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Gypsy is one of the latest additions to PM Press's remarkable Outspoken Authors series. As with previous volumes in the series, Gypsy contains several collected works a single author. This collection features selections from the works of eclectic writer Carter Sholtz, including the novella Gypsy, two bitingly funny satirical short stories, an essay on the ease with which the US and its corporations violate national and international law, and an interview conducted with Sholtz by Terry Bisson.

The novella Gypsy takes place in an unsettlingly familiar dystopic future - climate change, corporate greed, resource depletion, war and the collapse of civil society. It's gotten bad enough that an underground network of dissidents have managed, in secret, to cobble together a space ship that will be able - if everything goes right - to transport a small number of people to the Alpha Centauri system in the hopes of finding a livable planet. It's a desperate shot in the dark.... but letting the situation on earth continue without some attempt to create another place for humans to survive seems unthinkable.

This is not a happy story. It is unrealistic to expect that that everything would go right in such an endeavour, and this is, given the opening situation, a very realistic, hard sf story. But it is also a powerful story, and a thought-provoking one.

In addition to the novella, the other pieces in the collection are well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed "Bad Pennies," a wicked satire on the American penchant for meddling in other countries' business and for doing business at whatever cost.

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Quite a few years ago, a person of my Internet acquaintance, who is known on the Net as The Plaid Adder, started writing one of the best fantasy series I have ever read. It grew to five volumes - a tight trilogy (Taken Child, Another Country and Darkness Bright), a sequel (Redemption) and a prequel (Better to Burn) - and it is in my opinion a great sadness that none of the books were ever published.

I've never really understood why my acquaintance was never able to get these published, unless it was that they were written from a deeply feminist perspective, featured mostly female protagonists, a goodly number of whom were lesbians, and provided, along with compelling stories well-written about interesting and fully realised characters, serious critiques about just about every aspect of Western culture and society, an invitation to really think seriously about things like love, good and evil, materialism and progress, religion, and other core stuff of life, and a meta-narrative about the process of creation. Plus, the core trilogy is somewhat of a genre-bender, encompassing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, suspense, romance and political satire, and while this kind of blurring of the boundaries has recently come more into vogue, it wasn't as salable back when these books were written.

I was fortunate enough to read these books chapter by chapter as they were written, and then to acquire printed copies of the complete and edited volumes from the author - which I of course reread. Then came my increasing environmental sensitivities, which made my treasured spiro-bound print copies unreadable. But now the author is distributing the novels as ebooks to those who know where to ask for them, and I've had the absolute delight of starting to reread these books again.

The first volume I reread was Taken Child, which introduces the land of Ideire and its low-tech, telepathy and magic-reliant culture, its somewhat eccentric semi-deity Idair and her nemesis the Dark One, the women-only order of magic-using clerics known as shriia who follow Idair and serve the people of Ideire, and their enemies, the female dark users of magic who receive their power from the Dark One.

At the centre of the trilogy is Theamh ni hUlnach, a shriia - albeit a somewhat unconventional one. In Taken Child, we meet as she goes about her duties, including the training of her apprentice Aine. In the course of this, she is sought out by a woman whose child has suffered the supernatural theft of its soul. In the process of trying to save the child, Theamh uncovers a horrifying secret linked to both an old enemy and a long-lost love, and a corrupt plot that threatens the very future of Ideire.

The second volume of the trilogy, Another Country, sees Theamh and Aine following the tracks of Theamh's nemesis, Lythril, into the neighbouring, technology-reliant Cretid Nation, which is in many ways a dystopic distillation of much that is wrong with our own society, as civil war erupts at home. A deft blend of heroic quest, political thriller, biting satire, and poignant love story, Another Country is genre-bending at its best.

The final volume, Darkness Bright, sees Theamh and Aine returned to an Ideire in chaos. They join up with the resistance - both martial and magical - fighting corrupt shriia and their secular allies who have overthrown the legitimate leadership of the country. An unflinching portrayal of the horrors and sacrifices made in war and the tragedy of a country torn apart by lies and greed, Darkness Bright is also a story of courage, commitment to the good, and enduring love.

If anything in what I've written here seems interesting to you, the author can be contacted on tumblr as

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Elton's Dead Famous is a satirical examination of reality TV and the cult of celebrity, plus an interesting (though perhaps a tad too obvious) murder mystery. Although, when it comes down to it, intentional satire is hardly needed, this stuff satirises itself so well, all one has to to is show what actually happens, and it's over the top enough to seem like satire. Well, maybe leaving out the murder. Funny and sad by turns, it keeps the reader's interest high by not actually revealing the victim until well into the story - though I must admit I had my suspicions about the killer even before I knew who had been killed. But then I often figure mysteries out before the final reveal, and in this case, it doesn't affect the savage snark at all.

