Friday 30 August 2013

Book Review | The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and the Djinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.


We are all of us other in one way or another.

That is to say, there are things — many things — which set each and every one of us apart. Our origins and our circumstances aside, people are perfect storms of memories, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and ideals. Where we come from, not to mention when or into what world, is undoubtedly part of the puzzle, but who we are in the manifold moments our lives are made of is what matters.

The Golem and the Djinni is a sumptuous period piece about two brilliantly realised people — others... outsiders... aliens, I dare say, in every which way — who just so happen to be magical creatures. One is made of earth especially to serve at the pleasure of a master who perishes mere moments after awakening her; one is fashioned from fire and lived alone, untold aeons ago, in a magnificent invisible palace. He expects the best; she fears the worst. Both must make their way in a world that would not welcome them if it had the slightest clue what they were.

Welcome, one and all, to New York City at the advent of the 20th century: a fittingly fantastical setting for the incredible events ahead.
The city [...] rose up from the water's edge, the enormous square buildings that reached far into the heavens, their windows set with perfect panes of glass. As fantastical as cities like ash-Sham and al-Quds had seemed from the caravan men's tales, the Djinni doubted that they'd been half so wondrous or terrifying as this New York. If he must be marooned in an unknown land, surrounded by a deadly ocean, and constrained to one weak and imperfect form, at least he'd ended up somewhere worth exploring. (p.30)
This marks a rare moment of positivity for the Djinni, because the rest of the time, he's simply miserable. With good reason, too: he was trapped in a vase for centuries, at the hands of a wicked wizard who he can only imagine used him to do his despicable bidding. He can only imagine, I should stress, because the Djinni has no recollection of the circumstances surrounding his capture. He remembers the desert, then suddenly the shop of dear Boutros Arbeely, an unwitting tinsmith living in Little Syria who takes the Djinni in as an apprentice—for want of a better explanation for his unlikely presence—and names him Ahmad.

Ahmad, however, is far from pleased by the prospect of playing pretend:
"Imagine," he said to Arbeely, "that you are asleep, dreaming your human dreams. And then, when you wake, you find yourself in an unknown place. Your hands and bound, and your feet hobbled, and you're leashed to a stake in the ground. You have no idea who has done this to you, or how. You don't know if you'll ever escape. You are an unimaginable distance from home. And then, a strange creature finds you and says, 'An Arbeely! But I thought Arbeelys were only tales told to children. Quick, you must hide, and pretend to be one of us, for the people here would be frightened of you if they knew.'" (p.45)
Elsewhere in the city, the Golem keeps a similar secret. Creatures such as she are meant to serve, to satisfy certain commands, however Chava has no master. He died at sea, leaving her to plot out her own path... but she has no idea where to start.

Confused and frustrated and afraid, the Golem is about to lash out, when in the nick of time, a kindly old Rabbi finds her, and agrees to to guide her. He teaches Chava how to pass for a person and gets her a job in a local bakery to boot.

These, though, are merely way stations for the Golem and the Djinni, like the Hebrew Sheltering House that plays a pivotal part in the plot later on, "where men fresh from the Old World could pause, and gather their wits, before jumping head-first into the gaping maw of the New." (p.89) This is also the lonesome road travelled by Ahmad and Chava, both of whom—once they have found their feet—move away from their guardians in the course of declaring their respective independence.

She rents a room in a respectable neighbourhood of ladies, for such is her nature... but there, because curiosity and intelligence is also in her nature, the Golem basically goes stir-crazy:
To lie still and silent in such an enclosed space was no easy task. Her fingers and legs would begin to twitch, regardless of how much she tried to relax. Meanwhile, a small army of wants and needs would make their way to her mind: from the boy and the Rabbi, both of whom would give anything for the clock to go faster; from the woman in the room below, who lived in a constant torment of pain from her hip; from the three young children next door, who were forced to share their few toys, and always coveted whatever they didn't have—and, at a more distant remove, from the rest of the tenement, a small city of strivings and lusts and heartaches. And at its centre lay the Golem, listening to it all. (p.51)
The Djinni is little happier in his hovel, until one evening he meets a woman unlike any other. Ahmad is absolutely fascinated by Chava. "He felt strangely buoyant, and more cheerful than he'd been in weeks. This women, this—golem?—was a puzzle waiting to be solved, a mystery better than any mere distraction. He would not leave their next meeting to chance." (p.175) Nor does he. Rather, he resorts to waiting at her window—rolling and smoking cigarettes in the awful woollen hat she insists he wear if they're to spend time together—until the Golem puts aside her proclivities towards certain sensibilities and agrees to explore the new world with him.

They are, of course, kindred spirits. Similar in many senses, and in one another they find something... let's say special, as opposed to romantic. In any case, till this point in the tale, one's narrative has very much mirrored the other's. Both the Golem and the Djinni come to the city in the first instance against their individual will; both become immersed, initially, in the mundanity of reality; both are fast approaching the end of his or her tether when their paths cross; both cause in their chance companions crises of faith; and both have pasts that ultimately catch up with them.

Despite said synchronicities, they are, as it happens, fundamentally different characters. Each fears the end result of the revelation that they are not who they appear to be, "yet she had submitted so meekly, accepting the very imprisonment he fought against. He pitied her; he wanted to push her away." (p.205) And indeed; he does.

But all the while, something wicked this way comes, and if the Golem and the Djinni are to survive the city, they will have to put aside their differences...

An indisputably moving masterpiece of magical realism complete with charismatic characters and a fabulous narrative, The Golem and the Djinni is Helene Wecker's debut, if you can credit it.

There are, I suppose, several ever-so-slight signs. Early on, I grew tired of Wecker's overbearing way of introducing new characters—central, supporting and essentially incidental alike. We're treated to a few purposeless paragraphs in the present, then an extended reminiscence about some crucial point in their pasts, followed by another paragraph or two as indifferent to questions of pace and plot as those with which we began. These brief tales are, to a one, engaging, but cumulatively they serve to slow down the core story.

500 pages later, the denouement proved a mite too tidy for my liking—the difference between gathering narrative threads together and tying every which one up in a contrivance of pretty ribbons seems lost on the author—and whilst Wecker mostly resists the irresistible romance, I wish she had wholly.

But never mind that, because the premise is impeccable—case in point: both the Golem and the Djinni, as others amongst others, come with conflict built-in—the central characters are distinct and comprehensively convincing, the overall plot is finely formed and near-perfectly paced, excepting the aforementioned digressions. And the setting? Simply exemplary. The New York City of The Golem and the Djinni is like a living, breathing creature. Its "trolleys and trains [..] seemed to form a giant, malevolent bellows, inhaling defenseless passengers from platforms and street corners and blowing them out again elsewhere." (p.339) It's as vast and vibrant and violent as any secondary world setting.

