Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
When Shy South returns from market rip to find her homestead burned and her brother and sister kidnapped, she sets off to rescue them accompanied by her step father Lamb. Her will journey takes her across the Far Country where she and her allies will confront hostile nature, dangerous outlaws, fierce natives, greed, corruption, and a vainglorious mercenary captain named Nicomo Cosca.
To my mind one of the most fascinating genre mix-ups to arise from speculative fiction is the fantasy or supernatural western. The Western not only provides the central founding mythology goes the United States of America (serving as our King Arthur Story, Mabinogi, or Vedas) but has found itself adapted to address the issues of the times. It seems only natural that fantasy and sci-fi authors would want to try their hand at this most American of genes. Usually these works take the form of either a traditional western setting (America from about 1835-1905) with fantasy elements (magic or the supernatural) or traditional fantasy novels written in the style of a western. Over the next couple of columns these reviews will look at several different aspects of the Western in speculative fiction, starting with Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie.
I picked up this book based on the book jacket’s description of it as a fantasy novel written in the style of a western. I had heard the Joe Abercormbie’s other novels had a reputation for featuring gritty violence and morally conflicted heroes. After starting the book, I realized that several of the characters were from the author’s other works, but Red Country managed to convey who these characters were, and the earlier adventures are not necessary to understanding this story (though those who have read the other books may find certain characters fate more resonant however). I had a conflicted reaction to this book, and I think the best way to review is to riff on the tile of the concluding chapter of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of films.
Red Country is a well written book. Abercrombie’s prose creates a vivid picture of the environment and the characters, and it gave a clear understanding of the geography of the world they inhabit. The book provides a lot of action, and moves quickly from event to event. It does not devote a lot of the time to extraneous filler and has a very lean structure, which allows it to emulate the classic western novels and films that are its influences. If you are a fan of Abercrombie’s First Law World or his other works, you will probably like this book immensely.
The events of this book read like a greatest hits of the modern western film canon. I easily identified elements of The Searchers, Ride the High Country, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and of course A Fistful of Dollars. This is in itself not necessarily a weakness of the book as the various western works often use the same situations to different ends and much of the action is based upon a series of stock tropes (hostile natives, the wagon train, the corrupt town, the mysterious stranger with a background stepped in violence). However, in this book I feel the author tried to place one too many western elements in the book, and it made it feel like it was too dependent on the works that had come before it. Additionally, I felt that this book has a problem with its ending as it appears to be heading towards a climactic showdown reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, switches to copy the final scene The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before finally deciding that it wants to steal the ending of The Outlaw Josey Wales (an ending which I felt the character who received it did not deserve). How much of a drawback this will be to the readers will depend on ones familiarity with the Western genre I suppose.
Early on in this review I mentioned that this book has a number of stock western characters (the woman with a past, the man of peace who has turned his back on violence but is forced to pick up his old ways, the youngster with no skills seeking vengeance), and this is not a problem as such characters are the bedrock of western fiction. It is what the author does re-conceptualize these roles that count. However, I found one character in this book especially problematic, and I think it is because it is an attempt at a pastiche of a real life western character: the mercenary leader Nicomo Cosca. It was obvious form the introductory paragraph that this character is meant to be a version of the real life General George Armstrong Custer (mostly known for his actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn). This works great as narrative shorthand for conveying everything you need to know about the character, but I felt the similarities to the real Custer detracted from giving Cosca a unique voice and pulled me out of the story. I think that Cosca is one of the characters from Abercrombie’s other works, as there seems to be a lot of back-story to his role in the storyline.
In short I think Red Country is a great book for fans of modern, darker edged fantasy, fans of Joe Abercormbie’s other works, and anyone looking for a crash course in the history of western film since about 1965.
Related works – Mad Amos and Blood Meridian
Mad Amos (1996) – Alan Dean Foster
The best fantasy/western I have read is this collection of short stories by Alan Dean Foster. Mad Amos is a mountain man/scout in the American frontier who rides a unicorn named Worthless and battles supernatural and occult threats.
