On Books

by Paul Di Filippo


There’s Something Fishy Here

The name of artist Mark Nelson should be familiar to any savvy aficionado of visual fantasy. His work for various comics and book and game publishers has spanned many genres and many decades. But he seldom gets a showcase all his own. That sad omission is now remedied, at least in part, with the publication of Innsmouth: The Lost Drawings of Mannish Sycovia (Alaxis Press, hardcover, $30.00, 192 pages, ISBN 978-1513619965). Not only is this book a feast of eye candy, it also boasts a fine narrative, um, hook.

Let’s look first at the story—minimal, but potent.

A beaten-up folio of annotated drawings is discovered and deemed to be the work of the obscure Mannish Sycovia, an artist from the early part of the twentieth century. The folio is now presented by Mark Nelson, with an addendum from a contemporaneous librarian named Anna Tilton, who knew Sycovia and might have been the closest thing to a (human) lover that the artist had. We learn that after several idle visits, Sycovia was enraptured by the inhabitants of Innsmouth, and eventually vanished into their midst.

And so we plunge into the annotated drawings. They are myriad interpretations of Innsmouth’s aberrant piscine-human hybrids, at work, play, and, er, ceremonial activities. Sycovia’s scribbles show him succumbing to their allure, going so far as to fall for a fishy good-time girl: “Rosalee has become my anchor to life. Her smooth, damp skin, soft voice, and caresses bring me happiness in this dreary world.”

That’s pretty much all there is to the narrative, but it’s plenty, when combined with the astonishing drawings. Nelson’s droll depictions of these Lovecraftian amphibian citizens combines the meticulousness of Stephen Bissette’s drawings, the goofiness of Eric Powell’s art, and the creepiness of Richard Corben’s. His utterly unique and highly distinctive style is here represented beautifully with just black, white, and ochre inks. Each drawing is full of eyekicks that repay endless browsing. Contemplate “The Soda Jerk,” who could have stepped out of Judy Garland’s Meet Me in Saint Louis, save for his myriad spines, barbels, and fins. Then, after savoring the main image, look at the level of detail that Nelson has devoted to the sandwich the creature is serving.

This volume represents large talents turned affectionately yet not uncritically to one of the Weird’s most famous Mythoi. Sure to be admired by any fan, scaled or otherwise.

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Two Princes Beat a Full House

The year 2017 marked Nancy Springer’s fortieth anniversary as a professional writer (The Book of Suns, 1977) and happily also found her talents and energies undiminished, as indicated by a new story appearance that year as well. Now, a year later, as further proof of her continuing prowess as a fabulist comes The Oddling Prince (Tachyon Publications, trade paperback, $15.95, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-61696-289-0), a fairytale of sorts in the manner of William Morris or Lord Dunsany.

Our main venue, where almost all the action occurs, is the castle of Dun Caltor, where lives the king of Calidon, Bardaric, his queen Evalin, and their seventeen-year-old son, Prince Aric. (We can visualize their realm and situation as generically, but satisfyingly, pre-Arthurian.) All is not well in the castle, as the king is wasting away, due to a magical ring immovably affixed to a finger. He seems on the point of death when a handsome young stranger named Albaric arrives. Using magic of his own, Albaric removes the ring and thus saves the life of the king. The emotional and consequential outcome of this generous deed would seem obvious: gratitude and celebration and renewal. But such is not the case, due to Albaric’s origins.

He is the illegitimate son of the king, fathered on the Queen of Faerie during the time when Bardaric sojourned in that unreal land. Bardaric is shamed and angered by the youth’s arrival, as a token of his past misdeed, and resents his heroic efforts. Queen Evalin, however, likes the lad and is not disconcerted by her husband’s past marital transgressions. And what of Aric, our narrator, who might presumably chafe at a rival contender to his inheriting the throne? He instantly feels a strange spiritual and almost carnal attraction to his half-brother, the oddling prince, and vows to do everything he can to ease Albaric’s transition to a mortal state, as expat from Faerie.

