Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Dragon Waiting - John M Ford

Another Fantasy Masterwork, this time from the pen of John M Ford, whose The Last Hot Time I read a year or so ago. However, this book could hardly be more different. No machine-gun-wielding elves in an alternate Chicago; this is an elegant bit of alternate history set in Renaissance Europe, in a universe where Christianity never rose and Byzantium never fell. Magic is still practised by a few rare wizards, and vampirism is a widespread and contagious disease that can bring long life in exchange for a terrible hunger. From across this landscape, a dispirate group assembles - Cynthia the Florentine doctor, Dimi the exiled French nobleman-turned-mercenary, Gregory the German vampire and Hywel the ancient Welsh magician - and heads to England to turn the tide of the Wars of the Roses.

The historical detail is rich and well-researched, but assumes a lot of preexisting knowledge on the part of the reader. The Wars of the Roses is a pretty confusing period anyway, and not one that I'm particularly well versed in, so I spent much of the book thinking that the mention of a deceased "Richard of York" meant that Richard III never came to the throne in this universe - alas, not the case at all, and I'll need to do a reread sometime to get a full picture of what was going on. Ford's usual technique of withholding information from the audience is very much in evidence here, but at least here there is some actual historical detail to help the well-informed reader keep track - if you've done your homework, that is.

As it was, I remained rather puzzled about exactly what was at stake throughout the book; our four protagonists were interesting and well-developed characters, but I was never entirely sure what they were trying to do. There was something about how the Byzantine Empire was meddling in politics across Europe so as to destabilise the various countries and make them ripe for invasion, and that somehow this was influencing the civil war, but the details were very sketchy indeed and had very little bearing on the actual plot. Instead, we moved from one historical set-piece to another, where everyone seemed to know what they were doing, but never felt part of a coherent story. This meant that some of the later surprise revelations (is so-and-so a traitor? Or not? Who is he, again?) lost most of their impact, or seemed to come out of nowhere - particularly the final romantic pairings and the epic conclusion, which didn't seem to have been foreshadowed much at all.

The main reason I enjoyed this book, despite the utterly confusing plot, was all the well-realised historical detail. Ford's vision of a polytheistic Europe may raise some questions about how exactly the English monarchy managed to follow the same path as in the actual Christian one, but it was full of glorious images of knights sworn to Apollo, and a London full of temples to all the Norse and Roman gods, with Christianity (the "Jeshites") just another minor sect among many. For that alone I'd bother to do the research and have a reread sometime; maybe it'll make more sense the second time around...?


Monday, April 14, 2008

The Steel Remains - Richard Morgan

I've been looking forward to this one for a long time. Richard Morgan, purveyor of action-packed cyberpunk noir since 2002, turns his hand to fantasy. In The Steel Remains, Morgan takes his usual themes of grizzled veterans, bloody close-combat fighting and a dark political backdrop, and mixes it up with the fantasy elements of barbarians, vengeful gods and special swords. However, this is not straight fantasy, as his sci-fi background seeps through all over the place - the stars, for example, are not just for telling fortunes by, they are definitely seen as a place you can go to or come from, and we quickly gather more than a few hints that the "magic" is of the sufficiently advanced technology variety. Think The Dying Earth with added barbarian badassery - this is some very superior genre-blending.

"Gritty" has been fantasy's flavour of the month for quite a while now, and gritty is something that Morgan does very well indeed. Our protagonists are three veterans of the last war - Archeth, a black lesbian engineer from an alien race, now working as advisor to a corrupt emperor; Ringil, a gay exiled-noble-turned-battle-commander, now drowning his past in a remote tavern; and Egan, another retired warrior returned to his nomad roots, who doesn't want to admit how much he misses civilisation. The war's messy conclusion has left them all bitter and cynical, as their original ideals of saving mankind were swallowed up in petty border conflicts, religious intolerance and the revival of the slave trade. However, a combination of emerging supernatural menaces and divine intervention forces them all back into the fray, where some very nasty remnants of the world's history are waiting for them...