Blood Meridian (1992) – Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a truly gritty western about morally compromised people traveling across a hostile and dangerous land. The Judge (the books main villain) and his band of mercenary’s depredations make Nicomo Cosca and his men look like armatures at the art of violence.
This weekend, Interstellar (2014, Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain) was released in theaters Interstellar promised to be a visionary science fiction film about hope, space exploration, and the future of mankind. But does it deliver on this promise? In my opinion, yes, but not without having a few flaws, and a terrible ending. This review will avoid direct spoilers, but will discuss some concepts and ideas of the film which might lead genre savvy readers to guess some important plot points. Apologies if that is the case.
Interstellar is the story of the NASA Test Pilot/Engineer turned corn farmer Cooper. In a future were unspecified calamities (there seems to have been a general war that has substantially reduced the population) has led to Earth rapidly running out of food and breathable air. Cooper finds a role as pilot on a last ditch space expedition seeking potential new homes for humanity on the other side of a wormhole. Back on Earth his daughter (who from Cooper’s perspective is aging rapidly due to time dilation) attempts to find a solution that will let the rest of humanity leave its dying planet and find a home among the stars.
There is a lot to like about this movie. It has exciting scenes of exploration, cool alien worlds, and generally tense moments. However there is a lot of time spent on metaphysical discussion of abstract concepts, resolving of family issues, and theorizing about love and gravity. At close to three hours, it also suffers from the bloat that affects most big movies nowadays. I think there is an excellent two hour movie that could be created from this. I recommend seeing it, because big budgeted sci-fi with a hard science background deserves fan support, and there are several suspenseful sequences. However, I feel that the movie is let down by an infuriating ending.
Interstellar wears it influences on its sleeve, as the latest in a long line of movies/novels that are combination of psychological wool gathering and deep space exploration. Some of the movies that bear comparing with Interstellar include:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Directed by Stanley Kubric and starring Keir Duella and Gary Lockwood)
Kubric’s visionary story of a doomed space expedition to Jupiter, and an alien monolith’s influence on human development, 2001 regularly appears on lists of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. Arresting, but often ponderous, and with a bizarre ending that has become a cultural touchstone, 2001 is well worth seeing. In fact Interstellar seems to be a response to 2001 replacing the latter’s stark rationalism with emotional stakes.
It is followed up by 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984; Directed by Peter Hyams, with Roy Scheider and John Lithgow), a sequel which focuses on the efforts to salvage the mission launched in 2001 as well as what the alien monolith plans for Jupiter. It is a much more straight forward sci-fi adventure movie, but an interesting artifact of how the 1980s viewed the future.
Oddly, 2001 is a case of the movie preceding the book. Although Kubric based his movie on an Arthur C. Clarke short story (“The Sentinel” – 1948), Clarke did not write the novelization until after the movie was in production. Clarke followed the book up with three sequels: 2010 Odyssey Two (1982) and the basis for the 2010 movie; 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) which deals with an expedition to Halley’s Comet, and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) which examines the secrets of the alien monoliths.
Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan
Radio Astronomer Ellie Arroway discovers an alien signal, which turns out to be blueprints for a strange machine. The device is built (and turns outs to be a wormhole generator/travel machine). Dr. Arroway travels through the device and meets with aliens who discuss humanity’s place in the universe and the nature of time and space. Made as the movie Contact (1997; directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, James Woods, and Tom Skerrit). This movie also features Matthew McConaughey in a scene that echoes one in Interstellar. This is an excellent book, and a decent film. The ending works better in the novel however, as the visualization of it in the film is not entirely successful.
Solaris (1961) by Stainslaw Lem
Solaris provides an interesting example in how adaptors of books can choose what to highlight in their film and actually change the nature of a story. Solaris (1968) is the story of Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to the space station orbiting a planet named Solaris. His job is to uncover the source of the bizarre phenomena that plaguing the crew to uncover why its staff is having psychological problems. Dr. Kelvin discovers that the problems stem from an alien intelligence’s attempt to contact humanity, but on a level beyond human understanding.