Helene Wecker is evidently staggeringly talented, and I can only hope she continues to channel her energies into the fiction of the fantastic. Like The Shadow of the Wind before it, or more recently Alif the Unseen, The Golem and the Djinni is a treasure of a debut that demands attention, and deserves to be spoken of with reverence. It's my pleasure to recommend it unreservedly, and yours, I'm sure, to read it immediately.


The Golem and the Djinni
by Helene Wecker

UK Publication: August 2013, Blue Door
US Publication: April 2013, Harper

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Wednesday 28 August 2013

Guest Post | "Giants, Gods and Deep Time" by A. J. Smith

I had my problems with The Black Guard — see Monday's review for more on those — but at its best it struck me as the beginning of an "ambitious, engrossing and positively action-packed" fantasy saga reminiscent of the work of Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson.

What I didn't get to talk about in the review I wrote, because I'm careful not to give too much of any tale away, was how very different the latter part of the inaugural volume of The Long War is from the former. I rather not get into it here either, but suffice it to say the sinister subjects of the guest post below are indicative of what so sets The Black Guard apart.

Here, then, is the owner of 24 goblins — evidently one too many — on "Giants, Gods and Deep Time."


Geological time is a mind-numbingly difficult thing to understand; the time scale in which tectonic plates move, mountains rise, coastlines erode and continents form. Alternatively called deep time, it’s a scale measured in millennia, ages, strata and other things I struggle to comprehend. 

In our own world it’s the province of the hardcore geologist. In a fantasy world it’s the province of a writer obsessed with myth and legend, for anything can happen in the endless obscurity of deep time. Cultures and entire civilisations could have had their moment in the sun and died out. Unknowable beasts and monsters could have been dominant and then non-existent. With no scientific tools or sophisticated dating techniques, you are left only with legend and this, my dear readers, is what I do comprehend. 

What whispers yet remain? What corners of the world still harbour remnants of a bygone age? What can the endless past teach the present in the blink of an eye it occupies? The events I write about take place as a mere cough in deep time, a momentary point where vast forces converge. The protagonists may feel differently, they may think they are at some kind of nexus point where their actions do have meaning. To know and understand the reality – that individual endeavour means nothing in the grand scheme of things – is too nihilistic a concept for most fantasy heroes to accept. 

The few beings that bridge the gap – Giants in my world – are as unknowable as the timescale they occupy. And yet their influence and motivations echo throughout time. They guide actions, start and end wars, reach across boundless millennia to twist the short-lived protagonists into their own schemes. For this reason the Giants are seen as gods, when, in fact, they are merely older, wiser and more alien than the beings that worship them. The Giants don’t care about kings, countries and politics – it’s doubtful they even understand them – they have lived in and beyond the world since before these concepts emerged, since before humans appeared, since before the continents moved into their current positions. Why should they care about a few sentient apes that choose to build temples and invoke their names? 

Put simply: they care because they are playing their own game, fighting their own war with their own rules and their own conditions of victory. The Giants and their chief servants call it The Long War, the Dokkalfar call it The Slow Pain. The humans have no name for it and huddle in the shadow of their gods, hoping that they matter, all the time oblivious to the dance of birth and extinction that they are a part of. When you have a life-expectancy of seventy or eighty years (hopefully without accident or injury hastening the inevitable), you can’t be expected to grasp the infinite or appreciate your own insignificance; you look at the world around you – the towns, cities, churches, structures – both social and literal – and you hope that they matter, all the time fearing that they might not. 

And the ultimate curse of deep time? The war can never be won, for geological time never stops, never stands still, has no mercy or personality and exists only as a force of change. It’s scary, humbling, nihilistic, but, in my opinion, deeply fascinating. Civilizations, seemingly as strong as mountains, will eventually crumble to dust. Others will be built on their ruins, using the legends of a bygone age to structure their own society, until, once again, the inevitable roll of the ages crushes them.


Many thanks, A. J., for what must be the most epic guest post I've had to pleasure to publish here on TSS.

Now I don't believe he blogs — you what?! — but for more information, you can find A. J. Smith on Twitter, and he's a user of Goodreads too.

Now then: has anyone read The Black Guard yet? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Monday 26 August 2013

Book Review | The Black Guard by A. J. Smith

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The Duke of Canarn is dead, executed by the King's decree. The city lies in chaos, its people starving, sickening, and tyrannized by the ongoing presence of the King's mercenary army. But still hope remains: the Duke's children, the Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, have escaped their father's fate.

Separated by enemy territory, hunted by the warrior clerics of the One God, Bromvy undertakes to win back the city with the help of the secretive outcasts of the Darkwald forest, the Dokkalfar. The Lady Bronwyn makes for the sanctuary of the Grass Sea and the warriors of Ranen with the mass of the King's forces at her heels. And in the mountainous region of Fjorlan, the High Thain Algenon Teardrop launches his Dragon Fleet against the Red Army. Brother wars against brother in this, the epic first volume of the long war.


Even the most fervent fantasy fans would admit, I think, that the genre sometimes tends towards the tedious. Too often, the term epic is misunderstood to mean massive. Length is mistaken for depth, development is traded for needless detail; an accumulation of confusion rules rather than a convincing attempt at complexity.

Authors great and small are guilty of this over-valuation of size as opposed to substance. To name a few of the most notable, I would argue that Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks could be — to put it politely — better edited. Certainly they seem to subscribe to the more is more school of thought... yet I'd gleefully read and in all likelihood relish anything either writes in a heartbeat, because both have the courage of their convictions.

I don't know if A. J. Smith does, or if he should be counted amongst such acclaimed company, but his first fantasy has a lot in common with the work of the aforementioned pair: it shares in the wealth of several of their strengths, as well as making, I'm afraid, many of the same mistakes as said. At points, The Black Guard is boring, boilerplate and overbearing. At its best, however, it's the equal of either author's archives: ambitious, engrossing and positively action-packed.

The Black Guard begins with the death of a drunk, Sir Leon Great Claw, over a simple slight by his squire. Lost in thought, young Randall of Darkwald accidentally empties a piss-pot on a priest of the order of the Purple. The priest comes a-calling for an apology, but the old knight is having none of it; he hates purples with a passion, and — uninhibited as he is — says as much. Brother Torian has no choice but to challenge the drunk to a duel, which he wins. In short order, Randall inherits Great Claw's longsword, and is hired, entirely to his surprise, by his late master's murderer.