As the book went on and the stakes kept getting higher, I became increasingly worried that the rapidly-approaching end would either be a disappointing cop-out or a lame half-conclusion leading in to Another Bloody Trilogy - how could something so big be resolved in so few pages? In the event, it was neither - the final battle is satisfyingly bloody with a decent explanation for its relatively small scale, but there are enough loose ends left over to justify at least one more outing in the same world. As has become evident with Takeshi Kovacs and Carl Marsalis, Morgan likes his educated hardcases, and Ringil is another one in the same vein - similarly, half of the fun is the gradually-revealed details of his background, and there's still plenty more of that left a mystery. The plot itself wasn't as tight or convincing as it could have been (for example, the way that the three ended up meeting was rather contrived) but this is a good bit of brutal fantasy fun, with some very interesting characterisation and a nice line in SF-crossover. If we get more from Morgan in the same vein then I'll be one happy bunny.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Witness - Bill Blais

From Connecticut Yankees through wardrobe-dwelling children to unbelieving lepers and beyond, the device of real-world-character-goes-to-fantasyland has been done to death and then some. Like many familiar tropes, it's not too bad when it's done well, but at its worst it can be nothing more than a lazy shorthand for "look how weird this all is" and a poor excuse for infodumping the world's rules on the new arrival. Bill Blais is clearly genre-savvy and aware of the pitfalls here, and in Witness he attempts to skate around the trope's failings and do it properly. The success of this is somewhat qualified, but it was by no means a bad read.

Our lucky fantasy-world visitor is Rick, slightly geeky Nice Guy from modern-day Boston. Actually, it is visitors plural, as Rick is accompanied by arrogant jock Stephen, whose ex-girlfriend Rick is now dating. Stephen's attempt at Rick-bashing lands them both in the middle of a battle between Fantasy World emissaries, resulting on the death of the legendary hero, and the two men being sent back through the portal in his place. They find themselves in the middle of a land riven by civil war and intrigue, where races scheme and plot against each other, and court factions strive to thwart prophecy. Rick has read enough fantasy to know how it's all supposed to go, but nothing quite works out how he expects...

On the surface, this is an interesting idea, but there were quite a few flaws that stopped it from entirely working for me. Blais is certainly a competent writer and there was very little to complain about in his style, but the story still had a lot of rough edges, an unfortunate hallmark of self-published books. One of the first problems that stood out was the all-too-common issue of silly fantasy names. Not the actual names as such (Blais is admirably consistent with his nomenclature) but more the immediate barrage of them the moment the book opens, when large numbers of characters and races are introduced before we've had a chance to work out which ones we should care about. I wasn't too keen on his attempt at fantasy-swearing either; characters say things like "For rakk's sake!" and "Magg it!" which just look rather daft.

The character overload was a feature throughout the book - we rarely got to spend enough time with any of the minor players to care about them, especially when several of the more interesting ones got killed off quite early on. This left us with just Rick as our main focus, and unfortunately he was not a particularly compelling protagonist. Perhaps it's a matter of taste, but I've never been keen on really pathetic heroes, and I found Rick very irritating to read. This was compounded by his too-obvious Good Guy status - aw, he's a fantasy fan, like us! And he never gets the girl and is intimidated by the nasty bully! This seemed a rather cynical attempt at relating to the geek demographic, and I just didn't think he was that interesting; his constant name-dropping of real-world references (brand names, song lyrics, you name it) was also extremely jarring.

Rick's starring role meant that the actual plot was less interesting than it should have been, too. The fantasy-world politicking in the background was intriguing and I'd have liked to have seen more of it, but with the focus on Rick, we mostly got a standard capture-escape-repeat plot as he bounced around between the various factions. Alas, the real nature of the backstory was never entirely made clear, as the real-world stuff tended to get in the way and make for quite a messy picture - though the use of Rick's walkman as a major plot point was a nice and amusing twist. This being the first part of a trilogy, the politics and history will probably become clearer later on, but ideally we should have been given a better picture of this to start with as it's currently rather confusing.

Overall, this was a well-written book with an original take on an old trope, but it could have used a lot of cleaning up. The character arcs are too short, which weakens the impact of the various deaths; the protagonist is too bland and one-dimensional and needs spicing up quite a bit; and the backstory needs more prominence to counter Rick's boring journey. The action scenes tended to be rather confusing, too, and could have used some more direction. I probably wouldn't bother with part 2 of this series, as the end seemed to be segueing into another trope that I really dislike, but Blais is a decent writer and with a different setting he may be capable of some good things.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Deep Inside - Polly Frost

This was sent to me for review by the author, who described it as "erotic sci fi." My only experience of this has been from non-genre writers who write normal erotica and just stick in a cruel alien prince or something, and as with most cases of non-genre writers trying to slum it among the geeks, they fail miserably as decent SFF stories. However, there must be a reason that Frost would send her book to a genre reviewer such as myself, so I had high hopes that this would be something a bit different – I don't read enough erotica to know how well these stories compare with the rest of the field, but as SF, they work pretty well.