Solaris was filmed three times with each director focusing on a slightly different aspect: Solaris (1968) is a black and white adaption for Soviet Television follows the book faithfully; Solaris (1972; directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) is a loose adaptation of the book that focuses more on issues of grief, loss, and human relationships and relegates the alien mystery to the background; and Solaris (2002, directed by Steven Soderberg) who tries to split the difference between Lem’s novel and Tarkovsky’s film but adds naked George Clooney to the mixture.
Most of the reviewed films and novels have posited humanity’s interaction with wormholes/advance alien intelligence as good thing, but three works of speculative fiction offer a contrasting view of the place outside of our universe as something best to be avoided:
Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton sees a crew of scientists investigates a craft that has traveled through a black hole and returned with the power to make ones hopes and fears a reality. It was made as a serviceable film also called Sphere (1998; directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson).
Event Horizon (1997; directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, and starring Sam Neil, Lawrence Fishburne, and Kathleen Qunilan) sees a space vessel (the titular Event Horizon) pass through a black hole to a place outside the universe (quiet possibly “hell”) and return possessed of the desire to feed on fear and kill.
Hillary Westfield has achieved her dream of becoming a member of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, and even has a pirate nickname, The Terror of the Southlands. So she is shocked when she receives a notice from the League warning her that she has been displaying un-piratical behavior. Ordered to undertake a dangerous quest by the Leader of the League, she instead opts to search for the missing Enchantress of Augusta. Accompanied by her loyal gargoyle companion, friends, and loyal crew, she is plunged into a fight against a conspiracy that threatens the stability of her world.
I do not read much young adult fiction, but at the American Library Association annual conference this year, I happened upon an advanced reader’s copy of this book. Not really knowing much about the series, but being a huge fan of pirates and 18th century naval history, I decided to pick it up and give it a read. I was generally surprised by how entertaining this book was. Caroline Carlson has created a unique fantasy world, one part C.M Foster (Horatio Hornblower Series), one part Jane Austen, and one part Gilbert and Sullivan. As I read this book I thought, this is the world were the events of both The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore could occur.
An excellent book for young adults, this book also contains much humorous material that will have adults laughing as well. The author uses not only the techniques of memoir which give it an 18th-19th century feel), but also includes newspaper articles, notices, correspondence, forms, and other inserted documents that flesh out the setting the novel takes place in and paints a picture of a world not purchasing tickets the Pirate League Holiday Party is considered an un-piratical act. This is the second book in the series, so I went and read the first book, The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot. Although I had some of the events of this book spoiled by reading the sequel, I enjoyed the first volume just as much as this one. I heartily recommend this book for all ages and await the next volume in the series.
One of the quests that motivates me as a reviewer and blogger about speculative fiction is the search for something new. Many times this quest sees me seeking out the cinema of other countries. When I was at the theater for another movie I noticed a poster for a Korean movie called The Pirates. Without knowing anything about it, I decided to watch it, and I am glad I did.
The Pirates fictionalizes an event form the history of the founding of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea during the 1300s. The movie pits a band of pirates led by the feared and skilled pirate captain Yeo-wol, the Daughter of the Dragon, against a rather hapless band of bandits led by the ex-soldier Jang Sa-jung who calls himself Crazy Tiger as they attempt the recover the Joseon Royal Seal from the whale that swallowed it. Both pirates and bandits are pursued by are pursued by ruthless enemies from their past.
This movie mixes comedy and action, makes several references/homages to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and yet creates its own style. There is some violence but is of the action comedy variety. See it if you get the chance.
As I mentioned earlier The VNHLP: Terror of the Southlands put me in mind of the work of the Victorian masters of the light opera and the patter song, Gilbert and Sullivan. Specifically two of their operettas: HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance
HMS Pinafore (1879) tells the story of the crew of the British ship HMS Pinafore as they struggle for romance and rank in their naval careers. It is probably Gilbert and Sullivan’s best known operetta and as referenced often in many other movies, appearing in titles as diverse as Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992).