The scene seems set for a fairly farcical coming of age tale, but though Randall remains on the periphery of chapter two, which is depicted from the perspective of Brother Utha — a chaplain of the Black church who accompanies Torian on his quest to capture a deposed Duke's surviving son — another 200 pages have passed before we hear from Randall again. And we can only count on his company once more over the course of the two parts of The Black Guard.

The decision, then, to begin with him, and the trifling narrative thread he represents, is a strange one: a problematic positioning of Randall over The Black Guard's other characters. But if the truth be told, we don't spend much longer with any of the many familiar fantasy figures which populate Smith's initially diffident debut. Several stand out in retrospect — specifically the honourable Northman, Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarson, and the Kirin assassin Rham Jas Rami, who "has given up on goodness" (p.134) — but at the outset, the only character I cared about was the world.

And what a world it is! There are the rebellious Freelands of Ranen, the pseudo-civilised sprawl of Ro below, and across the Kirin Ridge, bleak, mysterious Karesia. Representing the lattermost lands are seven insidious sisters, purportedly followers of the fire god, who set the overarching story in motion. Each "as beautiful and dangerous as a flame," they have installed themselves in positions of power in both Ro and Ranen in order to enact "the final stages of a long game [...] being played out in the lands of men." (p.213)

The enchantress Ameira has the ear of the lord of the former fiefdom, in fact. It will come no surprise that she played a part in the selfsame King's decision to invade Ro Canarn for its Duke's defiance.
"Ro Canarn had been a lively coastal city, full of activity and rarely quiet. Hasim had spent many happy nights here, drinking and laughing with Magnus before Duke Hector had made his fatal mistake and tried to break away from the king of Tor Funweir. He had been in the city when the warning horn sounded from the southern battlements and the Red battle fleet had appeared. And now, four days later, the city was like a tomb, deathly quiet and safe only for the knights of the Red and their allies." (pp.110-111)
The Red, incidentally, are the armed forces of Ro: "dour men who lived only to follow orders and to maintain the laws of the One," (p.74) which is to say the One God, though the One God is not the only God we encounter in The Black Guard. Far from it, in fact.

But back to the plot; there is, after all, an awful lot. Inevitably, the daring Duke is executed for crimes against the empire, however his son and daughter, Bromvy and Bronwyn, give the King the slip. Thereafter, a decree is passed, naming both to the Black Guard, which is a means of identifying "those whose family had betrayed the crown. It was a brand placed on the cheek to identify a man as belonging to a dishonourable house. Brom [and [Bronwyn] had been named to the Black Guard, but not yet captured and branded." (p.122-123)

Nor will they be, if either has any say in the matter. To that end, Bromvy enlists the assistance of Rham Jas Rami, who introduces him to the Dokkalfar: outcasts he hopes will help him win Canarn back. Bronwyn, meanwhile, seeks the sanctuary of the Grass Sea, with the Red army hot on her heels.

It's only once the pair have finally finished escaping that The Black Guard gets good, and I'm afraid that takes half of the tale to square away. The break between books one and two is also the point at which Algenon — Magnus' brother and Thane of the Northmen — launches his indomitable Dragon Fleet against the King of Ro's forces. Why? Because that's what his God wants. Rowanoco said so Himself, you see.

All the while, the dead are rising, and all that lives is in terrible peril, apparently.

"A. J. Smith has been devising the worlds, histories and characters of The Long War chronicles for over a decade," reads the press release that came with my copy of The Black Guard. The worlds and histories I can credit. The author may take an inordinate amount of time putting the pieces together, but once they're in place, the story's setting is superb. Smith imparts an impression that this world will go on even without us; that it has for many centuries already.

The characters, alas, are frankly forgettable. We've talked about the best of them already; the worst of them, however, lay this inaugural record of The Long War low. Most are painted in broad strokes only, and a not insignificant number are utterly redundant. In addition, there are so very many perspectives that few develop discernibly. Smith's mode of storytelling seems to be to move one cog an infinitesimal distance, then adjust several others incrementally. It takes so long for these workings to bear on one another in any meaningful manner that I began to wonder if the machine of our metaphor was in working order at all.

It is, ultimately... it just takes an age to warm up properly. But be assured that the second part of The Black Guard is markedly more absorbing than the first. Certain characters come together — characters which play better with one another than they do independently — and there's some fantastic action, finally. On the basis of book two, I'd heartily recommend this chronicle of The Long War; if not unreservedly, then with far fewer caveats than I have as it stands. Unfortunately, I can think of few more convincing illustrations of the argument I outlined at the outset of this article — that less is more rather than vice versa — than The Black Guard's bloated beginning.


The Black Guard
by A. J. Smith

UK Publication: August 2013, Head of Zeus

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Friday 23 August 2013

Book Review | Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

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Baxter Zevcenko's life is pretty sweet. As the 16-year-old kingpin of the Spider, his smut-peddling schoolyard syndicate, he's making a name for himself as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. Profits are on the rise, the other gangs are staying out of his business, and he's going out with Esme, the girl of his dreams.

But when Esme gets kidnapped, and all the clues point towards strange forces at work, things start to get seriously weird. The only man drunk enough to help is a bearded, booze-soaked, supernatural bounty hunter that goes by the name of Jackson 'Jackie' Ronin.

Plunged into the increasingly bizarre landscape of Cape Town's supernatural underworld, Baxter and Ronin team up to save Esme. On a journey that takes them through the realms of impossibility, they must face every conceivable nightmare to get her back, including the odd brush with the Apocalypse.


Baxter Zevcenko has worked hard to get where he's gotten. He has good friends, great entrepreneurial expectations, a gorgeous girlfriend — name of Esmé — and if the Spider has a head, it's him.

The Spider, by the by, is a schoolyard syndicate of porn brokers in indirect competition with the two larger gangs that operate at Westridge High. Things between the Form and the Nice Time Kids are coming to a head, however, and Baxter believes the resulting rise in violence will be bad for business:
One student getting stabbed would be inconvenient. A gang war could be the death knell for [the Spider]. Lockers would be searched, pupils would be questioned, parents would be summoned, and there are just too many trails leading to us. (p.12)
Really, Baxter has no choice but to intervene — or so he sees it.

He sets out, in any event, to engineer a seemingly impossible peace. And credit to the kid, he nearly succeeds. But while his mind is mired in machinations of the Machiavellian kind, Esmé goes missing... and to make matters worse, all signs point to her having been kidnapped by the Mountain Killer: a serial murderer who has made his name in the Cape Town area by carving the all-seeing eye — the very occult icon Baxter has been dreaming of recently — into the foreheads of his twelve (going on thirteen) victims.

Which just goes to show: when you've got it good, what you really have is that much more to lose.