Here is the engine of Springer’s tale. How a King-Lear-type raging father will upend his own kingdom and frustrate and thwart the natural desires of his children. It’s a cross-generational tale that never grows old. When you toss in a vile traitorous vassal, Brock of Domberk, his beautiful seeress daughter Marissa, a magical cerulean horse named Bluefire, and some loyal retainers, evil bandits, and other ancillary figures, you get a full medieval banquet of heroics and domestic drama. Nor does Springer scant the magic. The Elfin ring, once removed, becomes instrumental in the action. And at the climax she parlays earlier hints laterally into weird George MacDonald territory that lofts the book to a higher plane.

While doing full narrative duty to the ethical, moral, and familial issues amongst king, queen, and sons, as well as to the Machiavellian court intrigues and rebellion, Springer devotes most of her attention to the strange, quasi-erotic relationship between the half-brothers. It’s a bold and startling aspect of the book. Even the king notices it: “Folks will think you are a pair of molly boys.” This gambit pays off mightily at the end, and does not preclude Aric’s growing affections for Marissa. Springer’s portrait of an uncategorizable kind of love makes The Oddling Prince an out-of-the-ordinary fairy tale that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with work by Tanith Lee and C.J. Cherryh.

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The Bride of Pemberley

I will shame myself voluntarily by admitting that I have never read word one by Jane Austen. Of course, this canonical deficit makes me feel often like an illiterate pretender to the critic’s chair. But my gaping lacuna did not deter me by one iota from enjoying John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus (hardcover, $27.99, 384 pages, ISBN 978-1481481472), which is a fusion of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I may not be able to accurately gauge and report on how closely he hews to Austen’s style and modalities (pretty faithfully, I suspect, and I don’t have this problem with Frankenstein), but I can flatly assert that he has crafted a seamless, touching, suspenseful, well-molded tale of humanist SF, full of shocks, black comedy, and shivers.

Kessel starts by giving us two quotes from his template authors. The one from Austen reveals her sympathies with the Gothic; the one from Shelley reveals her sympathies with affairs of the drawing room and manners. Kessel’s whole novel is a fulfillment of this overlooked overlap in their Venn diagram.

Our heroine is Mary Bennet, old maid daughter of the famous family, whose successful scion, Elizabeth, is ensconced at Pemberley with her Darcy. Despairing of ever meeting society’s marital expectations, Mary has instead turned her keen mind to science, notably the study of fossils. We follow her (in third-person narration) as she moves through various doings of her social set, and as she attempts to counsel her flighty sister Kitty, who, though younger, is in a similar bind.

Meanwhile, we will inhabit the first-person tracks of Victor Frankenstein and his creation (whom Mary will eventually christen “Adam”). Victor, having guiltily promised Adam that he will create a revenant bride, has skipped town and is endlessly traveling with his friend Henry Clerval. But the monster is on his maker’s trail, intent on getting his made-to-order mate. Their chapters dig deeply and poignantly into their intertwined karma.

A little over a third of the way into the novel, the strands all come together. Mary meets Victor, who respects her scientific leanings. Perforce, she is also thrown into the path of Adam. Not knowing all the truth yet, she becomes infatuated with Victor. But it is with Adam that she will have the deepest relations and empathy. The remainder of the book is a kind of Newtonian ballet in which the three fated characters revolve around each other’s emotional and physically needful gravity wells, until the whole orrery is shattered by incompatible needs. A coda, set some six years later, ties up loose ends.

Kessel’s triumphs are many. A seamless blending of the two fictional franchises into a unique hybrid. A mastery of language, a prose style that is at once displaced from ours yet utterly natural-feeling. Depth of characterization for all protagonists. And a genuine invocation of the frontiers of this era’s half-formed sciences. Lastly, he does not neglect the Gothic luridness that would have thrilled Austen’s heroines. Consider this passage, when Victor is finally creating the bride:

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First it was necessary to remove the female from its bath. Using a linen hose, I siphoned off the generational fluid. When its surface had drained enough to expose the body, I climbed onto a bench beside the basin, slid my arms under the naked female, and lifted. The limp body was slimy. Its head lolled, hair dripping fluid, and the legs hung down. I struggled to raise it over the lip of the tank. I lost my balance and struck the head of the new female against the edge.