The Pirates of Penzance (1879) relates the tale of the pirate Fredrick and daughter of the Major General Mabel’s and their star-crossed romance. The pirates as presented in this operetta have a lot in common with the Pirates of The VNHLP: Terror of the Southlands Terror of the Southlands. Probably the most familiar element of this work is the song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” a tongue twisting patter song often performed with parody lyrics such as in “The Elements” by Tom Lear on in animated shows line Animaniacs or ReBoot. There is a movie version titled The Pirate Movie, (1981) directed by Ken Annakin and starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins. It jettisons most of the original score, adds new songs, and is suffused with an abundance of 1980s cheesiness. It is best avoided.
Summer is the time when readers often seek out books that will take them to a location they may never have been before. This summer, why not book a package tour with three horror novels that will take you off the beaten path of the regular tourist sights of the United Kingdom (London is so last season) and into the folklore and mysteries of ancient England, Scotland, and Wales.
Our first stop is the picturesque village of Crybbe. Unlike many old villages, Crybbe has uprooted its ancient standing stones and gone out of its way to chase off the tourist trade. But none of that matters to record mogul and new age guru Max Goff. He has come to Crybbe with a plan to replace the stones and harness the village’s earth energy to create a spiritual center for new age enlightenment. But the locals do not seem too enthused, and what is one to make of the quaint custom of a Curfew that rings out every night, uninterrupted since the 1600s. As the standing stones are returned mysterious phenomenon began to proliferate, and it will be up to a mix of locals and visitors to stop the completion of a centuries old ritual rooted in Elizabethan witchcraft and murder.
This is a book well suited for anyone who enjoys stories of determined outsiders uncovering a town’s ghastly past secrets, students of the mystical earth energies and ley lines, and fans of folklore and legend.
Our next tour takes us to the misty highlands of Scotland and the exclusive grounds of Comraich Castle. The castle is a private institution, run by the reclusive Inner Court Financial Group, providing rehab services, a place to lie low if you are on the run, or a place to hide a family secret that might prove embarrassing to your career or business. Recently the facility has come under assault by a number of paranormal phenomena. Is the cause a curse laid down by the death of a vengeful Scottish Chieftain? The overwhelming sins and crimes of the Castle’s residents made manifest? Or it is an evil far older and alien then anything known on Earth? Renowned ghost hunter/psychic David Ash has been engaged to investigate and lay the haunting to rest. But battling it will require not just learning the secrets of Comraich Castle’s residents, but his own dark past as well.
This is exciting book, which reads more like a thriller with paranormal elements rather than a traditional horror novel. It does feature some great scare scenes and some truly unique characters. Herbert has seeded the asylum with a gallery of scandalous and mysterious figures from the United Kingdom’s recent past, as well as a few of the popular conspiracy theories about the British government, business, and the royal family. This is a long book however, clocking in at around 700 pages.
Our final destination is remote New Hope Island located in the storm tossed northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. In the mid- 18th Century slave ship Captain Seamus Ballantine retired from the sea and established a religious colony on New Hope. Several months later the settlers mysteriously disappeared. The New Hope Island Mystery has fascinated the public since its occurrence, and in a desperate bid to boost his news empire’s ailing circulation numbers, Alexander McIntyre has assembled an all-star expedition that will attempt to unravel the mystery. He has recruited a number of television presenters/celebrities, reporters, and ex-soldiers to find the definitive solution to the New Hope disappearances. Of course said solution will be exclusive to his newspaper and presented in daily installments, plus a later television documentary. But all is not well on New Hope, and the disappearance of a 1930s occultist, the ghostly visions of a teenage boarding school student, a haunted sea chest full of strange artifacts, and graduate student’s 1970s suicide will all play a role in the mystery. The question will not be what caused the disappearance of the New Hope Island colonists; it will be can the McIntyre expedition avoid sharing their fate?
