Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE ARMORED SAINT, being an almost-5 star appreciation of a writer's unexpected gifts

(The Sacred Throne #1)
Tor.com Publishing
$17.99 hardcover, available today!

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: In a world where any act of magic could open a portal to hell, the Order insures that no wizard will live to summon devils, and will kill as many innocent people as they must to prevent that greater horror. After witnessing a horrendous slaughter, the village girl Heloise opposes the Order, and risks bringing their wrath down on herself, her family, and her village.


My Review: I have a confession to make right off the bat: I didn't request this book. My Tor.com Publishing contact, knowing I am big on books with queer representation, figured I'd like this and sent it along. I looked at it in some surprise because it's by Myke Cole, The Shadow Ops-superhero-y military SF guy. If you've paid me the smallest bit of attention before now, you know I detest superhero-y crap and am only enjoying milSF from a gay-male PoV these days. I was a history major. I've had my fill of battlefield stuff for its own sake. Talk to ME, the elderly queer gent, not the strategist/armchair general, or I got better uses for my eyeblinks.

Author Cole, I am profoundly sorry I pigeonholed your work. I was wrong to do so and I'm glad to learn the error of my intolerant ways in so pleasant a fashion.

This fantasy world is deeply satisfying. It's oppressively ruled by a military/religious Order, but run in time-honored community-based democratic ways. Being staunchly anti-religion, that setup is one I'll buy into immediately. I'm not insensible to its relevance to the current state of affairs in our current US, our very own Russian satellite state, either, though that is not to ascribe my beliefs to Author Cole. I am not acquainted with him and make no representation that what *I* take away from his work is what he intended that I take away from it. That disclaimer being made, moving on.

The basis of this story is simple: How does a person, raised in a world that does not jibe with the True North on their inborn moral compass, survive and live and love in it? Can that happen without a struggle, a fight, a battle, or even an outright war? (MAJOR SPOILER: Nope.) What does it take to be authentically yourself in a world that dislikes you for being who you are?

Heloise Factor demonstrates her nature as a skeptic and a misfit from page one of the book, so I'm not really spoilering anything. Heloise confronts the arrogant cruelty of the adult world from page one and is saved from the terrible consequences awaiting the powerless for protesting abuse of power by the skin of her teeth. It's a terrific way to understand the worldview of Heloise's society and get the general course the book will take from here on in. Heloise intuitively understands the Buddha's injunction: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who says it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense."
Her father was lying, not just to her, but to himself. Worst of all, he expected her to repeat the lies, to act as though up was down of her own free will. It was a stupid, wicked way to live, and the smoke still smudging the darkening sky showed her how it ended.
Beautifully said, perfectly true, and in the context of a young person just coming into her rightful place in the world, immensely powerful. It *is* a stupid, wicked way to live and it behooves us as citizens of a world that squashes our inner selves daily to remember that "First, do no harm" is not just Hippocrates talking to doctors but the accumulated wisdom of the ages speaking loud and clear to each and every one of us.

One of the squashings of personal truth has always been sexuality. Female sexuality has come in for the most squashing in modern times. The very existence of female sexuality, of women's right to control their own bodies and use them as they see fit, is taking center stage in the culture wars at last. Part of that demand for control includes the right of a woman to be in an intimate relationship with another woman. This sets religious nuts aflame, as we all know. Heloise's society is as homophobic as our own. Luckily for Heloise, like we would want for any child ready to burst into adult sexual flower, she gets good, solid, commonsensical guidance:
No. It is a person you love. Not a name. Not a she or a he. A person in all their shining glory. There is a thing in us, Heloise. A seed. It makes us who we are. It is our core. That is the thing we love. It alone exists. It alone is holy. It has no home, no name. It is neither male nor female. It is greater than that.
How I wish someone had said similar words to me when I was first mooning about, utterly in love with Davy Jones of the Monkees! I assure you that my longings were understood and VERY MUCH NOT supported by my "family." Heloise's society is down on her womanhood and her same-sex sexuality. Author Cole has added to her burden of seeing through the veil of lies she's been force-fed. Now what else can go wrong in the woman-child's life?

Oh my heck.