In a few recent anthologies I’ve reviewed, you may have seen me moaning about the lack of proper story endings – unlike the namble cocks of legend, short stories are always better with a barb at the end. Happily, almost all of Frost's stories deliver in this respect - for all that they're intended mainly as freaky-sex tales, the structures are sound and they do what short stories are supposed to do. There are some very interesting ideas in here too; while the demands of the genre means they're rarely developed beyond the potential for the pervy set-pieces, there's plenty of weird invention in the background. While there's a minor overload of Catholic schoolgirls, the body-piercing story Orifice is really quite disturbing, and there's some broad but entertaining humour in The Dominatrix Has a Career Crisis.

Frost's writing isn't brilliant, but again, I don't know whether (for example) the cartoony characterisation is a general erotica convention or just an accident of style. Despite the unusual sexual situations, there's also a slight overlay of vanilla cosiness to the proceedings, though this may well be the necessary dividing line between erotica and actual porn. Overall, this is better than any of the other erotic SF I've read, and the stories do work as decent enough SF in their own right, with the proviso that they are mainly in it for the bonking. Erotica's not really my thing, but if Frost ever moves the sex to the sidelines and writes straighter SF, I'd certainly read more of her work.


The Yeards of Madness: Part I, by T.P. Goodcraft

How long ago I had swooned I could not say. I knew only that Peabody had fled and that I was alone. An eternity could have passed, an age could have ended, and I would not have known, for the obsidian dark in which I awoke was eternal and impenetrable. The grotesque and maddening terror that had driven me into tenebrous unconsciousness promised to overwhelm and plunge me once more into nightmare plagued insensibility. Though the situation in which I found myself was dire, I awoke only by degrees, slowly slipping loose from the weighted lethargy that had shackled me in slumber. My breath rasped through my lungs and the thin air of the altitude made me as lazy as a negro.

In the dark, I groped all about in a frantic effort and my searching fingers touched the rough canvass of my trusty traveling pack. The frenzied palpitations of my heart slowed somewhat as I clutched the pack to myself, its reassuring weight an anchor in the abyss. Crawling on my hands and knees, I renewed my search. Once or twice I recoiled, for in my desperate search, my fingers brushed against things carved onto the side of the stone walls. These forms, cold, hard and utterly misshapen filled my mind with gibbering horrors seldom dreamt of in the sunlit world. But here, in the dark, in the cold, far from the shuttered demesne of Modern Man and his comforting and fanciful notions of reason and logic, here imprisoned at the top of the world within the ancient, icebound ruins of the Yearded Ones, nameless and phantasmal terrors, conjured from the stygian abysms of the primordial mind were all too easily brought into being.

Despite my halting search, I soon found the electric lamp. When I had swooned, my fragile mind overwhelmed by centipede-like horrors conjured from the depths of my imagination, the lamp had fallen to the ground and its argent glow had been summarily extinguished. I feared that the fall might have damaged the lamp and that I would be trapped without any source of light in this shadowed, arctic fastness. My fingers, half numb from the cold despite my heavy gloves, fumbled at the switch.

There was a click, its sound magnified in the frozen stillness of the air, and the lamp flickered erratically to life, its wan light as uncertain as the radiance of a daylight star. “Lamp, be true,” I adjured and held my breath, afeard that the tiniest disturbance in the air would snuff the electric light like a candle. I only dared to breathe when the stuttering glow became a steady radiance.

The lamplight was a mixed, if not outright cursed blessing and I shuddered involuntarily as my eyes roamed across the walls. The Yearded Ones! Hideous though the twisted carvings and statuary were, revealed by the thick beams of light that poured forth in torrents from my lamp, their nightmarish shapes were preferable to the crepuscular terrors that lurked in the inky blackness of the obsidian dark. More terrifying than any gargoyle yet sculpted by Man, these marmoreal grotesqueries clustered thickly along the walls, and glared obscenely down upon me with raptor-like fury. Built upon cyclopean proportions, the statues of the Yearded Ones towered above me, ascending past even the light of my lamp until their obscene forms were mercifully hidden in the shadowed upper reaches of the hall.

