' Said Zedd, 'I think you should be called Nicci.'
'Oh thank you great wizard,' Said Nicci, 'I know now what I must do. Find some peace protestors and torture them mercilessly until they give up their commie ways and agree that Objectvism is the only morally right way to live!'
'At a girl.' Said Zedd proudly.
'But I thought you would now see that torture is evil?' Said Kahlan.
'Oh no you don't understand.' Replied Nicci, 'I have feelings now so my torturing is done in the service of good which makes it all alright. Well goodbye and good luck everyone.' Nicci left the room to go in search of those peace protestors.

'Now me, now me please.' Said the Impotent Namble holding out his limp black barbed dick for inspection.
'Oh, I can see exactly what the problem is here.' Said Zedd raising his wand.


The Namble felt his thing stirring and start to rise. Then all of a sudden the huge big, black, barbed Namble cock sprung into erection so hard it whacked the great black beast in the head knocking him uncounscious.
'Oops, maybe a touch too much. Oh well, I'm sure he will be fine and off to an obscene beastiality orgy soon. So now little girl what do you want?'

'Please sir, me and my best friend Toto here, we just want to go home.' Said Kahlan, 'To Kansas.' She added helpfully.
'Werk.' ('Oh well if I must. I should really be glad this parody was not filled with cock jokes at my expense I suppose.')
'I am sorry but there is nothing I can do for you.' Kahlan's face fell in despair.
'But, but, what am I to do?'
'I cannot help you because you already have the means to get home. Search inside your memories Kahlan.' Kahlan thought about it real hard. The memories she shared with the other Dancers of Truth gave her the answer.
'The Slippers of Truth have the power to send me home. All I have to do is wish for it three times while clicking my heels together.'
'Correct.' Said Zedd with a kindly smile.
'Werk.' ('Now why the fucking fuck did she not think of that in Part One, we could have been home by now.')
'Thank you Zedd. You are a great wizard and I will never forget what you have done for me.'

Kahlan picked up Toto and stood stock still. Then she closed her eyes and concentrated.
'There's no place like home.' Click! Her heels clicked together. 'There's no place like home. There's no place like home.'

Suddenly she was being shaken and she opened her eyes to discover the world was black and white again. She was lying in her bed and there was Aunt Em, the farmhand Tom and the other two nameless farmhands smiling down at her.
'Are you alright Kahlan?' Asked Aunt Em.
'Why I'm fine. I just had the most marvellous dream and you were there! And you Tom, and you, whoever you are and you too.'
Kahlan laughed, Aunt Em laughed, the farmhands laughed. Everybody laughed.

Outside the bedroom window, Toto sat looking in on the scene. He turned and hopped away in disgust.
'Werk' ('How typical. The most overused ending in all Goodkind parodies, its become a cliched cliche of its own now. What you could not think of an original ending of your own? Lazy, useless bloody writer!')
Suddenly an enormous and extremely heavy lead weight appeared directly over the chicken that-is-not-a chicken, but is Toto incarnate and dropped towards the smug, hyper-critical, arrogant, egotistical and irritating little bastard faster than he could possibly avoid.
'Weeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrk!!!!' ('Oh shiiiiiiiiit!!!')

The End

Written and produced by

Based on an inspiring suggestion by
the Mad Moose

Any similarity to The Wizard of Oz or the works of Terry Goodkind is purely intentional
and solely for the purpose of ripping the piss and causing much hilarity.

Mountain Goat Productions - 2007

- theMountainGoat

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ink - Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan's debut, Vellum, was undoubtedly the best book I read last year, by quite some margin, so it was with great glee that I picked up the sequel (out last Friday in the UK, Feb 27 in the US). The setting is - sort of - 2037, twenty years after the Evenfall, when the Vellum - the fabric of the universe - became polluted with the bitmites, nanotech from the Underworld. The universes have all fragmented and blended together, with the occasional pocket of fascistic order set up by the scattered angels of the Covenant, and our seven protagonists are dead or dispersed. Not only this, but something nasty has happened to the twentieth century - the new and terrible doctrine of Futurism has usurped both the Nazis and the Communists, and is worse than either; all sides are still hunting for the Book of All Hours as the power that might fix it all.