Obviously I want you to buy and read the book, so I can't get too detailed or else why bother? Suffice it to say that Author Cole is a mean, mean man who has no smallest shred of kindness to extend to Heloise. Which is what the reading of fiction is for, right? The ancient Hellenic society that invented drama and comedy did so for this very purpose, after all, and called it catharsis. The deep cleansing of experiencing intense emotions from a safe, removed place is the source of story addiction, I am certain. What could possibly be more indicative of this than the long survival of the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Bible? Humans are built to need story to survive. Our very consciousness could be a by-product of the mind creating explanatory narratives.

So Heloise is out of sync with her culture's narrative, and from the get-go she has a visceral experience of what happens to those who flout the keepers of the narrative's rules. And then sees her honored and beloved father support the master (!) narrative, even though it means condemning another to almost certain death, so the Greater Good will be served. And *still* she refuses to conform, to knuckle under and do what is expected instead of what is Right. That's what makes her journey one we should all follow, at the very least between the boards of a book. I hope people with probably-lesbian young (grand-)daughters will buy this book and give it to them, as well as any and all adolescents wrestling with the certainty that they're just different somehow. (Sneak in a read yourself, you'll like it too.)

The minuses of the book are fairly few: There aren't adult female models for Heloise to emulate so one wonders how she got the idea a mere girl could do what she sets out to do; the Standard Fantasy Trope of Capitalizing Things To Make Them Different is in evidence; the ghastly scourge of Adolescent Exceptionalism (see what I did there? heh) is abundantly present. In fact, if the entire point of the book wasn't so exactly in line with my own inner agenda, Heloise's headstrong foolishness in taking on the entire adult world's power structure would make me roll my eyes and consign the book to the recycle pile (which, I hasten to add, does not mean the trash but the catch-and-release world of BookMooch).

As it is, I think Heloise's theme was sung in 1979 by McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. She deserved so much more than she got from her world, as do so very many children. It's long past time adults recognized this and got on the change bandwagon. Here in the US, we need to make our children safe from death while they're at school, at home, at church (if they're forced to go there), the movie theater, the mall....

This sounds like one of my five-star reviews...where's that last tenth of a star? I took it away because I am gut-churningly jealous of how young and handsome Author Cole is. Petty of me, I know, but there it is.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

WE ARE LEGION (WE ARE BOB), amusing way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon

(Bobiverse #1)
Worldbuilders Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it's a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he'll be switched off, and they'll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad - very mad.

My Review: This is the most male book I've read in ages. I mean, there are two or three women in it but they're onscreen for a hot minute and then gone again. Mostly it's the titular Bob in one of his many regenerated/rebooted/revived selves.

And I think that's why I liked this read so much. It's unapologetic in its geekery.
It blew me away that almost two hundred years after Shatner first famously didn’t actually say, “Beam me up, Scotty,” people still knew Star Trek. Now that’s a franchise.
Bob's a tech bro who cashed out and died at basically the same moment. As a result, Bob's making his early-21st-century geekboy dreams come true by waking up in a theocracy that wants to use him to explore the galaxy...but only because they want to beat the Great Unwashed to any habitable planets there might be out there.
People's capacity for turning dogmatic stupidity into political movements never ceased to amaze me. We've knocked off 99.9% of the human race and somehow the crazies still manage to survive. It just defies the odds.
It defies common sense as well, but that doesn't stop us. I am delighted by this validation of my low opinion of Humanity's sanity. The world Bob wakes up into is very polarized, but things aren't all that different from today. A few changes in the top echelon that are pretty much inevitable anyway. Oh, and...wait, no, discovery is a terrific tease to get the cash register to ring. And Author Taylor deserves your spondulix as much as he does your eyeblinks.

The copyright date on this is 2016. I wish to high heaven that more of y'all had read this tome before the 8th of November.
He and his cronies rammed through far-right policies with no thought for consequences.
That is the sound of Author Taylor predicting accurately the future that is our awful present. I'd ask you to read the book anyway, but really, how can you *not* when the setting precedes the world that it describes?!

Let's say that, for some reason, you're not intrigued by anything I've warbled my fool head off about. You still like to laugh, right?
Belly laughs are one of the best things about being sentient, and you should never miss a chance for one.
Funny and accurate.
Well, that’s double-plus ungood.
Please, please tell me you 1) got the Orwell reference and B) thought it was funny. Let's say you are, for whatever reason, a po-faced old noddycock of a square. Surely you'd like a little snappy thinking as a surfactant for your wet blanket?
Since I doubt, I think; since I think, I exist.

Space exploration was fully living up to my nerd fantasies.

