Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Appetite

The Appetite by Nicholas Royle
Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Nicholas Royle is one of the UK’s literary secrets. He quietly and all too infrequently writes masterfully disturbing stories and novels. The Appetite is such an example. This novella (similarly to Graham Joyce’s Three Ways to Snog an Alien) is about two people falling in love. Royle places this romance against the backdrop of a hurricane and its aftermath. The fierce storm, with its strong merciless winds, swept people up into the clouds, seemingly to disappear. But a few days later they return, falling out of the sky. Miraculously, there are only slight injuries.

Sally is one of the storm’s victims, and returning to earth she falls into Mike’s arms. And so begins their romantic liaison. She, though, is happily married and refuses to leave her husband. And so their relationship spirals into issues of guilt and claustrophobia.

And at the same time the world around them shifts, moving closer together, as if things are shrinking. This only compounds the sense of claustrophobia.

The Appetite effectively captures the conflicting emotions of Mike and Sally. It delineates their stresses as they test their relationship, until Sally has to finally decide.

Nicholas Royle, in this book, has taken a simple tale, added an element of strangeness, and then twisted in the literary knife. This is surely a front runner for the British Fantasy Award’s Best Novella in 2009.

The Appetite was published by Gray Friar Press in 2008 and can be purchased directly from them. More about Nicholas Royle can be found at his website here.

(Review originally published on Piper at the Gates of Fantasy)

Friday, 27 January 2012

Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas

Published in the 16th January 2012 edition of Strange Horizons, Recognizing Gabe is an utterly beautiful story where any attempt at describing it isn't going to do it justice. That's not going to stop us trying though...

It's partway coming of age tale, partway modern fairytale, keeps offering up challenges to standard gender perceptions and shows how it is possible to be accepted for who you are, even if who you are doesn't meet the traditional expectations of those around you.

The titular Gabe was technically born as a girl, but it takes the interference of his godmother, in a scene that's both sweet and done with elegant simplicity, to get the rest of his family to accept him as a boy. And even though it takes a little time, they fully accept him as their son - so much so that there's a lovely scene where Gabriel's father passionately defends Gabe's right to be the kind of boy he is.

It also shows that gender labelling is never an easy thing, as even after Gabriel is accepted fully as a son of the family, his family traditions still challenge him. His love of cooking falls firmly into the accepted female sphere of activity and is considered not a thing a good son should be indulging in, but even that isn't set in stone and the resolution is subtly done.

Where this story really wins out is the telling. Yáñez has a deft touch, saying much with a few well chosen words, and effortlessly weaves a wonderful story that stays with you long after the reading of it. Very highly recommended so remember it when award nomination time comes around.

Strange Horizons is available for free here (and a must-read for the excellent selection of non-fiction they also publish) and more about about Alberto Yáñez can be found on his website here.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Career Day

Career Day by Margaret Ball
Reviewed by Jenny Barber

Found in Chicks in Chainmail (ed. Esther Friesner), Margaret Ball's Career Day serves up that perfect combo of kick-ass warrior woman meets portal-fantasy done with a nifty comic twist. Though I'd expect nothing less from a Chicks story.

The story stars Riva Konneva - a sword-for-hire who raises her daughter on Earth while commuting to Dazau for merc-work. While distracted on a job she accidentally gets talked into taking her daughter's class on an off-world field trip (as you do). Naturally, hijinx ensue.

Above all else, this is an extremely fun story that blends consideration of real world concerns with a wry look at fantasy tropes. The commute to Dazau is expensive and Riva is just as busy juggling the finances to try and give her child a leg up in life, as she is hacking and slashing her assigned targets.

Ball does some fun things with her magic system, giving the story some interesting and unexpected resolutions while showing Riva as both canny and adaptable, and a generally appealing heroine.

This is one of those stories that it's always a pleasure to re-read as there's cleverness to be found beneath the humour and it's little wonder that Riva gets another outing in a later Chicks book (Fun with Hieroglyphics - The Chick is in the Mail.).

More about Margaret Ball can be found on her website here.
Chicks in Chainmail can be found in any decent bookselling venues, or for a funky e-book bundle of the first three Chicks books, mosey on over to Baen Webscriptions.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Zombie Apocalypse!

Zombie Apocalypse!
Edited by Stephen Jones

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

To be honest, I get bored with trends – very quickly. The rash of books all about vampires and werewolves and zombies tend to pass me by. So I was a little apprehensive at first when I obtained Zombies Apocalypse! Fortunately, I had no reason to be concerned. Zombies Apocalypse! was a joyride, from page one to the end.

