One thing that has always bothered me about science fiction as literary genre is that so very few of its authors seem to have any awareness of their medium, i.e. language. Of course there are exceptions (Cordwainer Smith and Samuel Delany come to mind, not coincidentally my two favourite science fiction authors) but for the vast majority of science fiction literature out there, the language it is written in is serviceable at best and all too often merely clunky and stilted. Jack Vance is another of the rare exceptions – due to his very own unique style, a kind of wry, detached attitude that views the events and characters in his works like ants through a microscope.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series has been around since 1976 and is quite famous, so it is more than a bit embarrassing that I only discovered them in 2010. Block is a very prolific writer, and still manages not to sacrifice quality to quantity, at least not for the Matthew Scudder novels who through all of the ten volumes I have read so far have been among the best in crime fiction around.
A Walk Among the Tombstones, like the other novels in the series, has a noir-ish feel to it: it has a prevailing feeling of melancholy, it has the lone wolf crime-investigating protagonist, it has violence and lots of shady low-life characters, it has a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards vigilante justice and in general heaps of moral ambiguity. But there are also a lot of elements you would not necessarily expect in any hard-boiled crime novel: the protagonist is a recovering alcoholic and in a steady relationships and the treatment of those two subjects covers a significant part of the novel, and it appears (at least to the layman like me) quite solid on investigative procedures – one of the things I particularly liked about A Walk Among the Tombstones is the way Scudder gradually (mostly with persistence and a good portion of luck) pieces together the identy of the main criminal from what at first appear no clues at all.
The only thing that grated on me was the character of TJ, a teenage street kid who is just too good to ring true: he turns out to be some nascent super-sleuth and all but solves the case for Scudder – the character just strained credibility beyond the breaking point for me. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is without exception well-drawn, particularly impressive were the rich drug merchant who hires Scudder and who struggles to escape the moral turpitude his profession has gradually sunk him in and the main criminal who is both spine-chillingly evil and despicably pathetic. Block also manages to keep up the reader’s interest in the ongoing development of his main protagonist Scudder even as he seems on the road of putting his inner demons to rest and come to terms with himself and his life.
The most recent entry in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series (the twelfth, if you don’t count the two volumes of short stories) differs from the previous ones in that it is markedly less standalone. This is not just because it is a direct continuation from Waking the Witch, picking up immediately after that novel’s cliffhanger ending, but also because it is is very open-ended, presumably leaving things to be finished in the next installment which is apparently going to be the final in the series.
Spell Bound hence being the penultimate volume, it comes as no surprise that it has a feeling of Grand Finale about it. I did not care much for the Big Apocalyptic Plot Involving A Momentous Destiny For Our Main Character that was rearing its head during the events unfolding here – while I don’t mind a bit of doomsday atmosphere, one if the things I’ve always liked about Armstrong’s novels is the way she kept her conflicts local and personal, and in consequence that more relatable. What I on the other hand greatly enjoyed about Spell Bound was the way it gathered pretty much all the characters from previous novels together with a lot of lose threads left hanging from those volumes and wove them all into the current narrative – I admit that I did not re-read the previous volumes to check but from what I remember about them it seemed quite deftly done to me.
And as always, Armstrong’s greatest strength is her characterisation – like the novel preceding it, Spell Bound is told from Savannah’s perspective and she grows up even more here, developing in an entirely believable way from a spoiled, over-confident teenager into a mature adult who is aware both of her strengths and her limitations. It is great fun to watch her grow up like this, and frequently quite funny, too – seeing her go for relationship advice to, of all people, Clay and Cassandra caused a lot of chuckling and chorting on my part. It will be a pity to see this series come to an end, but I’m also greatly looking forward to the final installment.