I don’t know why I should be more bothered by the fact of original Bob being dead. Either way, I was a computer program. But somehow, the idea that I was all that was left of Bob felt like being stabbed. I had been—Bob had been—discarded.
If nothing I've mentioned makes you feel the need to splash out a whopping $3.99 on this book, then I pity your spouse/partner. I will say that other criticisms of the book that I've seen bear down heavy on the ending. I'd say they're correct. It doesn't end, it stops; but if you're not amused by it, that won't matter, and if you are, you're going to buy the second one anyway.

Monday, February 12, 2018

SILENT DAYS, SILENT DREAMS is a kids' book in name only


Arthur A. Levine Books
$21.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

UPDATE! AWARD NEWS! The 2018 American Library Association Awards honored Author Say's work with its Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience! Well-earned, well done, and congratulations.

The Publisher Says: James Castle was born two months premature on September 25, 1899, on a farm in Garden Valley, Idaho. He was deaf, mute, autistic and probably dyslexic. He didn't walk until he was four; he would never learn to speak, write, read or use sign language.

Yet, today Castle's artwork hangs in major museums throughout the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened "James Castle: A Retrospective" in 2008. The 2013 Venice Biennale included eleven works by Castle in the feature exhibition "The Encyclopedic Palace." And his reputation continues to grow.

Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say, author of the acclaimed memoir Drawing from Memory, takes readers through an imagined look at Castle's childhood, allows them to experience his emergence as an artist despite the overwhelming difficulties he faced, and ultimately reveals the triumphs that he would go on to achieve.

My Review: I will never be able to thank my friend Joe enough for bringing this book, this artist, this art, into my life. I am so profoundly grateful to you, old friend.

James Castle with the tools of his trade. I don't know the date, but he died at 78 in 1977, so I'll venture a guess at early 1960s...? I'm actually surprised, given how very little the people he lived among seem to have liked him, that someone took his photo at all.

Artist and Caldecott Medalist Allen Say created this artwork at the request of an Idaho-based friend of his. It was his introduction to James Castle...he says of this amazing moment, "I opened the catalog and suddenly remembered the excitement of seeing a van Gogh for the first time." I rang like a bell when I read that. I had just had the same experience opening this book and seeing Say's artworks based on Castle's.

A spread from this gorgeous book.

I've got a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of art. I'm up to speed on "outsider art" and its importance in our visual vocabulary, to our aesthetic landscape. But there hasn't been an experience quite like discovering, via Artist Say, the astonishing work of James Castle in a very, very long time. The sheer breadth of the material he left behind is astounding! Sculptural constructions, drawings in their thousands, mobiles, it's like the man was working against a deadline that only he knew about and was determined to finish saying what he had no other way to say.

The publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books (the imprint responsible for bringing Harry Potter to the US market), is bringing this to us via a damned-near perfect design and production job. The aesthetics of the design you can see for yourself above. If you don't think that it's outstandingly lovely, look at it in person. If you still don't agree, okay, but why? What failing do you adduce to this presentation of two-color artwork mixed with four-color artwork and all presented in a beautiful matte-coated glowingly white space? What artistic flaw do you find with Artist Say's beautiful, spare evocations of the grim and terrible world of James Castle?

And it was a grim and terrible world, a kind of hell that I fear with all my wobbly, trembling emotional heart isn't unique except in its reasonably happy ending. Artist Say has gone as deep as one can into the little factual material of this ordinary life. His bibliography is quite substantial...and disturbingly complete...for someone who, absent Fate's intervention, would simply have vanished without a trace from the collective memory of US society. I knew I could trust Artist Say to tell me the truth about James Castle when I read:
To emulate his unschooled style, I used the same kinds of odd materials he had used: soot and spit, liquid laundry bluing, and shoe polish, to name a few.
I had help. My wife meticulously made dolls and birds out of wastepaper and cardboard that I think the artist would have approved. I drew on ninety-year-old letters and envelopes that {his friend} found in an antique shop; and to mimic James's unsteady lines, I often switched lands—to my left hand, which hadn't learned to tell lies.
Artist Say is the right one to lead us into James Castle's work, and his life and times insofar as any of us can know them.

The Seattle Times gives us the jacket of this glorious book in its native environment, the store where you'll be going to spend USD 21.99 (higher in Canada) to bring it home with you. And now you're able to do it legally, since a Federal judge ruled that Artist Say didn't violate Castle's estate's copyrights in offering us, in 28 cases from the 150 drawings in this book, his own artistic impression of specific Castle pieces.

