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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2016/23: Indexing: Reflections -- Seanan McGuire

If you dug deeply enough into the Snow White story, what you found was blood on the snow, and the sacrifice at the heart of winter. There had to be something similar in all the narratives, something dark and enduring and cruel. It gave them the strength to feed, generation upon generation, on the hearts and lives of children. It gave them the strength to create people like me. [loc. 1338]

In this sequel to Indexing, McGuire explores more aspects of the narrative -- the driving force behind fairy stories, with the power to reshape reality to fit those stories. Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry) works for the ATI Management Bureau, which aims to track and contain the narrative's incursions into the mundane world. Not everyone can be a fairytale heroine: which is fortunate, because for every triumphant hero or heroine there are numerous villains, sidekicks, wicked sisters and hapless bystanders. Once upon a time doesn't imply happy ever after for everybody.

Henry and her team encounter a young woman who has learnt to subvert the narrative by rewriting and recasting her own story. In brief, she starts off as one Disney heroine and ends up as quite another. Elise breaks all the rules, but ends up with more power and more choice than anybody else who's been touched by the narrative. Does she use her powers for good? I'll give you three guesses. And those who have struggled to shape their archetypal roles into something they can live with -- Henry with her Snow White looks and entourage of suicidal bluebirds, Sloane with her Wicked Stepsister habits and, ah, offputting manner -- have to delve deep into the hearts of their own narratives to deal with the chaotic potential that Elise represents.

I'm most fascinated, here, by McGuire's unpacking of the monomyth at the heart of the Snow White story: the 'whiteout wood' where it's always winter, where blood on the snow heralds the hope of spring. Sloane's story, though, is unfolded more gradually and in unexpected directions. And we encounter a new character, Ciara Bloomfield, who's keeping her husband's Bluebeard story in abeyance by happily agreeing not to open that door ...

As with Indexed, Reflections was initially published in serial form, and it shows: the first few chapters feel relatively standalone, though the overarching story does cohere quite quickly after that. Plenty of old tales told new, including Puss in Boots (pretty grim(m), when you think about it), Hansel and Gretel, Godfather Death. And there are a couple of strong themes that hold Reflected together as a novel: the idea that a character can shape their own story (Sloane, Ciara); the Bureau's dirty laundry and underhand techniques (Sloane again, Elise, Demi); the nature of love, and its many forms. We meet Henry's brother Gerry again, and note that the narrative doesn't misgender Gerry, even when the characters do: some interesting asides on how the original story might have played out if Gerry had been gay, too. Reflections is fun, thought-provoking and occasionally pretty nasty -- just like all the best fairytales.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016/24: Medusa's Web -- Tim Powers

I can't stay here—spider visions, ghost cats, keyboards typing a dead woman's last-person novels! Back here at Caveat! It's my childhood, perversely served up as a living nightmare. I don't want to—I can't—walk any further into this impossibly animate decay. Vast forms, that move fantastically to a discordant melody ... [loc. 1486]

Scott and Madeline are orphans: their parents abandoned them back in 1991. They've had little to do with their cousins Ariel and Claimayne for years, but now their Aunt Amity has committed suicide (by hand-grenade, on the roof) and one of her last wishes involves the cousins spending a week together in Caveat, the decaying family mansion in Los Angeles, before the reading of the will.

Neither Scott nor Madeline is what you would call a success. Scott used to be an artist but descended into alcoholism. Madeline is an astrologer who's all too aware of the expired cosmology behind her trade. It probably doesn't help that, as children, both were exposed to 'spiders' -- in this instance, abstract multi-limbed images that can propel the beholder's awareness forward or backward into other times, seeing through the eyes of their past or future selves or of other observers.

A whole counterculture has grown up around the spiders, with 'spiderbit' shops where one can buy special glasses to protect themself against even a glimpse of a spider; tarantella MP3s, whose listeners can use the fast 18/8 beat to ward off the spiders' influence; rumours of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood which could exorcise a spider ... There's a mosaic of Medusa on the garden wall, and a lug wrench painted gold in the basement. And Aunt Amity's keyboard is still in use.