If you were thinking all this must represent rock bottom for our poor protagonist, you couldn't be more wrong, because there's a very real possibility that Baxter is in fact the Mountain Killer. A possibility Sergeant Schoeman, "the Michelin man of the South African police force," (p.60) treats very seriously indeed.

Add to his incessant dreams of death and his close ties to at least two of the Mountain Killer's victims the fact that Baxter has a family history of mental maladies: he sees a psychiatrist himself, whilst his baby brother Rafe is mostly mute and his Grandpa Zev believes with every fibre of his weakening being that giant crows are out to get him.

Fact is, though, they are. Or at the very least they were. But now it looks like they're rather more interested in our man... and giant crows are far from the only evil he needs to deal with.

So it is that Baxter finds himself swept up in the seedy "supernatural ecosystem" (p.112) that debut author Charlie Human superimposes upon his rendition of sunny South Africa. The existence of the Hidden Ones might well catch readers off guard, particularly considering how abruptly this becomes the book's foremost focus, but it comes as no surprise to the possibly homicidal anti-hero at the darkly fantastic heart of Apocalypse Now Now:
I've been bathed in the warm glow of supernatural fantasies ever since I can remember. The fairy tales my parents read me as a kid, TV, video games, it all kinda feels like they've been preparing me for this moment. It feels somehow natural and the other world, the one with taxes, life insurance, twenty leave days a year, cancer, and the realisation that you're never, ever going to be a celebrity, is the shadow, the fantasy and the delusion. The world is as I always intuited it to be; weird, fractured and full of monsters. (p.116)
Monsters Baxter will have to handle if he has a hope in hell of getting Esmé back, assuming he hasn't already killed her himself. To that end, he pilfers profits from his porn business to pay for protection from a bearded, booze-soaked bounty hunter: Ronin in both name and nature. Together, they literally lay waste to Cape Town — not that it's the prettiest of places to begin with. Here's Baxter on what is practically his back yard:
It smells like wet dog and puke. One thing I love about the canal is its honesty; like a sick, swollen artery beneath the Botox of suburbs. The homeless was here listening to the sounds of rich people frolicking in their garden jacuzzis. Through the windows you can see lawyers watching TV or bankers furtively looking at PornTube, while drunks have sex in the long grass that borders the canal. I pull my grey hoodie over my head and pedal faster. (p.41)
Cruel and unusual as it is, Apocalypse Now Now's setting is pitch perfect for the wicked fun forthcoming. I've spent quite a while in South Africa myself, and in certain spots it is awfully end-of-the-world-esque. The idea, then, that there could be some strange undiscovered space between the squalorous urban sprawl and the baked wilderness outwith its cities is not as mal (if I may) as it appears. Mix in some canny concepts and creepy creatures from local folklore and you can imagine how well the setting lends itself to the terrific tale Human tells.

That said, the way the author expands the story's speculative elements is lazy at the least. Smack bang in the middle of Apocalypse Now Now there's an ugly infodump during which Baxter gets the grand tour of a shelter housing several supernatural specimens, all while an obscenely convenient character explains the larger lay of the land.

The only other nit I feel compelled to pick relates to how Human almost entirely abandons the hijinx at Westridge High with which his book begins. I'd have loved to spend a little longer learning about Baxter and the Spider before the appearance of the last living Obambo. Failing that, Human could have come full circle before the conclusion, and though to a degree he does, the scant resolve he offers at this stage is too little too late to sate.

Thankfully, these issues don't massively detract from the breakneck pace and mad imagination that make Apocalypse Now Now such an addictive experience. As one of an associate of Ronin's remarks: "There's no pause button, you understand? [...] Once it starts you have to see it through." (p.244)

All too true!

Between The Shining Girls, the lion's share of the short stories collected in Ivor Hartmann's excellent AfroSF anthology, and S. L. Grey's next novel, 2013 looks to be a tremendous year for South African speculative fiction: a welcome trend Apocalypse Now Now continues, irrespective of a few founding foibles.


Apocalypse Now Now
by Charlie Human

UK Publication: August 2013, Century
SA Publication: July 2013, Umuzi

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Thursday 22 August 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | The Adjacency Effect

Horror of horrors: I've been without the internet for the last 48 hours!

Actually, aside the initial inconvenience, it's been a fine few days. I squeezed a whole hell of a lot of reading in, finished the superior third season of The Killing, played the final Dishonored DLC, and caught up on a few awesome comics.

It's amazing, the sheer quantity of stuff you can get done when you aren't distracted by emails and tweets and feeds and so on. If I'm honest, when I woke up this morning to see that they'd fixed things at the exchange, I was almost disappointed. Almost.

In any case, I've got an awful lot to catch up on before I'm back on track, so today, for your entertainment, let me point you elsewhere.
Seamless storytelling can sometimes seem like magic, but in The Adjacent, Christopher Priest goes to great lengths to stress the applied aspects of both practices: 
"What I do [...] is contrived to look like a series of miracles, but in reality the preparation of a magical illusion is a prosaic matter. Few people realise the amount of rehearsal conjurors have to put in, nor what goes on in the background. A trick often requires technical assistants, who will help design and build the apparatus. The movements a magician makes on stage are the result of long and patient rehearsal, while still having to look natural and spontaneous to the audience. It is an acquired practical skill, in other words. Only while in performance, in the glare of the limelight, can magic look like inspiration. Even at best it is never more than an illusion. Things are never what they seem." (p.86)
This is true of almost every facet of The Adjacent. Its narrative feels fairly straightforward at first, but the farther into the fold we go, the less linear and logical it looks. One tale turns into two, two into ten... ten threads or thereabouts, then, which contradict as often as complement one another, seeming to stand alone from the whole at the same time as suggesting some imperative collective resonance. Meanwhile, whatever motivations or expectations Priest's cast of characters either have or lack at the outset are quickly obliterated; annihilated on even the theoretical level by something uncomfortably akin to the Perturbative Adjacent Field proposed by Professor Thijs Rietvel.
You can read the rest of my review of The Adjacent over at Strange Horizons.

In short, it mightn't be the place for readers new to Christopher Priest to begin, but for those of us who've stuck with him through thick and thin, it's an astonishingly rewarding novel. In long... well, you know where to go.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Quoth the Scotsman | David Towsey on the Distance of Difference

I've been feeling my age of late.

Given the content of the last Quoth the Scotsman, you must've imagined as much. Continuing along those lines, then, I came across a particularly perceptive passage in David Towsey's debut, which I'll be reviewing in full on the site soon, discussing how time affects our understanding of distance.

And vice versa, because distance, I find, also influences our perception of time. But we'll leave that subject for another day, eh?