Isn't that a sad statement of our current society's obsession with ownership? A beautiful illustrated biography would quite probably have pleased Castle, whose early relationship with books (despite being unable to read or write) was a loving and profound one. Not at issue were any facts, any alleged misrepresentations of Castle, his family, anything...just ownership of the images and therefore the right to profit from them.

Had I been related to Castle I'd've cringed in shame for the picture painted of a cold, uncaring, even cruel "family" that frankly seems to me to be culpably negligent and abusive of their child/sibling/educational charge. They sound like horrible people and I'm glad they're dead.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

THRESHOLD, second novel in the Lovecraftian paranormal series starring Whyborne & Griffin

(Whyborne & Griffin #2)
Kindle Original
$4.99, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five, rounded up (actually out of four because there's a cat presented as a suitable companion animal for humans, which costs the perpetrator one star automatically)

The Publisher Says: Introverted scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne wants nothing more than to live quietly with his lover, ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty. Unfortunately, Whyborne's railroad tycoon father has other ideas, namely hiring Griffin to investigate mysterious events at a coal mine.

Whyborne, Griffin, and their friend Christine travel to Threshold Mountain, a place of dark legend even before the mine burrowed into its heart. A contingent of Pinkertons—including Griffin's ex-lover Elliot—already guard the mine. But Griffin knows better than anyone just how unprepared the detectives are to face the otherworldly forces threatening them.

Soon, Whyborne and Griffin are on the trail of mysterious disappearances, deadly accidents, and whispered secrets. Is Elliot an ally, or does he only want to rekindle his relationship with Griffin? And if so, how can Whyborne possibly hope to compete with the stunningly handsome Pinkerton—especially when Griffin is hiding secrets about his past?

For in a town where friends become enemies and horror lurks behind a human mask, Whyborne can't afford to trust anything—including his own heart.

My Review: These stories are all in the Lovecraft Mythos. I think I wasn't au fait when I began the series. This makes my feelings about the reads quite different.

Whyborne and Griffin get invited to dinner at the home of Whyborne's much-despised daddy. He hires Griffin, thus also his son, to investigate paranormal doins at a mine that supplies his railroad. They recruit Christine Putnam, Whyborne's Egyptologist/Annie Oakley-level shot colleague at the Ladysmith Museum, as the backup muscle. (Seriously, does it matter why she's along? She has to be, so let's go with it.) They go to some ghastly little horror-movie burg in West Virginia (a state in which I say, from my own experience, there is nothing but horror-movie burgs):
The heights blocked the prevailing west-east breezes, leaving the air stagnant and still. Mosquitoes hummed above pools of water in the unpaved streets, and sweat prickled my neck beneath my collar. I longed for a bit of shade, but the lack of trees anywhere within the town made it a forlorn hope.
And this, laddies and gentlewomen, is Whyborne's first-ever trip away from Massachusetts! I can see the setting, I can feel the depths of utter horror poor, poor Whyborne experiences as he sees this vista of how the other 99.99% live.

The town is insular, cut off from reality, and that makes it vulnerable to alien invasion by creatures from outside our dimension of reality. (Watch that linked video on the Lovecraft Mythos!) In fact, the same thing that the white folk are using the mountain for...coal...is what attracted the aliens to the site. I don't know what spidercrabscorpion aliens would want with coal, but then I wouldn't, would I, what with being human and all. The aliens are called yayhos by the humans they...get to know...and are really, really, really revolting. It's mentioned several times that they smell of ammonia. Not a favorite smell of most humans. And what they say they want, just to be left alone to pillage our planet, makes them deeply analogous to Western colonial powers using Africa in the same late-19th-century timeframe as these books are set. The yayhos have a deep-seated need to learn and explore. Check. They have a callous indifference to whom they hurt in the process. Check. Small groups of them can inflict major damage on us, the natives. Check.

So no one needs to smirk condescendingly about the one-dimensionality of the story. It is making its social commentary and coming (!) to the correct, socially progressive conclusions on many fronts. The conditions for the miners in the town are portrayed accurately and judged harshly; race relations enter into the story and are dealt with accurately and found wanting; the role of the Pinkertons, Griffin's erstwhile employers, as forces of regressive and repressive capital is presented as part of a sub-plot linking Griffin to Elliot, the Threshold Pinkerton manager and Griffin's long-ago savior when he ran away from home to go to the Big City of Chicago.

