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Grunts! by Mary Gentle: a fantasy with attitude

Corgi, 1993, 480 p.

Grunts! cover

This is a kind of mash-up fantasy/SF cross-breed featuring dragons, trolls, orcs, Undead, kobolds, Men (male Men and female Men,) dwarves, elves and halflings, Lords of Light and Dark, taverns, whores, thieves, aristocrats and of course magic, but also Raybans, M16s, AK47s, Huey helicopters, APCs and T54 Battle Tanks. Oh, and space travelling Hive-Mind Bugs who grow weapons not only from their own bodies but also spaceships from sea serpents. And for a final flourish, portals between worlds.

The fun starts after the Last Battle between Good and Evil, when the defeated Dark Lord’s loyal orcs are looking for something to do, come across a hoard of hi-tech weapons and transform themselves into a force to be reckoned with; marines in a word.

Well, I say fun, but it takes a precious long time for Grunts to distinguish itself sufficiently from any other militaristically inclined, mayhem-scarred, blood-soaked SF or mediævally tinged fantasy to make the reading not a chore. It does so eventually – for me, about two thirds of the way through – and is larded with a fair number of good jokes, some elaborately set up, which lighten things a bit, the journalist named Perdita Del Verro being a case in point.

Despite its inherent absurdity Gentle does make it all work after a fashion and clearly she had fun in the writing (it is far removed from her usual serious style) but it goes on too long and I question its utility.

Grunts is meant to be light-hearted and a swipe at the mind-set that glories in war and weaponry but like one of its antecedents, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (an altered world fantasy supposedly written by an Adolf Hitler who never became a successful German politician,) has to indulge in the same attitudes as it is satirising. I doubt anyone who enjoys the source material will have his – or her – mind changed by reading something like this, no matter how much fun it has poked at it.

Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

TTA Press, 2014, 159 p. (Novella no. 3 from TTA Press, publishers of Interzone and Black Static.)

Cold Turkey cover

I don’t know why I was sent this. I had agreed to read TTA Press Novella no 2 (Nina Alan’s Spin) and review it on my blog but had thought that was a one-off. Yet this too has turned up in the post (though it was actually sent to my old address.) It seemed only polite to accord this book the same courtesy.

I had not realised before starting it that it would count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge but the author is a Scot whose blog is here. (She now lives in Essex. I did that for two years.) The first clue was the mention of Fir Park – one I have still to cover in my series on Scottish Football Grounds. (The story is set in a Lanarkshire town.)

Raymond Munroe is a Primary School teacher in Glengower. His mother and father have had gruesome deaths due to smoking. Raym is trying to give up. Again. This time his attempts are accompanied by the sound of a nursery rhyme and memories from his childhood, of the tally van and the grotesque figure of Top Hat – a creature with black tails, “really long ones, like party streamers.” Raym is also losing time. Each cigarette lapsed into eats up an hour in the real world. Johnstone has Raym explicitly acknowledge to himself that he could be suffering hallucinations due to nicotine withdrawal, but some of the children can also see Top Hat and what occurs in the lost hours is not remembered by anybody else.

Raym’s slow decline while trying to maintain his mental equilibrium under this joint barrage is the meat of the story but the other characters are equally well drawn, with Raym’s girlfriend Wendy very acutely observed. Only teaching assistant Caitlin seems too pat, too designed to the purposes of plot.

Despite Cold Turkey being in essence a horror story there are flashes of humour – “You are a fine teacher; even if you did pursue your degree in Dundee.”

Towards the end a drunk he encounters tells Raym that the phrase “cold turkey” is derived from a US saying and means the unvarnished truth. In any novel the truth has to be varnished. Johnstone is good with the brush.

Note to non-Scots readers. At one point Raym is described as “careering along the road like an escapee from Carstairs.” Carstairs is the location of a State Hospital (that is, an institution to house the criminally insane.)

