No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Toxicology -- Steve Aylett

Toxicology bears the stamp, in quality and quantity, of impatience: a first collection of Aylett's short work, it includes pieces that might have been omitted if publication had been delayed for a few years. The anthology first appeared in the United States in 1999. It consisted of unpublished work as well as pieces (to call them 'stories' would be limiting, if not inaccurate) that had appeared in miscellaneous anthologies and publications since 1994. This expanded UK edition includes six additional pieces: some have been published in the last couple of years, while others are new. The additions are identifiable by their British spelling, if nothing else, since the earlier works retain the Americanised variants of words.

The diversity of the publications which have featured Aylett's short fiction gives an idea of his surreally eclectic material. Here are slipstream stories from themed anthologies like Disco 2000 and the NEL Book of Internet Short Stories: postmodern horror and satire from the independent magazine sector (Gargoyle, Carpe Noctem): topical rants from The Idler: and several pieces, like the Wodehouse pastiches 'Dread Honour' and 'Ballroom', which appear in Toxicology for the first time.

Aylett is best-known for his futuristic 'Beerlight' thrillers (Beerlight, as far as anyone can tell, being a State of America as much as a state of mind) and his contemporary crime fiction. This anthology reveals a broader spectrum of mode and inspiration, though there are common threads of satire, surrealism and social commentary. In particular, Aylett's fictions are often concerned with the failures of law - whether metaphorically ('What is the law but a cloven hoof embedded in a fallen child's belly?') or literally, as in the anti-CJB tale 'Repeater', dating from 1995. There are several tales of Beerlight, including a couple featuring non-detective Taffy Atom, star of last year's novel Atom: crime noir, metamorphosed, is still a staple of Aylett's fictions.

Aylett's style, while not noteably original, is distinctively his own: an extravagant melange of surreal imagery, pulp cliché, philosophical hypotheses and crazed ramblings. Many of the pieces collected here are more situation than story, and sacrifice plot, development and closure on the metallised black altar of style. (Some consider this a bad thing, I'm told). In the best of them, there's the precision of a stripped-down machine: even the worst are churning masses of eminently quotable aphorisms and images that stick in the head. Not to be taken in large quantities, as this may lead to inversion of the skull.

Saturday, December 01, 2001

Issola -- Steven Brust

Issola is the ninth volume, both by publication date and by internal chronology, in Brust’s ‘Vlad Taltos’ sequence. Those familiar with the setting (Vlad is a human assassin, retired, in the elvish Dragaeran Empire) may find in this novel a welcome return to the witty, mannered heroics of the earlier books in the series. I fear those who have but lately discovered Vlad Taltos and his friends and familiars will find Issola rather more opaque, though hopefully no less enjoyable.

The Taltos novels are all named for one of Dragaera’s seventeen noble houses: the Issola are noted for ‘grace, elegance and manners’, but also for the subtle strike. Vlad Taltos, living rough in the northern forest after the events of Orca, is tracked down by none other than the impeccably-groomed Lady Teldra, the Issola chatelaine of his friend Morrolan. This, it transpires, is no mere social visit, but a call to arms.

Morrolan and his cousin Aliera have been captured by the Jenoine, hated former rulers more powerful than gods who are rumoured to have created the Dragaeran race. Vlad Taltos, with the sorcerous assistance of undead Sethra Lavode and the diplomatic skills of Lady Teldra, is determined to rescue his friends. As the quest commences, it rapidly becomes clear that his career as an assassin may not be over after all.

Vlad, returning to a broader social milieu after his time in the literal and figurative wilderness, begins to mellow somewhat from the archetypal wise-guy loner. Perhaps it’s the company he keeps: at any rate, the ice has begun to thaw, and he’s a more sympathetic character than he has been for several volumes. The novel’s final, shocking conflict suggests interesting times ahead for the erstwhile assassin, and more epic themes than the Chandleresque intrigues of earlier novels.

In Issola, Brust reveals more about Dragaera than ever before. Apparent inconsistencies in the backstory are clarified, and obscure utterances assume new meaning. The imprisonment of Vlad’s two friends is as plain a case of alien abduction as ever occurred in a fantasy novel. Fantasy? While the setting is certainly fantastical - sorcery, gods and demons, and of course the pointy-eared Dragaerans are elves - this is also a novel of alien invasion, grounded as much in genetic engineering and psychosocial experimentation as in legend, heroism and enchantment. What’s recounted here as ancient history - including some fascinating insights on the role of the gods, and the truth behind the instinctive superiority of Dragaerans - would be the mythology of another, more magically-inclined world.

And, yes, Deverra makes a fleeting appearance.