Review of The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s dark fantasy, published by Spiegel & Grau and runs 431 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Apollo Kagwa lives in Manhattan and works as a vintage book dealer. He finds his true love Emma Valentine and becomes the doting father of baby Brian, named after Apollo’s father, a white man who disappeared mysteriously when Apollo was a child. Emma develops postpartum depression, and when Brian is about 6 months old, she starts to insist the boy isn’t her baby. She chains Apollo to the steam pipes, cooks the baby with boiling water and then disappears. Apollo serves a stint in Rikers for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage, and when he’s released, he starts a search for his missing wife. He finds a coven of witches living in the East River, minions of a troll living in Queens, and finally locates his wife, who has staked out the troll’s cave. Can the two of them destroy the troll and rescue the real baby Brian?

So, this is a pretty impressive novel, including multiple themes and motifs. It’s a post-modern work and also feels slightly surreal. The story is apparently based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There, which makes recurring appearances in the novel. In the Sendak book, Ida’s little sister is stolen away by goblins. Her parents don’t notice, so Ida enters the magical world herself to bring her sister back.

Accordingly, the first hundred pages of The Changeling are a pretty normal, positive story set in New York City, covering themes of marriage and family, work and missing and present fatherhood. Then it suddenly plunges into an alternate reality and we start to see the underlying currents of magic. This is socially and technologically up-to-date, with the troll’s minions hacking through Facebook into the private lives of families, watching their children. The troll’s minions have a contract to provide children to the troll in return for prosperity and white privilege. They make alt-right noises and oppose the witches, symbols of female power. There are also themes of living while black, and how parents damage their children. LeValle makes a few casual comments in the book that are really cutting. One that really struck me was how magical glamours hide the suffering of the weak. Apollo’s name is symbolic. He is the involved father, the sun god against the forces of darkness.

On the not so great side, LeValle doesn’t employ much in the way of style here, meaning we don’t feel a lot of foreboding, threat or suspense. The prose is fairly straight-forward and matter-of-fact, as are the descriptions and narrative. Some of the detail seems really unnecessary, like a section on breast-feeding. Touches of humor are very mild, mostly associated with being black in the wrong place. The post-modern approach is sort of scattered (as always), and takes away from the power of the story.

Final impression: Smooth, easy read. The social commentary here is first rate. Best for lovers of horror.

Five stars.

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Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Tachyon and runs 174 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Claudio Bianchi is an aging farmer and sometimes poet in Calabria, Southern Italy. His farm is remote, generally visited only by the postman, and he’s gotten used to having no company but his own. That means it’s a surprise when a unicorn begins to build her nest under his chestnut tree. After a period of gestation, she drops a black colt. The secret gets out and suddenly news reporters, tourists, unicorn hunters and animal rights activists are trampling over Bianchi’s farm, looking for the mystery beasts. The unicorns are elusive, and eventually the horde of people thins, but then Bianchi gets a visit from a representative of the local crime syndicate. Bianchi refuses to sell the farm, which puts everything he has at risk, including his newly discovered love for the postman’s sister Giovanna. The crime syndicate ups the pressure, but there’s something no one has considered. Where is the male unicorn?

This story is character driven and is a positive, enjoyable read. It has a simple plot, and Beagle’s prose has a magical, Old World feel to it. Bianchi is a simple man who enjoys his wine, his cows, his cats and his poetry. We get a good feel for the farm and the old house, plus revelations about what made Bianchi the near recluse that he is. The best thing about this is the symbolism, though. As soon as we see that demure little unicorn on the front cover of the book, we know it’s going to be about sex, right? Bianchi is revitalized by his developing relationship with Giovanna, and the ending is very powerful. Beagle is a pro, after all.

On the not so great side, there’s not much in the way of action here—it’s not that kind of book. I didn’t come away with a good feel for the village, either, or the surrounding countryside. Also, there’s not much character development for anybody but Bianchi. Giovanna comes across fierce, but we don’t know anything much about her but that.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Old Souls” by Fonda Lee

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy and runs about 8800 words. This review contains spoilers.

Not only does Claire remember her past lives, but she can read the past lives of others when she touches them. She has just had her 20th birthday and knows she has never seen her 21st. She visits a fortune teller, hoping for help, but finds the woman is a fraud. Pearl, a woman in the waiting room, follows her out of the business. Pearl has no past lives because she is one of the Ageless. She is searching for the soul of a man she knew in a previous life and she wants Claire to help her find him. Claire agrees, and is surprised to find the man is Kegan, her boyfriend Ethan’s brother. She lets Pearl know, and then finds Pearl has lied to her. Can Claire deal with Pearl’s deception? Can she break the pattern that has always taken her life before age 21?

This story is plot driven and moves along fairly smartly to a fairly violent climax. The characters are adequate, but not really deep, regardless that we know something about their past lives. Pearl’s deception isn’t a complete surprise because of foreshadowing. As Pearl says, everybody sets up a pattern. The details about student life add depth to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying.

On the not so great side, I’m not sure that satisfaction is justified. Claire thinks she’s broken her pattern, but it’s still a while before her 21st birthday, and Pearl is still out there. Maybe she’ll go on thinking she’s accomplished her goals, or maybe not. Also, what kind of pattern will Kegan follow now? We’re led to believe he’s an innocent, but could Pearl have been right about him?

Patterns aren’t really world-shaking, but you have to give Fonda credit for saying something a little different.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category. It was published in Strange Horizons December 2017, and it runs fairly long at about 8400 words. This review includes spoilers.

Maria is stuck in Athens when the plague strikes. She is 23-weeks pregnant and her elderly father is infected. Taking him with her, she sets off, trying to make it home to Thessaloniki and her husband Simos. There have been riots and the power grid is down. There are birds everywhere. The roads are choked with abandoned cars, and eventually she can’t make any more progress on the highway. Maria leaves her father in the car and goes out foraging for food. She sets birds free that are trapped indoors, finds a shopping cart to load her father into. She meets Elena, another uninfected woman, and the two of them join forces, traveling toward Maria’s home while her father slowly turns into a bird. When they get to the house, it’s empty. Simos has gone to Athens to look for her. Maria is attacked and injured by an infected person, loses the baby. She wants to continue the fairy tale, but can she?

This leans heavily to the surreal, and there’s not much in the way of plot. Elena calls it the “zombie apocalypse but with birds.” The story is very strong on imagery and dwells on words that describe collectives of birds. There are long blocks of Maria’s observations and memories, interwoven with a narrative to her unborn child where she tries to somehow turn the end of civilization into a fairy tale. It did hold my interest until the end, and amazingly, the ending felt uplifting.

On the not so positive side, some readers might feel this is a total waste of time. It’s all about the experience.

Three and a half stars for the artistic effect.

World Fantasy Award Finalists 2018

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I’m running way behind on this, as the finalists were announced in July. Congrats to all who made the ballot! Winners will be awarded the first week in November at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore MD. I’ve already reviewed several of these works, as they’ve appeared on the Nebula or Hugo Ballots, but in the next few weeks, I’ll have a look at the others.

Best Novel
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley (Saga)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Long Fiction
The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery (TTA)
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
“Old Souls” by Fonda Lee (Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM“ by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons 12/18/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Four stars.

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