Pedants’ corner. Raym is said to work in a “small rural primary school on one of the worst estates in Lanarkshire.” If the town is big enough to have an estate (which here means housing scheme) then it’s hardly rural. The staff room (I’ve been in a few – though admittedly mostly secondary school ones) seems excessively sweary to me. There is a reference to town meetings. (In Lanarkshire? I’ve lived in Scotland for all but two years of my life and never known of such things here.) The impression is given that primary schools have their day structured by periods and that basic trig is part of their curriculum. (They don’t and it isn’t.) Though “totilly waddy an’ a hauf” is new to me, neither “absolute mince” nor “the old heave-ho” is an obscure catchphrase. There was a shrunk count of 2 and 1 sunk. We had “site” for “cite,” “snuck” for “sneaked,” a “gotten,” “scroat” for “scrote,” starter blocks (starting) and a faux “Macintosh” chair.

The Moon King by Neil Williamson

NewCon Press , 2014, 338 p.

The Moon King cover

Disclosure. I have known the author for a considerable number of years and he has been writing short stories – and getting them published – for all that time. He is one of nature’s good guys with many strings to his bow. (Strictly that should be lots of keys on his piano.) The Moon King is his first novel.

The book is tinged with subtle touches of Scottishness and is a curious beast, a blend of Science Fiction and Fantasy – with equal facility in both aspects. There is a machine at the heart of the plot but what it controls is strange indeed. Creatures made of water stalk its pages but can be neutralised by scooping the water from them. The world in which it is set has discontinuities with our own but is recognisably Earth-like. Its characters are all too human, though.

The city of Glassholm lies on an island. Its ruler and founder, the seemingly immortal Lunane, saved his followers by somehow tethering the Moon in an orbit that holds it above the city. The Moon’s cycles of day and night are reflected in the city’s calendar – the months are divided into wax days and wane days – and influence not only the people’s moods (Full is a day of abandonment and revelry, the heady behaviour it engenders referred to as Fullishness, Dark a time of mayhem and danger) but also the rate at which decay and rot occur.

Anton Dunn wakes up the day after Full and discovers the Palace staff think he is the Lunane. Gradually he discovers that he has indeed become the face of the Lunane, his mind and body taken over as his engineering expertise is needed. For things are beginning to fall apart on Glassholm. Unprecedentedly, a murder has taken place on Full – and the tethered Moon is beginning to stray. Anton is one of three viewpoint characters, the others are Lottie Blake, an aspiring artist whose overbearing mother is the leader of a religion, and Jonathan Mortlock, former cop and now member of the Palace guard.

Glassholm is populated with well-drawn characters. Even the minor ones feel as if they have an existence beyond the page. Lottie’s Aunt Ruby is an especial delight. This aspect fell down slightly when Dunn ventured beyond the city and met with the remnants of the indigenes the Lunane usurped when he took over the island – but that was the section where fantasy intruded most and it may have been my tendency to look on that less generously which made me feel this. The Lunane’s Palace is refreshingly exotic. Though it inevitably has faint echoes of other large fictional buildings it has a distinctive topography.

Williamson has his characters occasionally employ those impeccably Scottish terms of endearment for, respectively, a woman and a younger man, hen and son. Other artfully deployed Scotticisms were muckle, wersh, skite, puss (pronounced as in bus and meaning a person’s face,) skelped, semmet – (though Williamson spells it simmet, the way it is spoken,) close (for the entrance passageway of a tenement block,) wee, “so it does” at the end of a spoken sentence (though that may be an import from Ireland,) loup, clout for cloth and cried for called or named. The fantastical nature of the story means that many readers will be unaware that he has not just invented these words – as he has others; in SF it’s almost obligatory – but, for a Scot, it’s an unusual delight to see them in such a setting.

The Moon King has the touch of an author with a vision, who knows what he is doing and has the ability both to engage the reader and to create believable characters. If the secret locked below the Lunane’s Palace is a shade too fantastical for my tastes, that doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

At the book launch at Eastercon Neil inscribed my copy, “Please enjoy this Lunacy!” I did, and it isn’t.

We See a Different Frontier: a post-colonial speculative fiction anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

Futurefire.net, 2013, 213 p. Reviewed for Interzone 249, Nov-Dec 2013.

By and large the language of Science Fiction has always been English, its explorations of other worlds in the main tending to describe their exploitation. In literature (as in life) humans have generally gone off planet to seek things, either knowledge or possessions – and damn any natives. Long past time for a corrective? A “straight, white, cis, male” might feel loth to comment.

The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Naryan is a partly fabular tale of clockwork animals taken to pieces by an Englishman and the Artificer Diva who stands up to him.

