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On Books

by Peter Heck

 

PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS
by John Kessel
Saga, $27.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8147-2

Kessel offers an intriguing mash-up of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley—a project that in lesser hands would probably be mainly a vehicle for in-jokes and odd juxtapositions of Regency romance and gothic SF. But while there’s ample room for subtle humor here (after all, Austen’s work was quintessential comedy of manners), Kessel is also looking at the serious issues behind both writers’ work. Mary Shelley was beyond question an important early feminist, and the juxtaposition of her world and Austen’s brings out the unspoken assumptions behind both.

The story begins with a look at Mary Bennet, one of the five sisters whose stories are at the center of Pride and Prejudice. Now, thirteen years after the events of that novel, Mary is in her early thirties—“old maid” territory, as far as English society of the time is concerned. Along with her twenty-two-year-old sister Kitty, she still lives with her parents—and she has come to realize that her prospects are slim and steadily diminishing.

The second chapter is told from the viewpoint of Frankenstein’s creature—Kessel rarely refers to him as a “monster”—as he attempts to follow his creator Victor to England. The reader gets a look inside the creature’s memories of his past, and watches the resourcefulness with which he undertakes his journey, with little knowledge of human society and what he needs to do to survive the journey. But when he makes it to England, he discovers that Victor appears to be making no effort to fulfill a promise to create a bride for his creature.

Meanwhile, Mary and Kitty have come to London for the social season—and at a ball they attend, Mary meets Victor. From a brief conversation, she realizes that they share an interest in science—and she finds herself fascinated with Victor. She has never had such an intense conversation with anyone. He puts himself on her dance card—but then he leaves the ball without telling anyone, leaving Mary without a partner. Mary is disappointed, but Victor has gotten a glimpse of the creature outside the window, and left the party in agitation. Knowing that he has been followed, he realizes he must fulfill his promise or risk the creature taking bloody vengeance on his family—the reason he made the promise to begin with.

The paths of the three protagonists—Mary, Victor, and the creature—become even more entangled as the plot progresses. Kessel shows a nicely detailed familiarity with both the books the plot is based on, as well as a good knowledge of Regency England, with a fair number of historical characters making cameo appearances as the plot demands it. He also makes good use of the juxtaposition of the worlds of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to comment on a wide range of issues: the relation of science and religion, the role of women, and the class structure both in the historical settings of the novels and in our modern world.

In addition, the book pays effective stylistic homage to its literary forebears, without falling into a pedantic historicism for its own sake. Kessel’s last couple of novels show him working at a very high level—this one is highly recommended.

*   *   *

THE COINCIDENCE MAKERS
by Yoav Blum
St. Martin’s Press, $26.99 (hc)
ISBN: 97801-250-14611-3

Israeli author Blum offers up a novel based on the premise that the apparently random events of our lives are actually orchestrated by a group of secret agents who are working to bring about long-term results based on a master plan for society as a whole.

Guy, Emily, and Eric are the coincidence makers—an informal group who have in common their training under the general, an older man who introduced them to the art and science of using the apparently most trivial of events to bring about larger consequences. The book begins with a practical example: Guy sits in a café, waiting for the critical event—a spilled cup of coffee, which sets off a chain reaction leading at last to a result—well, we won’t spoil the surprise. The plot is full of them, all nicely orchestrated.

We follow Guy and his two friends—who don’t really work as a team, but gather regularly to compare notes—as they orchestrate a series of other adventures. Following the adventure of the spilled coffee, Guy gets his next assignment—as always, it arrives in a plain brown envelope slipped under his apartment door while he sleeps. Usually, the mission is spelled out in considerable detail, with background on locations, the people involved, timetables, statistics, actions, and repercussions to be avoided. However, to his surprise, this assignment consists of a single piece of paper. On it are a time, a place, and a single cryptic sentence.

Alternating with Guy’s various assignments are excerpts from textbooks used in the training of coincidence makers, a final exam in one of the courses, and a series of episodes involving “The Man with a Hamster”—a world-class hit man whose career will eventually intersect with that of our protagonists. Also important are several chapters from Emily’s point of view, in which a fair amount is ultimately revealed about where the coincidence makers come from. These sections broaden the reader’s perspective on the novel’s basic premise, as well as moving the various subplots toward eventual resolution.

On the whole, while there are elements of danger and episodes of violence, this novel is quite charming—Blum has a sense of playfulness that I found irresistible. Originally published in Hebrew, The Coincidence Makers has been translated into more than ten languages. This is its first publication in English. If this one’s a fair sample, let’s hope that more of Blum’s work—he’s had three best-sellers in Hebrew—will find its way into translation.