“Don’t hurt her!” the Creature said. He stepped to the opposite side of the tank and took her from me. He held this naked thing, so much smaller than he, like some obscene parody of Michelangelo’s Pietà

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Kessel’s attention to the politesse of the parlor is just as great as his frisson-making horrors, and he transitions beautifully back and forth between them.

With Adam, the monster, frequently portrayed as almost an Odd John-style superman, the tale also conveys a moral about the prejudices and hostilities of humanity toward anything or anyone that seems to threaten our self-image and status. Mary’s attention to fossils—i.e., creatures that once dominated the landscape, but are now extinct—is a clever commentary on how soon our own reign will be over, no matter how hard we strive to exile the perceived threats to our sovereignty.

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Fairy Magics in Soot City

The gorgeous cover to Jasmine Gower’s Moonshine (Angry Robot, trade paperback, $9.99, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0857667342) is by the famed John Coulthart, and it conveys an alluring sense of Art Deco fantasy, as if we will be reading something by Christopher Morley or A. Merritt or some other doyen of that era when fantasy had not yet been commodifed into its separate market baskets. And that impression proves, to our delight, pretty accurate, although of course Ms. Gower, with her striking debut novel, cannot utterly escape modern conventions—nor does she necessarily wish to—and so her book, while indeed deliberately retro, also resonates with contemporary work by Tom Holt, Walter Jon Williams, and Jean-Christophe Valtat. All to the good, say I.

The subcreation where Moonshine takes place is a nicely unique one, and might almost be interpreted as a far-future SF setting. The nation of Ashland has, over the past couple of centuries, begun to reconstitute itself after a series of devastating volcanic eruptions. (Could this be perhaps North America during the aftermath of the famed Yellowstone supervolcano coming to life?) Immigrants from various other portions of the globe have flowed into the renewal zone, specifically to Soot City, lending the grimly enchanting place a hybrid, multicultural air. Especially since some of the newly arrived citizens are not humans, but ogres.

Our heroine is one dark-skinned Daisy Dell, a bred-in-the-bone “Modern Girl,” desirous of being economically self-sufficient, devil-may-care, and shocking. But alas, her innate nature is somewhat more timid and cautious. So, looking to pay the rent on her modest garret digs, she takes what appears to be a boring job at a firm called Stripes Management. What she discovers is that her employer, one Andre Swarz, is head of a firm that manufactures the illegal bright-blue liquid dubbed “mana”—moonshine, in simple terms—that is the essential booster drug for all practicing magicians in the city.

All the practicing magicians, that is, except for Daisy herself, who wields a kind of hedge wizardry handed down by her grandmother.

Before you can say “oh you kid!” Daisy is up to her eyebrows in intrigue and danger. Her life and the lives of the eclectic, eccentric cast of colorful coworkers, goes on the line when a “mage hunter” named Ming Wei appears, gunning for any and all magicians. Pretty soon, Daisy is also looking out for a hapless castaway fairy, Cyan, a visitor from another dimension whose substance is the source of her own powers. The whole tale is replete with thrilling chases and battles, as well as quieter moments of bonding and maturing.

There’s a nice quasi-dieselpunk aura about the graphically delineated Soot City, which is where I saw some connection to Valtat’s Aurorarama. The notion of mana being the fuel for magic reminded me of a similar riff with “plasm” in Williams’s Metropolitan. And the mix of office protocols with vibrantly depicted sorcery brought Holt to mind (The Portable Door, et seq). Blend these strains organically together, and you have a potent stew.

