Review of Terra! Tara! Terror! edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Third Flatiron Anthology #24, released 30 September 2018 in both e-book and paperback formats. This anthology falls into the underserved class identified by Natalie Luhrs, that is, anthologies edited by women. Rew is an accomplished editor, but independent.

This is an excellent collection of stories, as usual without being cluttered up by way of political statements one way or the other. This release definitely leans to the literary and to fantasy rather than SF. The description says the anthology is about mystery and shadows and the content of the stories varies, as you would expect given such a general theme. The authors are notably international, and the stories are better than the average creative.

“Learning to Fly” by Marie Vibbet is about a little girl who makes her school poster into a magic carpet with the help of a high wind. “If a Tree Falls” by Dan Micklethwaite is about a Dryad that grows old and eventually loses her footing in a storm. “Memory and Muchness” by Rhonda Eikamp details the life of a child surrounded by Alice in Wonderland characters and how she finds her way to the real world. In “War Dog” Wulf Moon presents a story about the Conquistadors that’s is okay on the surface, but alludes to an ugly past. “The Lady of the Park” by Blake Jessop is about a London lamplighter who falls and is caught by a Spriggan. Other authors include Salinda Tyson, Jen Downes, Evelyn Deshane, John Paul Davies, Steven Mathes, Diane Morrison, E.M. Sheehan, Michele Baron, Liam Hogan, Stefon Mears, K. G. Anderson, Kelly A. Harmon, Matthew Reardon, Samuel Chapman, Emmett Schlenz, Gustavo Bondoni, Melanie Rees, Kiki Gonglewski, Caroline Sciriha, Wulf Moon, Elizabeth Twist, and Josh Taylor. In addition, there’s a special reprint from Robert Silverberg and a bit of humorous flash fiction at the end of the book.

Recommended. Four stars.

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Where did fantasy lit come from?

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Fantasy has deep roots and seems to be a standard in human culture. Very old fantasy tales have come down to us, including works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and the Norse Edda. Then the printing press was invented in the 1500s and people started getting the idea of publishing their stories.

In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote the satirical novel The Blazing World, now credited as an early work of speculative fiction with elements of both science fiction and fantasy, as a companion piece to her more serious work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. As we get closer to the modern day, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were collected in the 1700s, and in the latter 1800s, William Morris set the standard for high fantasy works with The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at World’s End. This inspired early 20th Century writers like Lord Dunsany, who wrote The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars) and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), who pretty much established the sword and sorcery genre.

In the 1930s and 1940s, J.R.R. Tolkien continued the high fantasy tradition with his series on Middle Earth. Also writing in the 1930s, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (a.k.a. Francis Stevens) invented dark fantasy with the novels Claimed and The Citadel of Fear. Although some might think he falls into the horror genre, I’d place Lovecraft into this same dark fantasy period. I also think Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny deserve mention as mid-20th Century icons. Moorcock’s series of eternal champion novels and Zelazny’s Amber series published in the 1960s and 1970s established the multiverse of alternate worlds as a standard.

By the 1980s, contemporary and low fantasy were finding their footing as a serious sub-genre. Terri Windling is credited with popularizing urban fantasy with Borderlands, followed closely by Charles de Lint. C.S. Lewis is an icon of Christian fantasy, and of course I have to mention J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

This is just a quickie review, of course. Are there any huge icons I missed?

Is it fantasy or science fiction?

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Interestingly, there are theorists who think there’s not that much difference between fantasy and science fiction. For example, in 1976 Todorov and Berrong classified science fiction as a subset of the fantasy genre. In 1979 Suvin argued that it had become common to call anything science fiction that included themes of “novelty, estrangement and cognitive dissonance,” and that science fiction should be the overarching term. The only real difference between the genres, according to Suvin, is that science fiction has to conform to a logical framework. So, presumably this argument was the reason for developing the term “speculative fiction” to describe a particular type of literature that can actually be hard to sort out.

Then, Menadue (2017) conducted a study that found readers actually have fairly strict definitions of fantasy and science fiction, and that the two bodies of literature are seen as contrasting instead of one being a subset of the other. Presumably this has to do with the logic requirement for science fiction, which means it has to follow more rules for causation and world building than fantasy does. In other words, we have to justify the events in science fiction according to real world physics, for example, while in fantasy we can just call it magic and go on with the story.

So, it turns out that the main way readers sort stories into one genre or the other is whether they include “magic” or “science/technology.” There are a few other differences, too. For example, science fiction is generally seen as more future oriented than fantasy, and may address social change more directly. Science fiction is about the possible futures, after all, and not especially the venue for tradition.

Comments? Does this suit your definition?

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

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This book is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s published by Saga and runs 465 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator has recently lost his wife to illness and is dying himself. He finds a sick crow and nurses it back to health. They become friends and it tells him its history. The crow Dar Oakley calls the realm of the crows Ka, and that of humans Ymr. He also knows a realm of Other. Dar Oakley receives his name from a human girl he calls Fox Cap. The two of them go into Other to find Nothing, and Dar Oakley finds it but hides it for himself. Fox Cap cries and afterward dies, but then Dar Oakley finds he is immortal, always reborn. Humans have battles that provide carrion, and crows find they can encourage them to kill each other. Following a Saint, Dar Oakley is caught by a storm and blown to a New World, where the people are killed by a mass sickness brought from the Old World. There is a great War where the dead in blue and gray provide a huge feast, and crows become numerous because of the growing bounty. Dar Oakley becomes friends with poet Anna Kuhn, and later her son becomes a great crow hunter. Dar Oakley encourages the crow flock to attack him, and they are eventually successful against him. The narrator wants Dar Oakley to lead him and his housekeeper to the Other place of the dead. Will this plan be successful?

So, this book is about death. Crowley is a well-known stylist, and he gets points for creating meaning in the narrative. Still, I found this really hard reading. Because Dar Oakley is a bird, he is light-minded and in general all his observations are surface level. That means we get a lot about flocks and mating and chicks, and the meaning takes shape from the carrion events and from what the humans say.

It’s clear that Crowley did a lot of research on the topic of crows and their status as death birds. The lore in this narrative is sort of scary, and I think humans are lucky that crows aren’t any bigger than they are. On the other hand, the events that feed the crows don’t say anything much good about humans, either.

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Four 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.

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