This is a sprawling novel that covers not only the expedition in the present day, but historical events stretching back to the 18th century. It also travels all over the United Kingdom as well as to the shores of Africa. The author does a great job of building a world and establishes the New Hope Colony Mystery with enough detail that one could believe it was a real historical event that fascinated generations. This book makes it known that the events are supernatural from the first page, but plays coy with the actual solution, allowing each expert to have their own theory as to what is going on. I was quite surprised by this book. It is a good read, but a little slow in the beginning as it establishes the personalities and backgrounds of the expedition members. However there are enough strange mysterious events to keep the pages turning.
The management would like to remind readers that all our tours are at the participants own risk, and we take no responsibility for maiming, possessions, or mysterious disappearances of tour members. We understand there has been some concern over the disappearance of the participants in our Maine Getaway Tour, but we assure you we are making every possible effort to locate them. Concerned relatives are encouraged to contact Alan Pangborn, Castle Rock Sheriff’s Department, Castle Rock, Maine for further information on this open investigation.
In just a few days’ time thousands of librarians will descend on Las Vegas for the 2014 America Library Association (ALA) Conference. The last time ALA was there was 1973 and Vegas was a much different place. From a suite of rooms atop the Desert Inn, reclusive mogul Howard Hughes was attempting to take over by buying up the whole town. The Mob lived large, taking the skim out of casino count rooms, and making sure that their problems wound up buried in a lonely part of the desert outside of town. But the 70s ran out of gas (quite literally), and the 80s brought in the junk bonds kings and the corporate boards. They chased out the wise guys and ran thing the business way. In the 90s there was a flowering of mega resorts built around romantic themes and a past that never was. Vegas made a bid for the family vacation crowd with pirate ships, the USS Enterprise, dragons, and pyramids. But the long time residents knew that appealing to families was only a fad, and that the old of Vegas would return. Sure enough by the 2003 even the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority tourism board was advising people of what to expect with their official advertising slogan: “what happens here stays here”. “Sin City” had reawakened.
Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows”, has always been an outlier in the vision of America. A one stop railroad town, thrust into prominence by the largesse of the federal government (Hoover Dam and military training bases for World War II), legalized gambling, and the vision of a charismatic mobster who was too far ahead of his time. Commentators try to use it as a symbol. Some view it as paradise; the ultimate expression of the American Dream where Jane or Joe Blow from Nowhere, Middle America can walk into the casino, make one throw of the dice, and emerge a millionaire. Others see it as the dark side of the American ego, an Id of sin and vice, that will one day be turned to ash like that other long ago desert den of iniquity Gomorrah (assuming Vegas itself just does not one day dry up and blow away when the last drop of water runs out of the Colorado River into some master planned community’s swimming pool).
Perhaps that’s why many works of speculative fiction use Vegas as a setting. After all, it is a phantasmal kingdom of ancient palaces and neon wonder. A city that exists where no city has right to exist, in defiance of the stark desert that surrounds it. And, a city in the constant process of reinventing itself tearing down the old to build up the new. In a place such as that, one could almost believe that magic is real.
One of the best speculative depictions of Las Vegas is the novel Last Call (1992) by Tim Powers. Last Call tells the story of gambler Scott Crane and his involvement in a magical poker game to determine the fate of his own soul as well as that of Las Vegas. Along the way he clashes with the ghost of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (the man who built the Flamingo Hotel and Casino), ancient tarot decks, and other magical manifestations, in a journey that takes him form the highways and poker rooms of Los Angles, the glitz and glamor of the Las Vegas Strip, and the desert wonderland outside of town.
Drawing upon the tarot, the history of Las Vegas, poker games, and Arthurian Myth (the legend of the Fisher King plays a major role in the book) this is an exciting read that paints a picture of a fascinating world of magic underlying our own mundane reality. Check it out, and form your own conclusions about just how much luck, magic, and fate combine in the never sleeping reality of Las Vegas.