What follows is an excerpt from Councilman Cirr's lecture to the attendees of the Black Mountain Common Consensus: a punctuated prologue of sorts that has — worry not — little bearing on the book's plot. 
An appreciation of distance is always framed by an understanding of time. To a human child, tomorrow could seem a hundred miles away. A twenty-minute walk, from one side of a town to the other, is a vast and tiring expedition. But as they grow, the world around them shrinks. Over the years they shift their expectations of time, of what could and should be achieved in a single day. They begin to think of the future and the past. They lose a minute-by-minute existence, an immediacy of needs and wants. This is the transition from child to adult. 
And then, everything is reversed. The world shrinks again. It takes twice as long to walk anywhere; confined in their homes, only the most essential journeys seem worth the effort. Thoughts turn to making the most of their time. The past holds too many memories; the future, only an end. This is the transition from adult to elder. 
An example: a boy dreams of the Redlands. They are an expanse of adventure and possibility. As he grows into a man he discovers that the map of Pierre County disagrees — the Redlands are a set of lines the size of a thumb. His adult eyes realise the relative scale: big, but a space that has its limits. Then then man becomes elderly. He looks on the same map again and marvels at the sheer size of that rocky wasteland. 
There is only one disruption to this cycle. For some it is final, for others only moments. To those lucky enough to be born again, time becomes infinite and distance is reduced to nothing. 
This is the transition from human to Walkin'. (pp.99-100)
The very transition Your Brother's Blood's protagonist undergoes at the outset of what must be the most engrossing zombie novel I've read since Exit Kingdom.

Expect more on David Towsey's debut in early September, when he and I plan to put our heads together to talk about faith, before and after the fall.

Monday 19 August 2013

Book Review | Night Boat by Alan Spence

My childhood name was Iwajiro, and I was eight years old when I first entered at the gates of hell...

One night in eighteenth-century Japan, at the hour of the Ox, a young boy named Iwajiro sits in a state of pure concentration. At the foot of Mount Fuji, behind screen walls and amidst curls of incense smoke Iwajiro chants the Tenjin Sutra, an act of devotion learned from his beloved mother.

On the side of the same mountain, twenty years on, he will sit in perfect stillness as the summit erupts, spitting fire and molten rock onto the land around him. This is not the first time he has seen hell.

This man will become Hakuin, one of the greatest teachers in the history of Zen. His quest for truth will call on him to defy his father, to face death, to find love and to lose it. He will ask, what is the sound of one hand clapping? And he will master his greatest fear.

Night Boat is the story of his tremendous life.


At the foot of Mount Fuji towards the end of the 17th century, eight year old Iwajiro attends a lecture on the Eight Hot Hells, and develops a burning fear of fire that will prove fundamental to his future.

Shaken, he asks his mother if there is any way of escaping damnation. A pious woman herself, she advises Iwajiro to attend the temple of Tenjin, where he is told to awaken each night at the hour of the Ox — that is to say 2 AM — and chant a certain sutra.

In this way, his unsettled soul finds slight respite, but in time his new-found faith divides his family. On the one hand, Iwajiro's mother encourages her son, seeming to believe his devout behaviour will pave the way for something greater. His father, unfortunately — a businessman once poised to become a monk himself, who now neglects his own devotions — thinks it "ridiculous. You'll turn him into a useless layabout, a lazy good-for-nothing with his head full of nonsense about burning in hell." (p.20)

Little does he know who or what his son will one day become.

He should have had a little faith, eh?

Years later, Iwajiro still observes the hour of the ox, but it is no longer enough:
I got up every night, shocked myself awake with cold water, lit incense and sat chanting the sutras. It meant I began each day with a kind of strength and clarity, even if it faded as the day wore on. But lately it had been fading more and more quickly. Some little thing would jangle my nerves, make me angry, and it felt as if all the austerity was for nothing. Then that old fear of hell began to stir in me, and I was once again that frightened child, terrified of burning in the fires. (p.29)
At bottom, Iwajiro has begun to feel the desires typical of a teen, but rather than simply submitting to them — them and the Eight Hot Hells he remains afraid they represent — he resolves to throw himself into the spiritual life. In short order, he leaves home, to apprentice at the temple in town, where the head monk rechristens him Ekaku, meaning Wise Crane.

His studies do not end here, however. Far from it! Before his thirtieth birthday, Ekaku has travelled from one end of Japan to the other, studying poetry, assorted sutras, koans and so on. He has seen the aftermath of a ghastly tsunami, and sat in a state of perfect concentration whilst Mount Fuji erupted around him, spitting fire and molten rock onto his family's land. He has not conquered his fear of the Eight Hot Hells yet, but year after year, he grows closer to his goal.

Night Boat by Alan Spence is a fictionalised account of the legendary Zen master Hakuin Ekaku, whose practices are prevalent even today. You probably haven't heard of him, but I warrant you will have heard of the reflective riddle he originated: what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Any guesses? Anyone?

Well, worry not: assuming there is an answer, months and years of meditation are required before we stand a change of arriving at it — and even then, there are no guarantees. In many ways, this is the basis of the teachings that Hakuin made famous.

Night Boat is of course historical fiction first and foremost, yet it is rich with myth and mysticism. It is "a thing of magic and enchantment [both] terrifying and magnificent" (p.59) in turn. Like its subject, Night Boat is a story "haunted by hungry ghosts and malevolent spirits." (p.47) And yes, there's a quest... though Haukuin's search is for a sense of self rather than some all-powerful bauble.

After an unpleasant run-in with an old priest who believes he is "debasing the Dharma," (p.348) Hakuin reflects as follows:
I thought I could make a story of the incident, tell a tale that might reach some of those very lay followers he had been talking about. The Buddha's message had to spread ever wider. Beat the Dharma drum. 
I would give the story a supernatural element, make it an otherworldly tale of spirit possession, a message from beyond. [...] Another tale from the Night Boat. (pp.350-351)
Alan Spence's latest is a labour of love, ultimately: an account of a life lived long ago, the effects of which are still felt by many. It's episodic, certainly, and at points inherently repetitive, yet the author — an award-winning poet and playwright, and manager in the erstwhile of the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre in Edinburgh — manages to fashion a fascinating narrative from a scant few facts.

And unlike the Lotus Sutra — a pivotal text that disappoints Hakuin early on, as he finds "the density and weight of [the words] hard work" (p.44) — the precise prose of Night Boat is reasonably easy to read, plus it's punctuated by soaring poetry and prone, in the moment, to flights of fabulous fantasy.

To be sure, Night Boat is a tall tale, but a true one too.