The delightfully titled but pulpy Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan tells how with the help of Nicola Tesla’s death ray Alejandro Sahagún replaces Pancho Villa and sets out to recover his sweetheart, abducted by Hollywood producers. While a slight tale this nevertheless rightly fingers Hollywood as the centre of cultural colonialism.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Aliens in iridescent spacehips have taken over Earth. Our (unnamed) narrator, a former street scavenger, wonders why his cell-mate – the once privileged Leonardo – would want to escape what he regards as a cosseted life.

In J Y Yang’s Old Domes Jing-Li is a cullmaster, charged with despatching guardians – the personifications of buildings – before their renovation. The guardian of Singapore’s Supreme Court is unwilling to go quietly.

Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method reads a bit like a 1950s magazine story. Time travel is discovered in 2077. By accident. In anti-gravitational lifts with an attached post-virtual environment. The mechanism is investigated using the Gambiarra method – how to do things with whatever is at hand.

Riya in A Bridge of Words by Dinesh Rao has spent most of her life in Krashnigar, the former colonial power. She is now involved in a project to decipher the tattoos of the Thuri, one of the two sects of her ancestral homeland. Over this world hangs a mysterious red spaceship broadcasting an unchanging coded message.

Droplet by Rahul Kanakia. Subhir has lived in India after his parents took him there from his childhood home in California to avoid the ever worsening drought conditions. On his return to the US he finds out what really happened.

In Joyce Chng’s Lotus most of the Earth is covered in water after an event called the Washing. Landers fight fiercely to hold on to their territories while boaters roam the Waterways, exchanging and bartering. Boater Cecily and her partner Si one day come upon a source of precious drinkable water and food, giving them a moral dilemma.

Lavie Tidhar’s Dark Continents* envisages several different ways in which the past two centuries of Jewish history could have worked themselves out. These include forging a disputed homeland in Africa, intervention in the US Civil War and a peaceful integration into Palestine.

A Heap of Broken Things* by Sonny Moraine features a planet lit by two suns, where human colonists carried out a massacre a generation before. A local tour guide is confronted with that inheritance.

Sandra McDonald’s Fleet* is set a generation after the Night of Fire when solar megaflares destroyed all electronic communication. The people of a Pacific island forge their future in isolation.

Remembering Turinam by N A Ratnyake. A scholar from a defeated people whose language and culture have been oppressed, all but forgotten, returns to his capital city to speak with his grandfather, the last remaining witness to the old days.

Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass is the story of Pai-te and her sister Minisare who has a spirit-eye and builds a beast of iron as a gesture of “defiance honour, dawn, tomorrow.”

Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. In a US dominated Thailand where no-one has dark hair anymore, nor speaks Thai, a woman’s body has been turned into a viral weapon, both disease and vector, to undo the changes.

In Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night* the illegitimate son of the ex-colonial Captain Lyons, brought to Yorkshire to act as his father’s valet, dreams of the tiger that is stalking the local neighbourhood.

What Really Happened in Ficandula by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. A cultural misunderstanding leads to deaths and reprisals the memories of which are kept alive by the female descendants of the colonised as they themselves head for a new planet.

This collection illustrates how language, or its suppression, has been a primary tool of colonialism on Earth. There is irony, then, that, as Ekaterina Sedia’s afterword notes, all these stories were written in US English. (Double irony when the word “veterinarian” is depicted as being employed by a Yorkshireman.) Yet the theme of resistance, the keeping of traditions, shines through. Under the circumstances resistance becomes necessary.

As with most anthologies the standard can be uneven, but each story works as speculative fiction; and four (asterisked in this blog post) are very good indeed.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for tor.com are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

Saga’s Children by E J Swift, The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium, (Jurassic London)

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Lucius Shepard and Margo MacDonald

Due to my house move I missed commemorating at the times the demise of both Margo MacDonald, former SNP MP and independent MSP, and writer Lucius Shepard.

It says a lot for the esteem in which MacDonald was held by the wider public that she was able to gain a seat in the Scottish Parliament on the list system as an independent.

In recent years her campaign for the right to assisted dying (she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease) was carried out with a dignity which ensured that her views and comments commanded respect.

Luius Shepard’s fiction is elusive to pigeonhole, morphing from Science Fiction to fantasy and bordering on magic realism. He was always readable, though, and intelligent.