*   *   *

SALVATION
By Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, $30.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-17876-4

Hamilton’s latest, the first in a new series, takes place on a post-scarcity twenty-third-century Earth where an alien starship has arrived—a refueling stop on its way to the End of the Universe, where its passengers, who call themselves the Olyix, expect to meet God.

As the novel begins, a team is being assembled to assess a crashed spaceship discovered on an uninhabited moon. Most of the team members have a previous association with Connexion Corp.—the mega-corporation that controls the gateways that permit travel between distant destinations. And, as it turns out, a number of them have strong suspicions about the Olyix. But the team leader, Feriton Kayne, lets the reader know that he has an additional mission: finding which of the team members is a disguised alien.

As the story progresses, we get a look into the pasts of each of the team members: Kandara, a high-priced mercenary; Yuri, the head of Connexion’s security division; Callum, a senior troubleshooter for the egalitarian Utopial culture; Alik, a detective with the FBI; and Jessica, a political opportunist who now works for Connexion. Each has gotten involved in very risky dealings that skirted the edge of legality—and several of them have barely escaped a professional assassin named “Cancer.” Near the end of the volume, we learn who the alien is—and find the table set for a sequel that explores territory few readers will have guessed at before reaching that point.

In parallel to the story of the Connexion team, the novel follows a group of young people in a much more distant future, being trained as warriors in a struggle against an alien civilization that seeks out and destroys human worlds. The story follows Dellian, one of the leaders of the boys in his clan, and Yirella, an adventurous girl who turns out to be a strategic genius, as they learn about their history—which is heavily based on the deeds of the Five Saints.

Hamilton has a sure touch at keeping the plot moving forward, gradually building up the two different timelines and the characters inhabiting them. The hints of the connections between the two halves of the plot gradually come together as the book progresses, and the conclusion is at the same time satisfactory and leaves the reader curious as to where the story goes in the next installment. Good large-scale space opera, with interesting characters and nice extrapolation from the central premises.

*   *   *

FOUNDRYSIDE
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Crown, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-5247-6036-6

Tevanne, a city of industrialized magic, is the setting of this one, following the career of a young thief, Sancia Grado. Sent to burglarize a particular artifact from a well-guarded warehouse, she pulls off the job despite a few unexpected hitches—including setting half the city’s waterfront on fire. Then she finds out that she’s stolen something much rarer than her usual take. It’s a large gold key, with ancient inscriptions. Sancia knows that inscriptions are used to give an object magical characteristics—it’s the central principle of magic in this world. But when the key starts talking to her, she knows she’s out of her usual league.

Clef, as the key calls itself, is apparently an artifact from the earliest history of Tevanne, when the Occidental Empire and its sorcerers created the system of magic on which the modern world depends. And it turns out that Clef has the power to turn other magical objects to its own uses—for example, to open magical locks by convincing them that they’re supposed to be open. Sancia realizes that the client for whom she stole Clef must be one of the city’s four powerful merchant houses, which depend on magically controlled objects for their dominance. Sark, the agent/fence who hired her to do the job, hasn’t told her who his client is, but putting an object of such power in their hands is likely to upset the balance entirely. And as long as Sancia has Clef in her hands, she’s in major danger.

As it turns out, the authorities are already searching for whoever stole Clef—though without any knowledge of the nature of the stolen object. We meet Gregoro Dandolo, captain of the watch, who holds himself responsible for the destruction of the waterfront, as he follows a few leads, beats up a few informants, and eventually finds out that somebody named Sark is likely to have an idea of who pulled off the caper. He sets out to find the fence. But, as it turns out, somebody else gets there first—and Sancia, who had gone to deliver Clef to her agent, barely escapes the trap they’ve set for her. Sark is dead, and she’s on her own—and she still has Clef. And she has to wonder who else knows it.

As the plot builds, Sancia finds unexpected allies—including Gregoro, as well as members of one of the merchant houses, along with several fellow outsiders—and begins to find her way into the higher echelons of the power structure of Tevanne, where the lust for power has created levels of corruption not even a professional thief is comfortable with. And as the book progresses, she begins to realize that she is something more than a thief.

The author does a solid job of world building, gradually filling in bits of the history and mythology that underlie the milieu of the novel. And Sancia is a character readers are likely to want to spend more time with. Lucky for them, there’s clearly more to come in this fantasy setting. I’ll be interested to see what future volumes have to offer.

*   *   *

STREET FREAKS
by Terry Brooks
Grim Oak, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-944145-20-0

Brooks takes a break from epic fantasy to present a surprisingly hard-nosed near-future dystopian SF tale.