Night Boat
by Alan Spence

UK & US Publication: August 2013, Bloomsbury

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Friday 16 August 2013

Coming Attractions | A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

So I was scrolling through the coming soon section of Fantastic Fiction, looking for new releases to feature in Sunday's edition of the British Genre Fiction Hitlist, when I saw, to my surprise, that Kay Kenyon has a new book coming out. Who knew?

Well, I didn't. And I do care. In the course of keeping up with community in years previous, I heard all sorts of good things about The Entire and the Rose saga, so I set aside some time and read book one, Bright of the Sky. I didn't love it... but I quite liked it. Enough that I made room for volume two in my bedside cabinet, where I keep everything I mean to read, and bought copies of the next two novels. But when, a little later, I read A World Too Near, my response to the novel was once more mild.

Looking back, I gather that book three is where the series really gets good, but at this stage, a period of years later, I very much doubt I'll be going back to find out what happens.

Be that as it may, I still find myself interested in A Thousand Perfect Things. It's full-on fantasy as opposed to sci-fi, and even better, I see it's standalone. The blurb sounds beautiful, too:
It is 1857. After millennia of seafaring, and harried by the kraken of the deep, in a monumental feat of engineering Anglica has built a stupendous bridge to Bharata. Bharata's magical powers are despised as superstition, but its diamonds and cotton are eagerly exploited by Anglic colonials. Seething with unrest over its subjugation, Bharata strikes back with bloody acts of magical terrorism.  
Despite these savage attacks, young Tori Harding yearns to know if Bharata's magics may also be a path to scientific discovery. Tori's parents hold little hope for her future because she has a club foot. Therefore they indulge her wish to have instruction in science from her famous botanist grandfather, even though, as a woman she will be denied a career in science by the male-dominated scientific societies. Though courted by a friend of the family, Captain Edmond Muir-Smith, Tori has taken to heart her grandfather's warning not to exchange science for "married slavery."  
Emboldened by her grandfather's final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori crosses the great bridge with her father's regiment and Captain Muir-Smith. In Bharata she encounters her grandfather's old ally, the Rana of Kathore, his rival sons, and the ancient museum of Gangadhar, fallen to ruin and patrolled by ghosts.  
In pursuit of the golden lotus, Tori finds herself in a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and the enduring gods of Bharata. As a great native mutiny sweeps up the Rana's household, her father's regiment and the entire continent of Bharata--Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped, and stranger than she could have dreamed.
By the by, here's Keyon talking about the collision of ideas that inspired A Thousand Perfect Things in an article for Blackgate.

At 292 pages, A Thousand Perfect Things doesn't look like the longest of novels. On the other hand, the Kindle edition is cheap as chips at the time of this writing. It's coming from Premier Digital Publishing on August 27th, though the trade paperback is already available.

Anyone out there ready to recommend it?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Guest Post | "The Inverted Image" by Tom Pollock

So... The Glass Republic. I loved it.

One of the things that fascinated me most about the book was its preoccupation with perfection and reflection, so when the opportunity arose to have the author blog about something for The Speculative Scotsman, it didn't take long to for me to come up with a potential topic for Tom.

Alas, the blasted Book Smugglers had already booked the author for a post about beauty, but Tom, ever the gentleman, was willing to approach the idea of the images from another angle. And in the end, I think it worked out well. Fittingly, in fact, you could consider the guest blog below the mirror image of Tom's contribution to SFF In Conversation.


As a child I was pathologically drawn to things that looked like doors but weren’t: picture frames, fire places, bookcases, a rectangular pattern of cracks in a brick wall, or in the bark of a tree trunk. When I was eight, the first thing I used to do when I went into any room was try and discover the piece of furniture that was hiding the secret passage.

The thing that fascinated me most, though, was mirrors (which wasn’t, I hope wholly narcissism). A mirror was more than a potential hidden door, it was a doorway, a hermetically sealed world, teasing my delusional childish mind with the space sealed behind the glass.

Mirrors as portals onto fantasy worlds are nothing new. Lewis Carroll nailed it so hard that going "through the looking glass" has entered the lexicon as a euphemism for any strange situation.

So, when the time came to create London-Under-Glass, the city of the Mirrorstocracy, the inverted doppelganger of the fantastical London of The City’s Son, I knew I wanted the mirror to be more than a doorway. I wanted it to be founding principle of the entire world.

In London-Under-Glass, everything is built on reflections. The citizens are living reflections, laminates of the images of their doppelgangers in our London, built up layer after layer, day after day, until they become conscious. The buildings are warped and distended the way we see sometimes see them in our mirrors, swollen in odd places by clots of the precipitecture than falls from the sky.

In London-Under-Glass it snows brick dust, and hails slate. It literally rains cats and dogs because all of these things are caught in the river’s reflection, churned and broken by the tide and eventually evaporated and rained back down on the city. The citizens of the mirror city are used to this, but even they are occasionally unnerved when the droplets coalesce into whole faces in the puddles who try in vain to whisper secrets to them before the tyre of a passing car dashes them away.

All of that was fun, worldbuilding-wise. But the thing that really helped me with the story was the trial that such a world presented to my lead character, Pen.

In the first book, Pen was possessed by a parasitic creature made of barbed wire (work with me). She’s still bearing the scars of that attack, on both her face and her heart. Now she has to enter a city where how you look is everything, where image is substance. "Into that world inverted" she goes, and to survive she has to turn her scars into tools, her wounds into weapons. In a book about mirrors, it had some symmetry.  


Thank you a thousand times, Tom, for stopping off at The Speculative Scotsman to share a bit about how the Mirrorstocracy came to be.

Now get back to work on Our Lady of the Streets! :)

Monday 12 August 2013

Book Review | The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock

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Pen's life is all about secrets: the secret of the city's spirits, deities and monsters her best friend Beth discovered, living just beyond the notice of modern Londoners; the secret of how she got the intricate scars that disfigure her so cruelly - and the most closely guarded secret of all: Parva, her mirror-sister, forged from her reflections in a school bathroom mirror. Pen's reflected twin is the only girl who really understands her.

Then Parva is abducted and Pen makes a terrible bargain for the means to track her down. In London-Under-Glass, looks are currency, and Pen's scars make her a rare and valuable commodity. But some in the reflected city will do anything to keep Pen from the secret of what happened to the sister who shared her face.