A friend recommended the author and this book in particular some time ago, and nagged me til I read it - and I'm glad he did. I will be reading more of Elton's work, as this was well-written, well-plotted, and very enjoyable.

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And finally, the last few books from 2013.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Magnificat

What would happen if, following the death of the Pope, the Conclave met and somehow unanimously elected someone whose name they had never heard or seen before? Who was everything a Pope should never be - a middle-aged magistrate from communist China, an atheist, a woman? Yarbro imagines it, and it is quite wonderful to read.

Simon Clark, The Night of the Triffids

A quite enjoyable sequel/homage to Wyndham's classic The Day of the Triffids, which begins 30-odd years later among the human survivors on the Isle of Wight. The narrator and protagonist, David Mason (son of the narrator of the original novel) is a pilot who hopes to find evidence of other surviving colonies to unite in the face of increasing indications that the triffids are intelligent and have plans to destroy the remaining humans. In the course of his quest, Mason, like his father before him, is harshly reminded that triffids are not the only threats to the survival of humanity.

Ellen Galford, Queendom Come

Galford's satirical, feminist, woman-centred view of the world is in high form in this novel. Set in Scotland during Thatcher's Blue Reign, the narrative focuses on the sudden appearance of an ancient Caledonian war-queen, called upon, like Arthur, to return in the hour of her nation's greatest need, and the near immortal seer/sorceress who was the queen's counsellor centuries ago and has awaited her return. Funny as hell.

R. A. MacAvoy, The Third Eagle

MacAvoy is a brilliant fantasist, but this foray into space opera is, while pleasant reading, not among her masterpieces. The protagonist, Wanbli Elf Darter, a skilled member of a clan of bodyguard/assassins who traditionally serve the landed classes on the planet of Neunacht, leaves his people and culture behind to travel in space. After many picaresque adventures, he ends up on the "revivalist" ship Commitment, which is crewed by survivors of generation starships sent out centuries before. The crew of the Commitment have adopted a mission to hunt down other such sleeper ships drifting through space - whereupon they decant a few of the frozen people aboard. The rest they kill, because there is no place for them to go - the colonised planets won't accept them, and the Commitment can only take on enough to replace crew lost to injury, illness or old age. Wanbli, of course, finds an answer that allows the sleepers to live. Despite the grim situation of the sleepers, this novel is mostly light-hearted and fun.

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John Scalzi, Agent to the Stars

OK, this is just plain hilarious. It's high concept to the core - What if the first aliens to visit our planet are so unpalatable that they need to high a high-powered agent to "sell" them to Earthfolk? And where it goes from there is pretty much non-stop funny of all shades from some simple farce and slapstick to some profound satire on the entertainment business and on human nature.

Note that I said "pretty much non-stop" - because there are also some moments of tragedy and some very important ethical considerations that ground the novel and make it much more than what it at first appears to be.

Worth reading, and also at times worth thinking about. I have some quibbles with the ultimate unveiling strategy - there's something about it that doesn't sit quite right with me, and I think it has to do with - how do I say this without spoiling the scene? - stealing focus from a legitimate celebration of exemplary work and thus robbing other people of well-deserved recognition. Even if the reason is an important one. Just didn't quite seem fair.

But it's a small quibble, and one I can live with.

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I must being your attention to a wonderful small press. I mean, what else can you call a publishing house whose co-founder says things like "The challenge, I think, has always been not only to better inform 'the movement', but to figure out how to get the ideas across to everyone else. In effect, how do we actively contribute to building a movement (however defined) which is genuinely going to take on Capital and the state."?

PM Press publishes both fiction and non-fiction, everything from classics of anarchist thought to vegan cookbooks to science fiction with a left wing consciousness.I've already mentioned one book I ordered from them, Eleanor Arnason's Mammoths of the Great Plains. I actually bought three books from PM Press last year (and plan on buying several more this year). All three books are from their Outspoken Authors series, which showcases authors like Arnason, Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson among others. Each volume contains one or more pieces of shorter fiction (novella length or less) plus an interview and a biographical sketch. And they are publishing some very interesting work in this series.

Terry Bison, The Left Left Behind

The title piece in this volume is an absolutely hilarious satire of the Rapture movement in general and the scenario presented in the Left Behind books in particular.