Also coming out (!) of this entry in the series is the acknowledgment and inclusion in the arc of Griffin and Whyborne's relationship are the two stonking elephants in the room: Whyborne's life of privilege vs Griffin's hardscrabble beginnings; and Griffin's horrible, nightmarish confinement to a madhouse after he first encounters the Lovecraftian side of life. That was lightly touched on in the first book, Widdershins, but here we're faced with the man who found Griffin and made him a Pinkerton in the first place in Elliot. He was also the man who, after Griffin faced the madness-inducing terrors that cost him a partner in service of a Pinkerton case, slung Griffin into a madhouse. And walked away, never looking back. Elliot and Griffin have a lot to say to each other. They say it at an inopportune moment, sadly, leading to Whyborne coming to the hotel where he, Griffin, and Christine are all staying just as Elliot is leaving Griffin's room. A fight, unsurprisingly, ensues, in which some hurtful stuff is said and much, much miscommunication is experienced.

Griffin pleads to Whyborne in defense of his libidinous history with Elliot and with his dead partner Glenn, whose wife and kids were offered up to Whyborne as misdirection when he wanted to know if Griffin freaked out about Glenn's death because they were intime. Finding out that no lie was told makes not one jot of difference, of course, to Whyborne's sense of outrage:
“Believe me when I say I did a great deal more with other men, some of whom, yes, were married. It’s not unusual, you know. Many men like us have a normal family as well.”
It was, and is, ever thus. I speak from long, long experience when I say that this is going on right now and chances are much better than even that you know a couple where one or the other of the partners is in denial about her/is sexual preference. Especially if you live in a red state, or are a member of a religious community with strong opinions about how gawd wants people to eat/dress/fuck. Almost certainly you do if you're over 50.

But the author has much more in store for us than mere social engineering. We're going on a guilt trip! Perfidy abounds; double dealing reaches art-form nicety; the irredeemable are all around us, and their fate is condign. The biggest surprise comes as Griffin and Whyborne come out to each other as lovers:
The fingers of his free hand caught my chin, gently turning my face to his. His green eyes shone, and the smile on his mouth was soft and sweet. “You are my joy, Ival {this is Griffin's hideous nickname for Whyborne, who unsurprisingly hates to be called Percy}, and I love you more than I thought possible.”
Emotion tightened my throat. “As you are mine.”
“Even if I’m just the son of a farmer from Kansas, who happened to have a talent for mimicking his betters?”
I traced the line of his jaw, until my fingers came to rest just beside the curve of his lips. “You’re not just the son of a farmer from Kansas, or even the orphaned son of an Irishman, or anything else.”
“I’m not? Then who am I?”
“A good man. A man who wants to do what is best, by his friends and the world. But more importantly, the man I love.”
His smile was like the breaking of sunshine through clouds. “I think I can live with that,” he said, and kissed me again.
And that right there? That slayed me. What makes me read light romantic fiction, given the years and years of reading...forty-nine years since I got my own library card, fifty-two since I asked for and got my first very-own book...one might wonder. This is what: I want to believe. After almost sixty years on this wide green Earth of ours, I still want to believe that stories tell us truths we're waiting to live, show us goals we can actually achieve, let us love the loves we let go of, lost, failed, never found, just as if they were here and now.

There's not a lot of sex in these...wait...I've recently been told a book that had so little sex in it that I described it as heterosafe was, in fact, not so. I'll say this: The sex in this book is put in places and set at heat levels that match the storytelling. It's not shoved into places it shouldn't go, in other words.

I stared at that phrase for a good while before deciding to leave it there. If that double entendre makes you purse your lips, do not ever, ever buy, borrow, or gawd forbid *read* these books!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

WIDDERSHINS, first paranormal mystery novel in a Lovecraftian Massachusetts

(Whyborne & Griffin #1)
Amazon Kindle
$2.99 eReader platforms, available

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Some things should stay buried.

Repressed scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne has two skills: reading dead languages and hiding in his office at the Ladysmith Museum. After the tragic death of the friend he secretly loved, he’s ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man.

So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible. Griffin left the Pinkertons following the death of his partner, hoping to start a new life. But the powerful cult which murdered Glenn has taken root in Widdershins, and only the spells in the book can stop them. Spells the intellectual Whyborne doesn’t believe are real.