If you haven't read Vellum then Ink is not a good place to start, as you won't have the first clue what's going on - the story may be slightly more linear, but the style is the same, with the fractured narrative leaping from one universe to the next and switching between different incarnations of the same character. Jack Flash is back, avatar of fire, as is his WW1-hero counterpart Mad Jack Carter, but Anna, Puck and Seamus are largely sidelined in favour of expanding the characters/archetypes of Joey - the dark, nihilistic traitor - and Guy Reynard, the fox, the king of thieves. I hadn't been too keen on either of these in the first book, so it was great to see them fleshed out more.

Maybe because I knew what to expect this time, I didn't feel quite as much gobsmacked awe as I did reading Vellum - while the writing is utterly gorgeous, there wasn't anything to quite match, say, Inanna's journey to the Underworld in the original. It's also a bit slower to get started; the earlier scenes of the Harlequin play near the start of the book were a struggle to get through, though they did pick up later. Still, this is a work of twisted genius that very nearly matches Vellum for quality. I previously made comparisons between Duncan's work and Joanna Russ, William Burroughs and Lord Dunsany, but really, there's nothing else out there quite like this (none of them had exploding airships, for a start). An early candidate for the best book of 2007.


Monday, February 05, 2007

Speaks the Nightbird - Robert McCammon

Judgement of the Witch
Evil Unveiled

He's back! In fact, he's been back for a few years, as these books came out in around 2002, but have received shamefully little attention. Is it because no-one recognises him without that extra R? Or perhaps because nobody really buys horror any more? One thing's for certain - it can't be down to a lack of quality; this may not be the best thing he's ever written, but neither is it the worst, and after a clunky start it turns into a compulsively readable bit of gothic horror. Set in 1699 in a frontier town being carved out on the South Carolina coast, this is a tale of a witch-trial that exposes far more than anyone intended, with enough small-town freakishness to make even David Lynch uneasy.

Our hero's name is Matthew Corbett, which is a little distracting at first ("What's that, Sooty? Sweep's in league with the Devil?"), though not quite as distracting as the jarring viewpoint shifts which pepper the first few chapters. He is the young assistant to Isaac Woodward, the decent but hidebound magistrate who has been summoned to Fount Royal to try the witch. You can probably guess what happens in the investigation - jealous and superstitious townsfolk want the witch to burn; young Matthew starts to find holes in the testimony and evidence of dirty deeds elsewhere, but can't get anyone to take him seriously; traditionalist Woodward wants to do the right thing, but can't see beyond the surface evidence and the legal precedent of Salem. The bones of the plot may be a Standard Unfair Witchtrial-by-numbers, but there's a lot more inventiveness elsewhere.

Quite apart from the sheer amount of entertaining skulduggery going on beneath the town's façade, McCammon has still got a great gift for description, and the miasmic swamplands are conjured up effortlessly - I was often quite surprised to look up from my book and find that it wasn't humid and raining. Once Woodward's main investigation is out of the way, the plot takes some more interesting turns too, which means that the second book was rather more enjoyable than the first. There are some great comic moments, particularly Matthew's dinner with the dreadful Vaughan family, and mostly they don't clash too badly with the darker tone of the book.