Actually, though, the real template for the non-supernatural portions of this book might just be a madcap comedy such as Vincente Minnelli’s Bells Are Ringing, where expert comedian Judy Holliday has to juggle her personal life with the affairs of her oddball clients. Gower has succeeded in crafting just such a light-hearted romp with some authentic emotional depths.

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Schow Down with a
Banquet of Tales

Almost exactly my age and beginning his career in parallel with mine (hello, T.E.D. Klein of Twilight Zone magazine!), David J. Schow is a figure with whom I obviously resonate intimately on a professional and empathetic level, always keeping an eye out for his latest novel. But I did not have a good grasp of his short fiction work until now, with the release of DJStories (Subterranean Press, hardcover, $40.00, 520 pages, ISBN 978-1596068612). This overstuffed best-of collection samples four decades of his craft across the width of nearly thirty knockout stories. I can’t give a deep accounting of each tale in this space, but if we hit a few of the peaks, I think you’ll be able to survey the whole landscape accurately. It’s a realm of tenderness and gore, nostalgia and Cassandra-forewarnings, monsters and heroes.

The stories come at us chronologically and with informative and entertaining notes.

One perceives immediately that Schow was intent on ushering horror into the present day. We find no fusty setting or tropes in his early tale, “One for the Horrors.” Instead, we get the au courant account of a divorced cinephile whose dedication to his passion and some spontaneous heroism bring both tragedy and release. Schow’s role as a Baby Boomer creature of the mass media/pop culture is apparent here as well, and also in the next tale, “Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You,” wherein a crippled Vietnam vet finds himself fighting a new kind of war in a grubby theater.

Schow’s interest in crime fiction melds with his horror/suspense leanings in “The Shaft,” which finds a gangster on the run and inhabiting a building with an eerie architectural feature. Another fish-out-of-water scenario occurs in “Not from Around Here,” pitting a city boy against country devils. Schow’s focus is almost totally urban, mostly West Coast, and he uses the countryside as a contrasting realm of darkness. This tale marks perhaps Schow’s emergence as an unrepentant gore-meister, and in fact he tells us that editor T.E.D. Klein found the story almost unprintable.

Proving that much of today’s horror would be rootless and foundering without the pioneering efforts of Schow—who coined the term “splatterpunk”—and John Skipp and Craig Spector, the story “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” famously pits zombies against their hungry natural predator. I love the premise of “Sedalia”—dinosaur wrangling—and Schow exhibits science-fictional rigorousness in his extrapolation, a talent of his that is often overlooked when he is categorized.

Making a rare foray into historical eras, Schow offers his take on Jack the Ripper in “The Incredible True Facts in the Case,” which is also an homage to Robert Bloch, one of Schow’s mentors.

Almost Waldropian in its nostalgic evocation of the vanished heyday of the TV horror-show host, “(Melodrama)” reveals the secrets behind one such figure. Following on its heels is “Gills,” a loving tribute to a certain “Manphibian” monster now luxuriating in Hollywood bliss. “Watcher of the Skies” is another stefnal outing, this time with an almost Spielbergian vibe, concerning as it does an adolescent and a lost alien. We jump to an exotic milieu—the realm of Lucha Libre wrestlers—in “Quebradora,” and then to the fairytale ambiance of “The Five Sisters: A Fable.” Although not directly inhabiting the World War II era—it’s told at one remove—“Warbirds,” like “Incredible True Facts,” showcases Schow’s flair for deeply researched recreations that still feel fresh and contemporary. And finally, “A Gunfight” is a tribute to the Parker series from Donald Westlake, and a foretaste of a forthcoming novel, The Take, that Schow promises us is almost done.

Schow’s fiction—which often aligns with the esthetic of John Shirley—can be seen as stemming from the same cultural forces that created cyberpunk: a desire to shatter old clichés and reinvent a genre. While many of his tales revel in gruesomeness, he never betrays the humanity of his characters, and in fact a certain mellowing arc can be discerned in his career. Having shocked his readers with the bloody and uncanny bad fates of his protagonists, he now seems intent on finding the small niches where a person can make his ethical stand and perhaps win through—or at least die authentically. As he says in his “Afterweird” [sic], he is mainly intent on achieving the victory of “a good short story that fires on all cylinders . . . the first, best, and most magnificent form of fiction.”

