Jonathan Crowe

I’m a blogger and writer from Shawville, Quebec. I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis. More about me.

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ Book Reviews

Shoot the Moon

The Moon (August 18, 2010) As hobbies go, astrophotography has murderously high barriers to entry in terms of equipment costs and skill, and the money and time required to acquire each. Fortunately there’s an exception. Taking pictures of the Moon requires neither specialized equipment or skill: my first photo of the Moon was taken with an entry-level digital SLR and a telephoto zoom lens, and people have used smartphones to take decent photos of the Moon through the eyepiece of a telescope.

From that first shot I graduated to prime focus lunar photography, using adapters to connect my SLR to a telescope, making that telescope essentially a gigantic telephoto lens. Here’s an album of those prime focus photos.

Book cover: Shoot the Moon But those aren’t the only ways to shoot the Moon, as Nicolas Dupont-Bloch demonstrates in his magisterial new book out this week from Cambridge University Press, which is coincidentally called Shoot the Moon: A Complete Guide to Lunar Imaging.

Let me say at the outset that beginners should stay as far away from this book as possible (they should start with the advice in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide). This is a comprehensive reference that covers every available way for amateurs to capture lunar imagery with their own equipment, and it does so in a systematic fashion. In method it’s not at all dissimilar from Michael Covington’s Digital SLR Astrophotography (from the same publisher), but for some reason I found the Covington easier to follow than the Dupont-Bloch.

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Not So Much, Said the Cat

Book cover: Not So Much, Said the Cat It’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his — I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection — far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.

Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection — in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).

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Ghost Talkers

Book cover: Ghost Talkers First, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016),, her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.

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Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning At the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.

Our wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.

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The Winged Histories

Book cover: The Winged Histories Sofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer, 2013), won the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. Her second novel, The Winged Histories (Small Beer, March 2016) does not function as a sequel to that earlier book, though it too is set in the Olondrian Empire during the same time period, and there is some overlap in characters. The density and richness of Samatar’s world is profoundly intoxicating, to say nothing of her prose, and fans of the first book will welcome a return to it. A prior familiarity is not strictly required (a good thing for me: A Stranger in Olondria was 115 books ago and my memory of it was poor).

Instead of the first book’s Bildungsroman we have a book that very much lives up to the noun in its title (the adjective is more subtle): these are histories — chronicles told by four women who play key roles in a many-layered civil war that splits along familial, regional, ethnic, religious and even interspecific lines. These are tales about the margins of empire, and colonial relationships, and things that are hidden and not spoken of. Each of them ends much too soon, leaving the reader hungry.

The reader will stay hungry, too: news that this book marks the conclusion of Samatar’s Olondria project (which she “always envisioned as a two-book adventure”) will no doubt be disappointing, though mad props for the integrity of her decision (other authors would have written their secondary worlds into the ground, with all-too-familiar results).

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Snakes of the Southeast

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters.1 They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

Book cover: Snakes of the Southeast One of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.2 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

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The Semi-Secret Life of Andrew J. Offutt

Book cover: My Father, the Pornographer Andrew J. Offutt was a well-known figure in the science fiction and fantasy field. Though he never quite levelled up to the top tier of writers, his stories and novels were well-regarded, he was a frequent presence at sf conventions, and he served two terms as SFWA president. Less widely known was the fact that most of his writing was pornographic novels for men — a genre that more or less disappeared with the advent of home video in the mid-1980s. Offutt published hundreds of them, under a variety of pen names, using a system that enabled him to write them in a few days.

When Offutt died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria). Going through those papers has resulted in the younger Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, out this week from Atria Books.

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Radiance

Book cover: Radiance When reading a novel by Catherynne M. Valente, it’s important to pay close attention to what she’s doing — and then to take an even closer look. Her novels are like v�narterta: dense, many-layered, and can take a while to digest. Last week as I read Radiance (Tor, October 2015), her first novel for adults since Deathless (2011), I realized that this was not just a book that would reward rereading; it practically demands it.

In Radiance Valente does several things at once, all of which I approve of. It’s set in an alternative-retro solar system that would have seemed like the future to someone at the end of the nineteenth century: the planets are all habitable and colonized by the various Great Powers; space travel is undertaken by means of cannons of the sort Jules Verne described in From the Earth to the Moon. Filmmaking is king, but takes place on the Moon rather than Hollywood; for patent reasons the silent era persists for decades (talking pictures exist, but are seen as vulgar or good only for documentaries).