This first volume of Silverberg’s Collected Stories contains (rather unsurprisingly) a selection of his early work from the mid-fifties, when he was writing them at an insane pace – up to eighteen (!) stories per week (!) – for the multitude of science fiction magazines existing at the time. It starts with what are pretty much juvenilia (and read as such), then there is a steep surge in quality at about one quarter into the volume where you can feel Silverberg starting to come into his own. He is still far from the writer he was to become, but the stories become less formulaic and more fun to read for their own sake rather than as documents in the development of one of the greatest writers of science fiction. Quality still varies somewhat, and even the best ones (my personal favourites here being “The Artfact Business” and “Why?”) are often somewhat clunky and awkward in places, but that is to be expected considering the age Silverberg was at the time and the speed at which he was churning them out. Still, a worthwhile collection, also for Silverberg’s introductions to each of the stories that offer some glimpse of what the science fiction scene at the time was like.
Hap and Leonard, the heroes of Lansdale’s eponymous series are definitely among the oddest crusading couples to ever grace the pages of crime fiction. They are quite unlike each other in most things (a white former peace activist vs. a black homosexual Vietnam veteran), but share a long friendship and a deep-seated urge to do the right thing, not to mention lots of funny and colourful banter which makes for a large part of the fun in reading those novels (nobody since the days of screwball comedy does witty banter better than Joe Lansdale).
And this novel is very funny indeed, not just the dialogue but also the descriptive one-liners and wry comments by first-person narraror Hap Collins – as long as you do not think about what is actually being narrated too much. However, once you pause, take a step back and consider the events, you’ll find that it’s actually all rather depressing – both Hap and Leonard, leading a mostly aimless existence in rather squalid circumstances, try to help Hap’s current girlfriend to rescure her daughter from forced prostitution, and in consequence get involved in lots of violence for likely no gain at all and at no small cost to their own health and well-being (although Rumble Tumble goes somewhat easier on them than previous novels in the series). Viewed this way, it’s not funny at all, even rather sordid, and I’m still not decided whether the presentation of the narrative distracts from this sordidness or enhances it.
When a friend first recommended Larissa Ione’s Demonica series to me, I was more than a bit sceptical – paranormal romances about brothers running a hospital for demons sounded more than a bit silly to me. Now that I’ve read four out of the five volumes in the series, I have to say – it is just as silly as sounded, but but I don’t care one bit. Larissa Ione does not seem to care either, to the contrary it is as if she not only fully embraced the silliness of her basic premise but accepted it as a challenge – “Just look what I can make of ludicrous concept like this, and wanna bet that I can make you enjoy it and beg for more?” It helps that the author has an extraordinarly fertile imagine, I can just imagine the gleeful cackle with which she comes up with yet another bizarre demon race to add to her impressive pandemonium, or invents some fiendish plot twist to keep her star-crossed lovers apart and delay the thankfully always happy ending.
This fourth volume concerns itself with the newly-discovered fourth brother Lore and his antagonist and eventual lover Idesse. With him being an assassin demon hired to kill a human the protector angel Idesse is bound to guard, there is a lot of initial conflict, and the plot that ensues is, while not springing any great surprises, nicely convoluted in the typical Larissa Ione manner, with various subplots feeding into it which give welcome occasion to re-introduce characters from the previous books. Throw in some action and several hot sex scenes and you up with another delightful installment in a series that has been highly enjoyable so far. Maybe it is precisely because the initial leap required to suspend disbelief is so big that once it is made one can just roll along with it and take this for what it is – great fun.
Lord Peter Wimsey has always been my favourite among the more laid-back, classical detectives, ever since I first read them as a teenager (after watching the BBC TV series with the fabulous Ian Carmichael). Back then, I read them in German translation, but am now doing a re-read of the whole series in the original language which, needless to say, is much more to be preferred – I do not know whether anyone ever actually talked like that, even back in the twenties and thirties, but it is great fun just to relish the dialogue.
Lord Peter Views the Body is a collection of stories and does not quite live up to novels, but for the most part is very enjoyable. The quality of course does vary a bit, but the only one I did not like at all was the final one, “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba”, because it’s rather a bit too cloak and dagger. My personal favourites are “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste”, which basically describes a wine-tasting competition, and “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head”, which features Lord Peter’s nephew George, a dragon (of course) and a pirate’s treasure – both are just great fun and a pleasure to read.
