The Way Into Chaos is the first volume in a trilogy that apparently was funded via Kickstarter with a working title something like “Epic Fantasy without the Boring Bits”. One might disagree as to whether the “boring bits” (which presumably means infodumps on world building and extensive descriptions of clothes, scenery and customs) have to always be that (personally, I’d say it largely depends on the way they’re done), but I think everyone who has read past the first twenty or so pages of this novel will agree that The Way Into Chaos in any case is not boring at all.
The first story in this issue, “Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, is a kind of a faux-Chinese fairytale, a genre (well, sub-genre, I suppose. Or even sub-sub-genre?) that I am somewhat fond of, at least when it is well done. And this one is very well done indeed – while not as mindblowingly brilliant as last issue’s “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips”, it is very solid and enjoyable to read, featuring an interesting reader and some thoughts on gender issues, which however are treated within the story’s framework rather than forced upon it.
The same unfortunately can not be said of Tamara Vardomskaya’s story “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus.” It is about the question whether art is more important than life – a question which I personally is well debatable, with the conclusion not at all foregone. The author of this story obviously disagrees with that, as she does not even attempt to present the “art over life” side but casts her artist as a unabashed villain whose art consists of nothing but manipulating and exploiting others. To call this story heavy-handed would be a euphemism, and overall it is quite forgettable. Which is a pity, as Tamara Vardomskaya writes well – hopefully she’ll curb the didactics in her further efforts.
This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is unusual in that it contains not just the usual two stories but also a novel excerpt, namely from Galápagos Regained, by James Morrow. I do not like novel excerpts and therefore skipped this one for the most part – but since Jamess Morrow has been on my “I should really check this out” list for quite some time now, I took a brief peek, and it did indeed look quite promising. Don’t be too surprised if the author’s name pops up on this blog again in the not-too-far future.
The first story in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is clearly influenced by China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, and makes no attempt to conceal its inspiration. “Alloy Point” by Sam J. Miller could almost be set in the universe of Miéville’s novels, it certainly has the same vibe of bizarre steampunk that permeates Perdido Street Station. What it falls somewhat short of in comparison is the writing – not that it was in any way bad, it just is noticeable not on par with Miélville’s. On the other hand, seeing how he is one of the most impressive stylists in the field, that would be asking rather a lot of a young writer who is apparently working through his influences, and once Miller has found his own voice he might actually turn out to be very good, “Alloy Point” certainly shows a lot of promise.
I really like the “two stories every two weeks” format of this magazine, as that is an amount of reading that can easily be squeezed in without distracting too much from my regular reading schedule. And stories are for the most part good to excellent, so I’m inclined to think that subscribing to this was a good idea.
Issue #162 opens with a story by Marissa Lingen, “A House of Gold and Steel.” It is Victorian Historical Fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s seminal Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. It is told in first person, the narrator is very engaging and the author does an excellent job with capturing the period tone. Unfortunately, things fall apart in the end, the conclusion is just too pat and not very plausible; the story might have profited from taking some more time to develop and resolve its conflict.
The second story, “Goatskin” by K.C. Norton is the highlight of this issue – set in a vaguely African setting, it is at heart a trickster story, and a story about female solidarity. It shares with the first story that it has a likeable first person narrator, but in this story the author manages to wrap things up in a satisfactory manner (by cleverly folding the telling of the story into what is being told) even though she packs considerably more events into (what I think is) roughly the same amount of pages. Thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m hoping BCS will publish more by this author.
This most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the first I’ve found throughout disappointing. As usual, it contains two stories, the first one being “Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald. It’s not a bad story per se, but does suffer from being part of a series – while it is understandable that the author does not wish to bog her story down by repeating things about the world and the characters’ back story that she established in previous stories (all the more as apparently all of them have been appearing in BCS), for the reader who is not familiar with them the story will ineluctably feel lacking. I realise that this is somewhat my own fault for not subscribing to the magazine earlier, but it still remains that the story does not stand well on its own. While reading it, I was constantly nagged by a feeling of missing out on the significance of the events depicted or alluded to by the characters, and with that resonance missing, the story just felt flat.