As a people, we are plainly preoccupied with the picture of perfection; obsessed, essentially, by being beautiful. But image isn't everything, much as it may look that way in the day to day. As the protagonist of Tom Pollock's striking second novel suggests, "This thing — beauty? — it's arbitrary. People just make it up." Then again, as Pen's new partner in thought-crime counters, "Just 'cause something's made up, doesn't mean it's not real." (p.255)

All too true. So what's a poor, disfigured girl to do? A girl whose trust in another — her best friend Beth, no less — led to her being embraced by the barbed wire arms of The City's Son's big bad? Whose scars, even after extensive reconstructive surgery, are "a dozen mocking, mirroring mouths" (p.7) which mark Pen out as other amongst her fearful peers? Why, travel to an alternate dimension where our preconceived ideas about beauty have been completely reconceived; where she's celebrated, instead, as the most gorgeous girl in all the world!

Welcome, one and all, to The Glass Republic.

We'll get back to the inverted landscape of London-Under-Glass in time, but before that, let's recap. The Glass Republic begins a couple of months after the unhappy ending of Pollock's phenomenal first novel. Pen — aka Parva "Pencil" Khan — was a standout supporting character in said who was butchered come its cruel and unusual conclusion. To wit, I was keen to see what fate awaited her in book two of The Skyscraper Throne, however I hadn't expected her to take Beth Bradley's place as protagonist.

Beth isn't absent the narrative, exactly, though her role is rather reduced, in part because she must come to terms with what she's become: something hardly human, she feeds "on the city around her with every step [...] drawing power and information through the bare soles of her concrete-grey feet." (p.27) She carries an iron railing around as an extension of the urban environment she represents, and speaks to streetlight spirits without sound. Beth, then, figures into the fiction from time to time, but her intermittent chapters are largely devoted to foreshadowing; setting up certain secondary story threads Pollock plans, I presume, to pay off in the concluding volume of his terrific trilogy, namely next year's Our Lady of the Streets.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves again. The Glass Republic is for its part about Pen's plight, primarily. At the outset, she's trying to immerse herself in the mundane, the better to forget the incredible events she was caught up in some four months ago. To that end, she's returned to school, but to ingratiate herself amongst a new group of friends, she's asked to explain her mutilated face. She does so honestly — not that anybody believes her. Cue the smoothest recap I've read in recent memory:
I was kidnapped by a living coil of barbed wire — the servant of a demolition god whose fingers were cranes. I was its host, and it sent me to kill Beth Bradley, but she freed me from it instead. I held the monster down with my body while she cut it off with a sharpened park railing. (p.5)
Well, quite.

Predictably, things between Pen and her new schoolfriends go from tolerable to terrible in short order. Seeking solace from their spite, she turns to a reflection of herself... yet Parva is no mere mirror image. She's an esteemed member of the mirrorstocracy:
The girl on the other side of the glass had come from [Pen] — she was composed of all the infinite reflections of her that had been caught between the two mirrors — but that was when their coexistence had ended. 
Pen and Parva had diverged from that moment in time like beams of refracted light; now Parva had her own feelings, her own life, built up in the weeks since she'd first stepped into whatever lay outside the bathroom door in the reflection. She drank wine, ate meat and swore like a squaddie with haemorrhoids. Much to Pen's chagrined envy, she'd even managed to land herself a job, although she wouldn't say doing what. (p.22)
After an upsetting incident, Pen escapes to the bathroom where she and Parva like to put the world to rights, but on this occasion, all she sees behind the mirror is a bloody handprint. It's apparent that Parva's in trouble, so Pen resolves to seek out the Chemical Synod — the same oily entities who helped Beth discover herself — praying that they may know a way for her to travel to London-Under-Glass.

They do. They possess "a compound fit to change sseeing into doing, a tincture to transform a window to a door: a portal primer, if you will, or a doorway drug." But the price of this prize is a painful prospect; no less than "a complete ssset of memoriess of a child, rendered from the mindss of her parentsss — not copiesss, you undersstand, but originalss." (p.65) Without telling Beth anything, Pen acquiesces — after all, this is her quest, to undertake on her terms — and into the mirror city she goes.

I've been banging on about being burned out on London as the backdrop for fantastic happenings for long enough now that I confess I did not relish the thought of another narrative set in the city, but The Glass Republic sidesteps that category smartly.

The larger part of the action takes place in London-Under-Glass, which, like Parva, is different enough from its original that it is independently interesting. The mirror city has its own aesthetics — asymmetry is valued highly, which is why Pen's scars make her the apple of everyone's eye — not to mention its own politics and media and economy and so on. Everything, right down to the weather, is similar, yet bizarrely set apart. As Pen observes, "it was as though the London she knew had run in the rain." (p.110)
She recognised the art deco horses of the Unilever building over her, and the old power station that housed the Tate Modern on the opposite bank, but they were taller here, and their shapes rippled as they rose into the sky, their familiar outlines bent by strange accretions of brick and stone. 
They look exactly like they look reflected in the river at home, Pen marvelled. Here, that's how they actually are. (p.102) 
Pen, in the interim, is an absorbing protagonist. She's reticent and introverted where Beth was ballsy and confident. She goes her own way rather than simply mirroring the development of our previous hero, which is especially refreshing. That said, I was as taken with Espel: a fierce steeplejill-cum-companion who both helps and hinders Pen throughout The Glass Republic. I can safely say that she balances out Pencil Khan's more passive aspects nicely; explaining much more than that would be to give what is a great game away.

Meanwhile, Pollock's monsters are awesome. I enjoyed the "sewermander" (p.35) — a bottle-sized dragon — particularly, but not all of the author's creations are so wonderfully whimsical. Be warned that there are also "nightmare things squatting fatly on heavy haunches with back-bent teeth and empty eye sockets." (p.54) And that's just for starters.

A year or so ago, I described The City's Son as "a tour-de-force in sophisticated urban fantasy — beautifully wrought, tightly plotted and fantastically finessed." Somewhat shockingly, it was also Tom Pollock's first novel. If anything, his second is better. Certainly, the prose is punchier, and it was pretty impressive to begin with. Add to that an awesome secondary world and a masterfully expanded cast of characters, and it's easy to see why this author is one of speculative fiction's most promising new voices.

The Glass Republic is not your garden variety urban fantasy. Instead, it's a text very much concerned with appearances, and indeed, what lies beneath these. In that sense — and many others, yes — it's such an unfettered success that the concluding volume of The Skyscraper Throne saga can't come soon enough.


The Glass Republic
by Tom Pollock

UK Publication: August 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

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Thursday 8 August 2013

Coming Attractions | An Invitation to the Afterparty

I'll make no bones about it, nor any rotten appendages: I loved Raising Stony Mayhall. Alongside The Reapers are the Angels, it was easily one of the best zombie novels in recent years. It demonstrated, as I wrote in my review for Starburst Magazine, that "whatever people may say, there's plenty life left in the undead yet."

Ever since the publication of Raising Stony Mayhall in late 2011, I've been wondering what Daryl Gregory would do next. Now, thanks to the new catalogue Tor put out recently... now I know.

