Wednesday 28 September 2022

The Flame and the Flood, by Shona Kinsella (Fox Spirit Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Talis and Almoris are a bonded pair of mid-level drones, spouses, who run a boarding house for factory and dock workers. Both are secretly wielders, which means they can magically control the elements: water for Talis, fire for Almoris. Unfortunately, in the colony where they live, wielders must keep their powers secret, else risk being accused of trumped-up crimes and enslaved in the factories. They use their powers to help runaway slaves escape to more enlightened colonies. In this story, one such slave reaches them, a wood-wielder, and gets them into a lot of trouble.

The narrator uses ze/hir pronouns for all characters but doesn’t explain why, so the reader has no idea whether this is a species that only features one sex, or whether it is a species that prefers not to refer to sex, or whether it is just the narrator who prefers not to refer to sex. Functionally, it has exactly the same effect that redacting all the pronouns would have in any other book. It’s interesting in that the reader has to fight back stereotypical assumptions that a character doing certain actions is either male or female, but mostly it’s an irritation. A fictional text is a document telling us to imagine something, and withholding such basic information gets in the way of that.

On the other hand, this is quite a basic tale of oppressed superpowers, with very little actually happening, and it is lent a little bit of novelty by its unusual degree of narrative withholding. As well as not being told the sex of any of the characters, we aren’t told directly what type of species they are, just given clues here and there. We learn early on that that they have antennae and four arms. A slaver and some drones have wings. But we don’t find out until page 70 of 91 that as well as the skin mentioned throughout the book, Talis also has a partial shell, and not till page 76 do we find out that Almoris has two legs.

Some reviewers have taken them to be insects, given their antennae, thoraxes and the colonies they live in, and that the narrator talks about eggs and larvae. But unlike insects they have skulls, spines, noses, tongues, necks, stomachs, guts, chins, teeth, hearts, chests, torsos, waists, skin, hair on their heads, and knuckles that lose their colour when tightened. Also, they drink whisky, eat cheese, keep chickens and goats, use tables and chairs, tie their shoelaces, run small businesses and in all other respects behave very much like us.

In a science fiction book, this would all feel like a half-hearted failure to imagine an alien civilisation. (Compare it, for example, with the insect novels of Lorinda J. Taylor, interviewed in TQF66, who didn’t just imagine insect civilisations, but also their languages.) Little has changed other than that they have four arms and blue hair, and there’s no sense at all that their biological differences from us have affected their society, other than that their buildings are hexagonal. But in what I took to be a fantasy book, it felt quite novel. And I did enjoy the absurdity of all the characters in a serious, humourless book randomly having four arms.

There are a handful of typos, none of which would normally be worthy of comment, but it’s not often you read an award-nominated book that gets may/might, their/they’re and complimented/complemented mixed up. (It was up for best novella in the British Fantasy Awards.) And as often seems to happen with neopronouns, perhaps because authors and editors haven’t got used to them yet, there are places where an overabundance of the same pronouns make it difficult to know who is doing what, e.g. “Fire flowed over hir scalp just before ze was pulled off hir feet. Ze fell onto hir behind and caught hir tongue between hir teeth.”

Overall, not great, not terrible, and in some respects an interesting experiment. ***

Sunday 25 September 2022

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Strange passageways and treacherous crossings: seminal work of urban fantasy throws an ordinary life into tumult, gives “mind the gap” a new meaning 

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s novelisation of the 1996 miniseries of the same name (also written by him and others), tells the story of Richard Mayhew, an ordinary fellow with a controlling girlfriend. When Mayhew decides to help a young woman named Door evade some pursuers, he gets thrust into London Below, a world of secret passages, talking rats, strange markets, light-emitting wine, and life and death challenges. Examples of the latter range from a wooden plank a thousand feet above rocky ground to an underground river that you do not want to fall into. London Below is a place where climbing out of a sewer will put you on the side of a building or walking through a home’s entry will lead you to a street. 

To navigate this strange world, unlikely hero Mayhew aligns himself with Door, so named for her ability to unlock any kind of door. They join forces with the eccentric Marquis de Carabas and an incredibly skilled female fighter called Hunter. During their quest to find an angel, the quartet will encounter a colourful cast of characters and challenges aplenty… all while dodging assassins Croup and Vandemar. These sadists, who’ve made their home in the cellar of a Victorian hospital, stand out as some of the more eccentric villains in contemporary fantasy. Croup, the brains of the operation, likes to destroy beautiful things, whether they be an ancient piece of art or a person. His righthand man Vandemar, a goon to the highest degree, has a fondness for breaking bones and eating live animals. 

Gaiman’s London Below has some of the elements of the London we know, but it also diverges in many ways. The market that the heroes visit, for instance, resembles the iconic Harrods, but it’s a “bizarre bazaar” with people selling all kinds of weird products. 

One of the more enchanting characters is the Earl of Earl’s Court. He and his court operate on a train car that appears dark from the outside but is full of life within. The Earl’s elderly guards hit up vending machines for candy bars and Cokes that they drink from expensive chalices. 

Gaiman deserves praise not just for his world-building skills, but also for his ability to create three-dimensional characters – especially his underdog protagonist – that change when confronted with extreme challenges. One of the book’s tensest scenes involves the Black Friars’ three tests: one physical challenge, one riddle and one ordeal. Among the themes that emerge as the Neverwhere characters undergo their tribulations within this strange domain are revenge, betrayal, sacrifice and especially self-respect.—Douglas J. Ogurek****

Wednesday 21 September 2022

The Caduca, by Elaine Graham-Leigh (The Conrad Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A disclaimer first: we’ve published three stories by Elaine Graham-Leigh in TQF, so do bear in mind that I may be biased in her favour. But I suppose it wouldn’t be a surprise that after liking her stories enough to publish them I liked this a great deal too, and for a similar reason: she puts the reader in the middle of the crisis and makes us care about it.