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Atlas of Cursed Places

Book cover: Atlas of Cursed Places The first thing to keep in mind about Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places is that it’s not an atlas. Rather, it’s a collection of brief essays about a series of unique places around the world. In that I suspect it’s much like Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands or Aude de Tocqueville’s Atlas of Lost Cities (English translation forthcoming next year). All of these books shared a publisher in France; all of them appear to have been conceived under the influence of Calvino.

The Atlas of Cursed Places’s essays are about places in the world that are, for one reason or another, particularly horrible, by dint of their history or geography. There are navigational hazards and environmental disasters, and sites of old horrors that were entirely human-made. Ghost towns, war zones, slums and mausoleums. Animal infestations. Each are engrossing, but the essays barely get started on their subjects: turn the page expecting more and you find yourself already on the next one. Each essay is an act of cruelty (very meta given the subject matter), whetting readers’ appetites but denying us the feast.

In the end this is an exercise in curation: the choices are fascinating, but the essays are affective rather than substantive. In that sense this book is an even lighter read than Alastair Bonnet’s Unruly Places (which seems to have much less Calvino in its book DNA).

(While not an atlas proper, this book does have a lot of maps illustrating each essay. But their effect is disorienting: each cursed place is indicated by a star on an old and out-of-date map, usually a plate from a century-old atlas.)

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Buy at Amazon (Canada, U.K.)

The House of Shattered Wings

Book cover: The House of Shattered Wings (US edition) Book cover: The House of Shattered Wings (UK edition) Aliette de Bodard’s new novel The House of Shattered Wings combines several elements of her past work that made it so interesting and her career worth following.

De Bodard first came to my notice with her trilogy of Aztec murder mystery fantasy novels: Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot, 2010), Harbinger of the Storm (Angry Robot, 2011) and Master of the House of Darts (Angry Robot, 2011), now collected in an omnibus volume, Obsidian and Blood (Angry Robot, 2012: Amazon, U.K. edition). Set in a 15th-century Tenochtitlan where the Aztec religion is real (gods interact freely with mortals, and blood sacrifices are literally required to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth), the novels follow the story of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, as he solves murders with spells and sacrifices and does his best to stave off a Mesoamerican Ragnar�k that always seems just around the corner.

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Child of a Hidden Sea

Book cover: Child of a Hidden Sea Alyx Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books, June 2014) is the kind of fantasy adventure novel you used to see a lot more of — not technically YA, but certainly something my 14- or 15-year-old self would have had no trouble reading. But do not make the mistake that this is some kind of throwback. It’s a delightful portal fantasy that brings the form up to date in several important ways.

Twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa, fresh off a difficult first contact with her birth mother, suddenly finds herself floating at sea, desperately trying to save the life of an aunt she’s just met. It turns out that she’s been swept away to Stormwrack, a richly developed fantasy world of island nations and dashing sailors. She is promptly sent back, but manages to return, bringing her brother Bram with her. Adventures naturally ensue.

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The Martian

Just finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Good Lord it’s a lot of fun.

Book cover: The Martian During this year’s Hugo Awards foofaraw, there was some disappointment expressed that this book was not on the final ballot. That was not because Hugo voters were out to snub a book full of the good old stuff and lacking in social justice virtue, or whatever — it was simply ineligible. The Martian was first self-published electronically in 2011. But don’t weep overmuch for Andy Weir: after brisk online sales, both traditional publishing and Hollywood started paying attention. He got a six-figure advance for the hardcover edition, which came out in February 2014, and the movie adaptation comes out this November.

And it’s not hard to see why. The book chronicles a lone astronaut’s struggle to survive on the Martian surface after an accident leaves him stranded there, and the attempts to rescue him. It’s chock-a-block with technical detail — Weir did a lot of research, and the Mars program in the book reflects a lot of the proposals I’ve seen — and MacGyveresque solutions to problems. It’s written in a light, breezy and entertaining (if not necessarily felicitous) manner. Characterization and prose quality are not among its virtues — it’s basically an Analog story without all the Analog baggage — but Weir manages to maintain real tension while interleaving it with some legitimately funny moments; in many ways it manages to out-Scalzi John Scalzi at his own game. It’s a fun book — just what I needed right now.