The plot starts with a bang as Ash Collins, a young boy whose father is a pioneering biogenetics researcher, finds his home being raided by government agents who begin by killing the household robots—leaving him little doubt what they intend for him. He makes his escape and, following a mysterious instruction his father left him, makes for the dangerous Red Zone—the slums of the city—looking for someone or something called “Street Freaks.”

With the authorities obviously after him, Ash’s trip to the Red Zone requires a good bit of ingenuity and risk—the word is already out on all the media to turn him in. The situation is bad enough that Achilles Pod—a storm-trooper-like police agency that appears free of any legal restraints—is searching the transit terminals. He manages to get a robot taxi to take him to the periphery of the Red Zone—it refuses to enter the zone itself—and makes his way inside. He gets directions to Street Freaks from an old man who clearly thinks it’s a bad idea to go there, and starts off. Intercepted by a group of local punks, he’s rescued by Holly—an inhumanly strong woman who turns out to work for Street Freaks—an auto customizing shop that specializes in street racing machines.

Ash meets the other Street Freaks workers—all, like Holly, are somehow misfits whose talents combine to give the shop an elite team. T.J., a boy around Ash’s age, is a brilliant race driver; Jenny is an expert hacker; Woodrow is a cyborg, most of his body having been replaced by machinery. All are somehow “tweaked,” genetically modified for special abilities. While they see Ash as a “civilian,” they know of his father, and agree to help him for the time being. When the owner of the shop, the Shoe, turns up, he can decide what the long-range plan is.

Meanwhile, the Freaks are preparing for the big annual event—a street race involving the best machines and drivers in the Red Zone. They’re working on their racer, which T.J. is scheduled to drive, and Ash gets a ride in the car. But when they return to the shop, they are forced to go into hiding—Achilles Pod has come looking for Ash. Jenny faces them down, telling them the shop has an Order of Exemption that protects it from searches. The troops back off, and Ash is safe—for now, at least.

The Shoe appears the next day and gives Ash the news that his father is dead—the official report lists it as suicide, though there is room for doubt. Shoe thinks it was his father’s biogenetics work that got him killed. And it is clear that whoever is responsible has a lot of power. He agrees to take Ash in and protect him, then leaves on some unstated business. But Ash is clearly a member of the Freaks now, and the others—including Cay, an incredibly beautiful young woman who was previously aloof—begin to include him in their activities, including an impromptu party.

Unfortunately, the powers that be—who seem to include Ash’s uncle, Cyrus Collins—haven’t called off the search. And Ash faces a crisis, as he is about to run out of a medication his father has put him on, to combat an immune deficiency. To get the medicine, he has to leave the Red Zone—exposing him to possible capture. Then Cay gets the drug analyzed and discovers that it doesn’t have anything to do with the immune system—so why did his father give it to him? And while they ponder this question, Achilles Pod come for another raid—and this time, the exemption has been canceled.

Brooks builds the tension nicely, with each of the various Freaks having a role to play in the eventual plot. A good, hard-nosed adventure in a world nothing like Shannara. If you think you know Terry Brooks, this one is likely to surprise you—give it a look!

*   *   *

THE GREY BASTARDS
By Jonathan French
Crown, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-525-7244-2

In his debut novel, French presents an epic fantasy from the point of view of an outlaw gang of half-Orcs scratching out a living in a wilderness between the realms of elves, men, and halflings: the Grey Bastards. They’re tolerated—begrudgingly—because of their ability to keep the full-blooded Orcs and other threats away from the more civilized peoples of the world.

The story begins with Jackal, one of the younger members of the Bastards, on a routine mission with his compatriots, collecting their company’s protection money from a brothel (and, not coincidentally, enjoying themselves). They are interrupted by a troop of human cavalry whose leader peremptorily asks what they are doing there. The confrontation turns nasty when one of the human riders decides to show his contempt for the half-Orcs. Jackal tries to minimize the damage, but it ends up with the arrogant rider dead and his captain knocked out—and the rest of the troop withdrawing while they have the chance.

After this introduction, we follow Jackal and his companions—the gigantic Oats, and Fetch, a female half-Orc as tough as any of the other Bastards—as they ride back to their base on huge hogs bred for the purpose. They trade scurrilous insults, discuss the other races of their homeland—Elves, Centaurs, and full Orcs—and the reader learns some of the historical background of the world they inhabit. But shortly after they arrive at the Kiln—their fortress-like base—the Bastards must sally out to deal with a pack of Orcs trespassing on their territory. After inflicting some casualties on the enemy, the Bastards’ chief, Claymaker, calls off further attacks. Jackal is outraged—it’s unheard of to let Orcs escape. The troop returns to the Kiln, with Jackal determined to challenge for the leadership—an action he’s been considering for some time. But another surprise awaits them at the Kiln—a half-Orc wizard has come to visit.