Actually, this is what the publisher says about this piece and the other short piece in the volume:
The Left Behind novels (about the so-called “Rapture” in which all the born-agains ascend straight to heaven) are among the bestselling Christian books in the US, describing in lurid detail the adventures of those “left behind” to battle the Anti-Christ. Put Bisson and the Born-Agains together, and what do you get? The Left Left Behind--a sardonic, merciless, tasteless, take-no-prisoners satire of the entire apocalyptic enterprise that spares no one--predatory preachers, goth lingerie, Pacifica radio, Indian casinos, gangsta rap, and even “art cars” at Burning Man.

Plus: "Special Relativity," a one-act drama that answers the question: When Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover are raised from the dead at an anti-Bush rally, which one wears the dress? As with all Outspoken Author books, there is a deep interview and autobiography: at length, in-depth, no-holds-barred and all-bets off: an extended tour though the mind and work, the history and politics of our Outspoken Author. Surprises are promised.
And it's all true.

Ursula LeGuin, The Wild Girls

Constant Reader must know by now that I believe Ursula Le Guin to be a goddess. Possibly an avatar of the child of Athene and Kwan Yin. A beacon of wisdom and compassionate understanding, while remaining a warrior of the mind determined to bring light to that which brings about injustice. The Wild Girls is pure Le Guin, compressed to diamond sharpness. The story cuts into heart and mind and lays bare the power relations of a rigid and hierarchical society built on inequalities of class, race and gender. Of course, it's only a story. Or is it? I love Le Guin's work because she makes me feel and think.

There's a good traditional review of the book by Brit Mandelo on Tor.dom.

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As Constant Reader has probably noticed, I don't read a lot of mainstream fiction, but I do read some. The remaining books in this category to be recorded in my reads for 2009 are:

Tracks, Louise Erdrich - I enjoyed this thoroughly. Erdrich tells a most engaging story and writes compellingly of the circumstances of First Nations people forced to live under the oversight of white settler law and authorities.

Feminist Fables, Suniti Namjoshi - A collection of short - often very short - narrative pieces that are a combination of keen observation informed by feminist vision, and adry and delightful sense of humour.

Bird in the House, Margaret Laurence - another collection of shorter, linked narratives, set in the fictional town of Manwaka which serves as the nexus from many of the characters in Laurence's fiction.

One Good Story, That One, Thomas King - collection of short stories that explore the relationships between First Nations and settler peoples and their perceptions of each other, told with King's trademark piercing humour and truth.
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Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King

Imagine magical realism with all the satire and bite and planned absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus at its very best. Add in the best of aboriginal storytelling tradition, from some highly unusual and unlikely narrators, and a skillful examination – no, make that evisceration – of the images that white settler culture has created of, about and around aboriginal peoples in North America. And a wealth of literary, mythological, religious and historical allusions and references. Oh, and don’t forget to braid all of this together with a perfectly realistic novel about four people from the same reserve in western Canada who are each, in their own way, on the brink of major changes in their lives, and how their individual pasts, their First Nations heritage and the assumptions and actions of the white people and institutions around them have brought them to this point.

Or, as another reviewer put it:
Imagine four Indian storytellers in the best oral tradition, only with frequent interruptions (“Who, me?” says that Coyote). If I tell you that their names are the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, you will begin to get the joke. Their stories are mashups of Native American and Western culture: Changing Woman, meet Noah. They rewrite the classics, rewrite Hollywood Westerns, rewrite Creation itself in the attempt to get it right this time. And while the novel works as a story complete in itself, the literary references, punning names, and recurring motifs are an English major’s Easter egg hunt.

Short chapters, some of them no more than a barrage of dialogue, keep the plot moving quickly. The novel does jump about: between history, myth, Hollywood, Melville, the Bible, and an actual plot, King is keeping a lot of balls in the air. Enjoy the juggling act and the wickedly dry sense of humor. You’ve never read a book about cultural (and patriarchal) oppression that’s this funny. Williamsburg Regional Library review
Then you’ll have some idea of what you’ll find in King’s Green Grass, Running Water (the very title makes reference to the terms in many treaties and agreements made between settlers and aboriginal peoples – “as long as grass grows and water runs” – that were in fact broken as quickly as ink dries).

It’s a book with the rare gift of making people of privilege see their unexamined racism, laugh at themselves – and thank the author for the pleasure of the lesson.

I’ve raved about Thomas King’s writing before, and I have every intention of doing it again, because I heartily anticipate reading everything he’s written. He’s just that good.