I thought you should, too.

Afterparty promises to be "powerful, violent science fiction in the tradition of William Gibson and Peter Watts." I've grabbed a cap of the cover art from the catalogue — see above — and the blurb below:
It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen­-year-­old street girl finds God through a new brain-­altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide. 
Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: she was one of the original scientists who developed the drug. With the help of an ex-­government agent and an imaginary, drug­-induced doctor, Lyda sets out to find the other three survivors of the five who made the Numinous in a quest to set things right. 
A mind­bending and violent chase across Canada and the US, Afterparty is a marvelous mix of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and perhaps a bit of Peter Watts’s Starfish: a last chance to save civilization, or die trying.
There's been no word of a UK release date as yet, but Afterparty is slated for publication in the United States next April. I'll be there... how about you?

Before I say good day, let me flag up a few other notable new books brought to light by way of Tor's new catalogue, which you can read in its entirety here: there's The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell — the sequel to London Falling—a particularly promising new weird novel, namely Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson, and last but not least, The Revolutions, a "glorious planetary romance" by Felix Gilman.

Is it wrong of me to be wishing the days between now and next April away?

Monday 5 August 2013

Book Review | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

It is known that the strangers will sail from some part of the Ancient Lands and will cross the Yentru Sea. All our predictions and sacred books clearly say the same thing. The rest is all shadows. Shadows that prevent us from seeing the faces of those who are coming.

In the House of Stars, the Astronomers of the Open Air read contradictory omens. A fleet is coming to the shores of the Remote Realm. But are these the long-awaited Northmen, returned triumphant from the war in the Ancient Lands? Or the emissaries of the Son of Death come to wage a last battle against life itself?

From every village of the seven tribes, a representative is called to a Great Council. One representative will not survive the journey. Some will be willing to sacrifice their lives, others their people, but one thing is certain: the era of light is at an end.


For generations, the Husihuilkes have lived off the land, making "use of all the forest and the sea could offer. Here at the Ends of the Earth, the Creatures faced the wind and the rain with strategies almost as old as the elements themselves," (p.6) and though they have become comfortable in the years since a real threat arose, they have not forgotten their nature. The Husihuilkes are a warrior people, the most fearsome fighters in all the Fertile Lands, and in the months to come, they will be called upon to take up arms again.

Why? Because there's a storm coming, of course! What epic fantasy saga would be complete without one?
As had happened every winter in living memory, another long season of rains was returning to the land of the Husihuilkes. The storms came from the southern seas, brought by a wind that spread heavy clouds over the Ends of the Earth and left them there until they had exhausted themselves. (p.5)
The Days of the Deer does not chronicle the Husihuilkes' war with the weather, however. Instead, the storm is an ill omen; a symbol of some encroaching force. But what shape will it take? And what might its appearance mean for the peaceable Creatures of the Fertile Lands?
The Magic of the Open Air has learnt beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will soon be a fleet from the Ancient Lands coming to our continent. It is known that the strangers will sail [across] the Yentru Sea. All our predictions and sacred books say the same thing. The rest is all shadows. Shadows in the stars and our books. Shadows that prevent us from seeing the faces of those who are coming. Who are they? Why are they travelling here? (p.57)
These are the questions that the central characters of Liliana Bodoc's debut are asked, and the longer they take to arrive at an answer—any answer—the worse the consequences will be. "The fate of everyone living in the Fertile Lands" (p.57) hangs in the balance, in fact... a responsibility so very terrible that it should be shared, surely, rather than shouldered by a single soul.

To wit, representatives of each of the Creatures who call the continent home—including Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes—are called to the far-distant city of Beleram in the Remote Realm. There, they form a council of sorts, to talk about the right and proper response to this dangerous state of affairs. They're well aware that their situation grows more desperate by the day—or rather, some among them are; primarily our protagonist—but without more information, what else are they to do other than discuss and debate?

As they hum and hah, however, the host of Eternal Hatred—led by Misáianes, the Son of Death herself—draws closer and closer to shore.
"Hear this and remember. Misáianes came to destroy the time of mankind, of animals, of water, of living green and of the moon, the time of Time. Many will be intoxicated by his poison; many more will fall in battle. Better to fall in battle. [For] if we are defeated in this war, Life will fall with us. If we are defeated, light will be condemned to drag itself over ashes. And Eternal Hatred will stride through the twilight of Creation." (p.94)
Eternal Hatred, eh?

Initially, I cringed at the blunt terminology too, but the more I read of The Days of the Deer, the more fitting it felt. Above all else, this is an elemental epic, and its author is particularly interested in the opposition which exists between the aforementioned forces. Thus the Ancient Land's army of darkness and death invades a continent of bright light and life. The natural is set starkly against the unnatural; order against chaos; and this trend extends to the narrative's depiction of good and evil in the old mould. 

Ultimately, then, the idea of Eternal Hatred makes a certain amount of sense, but that doesn't detract from the bland fact of it at first. Nor is this the only obvious genre shorthand made use of over the course of The Days of the Deer: a book of broad strokes, at best.

That said, there remain reasons to recommend Liliana Bodoc's debut. Originally published in Argentina in 2000 as Los Dias del Venado, The Days of the Deer is the first part of an acclaimed fantasy trilogy—namely The Saga of the Borderlands—that has gone untranslated for thirteen years, and I am pleased to see it in English... though the translation is, I think, too literal. I'm certainly no expert, but I had Google go to work on a short Spanish language excerpt and it spat out something surprisingly similar to the text Nick Caistor and Lucia Caistor Arendar render.

So there's an abundance of clunk and some frankly laughable Fantasy Capitalisation: a problem given how very seriously we're asked to take The Days of the Deer. Nevertheless, its setting is excellent. Both historically and ecologically, Bodoc develops her world deftly; if the characters who inhabit it lack life, the Fertile Lands themselves positively vibrate with vim and vigour and taste and texture.

I'm not quite convinced that the author is "the Tolkien of the Americas," as the publicity promises, but I can understand the comparisons. There's a fellowship and some songs; an unknowable evil and a complex yet credible setting. By and large, alas, this is unhelpful hyperbole, and it does The Days of the Deer few favours.

More useful is the cover quote from Ursula K. Le Guin, who, when asked who she admires within her genre, can only come up with one name: Liliana Bodoc's, obviously. Understand, though, that her genre—environmentally-aware fantasy, shall we say—must be a small one, because though The Days of the Deer is indeed decent, if it represents the best of anything, there simply can't be much competition.


The Days of the Deer
by Liliana Bodoc

UK Publication: August 2013, Corvus

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