Medusa's Web is the best kind of horror story: there's a sense of growing menace which only gradually reveals its true nature and the extent of its influence. Though Powers references mythology, folklore and the occult, there's nothing supernatural about the villains of the piece. As in Declare, an assortment of unusual anecdotes and incidents -- Rudolf Valentino's last confession heard by two priests, the history of the Garden of Allah hotel, the tarantella in Ibsen's A Doll's House -- are shaped into a story that's more than the sum of its parts.

The 'old Hollywood' atmosphere reminded me strongly of something else, though I'm not sure what: perhaps Peter Delacorte's Time on my Hands, perhaps Kage Baker's Hollywood novels. (Perhaps, hmm, actual films set in prewar Los Angeles?) I expect there are a great many film references I missed, too. But Medusa's Web was a captivating and satisfactory read, a novel I finished in a day.

Friday, March 25, 2016

2016/22: Scat -- Carl Hiaasen

Jimmy Lee Bayliss chose not to admit that a lunatic with a rabid parrot had tried to remove his lips with a pair of pliers.[loc. 2646]

Eco-thriller set in Florida, targetted at the YA market: a quicker and more straightforward read than Hiaasen's novels for adults, but the crazy is still there.

Nick and his best friend Marta are in Mrs Starch's biology class. So is Duane, the class problem, who has a history of arson and who would, he says, prefer to be known as 'Smoke'. Nobody is impressed when Mrs Starch makes fun of Smoke during class: she's overstepped the mark.

A field trip to the Black Vine Swamp is interrupted by a wildfire: Mrs Starch heads back into the swamp to find a pupil's inhaler, and does not emerge. The next day, a letter arrives at the school, ostensibly from Mrs Starch: she requests leave of absence for 'a family emergency'. But she has no family ...

Nick's captured a few minutes of video, just before the fire: he'd hoped that the moving shape he glimpsed might be a Florida panther, but it turns out to be a human figure. Could it be the person who started the fire? And is Mrs Starch's disappearance part of a larger conspiracy? Nick could do with some distraction from his worries about his father, a soldier who's been badly injured in Iraq. (And he still yearns to see a panther.)Together, he and Marta investigate, finding unexpected allies and dangerous foes.

Scat has nearly all the classic Hiaasen ingredients: corrupt big business, eccentricity galore (worth noting that the eccentrics are usually more decent than the businessmen), disregard for the ecosystem, the commercialisation of modern America. (All that's 'missing' in terms of Hiaasen's usual -- and I didn't especially miss it -- is the tawdry sex and most of the violence.) It's also hilarious, touching, thrilling and well-paced. Great read, and I know more about the Everglade ecology than I did.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

2016/21: The Wicked and the Divine: The Faust Act -- Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

Every ninety years, twelve members of the Pantheon incarnate. They merge their spirits with 'ordinary' people, carefully chosen, who get two years of power and fame -- for instance, as rock stars -- followed by an early (and likely unpleasant) death. This ninety-year cycle is known as the Recurrence.

The Faust Act opens with fangirl Laura going to see the goddess Amaterasu perform. Laura meets Luci(fer), incarnate as female, who introduces her to soe other members of the Pantheon -- and to Cassandra, a sceptical reporter who mocks the Pantheon members and says the Pantheon's nothing but an elaborate hoax. Assassins attack, and Luci kills them by snapping her fingers. Unfortunately, when she's up before the judge for murder, she demonstrates the gesture and the judge's head explodes. Luci claims it wasn't her, but the circumstances are against her.