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How to Rent a Negro by damali ayo

Satire has a long and noble history, as an effective means of making injustice, hypocrisy, and all manner of society’s ills perfectly clear. When done well, it teaches and enlightens, makes the reader more able to see the faults in herself and her society to which she may have previously been blind.

Starting with a conceit that Jonathan Swift would have appreciated for its combination of audacious offensiveness and paradigmatic perfection, damali ayo deftly skewers many of the things that white people do to demonstrate their complete lack of cluefulness about even the most basic guidelines of civil communication when they/we deal with people of colour, not to mention many of the things that white people think, day and do to prove to themselves that they/we are not racist, while simultaneously justifying their/our racist actions, words and beliefs.

The genesis for the book is in the website, which was created by ayo as a work of performance art satirising race relations in the US (I can assure you, however, that much of the material is directly applicable to race relations in Canada, and where it isn’t, white Canadians have their/our own analogues, such as trying to get black people to agree that Canadians can’t be racist because of the Underground Railway).

In choosing to satirically re-frame the such problematic interactions as “rentals,” ayo underscores the ways in which white people objectify people of colour – one hires people but rents things. The book presents a very long list of how black people are used, marginalised, exoticised and denied agency, identity and individuality, all cast in the conceit of “renting” black people to perform specific acts with monetary values assigned to services thus rendered: these “rental” services cover the spectrum of insult and injury from being used as a token to demonstrate the diversity of a company, organisation, or social group, to being expected to answer for “what (all) blacks think about X,” to physical assaults ranging hair touching to police violence.

In fact, what this carefully crafted litany of everyday insults endured by blacks (and other people of colour) makes painfully clear is how profoundly ingrained and institutionalised racism continues to affect respect for the essential humanity of people of colour in North America today. I suspect that even the most committed white ally will wince at least a few times while reading this book, as they/we see some reflection of their/our own lapses in its pages.

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Atomik Aztex, Sesshu Foster

This book is a total mindfuck, and that’s a good thing. I simply could not get it out of my mind while I was reading it, and scenes keep coming back to jeer at me, asking me if I really think I figured it all out.

It’s a tale of two worlds, one of which is a brutal slice of life for a Latino worker in the meatpacking industry in Los Angeles sometime in the last half of the 20th century, and the other of which is the war diary of an warrior priest in an alternate universe in which the Spanish got their heads handed to them when they tried to invade Central America, and the great and powerful and bloodily metaphysical Aztec Nation is allied with Russia to defeat Germany during WWII.

Oh, yeah, the warrior-priest and the meatpacking plant worker are the same person, Zenzontli/Zenzon, shifting back and forth between possible universes. Or possibly the two are potential, alternate personalities, whose reality depends on whether you think the Spanish defeated the Aztec, or whether it's the other way around. At the beginning of the novel, you can usually tell which universe he’s in by the variant orthography being used, but toward the end of the novel, the differences between the orthographies of the two different worlds/timelines begin to merge.

The more realistic narrative thread is, among other things, a searing indictment of the meatpacking industry and an expose of the difficulties workers face in attempting to organise - which leads me to consider to what degree the dual storylines may be a literary response to Upton Sinclair's rainforest and survival of the fittest metaphors in his indictment of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Certainly there are some similar plot and thematic elements, especially the focus on labour union, and Zenzon, like Sinclair's hero Jurgis Rudkus, is an immigrant (from Central America rather than Lithuania), and an unusually strong man with a powerful work ethic.

But what are we to think of the alternate history plotline? Is it Sinclair's Jungle, where corruption and capitalism (and there is certainly corruption galore in the Aztec Empire Foster portrays) make it almost impossible for an honest, hard-working man to succeed? The Aztec Empire's power is magical, built on the harvesting of human hearts (another kind of slaughterhouse), and it is to this end that the Aztec Warriors engage in the defence of Stalingrad - to begin the colonisation of Europe as a new source of sacrifices to the Empire. Zenzontli is a dealer in European slaves. Does Foster intend to suggest that it doesn't matter who won, that capitalism and empire inevitably lead to corruption, colonialism and exploitation?

I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken from the book, but I’m very glad I read it. If you’re interested in a collection of more coherent comments, read this.

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The Fires of Bride, Ellen Galford

Lizzie is a researcher with Caledonian Television’s Features and Light Entertainment department. It’s time for the channel to fulfil its “statutory obligation to provide a certain number of programming hours of cultural and social material covering peripheral Scottish viewing areas” and so Lizzie is sent off to Cailleach, “the outermost island of the Utter Hebrides” to hunt down subject matter for a documentary.

