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. ****

Monday, 12 September 2022

Controversy Meets Positivity: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6 Submissions Open

More “icks” for part six: submissions open for sixth instalment in UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies” of audaciously vile stories with a positive message. 

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, purportedly the UK’s second longest-running science fiction and fantasy zine, is seeking fiction submissions for UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6, slated for release in summer 2023. Authors may submit stories of up to 10,000 words until 31 January 2023.

Unsplatterpunk stories unite splatterpunk fare (e.g. over-the-top violence, excessive gore, deviant subject matter) with a positive message. Thus, we’re challenging writers to teach us a moral lesson while shocking us with jaw-droppingly disgusting stories.

Once again, editorial duties go to Douglas J. Ogurek, author of the recently released unsplatterpunk collection I Will Change the World… One Intestine at a Time, published by Plumfukt Press. Texas-based horror raconteur Edward “Eddie V” Villanova returns to design the cover art for this issue. 

The UNSPLATTERPUNK! canon smothers readers with bursting bodies, hacked-off limbs, torn skin, and objects both chewy and pointy getting shoved into uncomfortable places. And slathered over all of it is a gleaming layer of viscera, blood, vomit, and excrement. Thematic elements range from helping the underprivileged to healing the ailing environment. It’s all disgusting… and it’s all enlightening. Dig into the first five anthologies:

Tips for Writers

Unsplatterpunk submissions get rejected for two key reasons:

  • Not controversial/visceral enough – You’ve just written a story full of decapitations, amputations, and eviscerations? We can get that by turning on the TV. How will you take it to the next level?
  • No positive message – You’ve completed a subversive piece that will shock and disgust even the most dedicated splatterpunk enthusiast? Great, but if it doesn’t have some positive message, we’re not interested.

Other nuggets:

  • Make your story as attention-getting as a pool of vomit at a buffet entrance. 
  • Make the content so revolting that readers think to themselves, Why am I reading this? 
  • Imagine a man with a violin standing next to you as you write. Each time your writing gets dramatic, he starts playing. Don’t let him play! In other words, don’t impress us with your language – impress us with your story. 
  • Steer clear of revenge stories. Exacting vengeance on somebody who did something awful is not a positive message. 
  • Our thoughts on classic creatures: Vampires brooding around a castle? Cliché. Zombies wandering through woods? Dumb. Werewolves at a sexual harassment training seminar? You have our attention. 
  • Read previous anthologies in the series. Why not? They’re free. UNSPLATTERPUNK!, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 5 
  • Read every splatterpunk story that you can get your hands on, then write about something that’s never been written about. 
  • Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t write your story in a chatty style full of colloquialisms. You’re writing to your reader, not your BFF.  
  • Know how those writing guides and instructors talk about subtlety? Fuck that. 

No Pay, No Play?

Contributors will not receive a monetary payment. However, contributors (and everyone) will get free pdf and ebook versions of the anthology, which will also be available for hardcopy purchase at Amazon.

Before you pound your fist on your desk because we’re not taking your future as a bestselling author seriously, consider this: in our experience, many publishers with paying anthologies select contributors from a small pool of friends and acquaintances. Moreover, those same publishers often offer zero feedback on submissions. 

We take a different approach here. First, our sole criterion for acceptance is a good story that follows the parameters. Thus, everyone who submits has an equal chance of getting a story selected. Second, we read every submission from beginning to end. If we reject it, we tell you why. If we find promise in a story, we work closely with the contributor to make it as illuminating and nauseating as possible. 

The Gory Details

Send stories (no poetry, please) to Put “UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6 submission” in the subject line. In your cover letter, include a bio and tell us about the positive message your story conveys.

  • Deadline: 31 January 2023
  • Max word count: 10,000
  • Reprints: No
  • Multiple submissions: Yes
  • Simultaneous submissions: No. We’ll get back to you within a couple weeks.
  • File type: .doc (preferred) or .docx files only
  • Payment: This is a non-paying zine. However, free epub and pdf files will be available to everyone.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication. See the TQF standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters. 

Have the Guts to Take a Stand

What’s wrong with the world? Environmental degradation? Poverty? Speciesism? Intolerance? This is your chance to combat that problem using the tool of stomach-churning fiction.  

Join the ranks of Hugh Alsin, Garvin Giltinan, Joe Koch, Eric Raglin, Triffooper Saxelbax, Drew Tapley, and many others who’ve earned the unsplatterpunk badge.

Teach us a lesson, and while you’re at it, make us sick. 

Ready. Set. Gross!

Lead photo: Pavel Danilyuk

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. ****