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Prophet and Loss Statement

It’s been five years since the world last exulted in a novel from Robert Redick, after the completion of his masterful Chathrand Voyage sequence. So the manifestation of Master Assassins (Talos, hardcover, $25.99, 460 pages, ISBN 978-1-945863-19-6) is particularly welcome. Launching a new series, the book allows you to hop onto the Redick Rocket at a convenient point. And you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Like all heroic fantasy novels since Tolkien imposed the template, Redick’s tale is set in a subcreation, a realm comparable in intensity and history and tactility to our own familiar Earth, but dramatically “other.” It’s rich in backstory, customs and beliefs. In this case—at least in the initial slice of the terrain we see—Redick’s land is something of a Howardian place, full of the same rough glamour as the Hyborian Age. Ghouls and deserted ruins, swordplay and oppressed peasants, deadly theocracy and dramatic pursuits. There’s also a slight vibe of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the action. But at the same time, the book feels utterly contemporary and hip. Maybe it’s not “grimdark,” but it has a rough-hewn realistic brutality and ashcan naturalism to it that complements the exotic and fanciful.

We open on a land that is at war. A female Prophet has arisen, uniting her formerly subjugated people and turning them into an unstoppable conquering horde. (The semi-arid environment and cult aspect bring to mind also of course Dune and the Fremen.) Along with several sons, her lieutenants, the Prophet demands religious loyalty from every citizen, and especially from her troops.

This is especially unfortunate for our viewpoint protagonist, Kandri Hinjuman. He’s a good and obedient soldier, but he has too many brains to be unthinkingly devoted to the Prophet. And then there’s his half-brother, Mektu, also enlisted in the Prophet’s army. Mektu is a combination of simpleton and savant, braggart and clown. Unrestrained in word and deed, he is always on the verge of getting his own throat slit. Kandri feels somewhat responsible for Mektu, who has in fact begged Kandri to desert the army with him. Kandri refuses—right up to the point where his hand is forced by his own misdeed. Kandri kills an important personage, and now he and his brother must flee for their lives, for the Prophet demands revenge.

They set out with their helpful uncle, Chindilan, and a local woman named Eshett. Both of these companions seem to know more about the forces and factions surrounding the brothers than they are willing to let on. Is it possible that the crimes of Kandri and Mektu, seemingly arbitrary, are actually part of some larger pattern? Too bad their flight is so dangerous, wild and unrelenting that they barely have time to think about such matters!

The majority of this novel is taken up with the incredible odyssey of crossing a dead sea to throw off pursuers. This hegira is filled with monsters, abandoned structures, treachery, suffering, heroism—all the rich texture of a Planet Stories adventure by Leigh Brackett. (Redick also devotes a goodly amount of space to flashbacks that detail the youths of Mektu and Kandri, and how their mysterious father might figure in their current dilemma.) Here in the parched sea bottom they encounter someone who becomes the fifth member of their ragged troop, a soldier from the opposing army, a young woman named Talupéké.

Eventually—not to deliver much of a spoiler—the battered and wiser travelers reach a city that will serve as a temporary hiding place. But there, more sophisticated Machiavellian dangers await. The book closes with the companions united for the next stage of their exploits, some mysteries solved, others still open. “What’s wrong with us, are we crazy?” [Kandri] thinks. “Death all around us, and we can’t stop with the jokes.”

Redick’s powers of invention in this book are superb. He manages to reinvigorate his chosen mode of heroic fantasy by sheer force of description, his language always muscular, vibrant and well-calculated. The cast of characters is vast and believable—I would like to see the arch villain, the Prophet, onstage a bit more—and you will thrill and flinch at their difficulties. The pacing of the narrative is headlong, and 400-plus pages feels like a novella. If he keeps up this standard for the subsequent books, he might rival his own accomplishment with his earlier quartet.