While “Sweet Death” was at least somewhat nice, Yosef Lindell’s “We Were Once of the Sky” was, I’m afraid to say, outright bad. It presents the reader with an Alternative History where some aliens got stranded on earth somewhere in the past, but by the time the story takes place (in the 15th century) have been more or less assimilated. The story’s problems start with the world building: the author just plops a bunch of aliens right into human history and then has nothing change at all as consequence of that. Instead, he uses the setup to launch a sledgehammer-driven allegory about minorities which (to say at least something positive about it) could be used to illustrate the difference between “well-meant” and “well made.” Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with the story – Lindell has obviously given the subject of minorities some thought and gets it all right, showing not only the injustice of excluding minorities from societal participation but also how that breeds self-doubt in the minority itself. But as a story, “We Were Once of the Sky” fails utterly – everything is just so blatantly obvious, a flimsy packaging of narrative wrapped around a message, with no care given to and possibly no interest at all in character, structure and language. From the short biography that BCS appends after each story I gather that this is Lindell’s first published story, so there’s at least hope that he’ll be improving with practice.
This is either a very short issue or one that reads particularly fast, in any case it felt like I got through it in no time (might be due to me reading most of it while waiting for a train that was behind schedule).
The first story, “A Guest of the Cockroach Club” by M. Bennardo was somewhat on the “meh” side of things. Vaguely reminiscent of Lavie Tidhar’s fun Bookman series, here it is giant cockroaches secretly ruling the US rather than giant lizards openly ruling the British Empire. This story is completely lacking the flair of Bookman however, has a bland plot, bland characters and bland writing – by far the weakest story I have come across in that magazine so far (which I’ve subscribed to starting with Issue #157 and have greatly enjoyed so far).
The second story, “The Streetking” by Peter Hickman, is the shorter of the two (as seems to be tradition in this magazine) but is decidedly more fun. The basic plot is not terribly original, but this never gets to be a problem as it is so short and Hickman deftly compresses into a few pages what would have been sufficient plot for a novel. The two main characters, though only sketched, are rendered very strikingly and make an impression on the reader, but what makes the story stand out most is the writing – while Hickman is hardly the first to present a story written in rogue’s jargon, few manage to pull it off as successfully as he does here, and it’s the first person narrator’s voice which makes this story a joy to read.
The author of this novel used to publish as Sarah Monette, and under that name wrote one of my all-time favourite Fantasy series, The Doctrine of Labyrinths. So I came to The Goblin Emperor with very high expectations and some trepidations as to whether the book would live up to the author’s previous ones.
The fourth and final volume of The History of the Runestaff. This is mostly a parallel narrative, chronicling the further adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon (the hero) in America in one thread and showing how Baron Meliadus (the villain) makes a bid for power in the centre of the Granbretan Empire, until both threads converge in an epic battle where the final confrontation takes place. There is little doubt of course that the hero will prevail in the end, but even so, the ending is not entirely happy – the final image of the novel is that of a woman weeping…
The Runestaff pretty much continues in the same vein as the previous three instalments of the series, and everything I said about those applies to this novel as well. One thing that is not so much fundamentally different but more in the foreground than in previous volumes is Moorcock satirizing British society of the 1960s, like in this passage where he lists
“… the terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before the Tragic Millennium – Chirshil, the Howling God; Bjrin Adass, the Singing God; Jeajee Blad, the Groaning God; Jh’Im Slas, the Weeping God and Aral Vilsn, the Roaring God, Supreme God, father of Skvese and Blansacredid the Gods of Doom and Chaos.”
I admit that I didn’t get most of the references here on my own (only Churchill and Harold Wilson, to my embarrassment) but he is poking fun at various politicians and other public figures of the period the novel was originally written in – Wikipedia has the details, if you’re curious. I would not be at all surprised if there were more, less obvious satiric references to all kinds of British customs – the wearing of masks, for example, and the pathological fright of all Granbretans to take them off and show their faces is almost certainly a comment on the famous “stiff upper lip.”
