book reviews by Althea

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Lovecraft’s Monsters – Ellen Datlow, ed.

You can always count on Ellen Datlow to put together a good anthology! As with any collection, I personally like some stories more than others, but this is definitely recommended: not just for Lovecraft fans, but for any reader of horror and dark fantasy.

***** Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman
A bad-ass werewolf visits Innsmouth, and gets mixed up in more than he bargained for. Reminded me a bit of ‘The Wicker Man,’ with extra paranormal elements. Humorous without being ‘light,’ Gaiman’s sincere love for Lovecraft shines through here.

**** Bulldozer by Laird Barron
A bad-ass Pinkerton agent travels West, in search of a circus strongman who’s on the lam, suspected of multiple murders – and, more importantly, of stealing an ancient book on demonology from none other than P.T. Barnum. The premise isn’t something that sounds like it’d be up my alley, but Barron really pulls it off. His Old West has a very ‘Deadwood’ feel to it that I enjoyed.

*** Red Goat Black Goat by Nadia Bulkin
Some kids get a nice magical nanny like Mary Poppins. And some kids get a magical nanny who’s actually half nanny-goat and all terrifying. The Javanese setting here is a nice touch; though I don’t know if the story is based on actual Indonesian myth as well as the Cthulhu mythos.

**** The Same Deep Waters as You by Brian Hodge
The popular TV host of ‘The Animal Whisperer’ is recruited by the US military and bundled off to a Guantanamo-style island, where ‘enemy combatants’deemed a threat to National Security have been held secretly – for the past century. These ‘mutants’ were captured in a raid on Innsmouth. The TV personality’s assignment? To learn to communicate with these fish-men. I had some doubts about the modern setting, but it’s done well. This story does a remarkably good job of capturing Lovecraft’s exact feeling toward his fish-men – a hard-to-pin-down mix of repulsion, horror, respect and sympathy.

** A Quarter to Three by Kim Newman
This one fell flat, for me. The story aims at humor, depicting a distraught pregnant teen who comes into a desolate all-night diner to meet her lover. The diner is in Innsmouth, so you can guess the reveal…

** The Dappled Thing by William Browning Spencer
A too-self-conscious steampunk story of British colonialism. An adventurer is sent to retrieve a wealthy aristocrat’s wayward granddaughter from the savage jungles. The Brits’ tentacled mechanical traveling machine tangles with a mysterious aquatic monster, and a narrow escape is made – or is it?

*** Inelastic Collisions by Elizabeth Bear
A couple of fallen angels (who seem a lot more like monsters) bewail their incarnate state, and seek their prey in urban pool halls… until they encounter a pool shark who may be more than he seems.

** Remnants by Fred Chappell
Lovecraft is ‘cleaned up’ for the ‘middle-grades’ in this post-apocalyptic sci-fi novella. Too long, too trite, the portrayal of the psychic autistic child was just annoying. It didn’t have the ‘feel’ of Lovecraft’s mythos at all.

*** Love is Forbidden, We Croak & Howl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Unusual – both for this anthology and for Kiernan. It’s humorous! Forbidden attraction between an Innsmouth fish-woman and an inhuman ghoul…

**** The Sect of the Idiot by Thomas Ligotti
The first few times I read short stories from Ligotti, I was actually under the impression that he was a contemporary of Lovecraft. He has that old-fashioned, circumnambulating and understated approach to horror (paired with a good vocabulary.) I enjoy it. Of all the stories in this volume, this one definitely comes the closest to resembling an actual Lovecraft story. A solitary man in a strange town… a bizarre dream, a seemingly random encounter, and of course, chthonic, alien forces.

*** Jar of Salts by Gemma Files
A poem.

** Black is the Pit From Pole to Pole by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley
Frankenstein’s monster, on his flight to the Arctic, discovers that the hollow Earth theory is factual, and goes on a strange rampage through subterranean realms. Overly ambitious, throws together too many disparate elements, and goes on too long for what it is.

*** Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem
An abusive, nearly subhuman man, who’s never known his father, is drawn by strange urges to bring his family to a remote and dilapidated motel. And then, other guests start filtering in… guests that all bear an odd, familial resemblance to one another.

*** I’ve Come to Talk with you Again by Karl Edward Wagner
A group of writers meet for their regular reunion, a pub night. One of them, the most successful, seems vigorous and preternaturally young. The others: old before their time, creaky and querulous. Some have died since their last meeting. Is there something more sinister than coincidence here?