Speaks the Nightbird isn't perfect - the attempt at a period style at first looks clumsy and forced, the ending ties it all up rather too conveniently, and the mystery itself largely depends on the characters not having basic forensic knowledge that we would nowadays take for granted - but it's such a compelling read that I don't really begrudge any of this. It's a good, standard bit of dark historical fiction, with swamps, ratcatchers and pirate gold, and while it may not quite be a return to form, a return to anything from Mr McCammon is very welcome indeed.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Nineteenth Edition - Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J Grant (eds)

This was something of a disappointment. Usually these big "year's best" collections are pretty reliable - with so many stories in, you'd expect several good stories and at least one great one - but among the 40 tales here there are only a few that manage to rise above "OK". It's particularly frustrating, as several of the stories were really promising, with fine ideas, great buildup and chilling atmosphere, only to fizzle out just short of the finishing post; while the sting in the tail is not the be-all and end-all of a good story, it can make or break an average one, and it's notably missing from most of these. Have they stopped writing stories like that now?

The main culprit for falling at the final hurdle is Chuck Palahniuk (yes, the Fight Club guy), whose Hot Potting is a wonderfully gruesome tale of horrific accidents in the volcanic hot springs, which unfortunately trips over itself in the last few pages and just becomes a bit stupid. There are also a couple of more traditional horror stories which are creepy enough to nearly work but lose something in the weak ending - Adam G Nevill's Where Angels Come In and Barbara Roden's Northwest Passage. Both have a good crack at some standard horror tropes (the old haunted house on the hill, something nasty in the woods) and generate some quality chills, but ultimately feel like they have something missing.

There's very little straight fantasy here; most of the stories are grounded in the real world with either a horror or a more benign "magical realism" setting. Still, there are a couple of decent fairytale-like stories, the best of which is The Last One by Robert Coover, giving Bluebeard an interesting twist (though again, the ending was less horrible than I would have liked). Deborah Roggie's The Mushroom Duchess has yet another disappointing ending, but is otherwise a pleasant yarn about an unpleasant duchess with a penchant for poisoning. Kim Newman's lengthy The Gypsies In The Wood covers the topic of malicious fairies in 19th-century London, and, while not quite as good as either Neil Gaiman or Susannah Clarke's separate takes on the same subject, still makes for a good novella to close off the collection.

I'm probably using the wrong definition of magical realism, but it seems the best term to use for stories that happen in the real world with some non-scary supernatural elements. I've never been that fond of the genre, so it's surprising to find that some of my favourite stories here fall under that description. Best of the bunch is Isabel Allende's The Guggenheim Lovers, a gorgeous little story about bewitched newlyweds that manages to be light and charming without crossing the line into twee-ness. Walpurgis Afternoon, a tale of suburban witchery by Delia Sherman, tries quite hard to match this, but strays too far towards cosy chick-lit, as do quite a few of the others in this collection (there seem to be quite a few about sexy mermen). Elizabeth Hand's Kronia is far superior - a poignant and disjointed set of memories of a meeting that never happened (hard to describe in half a sentence - read it and see what I mean).

There's a lot more horror in here than I've seen in previous volumes, which may mean that the genre's on the way back in (hurrah!), though to be honest, most of the stories here may be well-written but they're pretty formulaic. The Ball Room by China Miéville, Emma Bircham & Max Schäfer is a nasty little piece about a haunted children's play-area; Theodora Goss's A Statement in the Case tells us of strange Eastern European neighbours in a very convincing old man's voice; Jack Cady gives us an oppressed but vengeful mining community in The Souls of Drowning Mountain. The most original of these is Joe Hill's My Father's Mask, a strange and disturbing story about a teenager whose mother convinces him that the playing cards are out to get him (and it gets even weirder than that). Joe Hill is apparently Stephen King's son, and this story is certainly better than anything his dad's done in quite a while.

There aren't many obvious candidates for the worst story here, either; Pentti Holappa's Boman comes across as rather childish and stupid (it's about a flying dog), but that might be just the translation; Ding-Dong Bell by Jay Russell is a daft serial-killer version of Of Mice And Men but I've read plenty worse. While the anthology is nothing outstanding and has a lower proportion of quality material than previous collections in the series, there are still a good few solid pieces in here. I wouldn't pay £20 for the hardback, but a tenner for the trade paperback is not too bad. It's mostly frustrating because the stories could be so much better than they are, but hey, maybe it was just a bad year.