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Big Little Women

Family dynamics are and have been one of the most powerful engines of fiction throughout history. Alliances and rejections; similarities and differences; inclusion and exclusion; love and hate. All these things—and more—that can happen between strangers and acquaintances are particularly highlighted and exacerbated when placed into the context of blood relations—humanity’s primeval means of affiliation—and of tribalism. And undeniably, one strong riff on the family dynamic is that seen among siblings. And when the siblings are of the same gender, we get a certain interplay not found in a mixed grouping. Take Little Women, for instance, with the four famous March girls and all their doings.

Or, if you want to sample a grand new instance of such intragender politicking, with fantastical elements spicing the broth, please step up to enjoy Kim Wilkins’s Daughters of the Storm (Del Rey, hardcover, $27.00, 448 pages, ISBN 978-0399177477). Wilkins has written a grand slam of a book (the first in a series) akin to those of GRRM, where equal heft is given to all three wings of the narrative: the magic, the plot, and the characterization. I raced through this book with utter delight, loving the voice and the characters, never guessing the twists and turns, eager for whatever Wilkins wanted to show me.

Our venue is a large island divided into several rival kingdoms. We will focus on the realm of Almissia, where rule King Athelrick and Queen Gudrun. Athelrick has five daughters, all from his first wife. With Gudrun, he fathered a boy, Wylm. The kingdom would be stable and prosperous at the moment, having defeated Hakon the Crow King, who is presumed dead. Except that Athelrick himself is on the point of death, seemingly cursed. Now his five daughters must respond, and here’s where the fun begins.

Bluebell is the dominant sister, the assumed heir and future queen. A warrior princess, the best fighter in Almissia or any other kingdom, she is blunt, forceful, adamant, no-nonsense. We meet her first, and Wilkins necessarily configures much of the story around her actions. But the amazing thing is how the desires and doings of the other four women intertwine and influence everything. This story-machine has a hundred different moving parts, all calibrated brilliantly.

Ash, the magically gifted daughter, comes next in importance. Then Rose, married off to an allied king. Finally are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Ivy is the flighty, sex-crazed flibbertigibbet, while Willow is an ascetic and mad mystic.

Needless to say, such a heterogeneous assortment of personalities provokes many clashes in this crisis situation. Each woman, while worried to different degrees about their father, is also pursuing her own agendas. Rose wants her lover and daughter by her side, against her husband’s wishes. Ash needs to study “undermagic” to learn about her potential. (The undermagicians remind me of the mages in Vance’s Dying Earth books: snooty, superior, and isolationist. Ash’s eventual tutor, Unweder, is a real piece of work.) Ivy is the wreckage-causing hedonist. And Willow, a convert to the “trimartyr” religion, is seeking to save souls—even if it means betraying her family.

As I specified, Wilkins—in taut, strong, vivid language—whirls among all the subplots at breakneck speed, dramatically illustrating how five sets of good intentions (along with some bad intentions from Wylm, who functions as the Steerpike of this tale) can refract and bounce off each other to produce chaos theory results. Along the way, Wilkins will make you feel vividly not only all the emotions of the sisters, but also every saddlesore ride, every strange vista or happening, every battle and rushed tavern siesta. Consider the passage below, which is merely a minor incident in the book, but on which Wilkins has lavished inventiveness and linguistic precision.

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As they were arguing, Rose became aware of a noise nearby. She turned. Her blood seemed to slow, pulling like a tide past her ears. Bluebell’s and Ash’s voices became muffled; time stood still a moment. A woman approached. An old woman who leaned heavily on a thick stick. She had around her an aura of sick light, no brighter than moonlight. On her other arm perched an owl. Rose tried to make her lips move, to alert Bluebell and Ash. Then she blinked and the woman was standing directly in front of them, as if she had moved a hundred feet in a second.