There she meets former lovers Maria Milleny, an artist who has lived on the island for years but is still called “the incomer,” and Catriona MacEochan, local doctor and clan chieftain.

Their story, told in flashback, slowly unveils an ancient tradition of Goddess-worship centred on the island’s two archaeological sites – the ruined convent of St Bride and the standing stones of the Callieach Ring – and a renewed recognition of the social, sexual, economic and spiritual power of women on the island, much to the dismay of the Reverend Murdo MacNeish, minister of the Second Schismatic Independent Kirk of the Outer Isles.

A wise and witty exploration of women’s sexuality and spirituality, with a large dose of social satire and feminist sensibility – and it’s funny, too.

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Fortune’s Fool, Mercedes Lackey

In this, the third of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, Lackey draws on Russian, Arabian and Japanese folklore for another delightful retelling of old tales with a new and somewhat subversive twist. Several old friends reappear, including the dragons from volume two.

This time, there are two protagonists – Ekaterina (Katya) the seventh daughter of the King of the Sea, and Sasha, the seventh son of the King of Belarus. This being a faerie land, and Tradition being what it is, both the seventh daughter and the seventh son have unusual powers, which their respective parents have put to great use. Katya, like all underwater people, has magical power, and she also has the much rarer ability to transform instantaneously from water-breather to air-breather, and she is quite happy putting her talents to use as her father’s eyes and ears – observer, spy, and agent – both at home and in other kingdoms. Sasha, meanwhile is not only the seventh son, but a Fortune Fool and one born with the gift of influencing the workings of Tradition through his music. His job in his father’s court is to play the fool while subtly easing tensions and manipulating people and events in to bring about good fortune; outside the court, he uses his abilities to manipulate Tradition itself so that the country experiences the best possible consequences of those kinds of situations that can call Tradition into play.

Because this is, after all, a faerie tale (to say nothing of a series written for a SFF imprint of a publisher specialising in romance novels), Sasha and Katya meet one day during the performance of their respective duties, and end up, after various trials and tribulations, happily in love (that’s hardly a spoiler, I think). What is fun is how they get through those trials and tribulations. Sasha is not your typical hero – rather, he’s a truly good man who gets out of trouble by being polite, thoughtful, honest, observant, honourable and diplomatic; three cheers for a hero who doesn’t suffer from testosterone poisoning! Meanwhile, Katya is quite capable of defending herself in tight quarters, and even though the major plotline takes the form of the all-too-familiar “evil creature kidnaps beautiful maidens and hero leads the mission to rescue them” trope, these maidens are well on their way to extricating themselves by the time the rescue party arrives, and the final confrontation requires the efforts of both captives and rescuers to succeed.

It’s light and fluffy, to be sure, but Fortune’s Fool, like the earlier volumes in the series, playfully challenges the conventions of the faerie tales I knew as a child, and that’s a good thing.

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It’s always interesting to me when an author does something new or unexpected with material from oral traditions – fairy tales and the like, and that’s very much what is happening in Mercedes Lackey’s series of novels set in The Hundred Kingdoms. She’s written three books (so far – I don’t know if she intends to write more) in this series, and I’ve recently gotten around to reading the first two:

The Fairy Godmother
One Good Knight

The overall conceit is that in her world of The Hundred Kingdoms, what we consider to be the conventions of fairy tales are actually a powerful force known as The Tradition, which shapes the lives of people to conform to the conventions of fairy tales – sometimes to their benefit, but often to their detriment. Acting as a balance against the untrammelled consequences of Tradition gone wild are Sorcerers, Sorceresses, and above all, Fairy Godmothers, whose job it is to watch out for situations where The Tradition is making a mess of things, and nudge things around a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) so that the power of The Tradition flows along paths that result in at least a better result for the people involved, if not the best possible result.

For instance, how do you manipulate the Tradition of Rapunzel so that dozens of young princes aren’t drawn to her tower to be maimed or killed trying to rescue her, before the prince whose destiny it is to save her finally shows up? How do you manage to avert the Tradition that a maiden saved from a horrible fate by a young knight must end up madly in love with him? And so on.