With over 15 contributors one might expect an anthology. Wrong. This is a mosaic – an epistolic – novel, cleverly woven together by Stephen Jones. Michael Marshall Smith kicks off the saga. Here, a man writes a long missive to his mother, almost a suicide note full of loss and regret. It hints at the tragedy to follow. The entry by Christopher Fowler describes the source of the zombie plague: a church yard being redeveloped for a New Festival of Britain. There then follows a series of police reports, medical reports, diary entries, and so on, and the horror of the plague becomes clear – there is no easy solution (if, indeed, there is a solution).

It’s not obvious exactly when the events are set. Based on clues sprinkled throughout, I suggest 2013. It appears that London’s Olympic Games were a flop – or didn’t take place – and so the Government forces through plans for the New Festival. Picture the Millennium Dome. At the same time, surveillance and the militia-like police create a society of fear and unease. But that society needs something to be frightened of and the zombies fit that bill. The zombies are clearly a metaphor for today’s bogymen (your choice).

Does this mean that the Government deliberately released the plague? Or just try to take advantage of it? Whatever, they failed to control the situation and the end of civilisation becomes inevitable.

Besides Smith and Fowler, other the contributors are (in order of appearance) Mandy Slater, Paul Finch, Sarah Pinborough Jo Fletcher, John Llewellyn Probert, Jay Russell, Kim Newman, Lisa Morton, Tanith Lee, Paul McAuley, Tim Lebbon, Peter Crowther, Robert Hood, Pat Cadigan, Mark Samuels, Peter Atkins, and Scott Edelman. There is no contents page, so it takes a bit of detection to work out who wrote what. It’s fun to do so but not necessary: just get on and read the book. A few characters reappear over the length of the book, notably Sarah Pinborough's young girl writing in her diary about the death of her mother and father. It felt realistic -- very touching.

Zombie Apocalypse! is a mix of horror and science fiction, with added supernatural elements. There is an end, of sorts, but not a satisfactory conclusion to the plague. It’s a scary read, reminding me of The Andromeda Strain and other convincing post-apocalyptic novels. Highly recommended.

(Review first published on Piper at the Gates of Fantasy)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Welcome To Bordertown

Welcome To Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands
edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

When Terri Windling created Borderland and Bordertown in the late 80's she was not the first by any means to imagine a place that lay between the Realm and the World. But her Bordertown is the construct said by many to define the roots of modern Urban Fantasy. Her Bordertown is a land filled with runaways and lost souls in search of those things that we desire the most and never quite manage to attain. That is not to say that this is a volume filled with unremitting angst. It isn’t. Its streets are dark and its inhabitants most often darker, yet filled with music and art and esoterica that fills us with wonder. If anything the overriding theme of this collection is of dawning realisations and acceptance.

Thirteen years after the original books the concept of Bordertown is introduced to a new generation. It dives between short fiction and poetry (and even one short graphic-story) in contributions by many of the biggest names in urban fantasy, including Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Tim Pratt, Will Shetterly and Patricia McKillip.

Most of the stories, whatever the format, deal with the rigours of being a ‘noob’ in the city, though Charles de Lint’s A Tangle of Green Men is more concerned with the trials and misfortunes of getting there – or not. Like many stories here it questions why anybody sets out to find Bordertown.

Many of the stories are seen from a ‘human’ perspective, and set out to show how the town as a whole is an inhospitable and dangerous place for newly arrived and defenceless humanity; a mecca not just for the lost and lonely but for those who prey on their weakness.

And none show that more vividly than Incunabulum by Emma Bull. A young Trueblood (pure fairy) arrives at the gates unable to remember who he is or why he is there. Through his eyes we’re told how to wash up on the edges of Bordertown and survive, and that it’s no different for strangers from either side of the divide. Be they Worlder or Realmer a noob is a noob, and nobody, but nobody, gets a break unless they hustle for it. Jungle law prevails.

It is expectations that are at the root of all that occurs in the streets and back alleys of Bordertown. Some survive despite themselves, others because it is the only home they have ever known. And in amongst the dirt and the fight for survival there is always the music and poetry and art that make the dangers of life for most of the denizens of Bordertown all worth the while.

This is Urban Fantasy as it should be. Excellent collection. Highly recommended.

Find out more about the editors on their websites here: Holly Black and Ellen Kushner

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #86

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #86
Reviewed by Jenny Barber

This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies gives us two stories: Calibrated Allies by Marissa Lingen and The Lady of the Lake by E. Catherine Tobler plus an audio fiction podcast (to be reviewed at a later date) of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds by Seth Dickinson which was first published in BCS #85 in December.

In Marissa Lingen's Calibrated Allies we have a revolution seen through the eyes of student and recently freed slave Okori whose skills in modifying automata are put to good use in the opening acts of the conflict, and suggest interesting times ahead for the people of his home island.

There's a curious distancing effect at work in this story, with a stilted tone in the prose that gives you a distinct feel of an outsider looking in. Something which serves to show Okori's isolation from his fellow students and revolutionaries but does also stop the reader from connecting with the main character, at least until the last section where things loosen up a little. Having said that, it's still a compelling story.