I suppose the Lord Peter novels and stories count as “cosy mysteries”, but it struck me while reading this collection that on closer look many of the stories are not really all that cosy, but paint a rather grim view of human nature: Most people making an appearance vary from petty and mean-spirited to downright evil, with only very few exceptions that one would call “good” with hesitation. That might be due to the genre Sayers was writing in, or to her Christian world view, but will bear keeping in mind when I go on to read the other Lord Peter novels.
Fourth (!) installment in the Company series, this novel is markedly different from the first three – while those took place in a single location over a comparatively short period of time, the plot of The Graveyard Game spans several continents and centuries. It also moves the series from the past into the future, starting in 1996 and ending in the 24th century. Like the first three volumes, though, this is a highly entertaining read, wildly inventive and very intelligent. Kage Baker manages to the future she envisions both funny and bleak when she describes how the “civilized” world is gradually taken over by health nuts and moralizers, with meat, alcohol, chocolate and most literature being banned and sex becoming a highly suspicious activity. Lots of reveals about what the Zeus Company has been up to and might yet be planning – though I’m inclined to take those with a grain of salt, as they might yet turn out to be red herrings. The Graveyard Game will make absolutely no sense at all to anyone who has not read the first three volumes in the series, but everyone who has been following it will not want to miss this volume.
Karl Schroeder’s Virga sequence is undoubtedly one of the best science fiction series in recent years, and in my opinion even among the best ever. It is almost like a small encyclopedia of science fiction in itself in that it showcases so many of the forms the genre takes – planetary romance, golden age adventure story, hard science speculation, singularity and steampunk. And the wonder of the series is that it pulls all those elements into a believable and even plausible whole and turns them into a compulsive read. I really cannot praise this series enough and it should be on the reading list of everyone with even a passing interest in what science fiction is, has been and can be.
This fourth volume (weirdly, I seem to be reading a lot of fourth volumes of series recently) is a bit of a departure for Schroeder’s series – Pirate Sun resolved all the threads of the various characters introduced in Sun of Suns. The Sunless Countries introduces a new main character, a historian named Leal Maspeth, and also shifts emphasis somewhat – there is a lot about the big picture in the rest of the galaxy here, and for its ending the novel even ventures outside of Virga for the first time; also, similar to the development of Leal in this novel, it has less swashbuckling and significantly more politics than previous volumes. It is not less of an exciting read for that, and I already pre-ordered the fifth volume Ashes of Candesce which is due for release in February 2012.
The first three volumes in the Lymond Chronicles were nice, but with this fourth one the series takes a big leap in quality to being very good indeed. Part of the reason for this is admittedly somewhat rather subjective: Most of the novel takes place in the Ottoman Empire, and I have always had a huge fondness for everything related to Arabian Nights – so everything set against that or a similar background gets a big advance bonus from me.
More importantly though, the series’ hero Francis Lymond is considerably less annoying here than he was in the previous volumes – while I have never held with the view that a protagonist has to be likeable, Lymond’s “tragically misunderstood” posturing was just teeth-grindingly irritating and rather clashed with his exhaustively stated brilliance. There is almost nothing of his former emo attitude left in Pawn in Frankincense, which might be due to the character experiencing some real tragedy – in any case, while still not exactly likeable (which he might not supposed to be anyway) he appears considerably more mature in this volume.
Dunnett evokes the atmosphere of Renaissance Ottoman Empire very vividly – her prose is both rich in historical information and saturated with sensual detail. The compelling, complex plot leads all the way from Switzerland to Constantinople, and another thing which distinguishes Pawn in Frankincense is that while in previous novels in the Lymond Chronicles it was always pretty obvious that no matter how bad things seemed to look for our hero, he was always following some secret master plan that would make him emerge victorious in the end, there is no such certainty in Pawn in Frankincense – this time, it is the bad guy who pulls all of the strings, and Lymond has to struggle to keep up with him, which does not always manage successfully. The final confrontation, while it appears somewhat contrived and not particularly plausible, has a huge emotional impact and I don’t think anyone who read it is likely to ever forget it.