Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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.

October 21, 2010

Catherynne Valente – The Habitation of the Blessed

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This isn’t officially released till the 1st of November, but it’s available early for the Kindle and through Webscriptions, where you can read sample chapters.

To summarize the plot briefly, a monk reads three books. He is Hiob von Luzern and he has travelled Eastwards in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who in 1165 sent a long letter to western Christendom detailing the marvellousness of his person and the realms under his rule.

Hiob picked the books himself from the tree where they grow, and is racing to copy them before—like all fruit—they spoil and succumb to mould. The first is The Word in the Quince: “an Account of My Coming to the Brink of the World, and What I Found There, As told by John of Constantinople, Committed to Eternity by his Wife, Hagia, who was afterwards called Theotokos”.

It is, as you would expect, a story of strangeness and newness, of a man missing his first home and his love, clinging to his own notions of rightness and truth in the face of an entire nation who do not know Jesus and who think the concept is Extremely Silly. It’s also a story of a man finding his truth and falling in love. John is an extraordinarily self-centred man and this never changes, but his wife & amanuensis Hagia of the Blemmyae[1] is always present in the text she records.

The second, The Book of the Fountain (“an Account of Her Life Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae Without Other Assistance”) is her own story, and there we see much more of Pentexore—of the wonderful soil wherein anything, or anyone, which is planted will grow into a tree after its kind; of the multiplicity of races; of the Fountain which confers eternal life; and of the Abir. Every three hundred years, the whole civic and social life of Pentexore is whirled about and shaken and stirred, because immortals inevitably get bored, and a historian might become a playwright, or a amyctrya who brewed poisons and perfumes in his huge jaw like a barrel become a maker of ink instead.

Stories are a heady and an addictive thing in this world (where aren’t they?), and there’s a constant tension running through the novel between faithful, accurate transmission and the golden glow of propriety bestowed by editorial redaction. Brother Hiob voices it, but others live it.

The third book, The Scarlet Nursery, has the subtitle “Told by Imtithal the Panoti[2] to the Three Children of Queen Abir, Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You Might As Well Indulge”. It’s Imtithal’s story of herself and her own life, as she watches the three cametenna[3] children grow up, and of the stories she tells them.

I came to this knowing very little of the source material, or at least never having read the primary sources—this will almost certainly change, quite soon. So I shall say only that the first of the three books reminds me rather of Philip Jose Farmer’s adventure stories, and the third of all those charming Edwardian books for older children (Travers, perhaps?), told in a precise, slightly arch manner like a panoti pirouetting over deep snow. The second is not something that wishes to be categorized by similarity, because Hagia’s voice is insistently unique. She’s a skilled scribe finally telling her own story, a forthright woman with a lot of life behind her and a lot more to come. It isn’t a retelling and revisioning of John’s story, but rather it bookends it, showing what Pentexore was like before he arrived, and how he ruled. It makes me wonder a little how a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are from Moishe’s perspective might look, or The Phantom Tollbooth from the Humbug’s.

The stories are interspersed rather than sequential, and thoroughly fractal; each book contains other books, and tellers of stories, and listeners to stories, and allusions to stories that are not told or not heard.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, but is very much a complete tale on its own; I confidently expect the others to be very similar things, rather than “the middle” and “the end”.


[1] A blemmy has no head, but instead has her face set into her chest, with eyes where those persons possessed of heads keep their nipples, and a mouth at the navel.
[2] A panoti is a small pale person with immense ears, which they can wrap around themselves or a friend like a bat. They do not eat, but live off pleasant sounds.
[3] Cametenna have pumpkin-coloured eyes and extraordinarily large hands.

June 10, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road – free online

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:37 pm

It’s been brought to my attention that Michael Chabon’s excellent novel Gentlemen of the Road is available in its entirety from the New York Times, in serial form. Here‘s the final part, which has links to each chapter on the left.

March 2, 2010

All on account of elephants – Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 6:39 pm

This is a Jewish sword-and-horse historical novel of swashbuckling and derring-do, consciously patterned after the great adventure stories of the early 20th century. The cover art (Andrew Davidson) & interior illustrations (Gary Gianni) fit this perfectly—the wood-engraving style is exactly right, and the only thing that would make it perfect is (expensive) watercolour-style colour plates.

I only have two criticisms of this book; it’s too short, and there aren’t nearly enough female characters. The one woman with any agency spends nearly all of the book, and the rest of her life, disguised as a man.

It’s set in the Kingdom of the Khazars, around 950 CE, and follows the adventures of two wandering Jewish adventurers from very different backgrounds. Zelikmann is a Frankish physician suffering from acute depression; Amram is an Abyssinian mercenary. Together, they fight crime put an exiled prince back on a usurped throne.

Since this is a quintessentially Jewish text, it’s very much concerned with two fundamental icons of the Matter of Fantasy—the Road and the Book. Chabon’s afterword talks in detail about the yearning for travel and adventure, and of course there’s a lot of black humour to be had contrasting that to the history of the Jews. Two complementary quotations, first from the book itself—

She looked away so they would not see her tears, and noticed, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there, beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms.

—and from the afterword.

For better and worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.

January 4, 2010

The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 4:12 pm

By Colette Moody, published by Bold Strokes Books.

This is a pleasant, witty romp of a book, all about lesbian pirates. It’s set at the beginning of the 18th century, and follows a Florida seamstress who gets kidnapped by pirates, sews up a lot of wounds, falls for the captain’s daughter, helps rescue a dozen kidnapped prostitutes, and finishes the book by getting the girl, killing the evil pirate, seeing her father reconciled to their relationship, and retiring to a beautiful estate in Jamaica.

In tone, it’s somewhere between Tanith Lee’s Piratica and one of Georgette Heyer’s frothier books. Definitely recommended for all your lesbian pirate swashbuckling needs.

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