This serious science fiction novel returns us to the universe seen in “A Gift for the Young” (TQF67). Ar’Quila, an ambassador from the Office of Interplanetary Protocols, is sent to bring peace to Benan Ty. The civil war has been going on since she was still at school, and like many students she idolized the rebel leader, Mara Karne, daughter of a deposed, murdered president. But Mara is long dead and the rebels have turned to ever more extreme violence, locked in a death struggle with an oppressive government that sends its soldiers to destroy entire towns in retaliation.

Quila’s job is a very difficult one. Few think there is any chance of success. And if she fails to arrange successful talks, she knows that United Planets troops will follow, to bring peace (in theory) by eliminating the combatants.

It’s a political and thoughtful novel, that clearly draws upon a rich understanding of similar conflicts on our own world, such as in the Middle East and South America. Quila is not our only point of view character. For example, we spend time also with the president, with government soldiers, and with Terise, a member of the rebellion on Benan Ty, and learn what her motives are for continuing to fight, even though she knows they’ve gone too far. Our time with each character shows us another link in the chains of violence that keep people trapped in these conflicts.

That might make it sound a bit miserable, but it’s not, it’s a thriller, with shoot-outs, assassination attempts and incognito cross-country trips, and, about two-thirds of the way in, a murder mystery element (or attempted murder, at least) is introduced that leaves the reader genuinely curious as to the assailant and their motives. It’s an entertaining and exciting book about a serious subject.

Plus, we spend much of our time with Quila, whose optimism gives us everything to root for, even while showing us what it’s like to a be a person of good intent in a powerful organisation of somewhat different intent. And it’s a book full of the small kindnesses that people do for each other, even in the most rotten of situations: a bottle of beer shared, or a few minutes spent listening to someone who has no one else to talk to. I think our readers will enjoy it as much as I did. ****

Wednesday 14 September 2022

She-Hulk by Dan Slott: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1, by Dan Slott and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

A marvellously chunky 413pp collection from Marvel gathers together a complete twelve-issue She-Hulk series from 2004 and the first five issues of a slightly inferior 2005 follow-up. Most of it is fairly light-hearted, though a serious storyline going on in the Avengers – where she was apparently sent berserk and smashed up an entire town – has ramifications here.

The story sees Jennifer Walters, after the She-Hulk has been thrown out of the Avengers Mansion for her dissolute ways, take up a role at a new law firm, one that specialises in superhuman law. This premise is used to springboard her into lots of bizarre stories, from miniaturised supervillains trying to escape prison on her arms, to fighting the champion of the universe to settle the rulership of a planet in a boxing ring of law.

A running theme is Jen’s difficulty in controlling her powers. Her power levels fluctuate, and she sometimes has trouble switching between Jen and She-Hulk and vice versa. The book retcons some past storylines in explaining why this happens. At one point she makes a new discovery about how to increase her strength as She-Hulk, a clever character twist that made perfect sense.

John Byrne’s popular runs on She-Hulk were notable for her ability to break the fourth wall, long before Deadpool and Gwenpool began to make a habit of it. She doesn’t do that here, but metatextuality remains present and intact thanks to the lawyers often referring back to the Marvel comics produced within the Marvel universe to find relevant rulings and precedents.

Though many artists contribute, especially to the celebratory issue 100, regular artist Juan Bobillo’s artwork is particularly good – he’s adept at capturing the weirdness of She-Hulk’s world, and while he draws both She-Hulk and Jennifer to be appealingly attractive, it’s not in a way that feels grotty. (In contrast to, say, the way occasional cover artist Greg Land turns the lower half of her costume into a thong.)

Overall, a very entertaining book, even for someone like me, who isn’t a die-hard Marvel fan. ****

Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Death of Captain America, by Ed Brubaker and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This lengthy omnibus collects a twenty-four issue spell of Captain America’s comic following the end of the Marvel comic universe’s Civil War, and, since those events (as the title of this book rather gives away) left Steve Rogers out of action, these issues focus on his friends, like Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier), Agent 13, the Falcon, the Black Widow and Tony Stark, now head of SHIELD.

Usually, with a very long graphic novel like this, I’ll read an issue or two at a time, then switch to other books and read a few issues of those, but this was so gripping, the issues flowing one into the other so swiftly, that I read it start to finish in a few days. That meant I didn’t get to savour the cliffhangers properly, but on the other hand I did get the satisfaction of reading the entire saga all at once.

There is an overlap of a few issues with the previous book I read in the series, the hardcover Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus, though I was glad of the recap. The Death of Captain America continues the serious, dramatic tone of the earlier issues, both in storytelling and art, and it’s no surprise that this series inspired some of the best films Marvel have to offer.

The major antagonist appears at first to be the Red Skull, who you’ll be delighted to hear has given up on fascism, though unfortunately not on world domination. Many other villains make appearances, such as Arnim Zola, Doctor Faustus, Crossbones, Doctor Doom and the Red Skull’s daughter, but all are woven into an ongoing storyline rather than popping up for one issue as the villain of the month.

It reflects on such matters as the role of violence in a superhero’s life, the limits of freedom and self-determination, and the way that even after losing a friend we never stop wanting to live up to their expectations. I found it to be a terrifically satisfying read. It was thrilling, thoughtful, full of intrigue, and right up there with some of my favourite modern Marvel comics. It wasn’t funny, but then I never wanted it to be. ****