These books are very witty, even gently satirical concerning the relationships between genders, classes, and races (humans, elves, dragons and so on), and make brilliant use of the range, variety, and interrelationships of folklore motifs – in fact, an afficionado of oral tradition may well feel as though she’s wandering through an animated adaptation of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. At the same time, I found the conceit an interesting comment on the ways in which perceptions, expectations, choices and actions are moulded and driven by social and cultural conventions. It’s not easy to challenge the weight of tradition in any world, and Lackey’s magical Tradition is a metaphor, I think, for just how difficult it is to change ideas about such things as the natural roles of men and women in society, and how, when one does try, the result is rarely a clean break with the past, but rather, an accommodation with the past that moves change forward one step at a time.

Fun reading, but with a hidden kick – a bit of a change for Lackey, who’s not always this subtle in her social messages.

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First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde

If you've read anything by Jasper Fforde before, you know what to expect from First Among Sequels. If you haven't, and if you enjoy very clever, funny, absurdist fantasy packed with hilarious literary references and cutting social satire, then what are you waiting for?

Between conversations with Uncle Mycroft, who has been dead for six years, the trials of raising three children, one of whom may not exist, and coping with her two Jurisfiction trainees - Thursday1-4 and Thursday5, characters out of the books that have been written about her - Thursday Next must face an enemy from her past and save Bookworld from the alarming decline in readers. You really don't want to miss any of this. Oh, and a little hint - there are three Thursday Nexts in the book, so watch POV carefully, or you may miss something important.

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The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde

The second of Fforde’s Nursery Crimes novels, it’s just as strange and just as funny as his other books. What’s particularly interesting is that in this book, the Nursery Crimes detectives, and the other characters in the book, have become more conscious of their nature as characters in a book, making reference to plot devices and literary tropes as they go about their entirely fictional lives. Within the story line, the protagonist, Jack Spratt, is revealed as a Person of Dubious Reality himself – a nursery rhyme character working among “real people.”

These developments may in part result from the writing chronology – Fforde’s first novel was The Big Over Easy, which did not, however, see publication until after he had begun writing his Tuesday Next series, in which the independent existence of literary characters outside of their books is established. In fact, we meet, as minor characters in the Tuesday Next books, some of the main characters of the Nursery Crimes novels, as they wait in the Well of Lost Plots to see if the book they are in will ever be published. But whatever it is that Fforde is doing, he’s doing it right, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next Fforde novel.

Califia’s Daughters, Leigh Richards

A new author to me, Leigh Richards (who primarily writes as Laurie R. King, the author of various detective series, including the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books that I’ve always meant to read but never had the time) has written a strong post-apocalyptic novel set along the West coast of the US following a period of not-fully explained catastrophes including wars, ecological disasters and a viral epidemic that kills up to 90 percent of male children before they’re 10.

There are a lot of things I like about Richard’s ravaged new world. It may be dominated by women, but it’s no utopia – Richards shows us a world in which all the flaws and virtues of humanity still exist, where there are beneficent overlords and ruthless tyrants and idealistic hermits hiding out in the woods, where there’s courage and corruption, love and violence. There’s no “let women rule and the world will be paradise” here. Also, unlike many novels that start with the premise of a world in which women are both the dominant and the more numerous sex, there is no attempt to ignore the reality that many women who seek sexual intimacy are going to be finding it with other women – even if their preference is for men. Depending on how one’s society is organised – and Richards provides several possible models – not every heterosexual woman who wants an ongoing intimate relationship that is both emotional and sexual is going to be able to find a man to have it with.

The created world is fascinating, the story is interesting, the characters have an integrity that comes from being written as whole people, and I’m sad to hear that Richards/King has such a fully committed writing schedule that it could be five years or more before we see another novel in this universe.

The King’s Name, Jo Walton

In this novel, the brilliant conclusion to the Tale of the High King Urdo and his boldest knight, the Lord Sulien begun in The King’s Peace, Walton’s intentions in giving us an Arthurian-themed novel in which the strong sword-arm of the king is a woman become clear.

In Arthurian legend, the bright age of the King fails because no one man can hold back the dark forever, and Arthur has no successor. His only child, Mordred, is tainted by birth and upbringing, and after Arthur spends his strength over the long years defeating all others who would destroy his vision of unity and peace, he has not the strength to survive his defeat of his own son, and is instead taken back to the place where heroes come from, leaving behind only the memory of what he created, but which others could not hold.

In Walton’s land of Tir Tanagiri, Urdo has only one son – but he has two heirs, thanks to a general belief that Sulien’s child – officially fatherless, actually the child of rape – is also Urdo’s child. The existence of two heirs, one brought up to cherish Urdo’s vision, the other to despise it, changes the final dynamic and means that the story need not end in the loss of the peace. Urdo need not be the countervailing force against two generations of attack, he needs only to fight for his own time, and leave the next to another hero – and that makes all the difference.