The Lady of the Lake by E. Catherine Tobler is my favourite of the two despite a few early difficulties with the formal feeling language. It's a story full of trickery where no-one is who they first seem. Not Min, the dead woman who lives on an island and calls herself a lady of the lake; not Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of sea and storm whose quest is the catalyst for the story; and most especially not Sun Lin, the bubbling child whose visits delight the solitary Min.

Anyone familiar with the Japanese story of Susanoo-no-Mikoto slaying the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi will know roughly where it's going but having no knowledge of this particular branch of mythology (which I didn't) is definitely not a hindrance. Despite a couple of jarring paragraphs at the beginning, the story settles into an enchanting and enjoyably well told read.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is available for free here. and can also be read in PDF, mobi and epub editions. Check out their website for the details!

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Princess Trap

The Princess Trap by Peter Darbyshire
Reviewed by Jenny Barber

Found in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #11, The Princess Trap by Peter Darbyshire is a wonderfully fun story about a dragon, a not-really princess, the inevitable knights that cross their path and the mutually beneficial arrangement they work out between them.

Saleema is an orphan sheepherder who dreams of being a queen but when she loses her flock to a dragon intent on settling down nearby, necessity forces her to work with the dragon in order to survive. Being a smart young lady of quite sensible character she soon turns the dragon's hunger and the questing knights assorted demises to her advantage, sowing the seeds for what is going to be a quite useful partnership for both of them.

This is a lighthearted romp of a tale with a heroine who succeeds through her own cleverness and adaptability and promises the continuance of interesting things after the story has ended, which is always a good thing. Love it!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Lavender and Lychgates

Lavender and Lychgates by Angela Slatter
Reviewed by Jenny Barber

Found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #22 (ed. Stephen Jones), Lavender and Lychgates by Angela Slatter is definitely a story that should be read at least twice to get full appreciation of something that is both moving and creepy.

It tells the story of a girl finding her place in the world, but it also tells the story of the living coming to terms with the dead (and possibly vice versa) and the old trouble that haunts the family.

There's a dead brother and a restless sister, and an ill timed trip giving blood to his grave. There's a fox-woman who's trying to stir up some revenge and a lost woman who's willing to help from the shadows and all told with an evocative fairy tale quality that easily enchants the reader.

The characters are excellent and the family relationships and interactions both completely real and quite appealing. Oh, and there's a street where 'books are born', which is quite possibly the loveliest bit of city-setting I've ever seen. What with the print shops and paper makers and ink makers and bookshops, is it any wonder that our heroine chooses to take up the book-binding trade?
Lovely story, well told.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #22 is available in pb for £7.99 from all sensible retailers. (Robinson Publishing/Running Press, ISBN: 978-1-84901-618-6)

If you want to read more Angela Slatter goodness, her collection Sourdough & Other Stories (where this story originally appeared) can be had in dead-tree format from Tartarus Press or e-book format at Smashwords and is highly recommended.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Thief of Precious Things

The Thief of Precious Things by A.C. Wise
Reviewed by Jenny Barber
"The world has been still too long, crows above, foxes below,
and men somewhere in between

There is a glass tower in the city, a place where the humans congregate and work on secret things, but fox-girls have a habit of getting into secret things - especially when there's Crow Lords to get the better of.

There is a fox-girl who dared what her sisters wouldn't and had her name stolen from her. She breached the tower but those memories, too, have escaped her and now what she found and what she stole is wanted by humans and Crow Lords alike.

There are a man and a woman whose goodwill and need for peace get them tangled up in trickster games, and when you play with tricksters, change is inevitable.

I'll confess, I have a thing for trickster tales and this one is a rather glorious example. It's about freedom and becoming something else and shaking the world up when its gotten stuck in a rut. This latter can be seen particularly by the division between the two trickster races - the brotherhood of Crow Lords get authority (and capitalisation) while the sisterhood of fox-girls have submission as one of their recognisable natural attributes; a display of extremes that illustrates the need for something a little more balanced if things are to move forward.

Our fox-girl protag makes for a heroine who is both charming and daring, as she gets herself into trouble then finangles her way out of it and the changes wrought in her wake promise interesting times ahead. While the Crow Lords are identikit ciphers, the human support, Yuki and Ani, have character enough to make you care about their divergent needs and fates.

Thief is set in a post-apocalyptic world but it has the kind of enchanting storytelling that can be found in the best Charles de Lint. Definitely a world to which the author should return to as I'd love to read more stories set here. All in all, a fantastic tale.

Found in Bewere the Night, ed. Ekaterina Sedia
Published in April 2011 by Prime books, $14.95 (or thereabouts) from assorted retailers.
More about A.C. Wise here.