Time started again. Rose could see there was no halo anymore. Just an ordinary-looking old woman, her wizened face turned toward the three of them curiously. Around her waist, she wore a belt that bristled with a hundred dangling objects. Some of them Rose could recognize: scissors, a mirror, a proliferation of keys. Others were a mystery to her: glittering things and jangling things and mysterious, soft hanging things woven of leaves and vines. The owl’s powerful claws were locked on her upper arm. It moved its head and didn’t blink.

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Australian by birth, Wilkins has imbued her tale with plenty of that continent’s flavors: strong historical personalities and brawling, competent-woman ethos.

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Throw Me in the Briar Patch

If you were told in advance that Tobias Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi were going to collaborate on a novel, you’d probably anticipate—based on their past performances—a taut near-future thriller with a climate-change core and hard-edged science. Instead, with The Tangled Lands (Saga Press, hardcover, $26.99, 304 pages, ISBN 978-1481497299) they have surprisingly delivered a New Weird parable. Now that’s a lateral move! Moreover, instead of doing a sentence-by-sentence jam, they chose to arrange a four-part round-robin of linked novellas. Bacigalupi comes first with “The Alchemist.” Buckell weighs in with “The Executioness.” Bacigalupi returns with “The Children of Khaim.” And Buckell closes out the tale with “The Blacksmith’s Daughter.”

Their imaginary milieu reminds me of Silverberg’s Majipoor creation (in retrospect a highly influential fantasy milestone): a land with vaguely Hindu overtones and nomenclature, transmogrified by Dunsany-style touches.

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“We have the smoking waters of Azilah, and the wines of dream, we have khem root and the darkness and light of poppies’ sap. Borzai cares not what is done here. Here, he closes his ever-watching eyes. Here you may drink deep of Naia’s waters, and she will fill your empty places!”

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The engine of their tale is a clever one, just a single uncomplex conceit, but powerful. Whenever magic is used in this land, a deadly bit of bramble is born. These brambles are poisonous, pervasive, almost intelligently malign, and impossible to kill. (Potent imagery, reminiscent of the thorny forest around the castle of Sleeping Beauty.) Over the centuries, cities and empires have succumbed to the plague, unable to restrict the use of magic by commoners and the elite alike. Now, a few remnant places hold out, and magic users are hunted down and killed.

Thus we discern the allegorical part of this book. Substitute “hydrocarbons” for magic and “environmental destruction” for brambles, and the equation is complete. Happily, the authors do not beat us over the head with this parable about the tragedy of the commons, trusting the readers to appreciate the grim lessons. They rightly focus instead on the human dramas enacted within such a double-bind situation.

Bacigalupi’s opener sets up the situation economically and vividly, as he follows the desperate exploits of Jeoz the Alchemist, who finds a way to kill the brambles, only to have his invention perverted by the greedy rulers of his city of Khaim. Next we experience the sad tale of Tana, a simple mother whose children are stolen from Khaim by a party of raiders. Through a set of coincidences and her own daring, she becomes known as the Lady Executioner, and eventually leads an army of revenge.

In part three, Bacigalupi focuses on Mop, a detested, abused refugee in Khaim who seeks to save his sister, Rain, from the poisoned bramble sleep, and dares to employ magic. We round out our excursion through this land with the sad saga of Sofija. Working daughter to her blacksmith parents, she and her family have the misfortune to accept a commission from the craven yet deadly Duke Malabaz. The assignment eventually brings ruin on them all, but Sofija manages to pull personal salvation out of the shards.

The barely divergent styles and presentations of the two authors harmonize well, and the little easter eggs of connection among the four novellas are satisfying for the world-building enthusiast. This quartet of tragedies with a common theme of familial love and duty amidst desperate days might have benefitted from a leavening of humor and light, but as the book stands, it’s a stirring representation of how individuals may rescue their own souls and rekindle communal bonds during dark days.


Copyright © 2018 Paul Di Filippo