As the investigation draws the two men closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. When the cult resurrects an evil sorcerer who commands terrifying monsters, can Whyborne overcome his fear and learn to trust? Will Griffin let go of his past and risk falling in love? Or will Griffin’s secrets cost Whyborne both his heart and his life?

My Review: I finally bought this bagatelle for myself, after literally years sitting on my wishlist, this past birthday. I figure at *mumbletymumble* years old I can finally let go of the fear that They Will Not Approve and read whatever the heck I darned well please. Including paranormal romps with scads of gay sex and significantly smaller helpings of logic.

Uh huh. Like I can publicly admit how old I am in the context of reading *blush*shame* a, um, y'know, a book like this one is.


Fine. No really. FINE.

It's *deep breath* a smexy silly romance with True Luuuv and Evil Monsters and Supernatural Creatures! It has No Redeeming Social Value! I read it because it was A Good Story!

There, are y'all happy now? Whatever tiny scrap of credibility I ever had as a book reviewer is gone.

And that, my chick-a-biddies, is how romantic fiction readers of every stripe are made to feel. It's complete crap and it's indicative of a nasty, judgmental streak in the culture of literacy. *What* are you reading, philistine, tut the superiority addicts, don't call that literature, don't sully our ever-so-pure air blathering about your, your, lesser, baser, frankly uninteresting...books (so called) that do nothing but entertain those of, frankly, limited intellectual capacity. I wonder what these reviewers, these Guardians of the Gates, would do if their precious darlings of Literature were subjected to the eighteenth century's test of worthiness in reading matter: "Novels?! Men do not read novels. The weaker sex read novels because they are not capable of processing True and Fine Thinking such as scholars read! Men who write entertainments such as novels are merely pandering to the feeble and inferior baser instincts of the ladies. Shame! Shame on you, sir, for hastening the decline of Our Noble Culture!"

This is how it always goes through the generations. So let's stop judging what each other read and be happy that some people enjoy reading more than staring at screens. Although to be fair, I did read this on Kindle, so....

Having had my rant about the foolishness of judging others, I continue to the book at hand, first of a series of paranormals set in fictional Widdershins, Massachusetts. This town was settled after its founding father escaped from Salem during the Witch Hunt. He was, unlike the other poor sods tried and judicially murdered for witchcraft, guilty as original sin of the crime. Theron Blackbyrne was a beautiful, hunky blond Sodomite as well as a witch. His reach, sadly, exceeded his grasp, as certain essentials needed for the grand spell he wanted to cast, the one that would buy him immortality, eternal youth, and all the boy booty he could dream of, were simply unavailable in the New World. So he left some explicit instructions with his acolytes on what they needed to procure and when they needed to use it to resurrect him in order that he be able to complete his spell.

Several centuries elapse. The acolytes, surprise!, weren't at all eager to resurrect the master in whose service they'd become rich...poor followers are useless, ask any politician...in order to hand over all their worldly acquisitions. Um, no thanks, I'm good. He molders in the grave, they use the bits and bobs they got from Blackbyrne to acquire more bits and bobs, time passes and the town of Widdershins grows in prosperity as a port city, the local worthies open themselves a museum with an Egyptian antiquities focus...the items needed for Blackbyrne's resurrection accumulate, almost in spite of the great and good...and then a tragedy occurs that properly starts our story.

Percival Endicott Whyborne, wimpy bookish kid turned scholarly shirt-lifting introvert, introduces himself to us as the second son of an overbearing Widdershins magnate. He is also, in his own mind at least, the murderer of his childhood crush object who also happens to be his father's best friend's son. His unnatural lust for this friend is bound up in his survivor's guilt based on his inability to rescue the boy who drowned in a lake.

It is Whyborne's fate to act as the catalyst for Blackbyrne's resurrection. It is his good fortune to have the esoteric knowledge, the robust support systems, and the steely moral center to offer resistance to the terrible forces Blackbyrne would like to harness in his quest for immortality...including Yog-Sothoth, mentioned by name! Luck is on Earth's side, since Whyborne went to Miskatonic University in Arkham and learned all sorts of useful philological tricks.

H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos has long, long, long tentacles.