How had I come to this? Entombed at the top of the world without hope of escape! I recalled with bitter irony my enthusiasm when I was selected to participate in the arctic scientific expedition. Being selected was a great honor and I, along with scores of the greatest minds Western Civilization had yet produced were only too happy to accept the invitation of the respected Professor Z. Zedd to attend him as he boldly ventured forth into the great white north and wrested the secrets of science! from the frozen wastes. Professor Zedd recruited his cadre of Men of Science so as to draw deeply from the experience of the greatest scientific disciplines: economists to evaluate the the arctic for future industrial exploitation, raceologists to study the degenerate Eskimos, astrologers to pierce the Northern Heavens with their telescopes, meteorologists to study the remnants of fallen meteorites, biologists to study the plethora of exotic and hardy life expected to be found inhabiting the ice fields, and philosophers from the Objectivist school to properly interpret and refine the discoveries that were made, all these and more Professor Zedd drew into his fold. Of the these men, only myself and Peabody survived the initial catastrophe, and now, perhaps only I remain. Shudders racked my body as the memories of the events the bound me to my unhappy fate rose unbidden to the forefront of my fear wracked mind…

- Zap Rowsdower

Disney's Sword of Truth

Mountain Goat productions presents

Disney's Sword of Truth


Mickey Mouse as Mickey Rhal
Snow white as Kahlan White
Goofy as Gooficus Goof Goofrander
Minnie Mouse as Minnie the Mord Sith
Ariel as The Little Mord Sith
Cinderella as Cyrilla
Pluto as Gratch
Donald Duck as Ducken Rhal

It was an odd looking vine. Odd in that it had a mouth and shiny happy eyes. In fact the whole forest was alive with smiles and happiness as Mickey the woods guide walked alone through the beautiful happy trees. Bluebirds sang overhead and everything was wonderful.

"Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah!" sang Mickey in his high pitched mouse voice.

Suddenly he stopped singing and through the trees he could see something white through the trees. Snow white in an autumn forest. It just did not belong. As he walked over to investigate he realised it was a human woman wearing a brilliant white dress, pure white, virginal. She was beautiful, in fact Mickey would say she was the fairest of them all, with long flowing hair, the longest hair he had ever seen in fact. Mickey looked up and up and up into her deep blue eyes and she smiled. It seemed like time stopped and he had always known her and she had always known him. Birdsong twittered romanticly in the air.

"Hello there little fella," she said, "would a fine handsome and brave mouse like yourself be able to help me? I am looking for a great wizard."

Mickey ignored the sizest comment and just answered the question.
"No wizards around here, and no apprentices either. Sorry." Far off through the trees the pair heard a menacing quack. It seemed as though the sky became darker. The beautiful woman looked scared.

"I should go," she said, "they are chasing me and I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Don't worry lady, I will protect you. What's your name?"
"I am Khalan, Khalan White."
"I am Mickey the woods guide, follow me back to my village. I have a friend who may be able to help you."

And so the tall beautiul woman dressed in white and the mouse who is half her size walked through the woods. Eventually they reached a cliffside path which they had to go around to get down the other side into the valley where the village lay. Suddenly a dark blur dropped from above onto the path.
"Quack, quack, quackity quack-quack!" Threatened the duck dressed in black before them. Looking back Mickey saw two more ducks coming up from behind. They were trapped.

Mickey was bigger than most men and mice, even though he was a lot shorter than Khalan, but the three ducks were shorter even than he was which might make you think they were less threatening than say a bigger man would be, but they were still very threatening and scary in an unspecified way to the fully grown woman and the short talking mouse with big black flappy ears.

"Who are they?" said a stunned Mickey.
"They are called a Quack," said Khalan. Mickey wondered if this was really the time for exposition but she carried on anyway, "They are three assassin ducks, very deadly. Their names are Huey, Dewey and Louie. They have been sent to capture me and bring me back to their master, Ducken Rhal." She shuddered a little when she said the name.
"Who is Ducken Rhal?" Said Mickey as the ducks edged nearer.
"A terrible and evil duck whose army has invaded my country, enslaved and murdered my people, raped and almost raped my women."
"Raped? By a duck?" Said Mickey incredulously.
"You betcha," said Huey, "and when we get our wings on you missy we're gonna quacking rape you too."
"Right up the arse!" shouted Louie excitedly punching the air.
"Bitch-Ass!" echoed Dewey.