Margo MacDonald, 19/4/1943 – 4/4/2014, Lucius Shepard, 21/8/1943 – 18/3/2014. So it goes.

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions by Kate Wilhelm

Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1979, 174 p

Somerset Dreams cover

I missed this book when it was published in the 1970s and picked it up recently in a charity book sale in St Andrews.

Wilhelm was one of the few women who had a relatively high profile in SF in the 1960s and 70s. She continues to be active as a writer.

The stories in this collection tend to straddle the boundary between SF and Fantasy but the emphasis is usually on the effects on the characters in the story of whatever strangeness is involved rather than on the speculative component itself.

Somerset Dreams
Anæsthetist Janet Matthews (Wilhelm uses the word anesthesiologist) who works in New York has returned to her home town of Somerset for her summer break. Since a dam was built in her late childhood Somerset has become a backwater cul-de-sac and most of the people who live there are ageing. A group of dream researchers headed by the unsympathetic Dr Staunton wishes to use the locals to test a theory that city dreams and rural dreams are of a different character. The locals are suspicious and Janet acts as a link between the town and the researchers. As time goes by it becomes apparent that the dreams in Somerset are of an unusual nature.

The Encounter
A man has to stay overnight in a snowbound bus station with wonky heating as the snowdrifts get higher against the door. The woman who is also there brings back memories of his marriage and his time in the Korean War.

Planet Story
An exploratory party is scouting out a new planet, very Earth-like but with no dominant predator. Two of the group have committed suicide and the rest suffer a fear that appears to have no cause.

Mrs Bagley Goes to Mars
Mrs Bagley, taken for granted by her family, announces one day she is going to Mars. (She may be imagining things.) Mars is not entirely to her liking and she informs the locals they have been misinformed. She tells them that female earthmen don’t defecate. They, “go to the little girl’s room, or the powder room, or ladies’ room. They freshen up, or wash their hands, or fix their make-up, but they never shit.” She opts for Ganymede instead.

Symbiosis
A girl grows up in Beacham, Indiana. Her mother dies when she is young and her best friend’s mother, Mrs McInally, takes her under her wing. The friendship fractures as Mrs McInally becomes ill.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis
Presciently (the story was first published in 1976) this features a compulsive survival game show – slogan This is Your Crisis! – which has people with various kinds of psychiatric need trekking through Alaska (the week before it might have been the Andes) to win one million dollars. The split screens it looks best on are huge and take fifteen years to pay off. Viewers Lottie and Butcher bicker all the way through the programme, which lasts a whole weekend, distracting them from their lives.

The Hounds
A woman whose husband has lost his job at the age of 49 and subsequently moved the family to the farm he buys finds herself the object of fascination of two mysterious dogs who will let no-one else near them.

State of Grace
The things in her tree are destroying the narrator’s marriage as her husband Howard knows there is something there but can’t actually see them. Nor can anyone else he hires to find them. And when he tries to cut it down with a chainsaw he hallucinates cutting his leg off.

Incubus by Nick Gifford

Puffin, 2005, 225 p.

Danny Smith’s secret is that his father is a multiple murderer. His mother has taken the family to a new home far from those who know their background. His reticence about himself is tested by Cassie Lomax, a bright classmate who finds him interesting. As the book unfolds Danny’s worst fear, that the voices in his head that drove his father to murder would manifest in his own, comes to pass. These belong to a family kobold, a Hinzelmännchen called Hodeken, legacy of Danny’s German grandparents – they amended their surname from Schmidt when they came to England. The weirdnesses build up only gradually as the book follows Danny’s burgeoning relationship with Cassie (both of these developing in a chat room) and his struggle against the kobold’s influence, during which the story ranges from modern England to Berlin (both of the Second World War and of the erection of the Wall in 1961) as Danny learns more about his family’s past.

Writing for young adults is not easy but Gifford handles all this very well, with clear lucid prose and a pleasing level of complication with the adults around Danny. He also finesses the necessity of information dumping about kobolds by having Cassie and Danny perform internet searches.

Caveat:- I know I have a bee in my bonnet about this sort of thing but it jarred that at one point the kobold says, “aren’t I?” Kobolds are Germanic. Rather than “aren’t I?” Hodeken would surely have thought, “nicht wahr?” – which would have made the rough translation “isn’t that so?” a better choice.

Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

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