Moorcock deftly mixes satire, grotesque and tragedy here, and all by using a pulp adventure plot as his vessel. Like the other novels in The History of the Runestaff tetralogy, this concluding volume never aims to be anything but fun and entertainment, but like the rest of the series succeeds in that without insulting the reader’s intelligence, because it never relies simply on repeating familiar clichés but uses them to do all kinds of interesting things and thus ensuring that the novels are still fun even if read with a somewhat more sophisticated attitudes decades after one first devoured them as a teenager.
Third volume in The History of the Runestaff, and the one I liked best so far. There are some scenes that take place in Londra, giving us a closer look at the inner workings of the Granbretan court that allow Moorcock to go really over the top with the decadence and present readers with the kind of concise but colourful imagery that they have become accustomed to for this series. Here, everyone is at everybody else’s throat, the society only held together by the centuries-old monarch, a wizened figure in a glass globe with the mellifluous voice of a youth. Bizarre inventions abound, and almost before we notice, Moorcock takes us and his protagonists off to America – a place which on the far future / alternative world (it is still not clear which, but I’m increasingly leaning towards it being both) of The History of the Runestaff seems almost like a different planet. The series comes closest to an Edgar-Rice-Borroughs-style planetary romance here, but it is like a story outline by Burroughs as penned by Clark Ashton Smith. Moorcock lets his imagination go totally over the top here, and it’s really astonishing just how much weirdness you can pack in about 150 pages of pulp plot.
Like in the first two volumes, this third one describes the first half of a journey that will be concluded in the fourth novel which is also the series finale – I rather like the symmetry at work here, and suspect that if one took the trouble one might find a lot of correspondences between various characters and places in these novels. And other novels by Moorcock, too, as his whole vast Eternal Champion series is based on correspondences, on repetition and variation. It has been said of that series that it is basically the same novel, written over and over again, and there certainly is something to that – but I do not think that this shows a failing of Moorcock’s inventiveness, quite to the contrary: Given that endless repetition, the echoing of the same fate through times and worlds is precisely what the series is about, it’s a monument to Moorcock’s virtuosity how he has managed to keep this central subject fresh and interesting (at least for the most part) over so many novels. The History of the Runestaff, while still light on Eternal Champion mythology shows a kind of foreshadowing of this in the way it tells very familiar adventure stories but in the telling twists and turns them into something very bizarre and uniquely Moorcockian.
The second volume in Michael Moorcock’s History of the Runestaff tetralogy. After we followed our hero Dorian Hawkmoon of Köln from the Camargue to Persia (or rather, this series’ twisted versions of those places) in The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God’s Amulet, in a neat bit of symmetry, takes us from Persia back to the Camargue, thus making the first half of the tetralogy a closed circle.
In fact, The Mad God’s Amulet does read more like the second half of The Jewel in the Skull than a novel by itself (something that will be repeated for volume 3 and 4 of the series), so generally we get more of the same of what Moorcock served up in the earlier volume, and just as tasty a dish: Again a conventional quest adventure (this time even including a damsel in distress) is embellished and garlanded by the products of Moorcock’s fertile bizarre imagination until it is barely recognisable. I doubt there was any Fantasy author writing at the time who would have been Moorcock’s rival for the sheer audacity of his vision- what other writer would have dared to send his protagonists into battle riding scarlet flamingoes and gotten away with it? There are not many who could pull that off today, and those that might have likely all been influenced by Moorcock in one way or another. (I can’t help the impression that there is a strong influence of the History of the Runestaff in particular on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadow of the Apt series with it’s mixture of science and magic, its ruthless evil Empire and the distortion of its personnel through masks / insect kinship.)
And like in the previous novel, it are those imaginative flourishes, those over-the-top inventions that range from the sleekly elegant to the outlandisly garish, but that always shimmer darkly with a sensuous decadence that make The Mad God’s Amulet into something special. Supposedly Moorcock churned the Eternal Champion books out at an insane rate at the time (up to one novel per day (!)) in order to finance New Worlds, the avantgarde SF magazine he was editing – and if that is true then it really is a marvel how he managed to transform his pulpy narrative into something so rich and strange. Either way, this is both fascinating and highly entertaining stuff, and I’m starting to understand again why I used to be such a huge fan of Moorcock’s work as a teenager.