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To the Chapel Perilous, Naomi Mitchison

Just getting to read this book was the fulfilment of a quest. In a comment on my discussion, many months ago, of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, [personal profile] wolfinthewood recommended this book, Mitchison’s take on the Matter of Britain. There was no question about it, I knew I had to read this book.

But a quick search revealed that it is out of print, although there had been a recent edition released by Green Knight Publishing, and copies were available via used booksellers and Ebay. My partner looked about in the local used bookstores without success, so we ordered a copy online from a bookseller in Canada; it was shipped and supposedly delivered by the post office, but vanished before we saw it. We tried again, ordering the book from a US bookstore to be delivered to an American friend of ours. It never arrived.

The third time was the charm, and my long-awaited copy arrived just before Christmas.

And by all the gods and goddesses, it was worth it.

The book is a marvel. The premise – what if journalists, much like those of modern times, had been covering the events of the Grail Quest – allows Mitchison to present a story that is deeply satisfying on many levels. It is at once an exploration of the nature of reality, a satire on the influence of the media over public knowledge, and the influence of the rich and powerful over the media, a feminist interpretation of the Arthurian legend that positions women as independent agents, an Arthurian scholar’s delight in its incorporation of multiple source materials and variations, and a damned good romance in its own right.

By sending her main characters – reporters for rival newspapers – on a journalistic quest to uncover the true Grail among all the reports of a completed quest, Mitchison is able to retell the multiple versions of the Grail quest in the various sources that precede what is now generally considered the definitive version of the tale, found in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.

The journalistic process of investigation, interview, writing, editing, high-level editorial intervention and political influence described in the novel, which winnows many credible Grail stories down to a single media interpretation parallels the evolutionary process through which the definitive story – Galahad’s successful Quest – was established in the real-world development of the Grail material. We see through the eyes of the journalists and the various knights all the shapes and powers that the Grail has assumed in all the literary and mythic threads and traditions that were woven over time into the final widely-known version.

And we learn some great truths – that the Quest is open to all and anyone can follow the Grail that is truly meant for them, and that the story decided on by the rich and powerful to further their own purposes, often bears little resemblance to the realities that may be determined by each person for themselves.

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I’m way behind on the grand project I embarked on almost a year ago, which was to actually keep an annotated record of the books I read. So, to try to get back on an even footing for the all-too-quickly-approaching New Year, here are some thumbnail sketches of some of the the science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction novels that I’ve read in recent months (actually, more like the past six months or thereabouts) and haven’t yet written about.

The World of the Fae Trilogy – Anne Bishop
Shadows and Light
The House of Gaian

I wrote briefly about the first volume in this series back at the beginning of the year. It took a while, but I have at last finished the trilogy. It’s interesting – what first interested me about the series was Bishop’s elves – the fae – and their relationship with the witches – almost all women – who are the physical and mystical bond that maintains the link between the human world and the world of the fae. However, what came to dominate my perceptions of the books as I read them was the horrifying and all-too-believable war on women that drives the storyline. Think of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, of the male-dominated society portrayed in the early books of Suzy McKee Charnas’ Holdfast Chronicles, of the utterly evil misogyny that almost destroys both elves and pagan humankind in Gael Baudino’s Strands series. In many ways, Bishop’s trilogy reminds me most of Baudino’s work, in fact, because in both, the answer to hatred and misogyny comes from the mingling of traditions, elven, pagan/wiccan, and human.

The Darker Jewels Trilogy – Anne Bishop
Daughter of the Blood
Heir to the Shadows
Queen if the Darkness

A very different setting and cast of characters from Bishop’s World of the Fae series, although it’s interesting to see that the themes of gender-based power struggles, separate but interconnected worlds or dimensions, and the discovery of lost heritages are also strong elements in the Darker Jewels series. This series is an interesting exploration of power – political power, psychic or magical power, sexual power, the power of conviction and honour, the power of love and hate. And there’s also a nice twist on the standard light=good, dark=bad iconography in a great deal of modern fiction: The devils and the undead are, as much as anyone can be, the good guys here.

The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

Jack Spratt is a detective. He works the Nursery Crimes beat. His latest case: who killed Humpty Dumpty and why? Only Jasper Fforde could have written this book, and I’m glad he did. Absolutely hilarious, and full of not-so-subtle digs at the entirety of the detective genre.

Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein

After I did the “50 most influential” meme, I just couldn’t resist. I have, after all, been on a project to reread some of the science fiction I grew up with, and Heinlein is a big part of that. I’ve written elsewhere about my love-hate relationship with Heinlein, and this is one of the ones that really pushes all of those buttons. It’s a fun action story, but, and but, and but… tell me again how flogging people publicly makes for a crime-free state. And why military service is the only kind of service to the state that demonstrates one has a sense of responsibility and commitment. And why men are big infantry lugs and women are dainty ship’s pilots and in the future there are no tough ass-kicking grunts like Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez in Aliens who can smash Bugs with the best of them.

The Puppet Masters - Robert Heinlein

This was the uncut version, although to be honest, it’s been so long since I’d read the original that I didn’t realise this until my partner pointed it out. Then it was sort of obvious – the sex wouldn’t have been quite so explicit in the early 50s when this was first published, but I’ve read so much of Heinlein’s later work, where the sex is pretty much unending, that I didn’t notice. [personal profile] glaurung_quena, who actually compared the versions as part of a grad school paper on Heinlein, also tells me that the first publication had also toned down some of the elements intended to evoke the horror of being possessed, but I remember finding it chilling back in the 60s when I first read it, and it’s still chilling at that level. What I didn’t see so clearly when I first read the novel, although I’ve long since figured it out, was how the puppet masters are so openly paralleled with Russian state communism/totalitarianism. And how much this is a cold war, McCarthyist horror tale in which the communists could be anywhere, even in bed beside you, and you’d never know unless you practised unrelenting vigilance.

One thing that I had not noticed before was that for once, Heinlein’s super-competent, super-sexy, gun-toting female protagonist has a real psychology behind her. Mary, who we learn in the last chapter of the book has undergone horrifying experiences as a child including one of the more traumatic kinds of abandonment imaginable, is almost certainly overcompensating out of a form of PTSD – even if Heinlein didn’t have a clinical description of the condition available to him at the time. Which finally clears up one aspect of her behaviour that always bothered me – her about-face virtual submission to the male protagonist after he rejects her emotionally and assaults her.

Smoke and Mirrors - Tanya Huff

The second of the Tony and Fitzroy novels, though this one is somewhat Fitzroy-light. Doesn’t matter, Tony does just fine. And let me assure you, this is one killer of a haunted house story. With all the insanity of a TV location shoot thrown in for laughs. I’m really loving these books.

The Wizard of the Grove duology – Tanya Huff
Child of the Grove
The Last Wizard

I first read Child of the Grove years ago, alerted by a friend who knew Huff and had read the book in manuscript, and it was this book that made me an instant fan of Huff’s work. It’s always been an interesting duology – the first book is heroic, mythic, epic in nature, all about the wars of nations and the clashes of ancient powers, a classic good versus evil scenario, although with a greater degree of sophistication than many such. The Last Wizard is much smaller and more personal book – what is the life of the hero after the quest is over. Of course, there’s magic and adventure and all of that good high fantasy stuff, but it’s more about the last wizard herself, and what does she do now that she’s met her destiny and survived. An unexpectedly mature sequel to a fine high fantasy epic.

More to come....

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... and why does he write such unclassifiably fascinating novels? I really can't answer this question, but I'm very glad that he does.

Imagine a universe in which books are very, very important (instead of various Christian fundamentalists going door-to-door proselytising, in Mr. Fforde's universe, that knock on the door is likely to be from someone trying to convince you that it was Roger Bacon who wrote the play attributed to Shakespeare). And their characters really do have lives of their own. And the government would actually need to have a force of special operatives, including time travel operatives (as well as many other strange things) in order to prevent people from messing around with the Shakespearean canon, or kidnapping Jane Eyre.

That's just the tip of the iceberg of strangeness gone far beyond simple absurdism that is to be found in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next mysteries:

The Eyre Affair
Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
Something Rotten

It's also a world in which werewolves and other such creatures exist, dodos and Neanderthals have been resurrected via genetic engineering, the Crimean War is still being fought in the 1980s, and... well, I really could go on and on, but that would take a lot of space and time.

And I haven't even gotten to the best things about the books. They are funny. Hilariously, screamingly, quite literally ROTLFMAO funny. They are also delightfully vicious satires on just about everything, from afternoon tea to fascist governments and megalithic global corporations. And there's a literary pun, reference, parallel or allusion in almost every paragraph.

Mr. Fforde has obligingly provided links to reviews of all the books on his own website, which you are invited to peruse if you want to see how other people have tried to describe them.

But I heartily recommend that you just read the books. Because no one can really describe them.


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