**** The Bleeding Shadow by Joe R. Lansdale
Excellent noir horror with a 1930s (?) jazz setting. A private investigator is begged by a beautiful woman to see what’s happened to her brother – a talented jazz musician but a freeloader – who’s unexpectedly gone missing. The only thing she knows is that he’s mailed her a deeply eerie recording. She recognizes her brother’s voice, but the music is like nothing on earth. The narrator tracks him down – but there’s a good reason that he’d left town.

*** That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable by Nick Mamatas
Some teenagers hanging out get gotten by the unspeakable.

*** Haruspicy by Gemma Files
a poem

**** Children of the Fang by John Langan
Ooh, nice one. A very well-realized horror story of two siblings who gradually uncover the secrets that their grandfather has held since his work, many years ago, as a contractor in the Middle East. Rich characterization, and a good job of creating a legally-blind protagonist.

Copy provided by NetGalley and Tachyon Publications. Thanks! My opinions, as always, are solely my own.


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Unwrapped Sky – Rjurik Davidson *****

It’s always an unexpected pleasure to discover a new author this good.

Davidson starts this tale with a shocking scene, and keeps the energy going all the way through to the end. As I said in my review of the author’s short story, ‘Nighttime in Caeli-Amur,’ Davidson excels at creating characters who roundly deserve to be condemned for their actions – but still capture the reader’s empathy, if not sympathy.

Their home, Caeli-Amur, feels like a real place. It’s vivid, teeming with dreams, ambition, love and tragedy – and the bitter, grotesque things that all of those can twist lives into.

This is a story of a city on the brink…of a fall, or of revolution. Corrupt officials war with seditionist saboteurs. Here we meet Kata, former street orphan, trained philosopher-assassin (ninja) – a woman who’s learned to always have an eye for the main chance. But will her self-interest be her downfall? We also have Maximilian, an idealist and revolutionary whose dreams of studying the dangerous arts of thaumaturgy may not be compatible with the violent revolution some of his compatriots aim for. Then there’s Boris, former tramworker, on his way up the bureaucratic ladder to success… but will he be willing to trample over the bodies of his old friends on his way up?

And more… much, much more. This is a complex work exploring multiple layers of power and motivations. I’d say: China Mieville meets Tanith Lee – injected with a full syringe of originality. Recommended for fans of steampunk who are tired of the cliches. Davidson’s an author I’ll be following from here on out.

Advance review copy provided by NetGalley. Thanks to Netgalley and Tor Books. As always, my opinion is my own.

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Nighttime in Caeli-Amur – Rjurik Davidson ****

I’m in the middle of reading ‘Unwrapped Sky,’ Davidson’s novel set in his fictional city of Caeli-Amur. I noticed that Tor Books is providing free access to this short story, as a ‘teaser,’ so thought I’d check it out (since I’m loving the novel.)
Here (even more than in the book), Caeli-Amur puts me in mind of Tanith Lee’s Paradis – a complex, teeming metropolis full of beauty and evil, poverty and wealth, human foibles and inexplicable hauntings.
In this story, the city is merely the lush and atmospheric backdrop to a very human story. The narrator is a mid-level bureaucrat caught in a mid-life crisis, suffering discontent with his comfortable life and family, feeling the urge to throw away everything that he’s achieved on his proper track, and regretting the loss of the carefree life he had as a theater student in his university days.
A finely-crafted character study. Davidson seems to excel at creating characters where the reader has to closely consider whether they are deserving of condemnation, empathy – or both.

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The Shadow Queen – Sandra Gulland ***

Highly recommended for anyone interested in the world of 17th-century French theater.
The title of the book is a little inaccurate – while the novel certainly features the woman who was known as ‘The Shadow Queen,’ Athénaïs, Madame de Montspan, the main character is the woman who came to be her companion, Claude des Oeillets.
We follow Claude from dire poverty, as the daughter of a family of travelling players, to reasonable success in the theater world. Through a series of coincidental meetings (and they do seem very coincidental) she develops a huge girl-crush on the wealthy Athénaïs, who eventually takes her into her confidence as her intimate maid.
The story starts out extremely strong, with vivid characters, a great set-up, and a lively writing style. The depictions of the theatrical lifestyle and its intrigues are fascinating and fun.
However, the pacing didn’t quite hold up, for me. The character of Gaston, Claude’s autistic brother, grew a bit tedious. Rather than the classic dramatic structure of rising action to a climax… things happen… and then some more things happen.
Historically, Mademoiselle des Oeillets is known for her alleged involvement in ‘The Affair of the Poisons’ – a huge court scandal in which Satanic black masses were supposed to have been put on, and thirty-six people were executed. For such a major (and shockingly dramatic!) event, in this book it’s brought up and skipped through quite quickly – and I felt that an opportunity was missed to explore the true complexity and nastiness of the French court society.
The author’s focus here, is more creating a rags-to-riches story set in the theater world. (To that end, she definitely also exaggerates Claude’s family’s low standing – in reality her family were official appointees to court, and owned their own theater company, so her meeting Madame de Montspan was probably not nearly as unlikely as the book makes it appear.)
Still, while there were things I’d like to have seen more of in the story, this was a very entertaining diversion. Gulland’s a new author to me, but I’d definitely read more of her work.