Whyborne, who detests being called Percy, has the excellent fortune to meet and fall in lust, in love, then into the arms of, strong, capable, experienced Griffin Flaherty. Another lad of the time whose Sodomitical tendencies were the catalyst for his exile from his only home and then his worst nightmare coming true, Griffin likes cats (an entire star off my rating of the book for that horrible lapse in authorial judgment) and goofy, gawky men, which makes him the best possible partner for Whyborne. The worst nightmare part is the bit that's most important. Griffin, you see, has experienced the dark and terrifying reach of the Mythos into ordinary life first hand. Its indelible mark on his soul means he will go to any length to combat the entry of those from Outside into our safe little home. Whyborne is embroiled with the Blackbyrne followers by virtue of birth and constitutionally unable to tolerate their wickedness by nature. He and Griffin must combat the actual demons and face their personal ones simultaneously and together.

The remaining half-star was lost to this book by the sheer improbability of a multi-century evil cabal surviving in Puritanical Massachusetts, the improbably used facets of Lovecraft's Mythos with Egyptian mythology, and assorted anachronistic speech patterns. My standards for entertaining fiction aren't all that high, but Griffin's invented nickname for Whyborne (since he understandably dislikes Percy) flew straight into my craw and stuck there."Ival"? How is that even pronounced?!

The next entry in the series is a short work called Eidolon. I'll be reviewing it soon..

Monday, January 29, 2018

GOD STALK, a 35-year-old first fantasy novel that spawned a series still going today

(Chronicles of the Kencyrath #1)
Baen Books
$6.99 eReader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the first book of the Kencyrath, Jame, a young woman missing her memories, struggles out of the haunted wastes into Tai-tastigon, the old, corrupt, rich and god-infested city between the mountains and the lost lands of the Kencyrath.

Jame's struggle to regain her strength, her memories, and the resources to travel to join her people, the Kencyrath, drag her into several relationships, earning affection, respect, bitter hatred and, as always, haunting memories of friends and enemies dead in her wake.

My Review: I read this 35-year-old fantasy novel because a good LibraryThing friend of mine ran a group read of it. She contended that the book was underfamous and underappreciated. I don't know about you, but I'd say any first-in-series book that's followed by eight others (to date) set in the same universe, and which has an 816 page fandom wiki, isn't exactly a concealed target.


Reading older books in the speculative fiction genre is an education in revised expectations and their invisibility until challenged. Modern fantasy nonillionologies, each volume a minimum of a jillion pages densely packed with made-up language vocabulary and/or Randomly capitalized normal Words that indicate they're being used as something More Than their mundane meaning, are now the minimum standard. This book predates that trend. As a result, its brevity can feel...unfinished...to a 21st century sensibility. There were many, many moments that the author moved through hastily or simply glided past entirely that would, in modern times, be entire novels.

I've complained about book bloat and editing fails so often and so publicly that I expect someone will quite soon point this out with a smug "gotcha!" of some sort. To those legions of carping natterers, I say "oh shut up" and remind them that 1) consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and 2) there's such a thing as a happy medium.

I'm not a huge consumer of fantasy novels at the best of times because magic makes me itch. It seems so nonsensical, so counter to the realities of physical laws under which we live; it flies in the face of experiential existence; but it satisfies a deep need in many people, just not me. Also, almost always, the protagonist is An Exceptional Adolescent (usually female), and that's very much not my favorite kind of person. Adolescence stank, and so do adolescents. Just not where I want to be, or to stay for any length of time.

This novel's magical system got in under my radar because it feels to me, like the magic in Kai Ashante Wilson's marvelous Africa-set fantasy stories, as though any second we're going to be told that it's a form of technology we don't recognize as such. I can hang with that. Most of what the main character does isn't terribly magical, and the city of Tai-Tastigon itself is the source of the overall magic. We're teased with the notion of the city's magic being the reason there are so many gods in it; in fact, there's a truly delicious idea that temples to the gods are actually ways for the mundane people to *trap* the gods, to limit their scope for activity, instead of mere places of worship.

Jame, our main character, even targets one of these gods in an experiment to test the limits of its power. She causes the god to lose its worshipers in the process, and the results prove to Jame that there is something very hinky about the way the gods function. This subplot is played for comedy, but I was happy to note that the very real consequences for this god and its priest were later sources of shame and remorse for Jame. She goes out of her way to fix the damage she's done, and in the process discovers an amazing library of knowledge that this god's temple has hidden for ages. It is one of the wonderful things about the tapestry of Tai-Tastigon created by Author Hodgell.