Part of a Series: Yes
Last Call forms part of a trilogy called Fault Lines. The second volume, called Expiration Date (1995) is set in California and follows the battles between magicians who consume ghosts for power. The third novel is called Earthquake Weather (1997) and involves characters from the other two novels in a new set of adventures.
Of course plenty of other works use Las Vegas as a part of their themes:
The Stand (1978) By Stephen King – Las Vegas as America’s Id plays a major role in this book. Randall Flagg, The Walking Dude, is the baldest of the bad, and there is only city that can serve as the base of his new empire. There is a mediocre 1997 television mini-series. It has a great opening (The Best Use of Blue Oyster Cult’s classic hit Don’t Fear the Reaper on screen ever (sorry SNL fans), but little else to recommend it.
“The Last Illusion” in The Books of Blood: Book VI by Clive Barker – Harry D’Amour, Clive Barker’s supernatural private investigator, takes the case of Swann, a stage illusionist confronted by demons. It was adapted into a decent 1995 movie entitled Lord of Illusions, written and directed by Clive Barker Himself, and starring Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Famke Janssen.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971) By Hunter S. Thompson. A bit of cheat as it is a work of non-fiction, but the picture painted by Thompson as he and colleague Dr. Gonzo embark on a drug fueled odyssey through the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas is as nightmarish as any work of horror. Terry Gilliam translates many of these visuals into freaky life in the excellent 1998 movie version starring Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo.
That is the only tip of the iceberg however. Leave a comment and tell us your favorite work of speculative fiction that features Las Vegas.
Lastly, it just would not be Vegas without a bit of shameless self-promotion. If you will be attending the ALA 2014 Conference, and you find yourself with a hole in your schedule on Saturday, June 28th from 4:30 to 5:30 pm, consider stopping by Las Vegas Convention Center S233 (where its scheduled, but check your schedule when you get there for any last minute changes) for the panel “Redefining Humans from the Past to the Future”. A popular panel at every Annual Conference this is your chance to hear speculative fiction authors talk about their profession and the work. Presented by Tor Books and the Imagineering Interest Group of the Library Information and Technology Association (LITA) Chapter of ALA. Further information about the panel is available at the link: http://ala14.ala.org/node/14574.
As a librarian with a passion for sharing books (and specially science fiction, fantasy, and other genres), I have enjoyed watching as the publishing of books and ebooks has changed the reading landscape in numerous ways. Yet the one thing that I think most of us don’t fully appreciate is the extent to which how our readers are finding books is constantly evolving. An interesting article in the Washington Post last year looked at Amazon’s decision to buy Goodreads, a site which has been a gold mine for readers and provided valuable exposure for countless authors.
One noteworthy statistical trend was this: the number of readers who picked up their next book because of seeing it marketed online via social media or sites like Goodreads (NOT bookseller websites) doubled between 2010 and 2012. In most other categories (i.e. personal book recommendations through word of mouth), trends haven’t changed much. It’s clear, though, that the potential for the online community as a reader’s advisory tool is still under development, and it’s eating away at some of the more traditional channels our readers once navigated to find new books.
This has a few significant repercussions. If platforms like Goodreads are the future of reader’s advisory, how can libraries get more involved? Right now many summer reading programs use participant-driven book reviews in some form or other. This includes teen and adult summer reading programs. But often these reviews are used exclusively for the summer reading program and the participants aren’t encouraged by their library to tap into their online reading community. My own library has been guilty of not taking advantage of this potential. What if we encouraged our patrons to post their reviews and rate books on sites like Goodreads where they could reach out and connect more easily with other readers? Shouldn’t that be what libraries are about? Libraries are good at seeing the value of local things, but it’s important to see the big picture too. What the big picture is showing us, especially in the midst of the recent conflict between Amazon and Hatchette, is that the publishing world is up for grabs, but that’s not the only part of the reading landscape in flux.
We as librarians need to be anticipating these types of trends; what pipelines will our readers want to use to find that next great read? Because one thing is certain; very few will be walking into their local bookstore to ask a salesperson what book they’d recommend.
For more information on the article I mentioned in this post, take a look at the link below: