Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 22, 2011

Free online fiction

Filed under: meta — Sam @ 7:55 pm

I’ve begun a wiki page here (and linked in the sidebar) with a collection of the free fiction I’ve come across or been shown. Mostly they’re from authors, publishers, or regular zines, but some is out-of-copyright material.

This isn’t intended to be authoritative or complete, but since it’s a wiki you’re welcome to help in making it so. I reserve all the normal rights of wiki administrators, including the right to delete links to anything racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive and without some definite redeeming merit.

Mostly, though, it’s just a collection of fiction I liked and will want to find again, and that I think you’ll like too. If I’ve forgotten someone, please add her in; if you don’t want to deal with wiki markup, leave a comment here.

January 21, 2011

Stone Telling, Issue 2

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 1:33 am

Stone Telling is a relatively new online magazine of speculative poetry, free to read. Issue 2 is here. I’ve linked to some of the highlights for me, pieces that particularly resonated; yours will probably be different, so do take a look at the whole thing.

Start with Rose Lemberg’s introduction to the issue, which gives us a new eye to see each poem.

“It’s about loss,” I would say. “It’s about continuity, and becoming. The heartbreak issue. The aftermath of loss. It is about memory. It is about women.”

And yes, Stone Telling 2 is all of those things; but most of all, this issue is about generations – the chain of linked selves, forged together, sometimes at odds with each other; nurtured and nurturing. When the chain breaks, we are broken.

Mid-Journey, by Athena Andreadis
Text, English & Greek

This poem calls up strong echoes of classical Greek hero tales, with its bitter, proud, bronze-voiced evocations of flame, ruin, and exile, but the issue’s focus on women and the ties between women makes it a particularly interesting read. It’s an away poem, looking back but resolutely orienting itself forward; remembering, but never regretting a choice.

Athena Andreadis also writes about Sapfó of Lésvos:

When Hellenes said The Poet and used a masculine suffix, they meant Homer; when they used a feminine suffix, they meant Sapfó. Sapfó is quicksilver, saffron and wild silk; seabreeze and crackling flame. To hear her, even in pieces, is to drink starlight, glimpse the elusive blackbird that ushers the dawn.

The Winter Tree, by Amal El-Mohtar
This poem speaks—in fierce, sharp-edged, lyrical verses—of what is and what might have been, of the tree within her and of the moon that draws its tides.

Sometimes, the tree sings,
keens broken lines and lullabies,
murder-ballads, loneliness,
paper-bark and thorns.

Art Lessons, by Yoon Ha Lee
This is a dark, ominous poem, written in a disconcerting mixture of incantatory witches’ chant and dactylic speech rhythms. The final two lines, very deliberately breaking out of the spell, come as a jarring shock, but that’s the idea after all.

Archaeology, by Eliza Victoria
This is a prose poem, giving us some of the highlights from the history of a mass grave—one of the shamefacedly unmarked atrocities from modern wars—and from one of the people buried there.

Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider, by Catherynne Valente
This poem has two parallel narratives; one is our old friend, the person (in this case, a spider) who goes to retrieve the Sun when it leaves. The other is a four-year-old mixed-race child, fallen asleep on her grandmother’s lap. What I like most about this poem, I think, is that it describes people through activities; singing, holding, scattering seeds. Stealing the sun.

January 17, 2011

Blake Charlton – Spellwright

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Spellwright cover imageThis came hotly hyped and urgently recommended, and it did indeed sound perfect for me—a fantasy story about a wizard, in a world where magic is text and a sentence written in the language of magic can become a weapon, a tool, or a way to change someone’s mind. Cover quotes from Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Daniel Abraham (we’ll skate lightly over the one from Terry Brooks) testify to the kind of demographic this is pitched at. It’s a pity about the cover artwork, consisting as it does of the worst kind of hooded-white-bloke-with-boring-glowing-stuff tedium, but a look around the internet reassures me that the one I have is the worst of its many covers, and that most of them (in particular, the US cover by Todd Lockwood) are a great deal better.

Annoyingly, Voyager haven’t given any indication on the cover that Spellwright is the first part of a trilogy. If you’re the kind of reader who wants everything wrapped up, then I’d suggest waiting for the others to come out—the next, Spellbound, is due in the autumn. On the other hand, the basic plot arc here is finished off neatly, though there are plenty of hooks for the next one, and I didn’t feel unsatisfied with it as a book in itself.

The book’s central conceit is fascinating, and well explored. Nicodemus Weal is a wizard (a “spellwright”) who can’t spell right[1], and who may or may not be either the saviour of humanity (the Halcyon); the protector of the Druids, the Peregrine; or the Storm Petrel, the champion of chaos. Explaining how order & chaos link in with the languages of magic would constitute a spoiler, but it’s an interesting episode when it does, and I look forward to seeing the grand themes played out.

Starhaven, the spellwrights’ university, is a distinctive setting with its pre-human buildings and a long arched bridge leading into a sheer cliff face. Like most other wizardly academies it’s an old, complex place, baroquely detailed and full of odd traditions. Normally, these schools are characterful enough in their own right to qualify as edifice fantasy, but I see a bit less of that here. Starhaven feels rather static—more of a backdrop than a participant. Unlike some of the more venerable literary universities—for example, Pratchett’s Unseen University, LeGuin’s Great House on Roke, and Barbara Hambly’s Citadel of Wizards—it’s hard to read Starhaven as contingent or mysterious, hard to imagine that a hallway might abruptly change its mind about its destination or debouch into a summer garden that was yesterday’s hand-numbingly cold lecture theatre.

Most of the text is similarly functional & static; instead of metaphor or description, Charlton usually gives us narrative and statement. Partly, I suspect, that’s because of the sheer amount of setting & magic-system detail he wants to give us; I’m not convinced that all of it is necessary though, and I’d have preferred to have seen more left for the reader to deduce from context. On the other hand, it does fit with the mechanistic, structural nature of the magic, and it’s entirely appropriate for the book’s structure to echo the magic’s mechanics, given that the magic can quite literally (and literarily) rewrite reality.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with Spellwright, but I think that’s down to the amount of hype as much as anything. The plotting is solid and the high-concept magic system well realized; the only thing that didn’t lift it into the top-fantasy-author tier was the prose, and given that this is Charlton’s first novel I’m sure that will improve.

[1] That’s a rather facile way to put it—Nicodemus’s affliction is based on Charlton’s own experiences with dyslexia, which can be incredibly disabling when not recognized or allowed for. One consequence of that is that it’s better and more believably written than most magical afflictions.

January 12, 2011

Some library books

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:51 pm

These aren’t getting full reviews, because the library want them back.

Christopher Moore – Fool

I’m vaguely familiar with Moore’s other work—not any specific book, mind, just in a general sense—and I’m quite fond of the court-jester theme, so this looked worth a go. The multiple comparisons to Pratchett on the cover were a bit offputting, reeking as they did of desperation, but then the overwhelming yellowness of it was worse. It went on the pile for a week or so, till I picked it up to give it a try… and discovered from the Cast of Characters page that it was a retelling of King Lear from the Fool’s point of view. Moore takes some license with the plot, but it’s very much Lear, and if I’d known that from the cover then it would have been welded to my hand till I left the library, and I’d have started it when I got home.

This sort of marketing decision is inexplicable… advertising it as a Shakespeare retelling might put off some mainstream readers who wanted bawdiness, cock jokes, and action-filled violence[1], but why would you want to sucker those sorts of readers into picking up your comedic Shakespeare retelling anyway? Especially if it meant losing out on a new demographic who hadn’t encountered your author before.

Jake Arnott – The Devil’s Paintbrush

Steampunks just wish their book could smell like this book. It’s set in Paris, 1903, and describes a meeting between two iconic characters of the age: Hector “Fighting Mac” Macdonald and Aleister Crowley. Warfare, magic, sex, the arts, class issues, powerful & dangerous new technology. Recommended, and don’t be taken in by the cover—this is not fluff.

[1] But only the ones who know nothing about Shakespeare.

January 11, 2011

Steam Powered – Steampunk Lesbian Stories (ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft)

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 8:17 pm

This anthology works well both as a collection of short work with a steampunk sensibility, and as romance & erotica. Not all of them feature explicit (or any) sex, but they all have good central women, often women of colour at that.

The first story is a novelette by NK Jemisin (author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), called The Effluent Engine; you can read it online here. It’s a secret-agent story, wherein our hero is sent from free Haiti to New Orleans in order to enlist the help of a brilliant chemical engineer. If he can assist them in refining & stabilizing the effluent from rum distillation, their airships can run rings around the French forces. He may not want to help, but he has a handsome (and equally brilliant) sister…

That’s one of my favourites from the anthology, but a few others come close. Where the Ocean Meets the Sky, by Sara M Harvey, sees an airship privateer come into port in San Francisco for an audience with Emperor Joshua Norton I, and not quite lose her head over a lovely Irish mooring-ship clerk.

“You’ve done it!” He cried, coming forward more like an excited child than a man of majesty. “I mean, lots of folk said they were going to and I signed lots of those letters, but you’re the first one who has returned with tribute. Brilliant!” He clapped his small, square hands together and reached into the box. He did not put one finger on any of the precious metals, but instead brought forth the honey jar. The warm light made it glow perfectly amber in the glass and the courtiers made appreciative noises. “I can tell just by the look of it that it is real Tupelo. The finest honey in the world.” He turned the jar over in his hands and watched the air bubble slowly morph and move. “My mother used to serve this on sourdough.” He spoke in strange tones, like one remembering a dream.

Steel Rider (by Rachel Manija Brown), Truth and Life by Shira Lipkin, and The Hands that Feed by Matthew Kressel make a trio of Jewish stories; emet is the character that gives them life. The second of those, an economical tale of a young woman who becomes a skilled engineer, is my favourite of the three.

Rivka, he said, baking is also a science. Embroidery will teach you precision. All of these things your mother wants you to do, they all give you skills you can use here.