"Mickey, make sure that one cannot get to me and I will take care of these two." said Khalan. Mickey was not sure but had no time to argue as the three young duck assassins of the Quack rushed forward. Mickey grabbed and tussled with Huey, trying to keep the duck's wicked looking blade away from his face. Suddenly from behind there was a "whump, whump, whump", like a thunderclap with no sound. From the corner of his large round eyes Mickey saw Louie falling from the cliff to be broken on the trees below.

Then suddenly a dark blur ran past him and grabbed hold of Huey and they both fell from the cliff to their certain death. Suddenly Mickey realised it had been Dewey who had done that and he and Khalan were alone on the cliff.

"What happened?" Asked Mickey stupidly.
"Errm, nothing," said Khalan White innocently, "they just went crazy for some reason, lucky for us. Come on lets get to the village I want to meet this friend of yours."

And so they walked on down to the village. Mickey led the tall woman out to a large wooden shack on the edge of the village. His friend was not there.

"I bet I know where he will be, out back on his cloud rock." They went around to the back of the house and sure enough there he was - stark naked!

"Goofy," said Mickey, "we have company. Put your clothes on."
"Gawrsh!" said Goofy, "Huh-huck! I knew you were coming cos of that cloud thats a-followin' ya."
"If you knew we were coming couldn't you have got dressed first?" Asked Mickey averting his eyes from the pale flappy skin of his dog friend.
"Gawrsh, sorry" said Goofy putting on his bright blue trousers and orange shirt. Turning he looked at Khalan for the first time.
"Bags! Mickey what are you doing with this vile creature! Don't ya know what she is?"
"Human?" said Mickey.
"Huh-huck! Has she touched you? Well obviously not I guess. She...." but he stopped from a snow cold look from Khalan White.
"You seem to know a lot about me without having met me before. Who are you?"
"He is just my old friend Goofy," said Mickey, "he knows a lot but is kinda silly sometimes."

"You do not know a lot about me Mickey, I have a long past actually, before I came here to Disneyworld I lived in The Waltlands where I was High Wizard Gooficus Goof Goofrander. Gawrsh, I had not thought about that in years."

"You are the one I am here to find Gooficus, Ducken Rhal has invaded The Waltlands with his army, his temper is legendary and it is fuelling his terrible war against us. He has put the Carrots of Oswald in play."
Just then a deus ex machina appeared.
"You mean like in the Book of cel-shaded shadows by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?" said Mickey remembering the book his father had made him memorise when he was younger and then subsequently was destroyed in a fire which also sadly killed his mother and caused his brother to have an irrational desire to see fire banned throughout Disneyworld even though it got pretty cold in winter.
"The very same my little seeker of truth," said Goofy calling him by the little nickname he had always called him by and which I had only just now thought to mention.

Khalan looked at Mickey with new eyes. They were also blue.
"Could it be?" She whispered, "Gooficus is Mickey really the new Seeker of Truth?"
"Whats a Seeker of Truth?" said Mickey in his high pitched squeeky voice.
"Huh-huck!" Exclaimed Goofy as he opened up a chest that Mickey had never noticed before and bringing forth a long pointed object wrapped in cloth. "This is the Sword of Truth and it belongs to the Seeker of Truth. I brought it with me from The Waltlands on the chance that I would find someone who could fulful the sword's destiny."
"So thats what all the detective and guessing games were about?" said Mickey.
"Huh-huck! Here take the sword and if it rings true we will know you are truely the Seeker of Truth for truthy truth true."

As Mickey took the sword from Goofy it rang silent and true, like a still pond. It echoed like a mist in a forest. Like a bell in a cathedral of truth. Like a true thing early in the morning. It could not be more truthful.

"Gawrsh, I'm not sure if that was true enough or not." said Goofy goofily.
"Quick!" said Mickey, "We have to get out of here! Now! Before it's too late!"
But it was already too late. The Dwarfs (or Dwarves) were coming.

"Hi ho! Hi ho! Its off to almost rape big titted women we go!"

To be continued . . .

- theMountainGoat