Laura -- who's crushing on Luci -- teams up with Cassandra to investigate the Pantheon. Did one of them frame Luci? Did one of them send the assassins? Their investigations are interrupted by Luci's escape from prison (which obviously she could have done at any point). She is not happy. There are violent disagreements with others of the Pantheon -- and then, despite Laura's help, Luci finds herself written out of the story. Temporarily? I have volumes 2 and 3 ...

Though the members of the Pantheon go by the names of figures from mythology -- Lucifer, Ananke, Amaterasu, Morrigan -- it's by no means clear to me whether they are, in any meaningful sense, those ancient deities. On the other hand, plenty of mythology is based on gods behaving like teenagers. In The Wicked and the Divine, each god's persona is a blend of mythology and the life-story of the original 'ordinary' person who's been subsumed into the myth.

That said, The Faust Act felt very much like an introduction, an opening chapter, so my interpretations may be modified once I've read further.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

2016/20: Shaman -- Kim Stanley Robinson

The clouds in the blue were scalloped and articulated like driftwood, and crawled around in themselves like otters at play. He could see everything at once. His spirit kept tugging at the top of his head, lifting him so that he had to concentrate to keep his balance. The problem made him laugh. The world was so great, so beautiful. Something like a lion: it would kill you if it could, but in the meantime it was so very, very beautiful. [loc. 806]

The eponymous shaman is Loon, who at the beginning of this novel is sent out to wander for two weeks in the freezing wilderness of late winter in Ice Age France. It's a fortnight of minute-to-minute survival, and at times the whole book seems to be first and foremost a wilderness-survival narrative. It's quite slow-paced, and a great deal of it is concerned with the daily grind of Paleolithic life.

Loon, though, embarks on journeys which have the weight of proto-myth. When his wife is abducted by her former tribe, Loon goes after her: he finds a community which has learnt to domesticate wolves, and thus -- the parallel is explicitly drawn -- to enslave humans. (Because this community has more food to spare, they also have more rules about how that food is distributed: an interesting observation.) Later in the novel, one of the most basic human taboos is broken so that others may survive. Loon and his companions, without benefit of maps or compasses or GPS, are lost wanderers, yet they finally find their way home.

Robinson's known as a science fiction author, and there is a science-fictional feel to Shaman, perhaps because the world it describes is so different to any reader's experience. Robinson drew on his own experiences of hiking in winter, which gives descriptions an immediacy: but he had warm clothes, enough to eat, and no doubt a plethora of artefacts to make his journey easier than Loon's.

There's an element of the fantastical in the narrative voice: it's the 'third wind', an inner last-ditch strength which might be something mystical or something primally biological, a survival instinct buried deep in Loon's unconscious mind. Another fantastical element is the occasional switch of viewpoint character: to a cat (delightful!), a Neanderthal, a wolverine.

One minor niggle: Robinson has said that he's used Basque as an inspiration for the novel, "...that the Basque people have a larger portion of Neanderthal DNA than anyone else in the world, and that their language is the oldest in Europe and dates to the time period (and to the setting actually) of [Shaman]." (source). Fair enough -- it's not as though he's attempting to transcribe paleolithic speech -- and the occasional word is fine. But there are times when it obfuscates meaning: Loon describes the first in a series of caves as "In Mother Earth’s body, it was not the sabelean but the baginaren": I had to look up those words, though perhaps I should have guessed that they were gynaecological terms.

The society Robinson describes is, despite the novel's title, surprisingly secular. There is mysticism, in its primal form of awe at the natural world; the spirits of the dead, both human and otherwise, are presences which must be respected; but there are no gods. Loon's duties as shaman are more prosaic: remembering oral histories, painting animals on cave walls, communicating with the Old Ones, respecting the dead.

... Thinking about it, it feels as though this is pre-god territory: that the invention of gods, initially as personalised natural forces, implies a relationship in which humans have anything at all to offer such gods. All Loon's people can do is survive.