The city and its quirks, its societal and legal peculiarities, are incredibly enough left to one side as soon as they're revealed! Inconceivable, and that word does mean what I think it means, in today's publishing world. I was intrigued by the Cloudies, a subset of society that's decided to take to the rooftops and not touch the ground: whence came they, what do they do for a living, how come they're not subject to groundling law, and so on and so forth. Never answered. Never addressed. The Thieves' Guild that Jame enters without the smallest tiniest bit of effort on her part is an entire multi-volume storytelling universe! The history that Jame barely skates over with her sort of accidental Thieves' Guild master, one Penari the ancient master thief, is another multi-volume series of novels. I am all for rich texture in a story, and I got it here, but there are way too many delicious side trails that lead nowhere in this book.

At the end of the book came my personal biggest disappointment as Jame left Tai-Tastigon for parts unknown. This was inevitable, given the fact that she enters the city from parts only slightly less unknown and for reasons utterly unclear and unclarified. This is a fantasy novel, and the first in a series. Of course there will be a quest, and of course it will lead away from any one location. That doesn't make me any happier about it. The textures of Tai-Tastigon's tapestry are involving and exciting, and I'd like to stay here please.

Which is how I know Author Hodgell created a wonderful thing in this book, and why it's no real surprise that her fantasy universe has spawned an 816-page wiki. She understands her readers' need to feel immersed and invested in more than a simple, surface-gleaming world. She delivers those goods. My various dissatisfactions with the execution of this tale aside, I admire her ability and her vision. I won't continue reading the series because I'm less interested in Jame than I am in Tai-Tastigon, but I will likely pick up any future book that returns to this setting.

Monday, January 22, 2018

PASSING SHADOWS, prequel of the Taking Shield series of space operas

(Taking Shield #0.5)
Glass Hat Press
$2.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Li Liang has found a berth to suit her: chief pilot and first officer of the all-female crew of an old space freighter, the Sappho. Then one ordinary, unremarkable morning, Liang retunes the Sappho’s communications systems just in time to catch the breathless, terrible accounts from Mars of the total destruction of Earth.

Earth’s a cinder. The unknown alien race that destroyed it has left Mars, too, in flames and is ravening outward from the solar system, devouring every human colony on the way. Liang’s one of the few survivors, racing ahead of the Devourers, rescuing as many frightened, shocked people as she can. Will Liang and the pitiful remnants of humanity find a new haven, somewhere to start again? Or will she, too, echo the dreadful last message coming out of their dead home?

They’re coming. Oh God, they’re coming.

My Review: Oh my. Yes, Author Butler has done it, she's done my poor old man's heart muscle permanent injury this time.

Remember how much I liked the first four books? If not, refresh yourself by reading up on the pleasures of Bennet and Finn's world coming crashing down around their ears as they, fine fighting men that they are, do their dead-level best to mitigate or even prevent it from happening. That was Author Butler's first assault on me.

The second was making Bennet and Finn fall head-over-heels in love with each other. Despite Bennet's long-term relationship with Joss, Finn's love-'em-and-leave-'em history, Bennet's career in the spy corps, Finn's posting to Bennet's anti-gay father's ship....

And now, with this lovely tale of Liang and Alice and Matt and his loves...well...the damage, she is irretrievable. Because now we find out what happened to Earth, what this has done to the survivors, how the men and women of Humanity's diaspora likely lost their belief in the monotheistic gawd I so ridicule them for bothering themselves to believe in in the first place. I mean really, how could one take seriously a gawd that allowed the original home of your species to get utterly blown into ash and smithereens?

Of course the question of how they found and resurrected the Egyptian pantheon will niggle at me until Author Butler gets sick of my emails alternately demanding and supplying ideas for that lacuna's filling-upping. My current favorite: Bennet, retired from Shield, takes Finn, retired from Fleet, on a honeymoon to an archaeological dig on a newly relocated planet where Humanity stopped for a while and left behind clues about the Egyptian pantheon's recrudescence.

Hijinks ensue.

Hmm? Well, whadda y'all think?

Yeah, Author Butler's quiet about it too. *sigh*

Anyway. This novella is an afternoon's read, it sets the stakes for Bennet and Finn's world, and it contains this author's trademark homophile characters complete with real-life reasons to do what the plot tells them to. I like the series. I like the prequel. I suspect the Devourers have not vanished from Taking Shield. And I am eager to get the next full novel.

Like, REAL SOON. *glowers Blightyward*