Jackal and the wizard, Crafty, embark on a journey to the Old Maiden Marsh, following up a report that the body of a human captain last seen at the brothel was taken to the marsh. But another complication turns up at the marsh—an Elvish woman held captive by Sludge Man, the ruler of the marsh. Jackal frees her and brings her back to the Kiln, and then the trouble really begins. Jackal ends up being exiled—and many more adventures ensue.

The tale is bawdy and bloody; true to their name, the Grey Bastards’ moral code is somewhere on the scale between “might is right” and “I’m all right, Jack.” But in spite of all that, Jackal actually has a heart and a sense of something like honor. By the end, it’s not hard to root for the rascal. French gives the Bastards a vocabulary that warps many commonplace words to new meanings—their war hogs, for example, are “barbarians”—it’s amusing, but it takes a bit to get used to it.

On the whole, an auspicious debut.

*   *   *

ALTERNATE ROUTES
By Tim Powers
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4184-8340-7

Set in Powers’ favorite locale of Greater Los Angeles, this one sets Sebastian Vickery, an ex-Secret Service agent, on the track of an occult force that has infested the freeway system, creating unexpected entrances and exits connecting the official roads to a world of ghosts and demons.

Forced to leave the Secret Service after a halted presidential motorcade made him privy to a closely guarded secret, Vickery now works as a driver for a car service that specializes in evading supernatural threats for its patrons. He’s killing time by the roadside—nominally, he’s on litter pickup duty, but he’s knocking back a beer in between pickups—when he gets word that a woman is looking for him. It turns out to be Ingrid Castine, a government agent who’s come to warn him that her bosses—the Transportation Utility Agency—have sent men looking for him. But before Vickery can do anything, the men show up—with guns—and before there’s time to figure things out, the two agents are dead and Vickery and Castine are on the run.

Powers takes the reader on a wild ride though an alternate L.A. where there are magical currents running along the freeways and a select few know how to manipulate them. He sends Vickery and Castine all over the city, meeting an odd assortment of characters who have experienced the strange reality behind the mundane appearance of the city’s roads. Castine’s old employer, as it turns out, has plans to make use of the magical qualities of the freeways—and the mysterious land beyond the phantom exit ramps—for its own nefarious purposes.

Anything by Powers is worth a read, and it’s good to see that Baen is bringing some of his backlist into print again. But Alternate Routes is all new, and well worth checking out.

*   *   *

THE BEND AT THE END OF THE ROAD
By Barry N. Malzberg
Fantastic Books, $13.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-z1038-6

Here’s a collection of short essays on the history and current condition of SF, a subject the author knows intimately—and has particularly strong opinions on. As anyone conversant with Malzberg’s previous essay collections will probably be able to guess, he doesn’t find a great deal to celebrate in contemporary SF.

Malzberg lays much of the blame for what he sees as the decline of SF on the rise of fantasy, beginning with the success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” But almost as important, in his eyes, is the surge in media SF, with sequels, spinoffs, and franchises taking the place of original novels on the genre bestseller lists. Nor does the advent of the New Wave in the 1960s—with writers like Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and James G. Ballard—go without criticism. He is particularly upset that a number of recent award nominees—worse yet, award winners—have little, if any, SFnal content that he can put a finger on.

But if that were the whole of the book, it could have been done in a single essay—and Malzberg has a lot more to say than simply to lament the modern state of SF. Readers familiar with the genre’s history will find his accounts of some of the giants of the 1950s, such as Alfred Bester, Robert Sheckley, and H. Beam Piper, illuminating. Malzberg also casts his eye beyond the borders of SF, with interesting comments on the likes of Raymond Carver and Marilyn Monroe, to pick a couple.

Malzberg’s sense of humor, particularly in regard to his own status in the field, is frequently on display—I was amused by the late R.A. Lafferty’s laconic comment on Malzberg’s own fiction, delivered during a late-night encounter at a long-ago convention.

As one expects of Malzberg, the collection—whose contents first appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe and Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge—is idiosyncratic, often provocative, occasionally repetitious, but never dull. If you’re at all interested in the history of the field, give this one a read.

If your local bookseller doesn’t carry Fantastic Books, this one can be ordered directly from the publisher at www.FantasticBooks.biz.

*   *   *

UNCHARTED: Lewis and Clark in Arcane America
By Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8323-0

This new entry in the “Weird West” mode is built around the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in an America that the 1759 appearance of Halley’s Comet somehow separated from the Old World—in the process, turning magical forces loose in the land.