Copy received through NetGalley, from Doubleday Books. Thanks!

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Out on Blue Six – Ian McDonald ***

It’s always a great feeling to find a cyberpunk dystopia that I’d somehow overlooked.
Reminded me – just slightly – of Melissa Scott’s ‘Dreamships’ and ‘Dreaming Metal,’ – mostly because the story focuses on transgressive artists in a future, cyber city with strict caste rules.

Here, Courtney Hall, yulp (it’s the ‘yuppie’ caste), a successful cartoonist, wants to do a bit more with her comic strip, and introduce some social satire into it. She’s given a warning – but when she resorts to using a hacker to get her forbidden cartoon out to her readers, she suddenly finds herself a wanted criminal, on the run through the underground tunnels that she never knew existed.

Meanwhile, the Raging Apostles, in the chaos of a police raid, have picked up a new member. The Raging Apostles are a street performance art group, illegally made up of members from different social castes, that plans ‘flash’ style events. Their new member is Kilimanjaro West – a seeming amnesiac who picked his ‘name’ off the side of a building.

I have to admit, I’ve had mixed reactions to McDonald’s work. I loved his ‘Dervish House,’ but didn’t like (at all) some of his more surreal, absurd material, such as ‘Desolation Road.’ I further have to admit that I requested this book thinking it was a new title – it’s actually a rerelease; first published in 1989. There are bits here that I could do without – I’m just not a fan of the gene-modified talking raccoons, for example. However, many of the more ‘fractured’ elements here do eventually get pulled in – some of them very effectively. I do still feel that McDonald has improved as a writer over the past 20-odd years, but there’s a brilliance and originality on display here that makes the book more than worthwhile.

And hey – I totally agree with his message that art, and a bit of anarchy, are necessary for a vibrant, free society.

Copy provided by Open Road Media, through NetGalley. Thanks!

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The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison *****

A perfect court intrigue.

Maia never expected to become much of anyone. Although he’s technically a prince, after his mother died his father the emperor relegated him to exile at a remote manor, under the care of an abusive guardian. He never really expected to escape his position of disfavor, due to his mixed racial heritage. However, when a terrible airship accident not only kills his father, but also wipes out all the other people ahead of him in line for the succession, in one fell blow, Maia is unexpectedly recalled to court to take up the crown.

Although unprepared for this responsibility, he’s determined to make a go of it, and give it his best shot. However, the swirl of sophisticated society is overwhelming to him, let alone the nuances of ruling an empire. And although Maia would like to make friends, enemies are already waiting for him.

I requested this book without reading up on anything about it. At 16% of the way through, I said, ‘no way this is a debut author – the writing is too sharply honed,’ and I looked it up. It’s Sarah Monette! I LOVE Sarah Monette! (And I believe I actually read about this book coming out under a pseudonym on her blog, several years ago, but forgot about it!)

No matter what name she uses, this is a truly excellent work. The characters are finely drawn, and treated with sensitivity. There’s a constant, well-paced tension as Maia navigates this new and alien world, forms alliances, discovers plots, and tries to investigate his father’s death. The concerns of different factions of the aristocracy, the working classes, women, and different cultures are all dealt with for a complex, convincing setting. The positioning of elves and goblins at the brink of an Industrial Revolution(?) is unusual but convincingly done, without any sacrifice of ‘magic’ and the rich panoply of a faerie court. Even the language and the social hierarchy felt fresh and new.

I know it’s only February, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is the best book I’ll read this year.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley. Thanks to NetGalley and Tor/Forge.

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The Orphans’ Promise – Pierre Grimbert ***

(Secret of Ji #2)
I received a copy of this book through Goodreads’ First Reads.
I waited to read the book till I got a copy of the first book in the series – and I’m glad I did. This is definitely a case of one-story-split-into-parts, not just stories that happen to be set in the same world. As with the first installment (‘Six Heirs’) the ending leaves the reader hanging… but I pretty much expected that.

As the story opens, the group of six is fleeing assassin-priests. Their goal is to stay alive, and find out who it is that wants them dead, and why. To this aim, there is much weapons-training, magic-learning, and investigating.

For those who enjoy classic fantasy, with both feet planted firmly in the tropes of the genre, I’d recommend this series.