Mike Allen’s Sleepless, Burning Life is a very Moorcockian trip through cosmic clockwork, in search of “the dark-eyed dancer who made the cosmos turn“. The worldbuilding is beautiful, and I’d have loved to see a full-length novel with a similar conceit in the same setting.

The Padishah Begum’s Reflections, by Shweta Narayan, centres on Jahanara Begum, remade after her accident as a mechanical—a woman of silver and enamel, of clockwork and gears—who becomes a cunning and powerful ruler in her own right. A delegation from Revolutionary France have arrived, bringing with them Madeleine Vaucanson, weaver, engineer, and expert with Jacquard looms. As a love object, she is unusual; but of course, she’s so much more than that.

Crickets and the garden’s song of leaf and water settled into Jahanara’s silence. The weaver—she could be the one Jahanara had been hoping for. She was neither young nor pretty as humans counted these things; her hair showed silver, her jaw was long, and her body more square than rounded. She clutched a blue pashmina shawl tightly over the neck of a diaphanous gown, and her shoes exemplified why European ladies must lean on the arms of their men.

None of the stories struck me as bad or inadequate, but these are the ones I enjoyed the most. In Georgina Bruce’s Brilliant, I disliked the love interest (a spoilt, sulky brat) enough to skip to the next story, but that’s a purely personal reaction. A few need trigger warnings: for rape in the case of Teresa Wymore’s very dark Under the Dome, and forced mental-health hospitalization in Clockwork and Music by Tara Sommers.

Overall, these stories are good and well-collected, and present a refreshingly broad view of “steampunk”, with an above-average proportion of real prizes.

Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 6:20 pm

This is the first serious novel-length piece of self-identified steampunk I’ve read, and I’m more impressed with it than I’d expected. It seems rather churlish to praise a novel by the flaws it lacks, but I fear this oft-maligned genre requires a little of that before I pass to its undoubted virtues. Most of the fluff I’d read previously was not much more than a caricature of Victorian England, and often seemed rather confused about which literary era it was from. Infested with aristocrats and implausible brasstech, it seemed rather to be a celebration of a hypocritical, decadent Empire than a problematisation.

Boneshaker, on the other hand, is utterly American in its mythology; set in an alternate 1863, where the Klondike gold rush (and thus Seattle) boomed much earlier, it constructs itself without any reference to class divisions or to the English beyond a mention of their forces in the South. It’s also a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the survivors living beyond the two-hundred-foot wall around a town centre infested with – well, it’s an early 21st century post-apocalyptic dystopia, what do you think is infesting it?

Considered as steampunk—which is to say as a literary universe featuring anarchists, revolutionaries, strange and ambitious technology, realistic solutions to implausible problems, no shortcuts for hard work, and the dead hand of economic & political hegemony[1]—it’s really good. Our protagonist is a middle-aged widow, aptly named Briar, and she takes us on a tour of Seattle’s abandoned inner city during her efforts to rescue her son. The family itself is a microcosm of the city, torn apart and left damaged by capitalism and the American Dream—Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, destroyed them both in his efforts to rob a bank using his immense tunnelling machine, the titular Boneshaker.

The survivors of the disaster, predictably, have organised themselves into a series of competing gangs, armed with experimental weapons and kept from the more-than-deadly gas by improvised air-conditioning technology, made from “treated cloth, paper, pitch, anything else that might seal out the awful gas outside”.

I’ve never been a zombie fan, but they work perfectly with steampunk, even steampunk without British aristocracy[2]. The pervasive influence of Something (a poisonous gas, here) turns otherwise perfectly ordinary people into ravenous monsters, intent on eating you and/or turning you into one of them—it’s no coincidence that the three “infectious” monster types (zombie, vampire, and werewolf) have become Big Business in the last few decades.

For a zombie novel, Boneshaker is curiously anaemic. The horror of zombies depends on the idea that these are real people, turned into mindless ravening monsters – people like you, people you knew, perhaps even you yourself – and there’s very little of that here. We get quite a few lovingly detailed descriptions of walking corpses, perhaps sorted by type or previous occupation, but the closest we come to seeing a person we already knew “turned” is having to watch a precautionary mercy killing, and a moment of tension as everyone waits to hear whether Briar’s arm is going to have to be amputated.

That’s not a serious fault, though, because the “rotters” are more of an atmospheric sideshow or an environmental hazard, and the plot resolution doesn’t really involve them at all.

This is a well-constructed novel, very gripping & readable, with a great deal of deep structure and a very solid literary root system ranging from Arthur Miller to Mark Helprin, and it features several tough, competent older women. Definitely recommended, and I’m going to have to look for more of Priest’s work in future.

[1] I don’t define by material-culture tropes, so the “goths discover brown” and “random brass shite” stereotypes are out, and I have to try and make a stab at themes. This is not intended to be exhaustive, complete, or even particularly accurate. Other suggestions very welcome!
[2] They’re rather stupid, but unstoppable. They often walk with a strange lurching gait, they have an odd slurred accent and very small vocabularies if they can communicate at all, and they thrive on the bodies & brains of other people. All these things also characterize zombies.

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