The story begins with Meriwether Lewis in the frontier town of St. Louis, having come there in search of medicinal herbs. To his surprise, he learns that the famous sorcerer Benjamin Franklin is in town—and he joins the crowd hoping to get a glimpse of the great man. But when a sudden shock sends the crowd into a panic, Lewis rushes forward. A dragon has appeared! Lewis helps free some horses from a burning wagon, coming to Franklin’s attention in the process. Next thing he knows, the wizard is recruiting him for an expedition to the West—hoping, among other things, to find whether there is a way to reach the Old World across the Pacific.

The tale continues with Lewis recruiting expedition members, including his old friend Clark, and heading west. There they encounter native tribes and thrilling scenery—but also magical threats and sinister forces that would eliminate all those of European descent from the continent. And of course, Sacagawea plays a key part in the story, as she did in the historical Lewis-Clark expedition. Anderson and Hoyt do a good job blending the historical journey and the magical elements. They also incorporate a significant amount of Native American lore, giving the indigenous peoples of the West an important part to play in the development of the story.

This one’s a good read, especially if you’re a fan of American history. The “Arcane America” series, created by Anderson, Eric Flint, Walter C. Hunt, Eytan Kollin, and Peter J. Wacks, looks to be an enjoyable addition to the alternate history field. Recommended.

*   *   *

ONLY HUMAN
By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-18011-8

Here’s the concluding volume of Neuvel’s “Themis Files,” in which a young girl discovers part of a giant robot that turns out to have been left on Earth by an advanced alien civilization. At the end of the second volume, the girl—now Dr. Rose Franklin, a respected scientist in whose hands the robot was reassembled and brought to life—embarks on a journey to the alien world on which the robots were made.

This volume begins with Franklin and her companions—notably Vincent Couture, who helped with the animation of the original robot, and his teenage daughter Eva—on the world of the Ekt, as the robot makers call themselves. They have been there ten years, doing what they can to learn about their hosts and to make some sort of life on the alien world. All—especially Couture—want to return to Earth. But the Ekt are all not certain their return is a good idea. As the humans learn, there are factions that fear outsiders, and others are concerned that the human race has a certain amount of Ekt DNA in its makeup.

As in previous volumes, Neuvel builds the story in a series of fragments from various points of view. As a result, the narrative moves at an irregular pace, with certain information delivered well before the reader knows quite how the characters got into that situation. But the story itself is fascinating, with interesting side glances at contemporary politics here on Earth.

The “Themis Files” has already attracted a substantial audience, and film rights for the series have been optioned. With enormous combat robots and an attractive cast of characters, it’s easy to see its appeal to the film world. Still, fans of written SF should make it a point to hunt it down before Hollywood does its thing to the story.

*   *   *

THE CACKLE OF CTHULHU
Edited by Alex Shvartsman
Baen, $16.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8300-1

The title pretty much tells you what to expect with this one: a set of comic takeoffs on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, by diverse hands—one is tempted to say, “by the usual suspects.”

Lovecraft, for all his ability to summon a frisson of existential terror, has always been an easy target for parody—the overblown, deliberately archaic style, all by itself, calls out for mockery. Add the author’s sometimes jaw-breaking names for his arcane deities, his often blatant racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, and his stuffy suspicion of anything that has come into being since the 1890s, and a clever writer has plenty of comic material to choose from. So it’s no surprise that the authors in this volume have a field day with the anthology’s premise of comic Lovecraftiana. And, as Shvartsman notes in his introduction, Lovecraft is a major cultural icon, an influence not just on horror writers, but on our entire milieu—satire is the sincerest form of flattery.

Among my particular favorites are “The Shunned Trailer” by Esther Friesner, in which a college boy on spring break finds himself face to face with unspeakable horrors in the backwater South, and Mike Resnick’s “Friday Night at Brazee’s,” in which Cthulhu himself joins a Runyonesque poker game. I also got a laugh from H. Scott Huggins’ “In the Employee Manual of Madness,” which is every bit as terrifying as the title makes it sound.

Other contributors include Neil Gaiman (“Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar”), Jody Lynn Nye (“My Little Old One”), Ken Liu (“The Call of the Pancake Factory”), Laura Resnick (“Cthulhu, P.I.”) and fifteen more, including one by Shvartsman himself.

As is true of comic SF in general, some of the stories here will appeal more than others to any given reader. Several of the stories, in addition to the Lovecraftian parody, take off on other genres. But there’s something here to tickle almost anyone’s sense of humor. Give it a try.

 

Copyright © 2019 Peter Heck

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