Throughout Shaman, the question of what it means to be human is examined. It's there in the interactions between Neanderthals ('Old Ones') and Loon's people ('Fast Ones'); it's there in the enslavement of humans by other humans; it's certainly there in Loon's art, and in the descriptions of the great summer gatherings, and in Loon's sheer joy at the beauty of the world.

As a reader with fond memories of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and sequels, I can't help comparing Shaman. Both are well-researched, though Robinson has more recent sources available to him. Auel's novels focus on Ayla, who's pretty much a Chosen One, special and unique and better than the Neanderthals among whom she spends her childhood. She's an innovator. For the first couple of novels she is more or less alone.

Robinson's Loon is a part of his tribe: he doesn't care for being alone, doesn't invent anything (though he might develop new artistic techniques) and there is nothing unusual about him. His stream of thought is more comparable to a contemporary teenager's than is Ayla's. His actions are mundane, but his emotional and spiritual life is more richly described: I much prefer Robinson's style to Auel's.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

2016/19: Exit, Pursued by a Bear -- Greer Gilman

"But three days since I asked if he'd a play in hand. He said, one in mind: there'd be a shipwreck in Bohemia. Where there is no sea, I told him, by some hundred miles. Yet might there be, he said, if I do write of it. A snort. Thou wast ever in the mood subjunctive, Will, said I. And he, Thou, Ben, imperative. [loc 373]

We find Ben Jonson overseeing, with Inigo Jones, the preparations for his masque Oberon, the Faery Prince. The younger of King James' sons, Charles, is keen to be part of the action: his older brother, the shining Prince Henry, gets the lead role. Which is asking for trouble, since the Faerie court are fully aware of the imminent lèse majesté ...

Enter Kit Marlowe, who is dead. (This is 1611.) Fresh from disporting with a lovely satyr, Kit finds himself challenged by Titania to disrupt the masque and abduct the prince: his reward for success will be release from the static joys of Arcadia, his penalty for failure a trip to Hell. Either is preferable, for Kit, to the stagnation of Faerieland where everything is beautiful, nothing changes, and he can no longer write.

This short work -- as densely packed and richly written as Cry Murder! in a Small Voice -- also features Galilean astronomy (and some interesting observations on colonialism); polar bears; a pearl beyond price that's stolen from actor and playwright Nathan Field while he's disporting with the Faerie monarchs; a fascinating depiction of early theatrical mechanisms; and a stunningly cinematic final scene in which Watling Street is also the zodiac, and Kit's last pub-crawl a gauntlet of myth and magic.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

2016/18: Cry Murder! in a Small Voice -- Greer Gilman

The player’s boy drew breath. I split. A lightning at his crown, an ecstasy. The spirit bound within him—light in body—woke. No other saw the courtier in green. But in his sight, the room was filled with hawthorn: with its writhenness, its shade, and yes, its vixenish rank scent. And in the wick of it, his master was, and it was of him: still renewing as a cold green fire. [loc. 1301]

London, 1604: three boy actors have died in the past year, and Ben Jonson is growing suspicious. The latest victim, Peter Whitgift, is grieved by his friend and lover Rafe Calder: it's Calder who hints to Ben that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, may have more than passing knowledge of the deaths.

The quest to determine de Vere's guilt, or lack thereof, takes Ben to Venice -- where de Vere found and fetched back a young boy with a perfect voice, now dead -- and through the alleys and theatres of 17th-century London. This is London before the Plague and the Fire: a maze of muddy byways and smoky pubs, pitch-black nights and grinding poverty, stagecraft and gender-bending and Ben's fond resignation to the fact that his work will never match that of Will or poor murdered Kit.

For a chapbook, Cry Murder! has great depth: it's by no means a quick read -- not least because of Gilman's rich, antick language, and her blank-verse prose, and her arcane vocabulary. This is a novel packed into a pint pot, rich and dense and as full of allusion as of plot. The fantastical winds through the story, in playhouse superstition and casual allegory. And yes, of course Oberon is the English Dionysus: yes, that feels true.