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Crown, February 2014
Buy at Amazon: Canada, U.K., USA (paperback) | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

Book cover: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph I’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads — the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health — and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

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Unruly Places (Off the Map)

Book cover: Unruly Places Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (first published in the U.K. as Off the Map) is a light, entertaining exploration of some of the world’s more unusual places. Bonnett, a social geography professor at Newcastle University, has written 47 short essays about locations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make any sense: the exceptions, the asterisks, the ink blots (in at least one case literally) on the map.

These range from the deeply frivolous to the profoundly injust: from bits and pieces of New York City transformed into environmental time capsules and art projects to places meaningful to the author; from rendition sites and pirate bases to Bedouin settlements in the Israeli Negev desert; from destroyed landscapes to Potemkin cities. The places often feel almost science-fictional; and in fact several of them evoked settings in existing science fiction works, like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis.

All in all, a pleasant diversion for the geographically minded, though I did have one quibble: the book calling latitude and longitude “Google Earth coordinates,” as though degrees are as proprietary as limited to the KML format.

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
by Alastair Bonnett
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Viking Canada, July 2014
Buy at Amazon: Canada, U.S. | Kindle: Canada, U.S.

Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World
Aurum Press, April 2014
Buy at Amazon UK | Kindle

Long Hidden

Book cover: Long Hidden I support greater diversity in science fiction and fantasy, and I have to confess that one of my reasons for doing so is selfish: I want more interesting stories to read. The field is at its least interesting when it’s a monoculture (we can’t all be responding to Heinlein and Tolkien); it’s at its most interesting when it includes authors from diverse backgrounds and experiences, who use those backgrounds and experiences to inform their work. It’s a win-win situation: more people see themselves in the fiction they read; readers benefit from being exposed to other backgrounds; the field as a whole gets stronger.

But Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History doesn’t just bring us diverse fiction, though it certainly does that; it brings us fiction from the margins. Let me explain: diverse fiction might include a story from Japan; fiction from the margins might include a story about a Japanese minority like the Ainu.

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Review: The Map Thief

E. Forbes Smiley III was a well-known and well-connected map dealer, an expert who helped build the Slaughter and Leventhal map collections. Then in 2005 he was caughton videotape — stealing maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Libraries he had frequented scrambled to check their own holdings and found additional maps missing. Smiley, who cooperated with the authorities, would eventually be sentenced to 3� years for stealing nearly 100 maps from the British, Boston Public, New York Public, Harvard and Yale libraries, among others. The libraries believed he stole many more.

Book cover: The Map Thief With The Map Thief, Michael Blanding presents a book-length exploration of the Forbes Smiley affair, which stunned map collectors and map libraries alike in 2005. Its publication, coming nine years after Smiley’s arrest and four years after his release from prison, is something of an anticlimax, especially for those of us who followed the case so closely as it unfolded (I blogged about it more than 60 times, myself).

Map thieves fascinate us, even if they themselves are not that fascinating (see, for example, the essential blandness of Gilbert Bland, the subject of a previous book about map thefts, Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps), because of what they steal. As stolen goods, antique maps are a curiosity: like art, but more stealable, because there are few copies, not just one.

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Questionable Practices

In his afterword to Eileen Gunn’s earlier (and sadly, only other) collection of short stories, Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon, 2004), Howard Waldrop calls her “about the only writer I know who turns out stories even more slowly than I do, which is a rare thing in this damn field.” Ain’t that the truth. In a field that holds up making your daily word count as a virtue, that often valorizes a pulplike prolificity, writing slowly is practically an act of rebellion. And yet slow writers can produce some of the most distinctive works of fiction we have: writers like Ted Chiang, Howard Waldrop, Peter Watts — and yes, Eileen Gunn.

Slow writers tend to get my attention. I have an affinity for slow writers, partly because I am one myself, partly because of what they produce. A quality vs. quantity argument can sometimes be made.

And I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t paid close enough attention to Eileen Gunn. Rectifying that now.

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Tracks and Shadows

Book cover: Tracks and Shadows Field biologists’ memoirs can often be a hit-or-miss affair, but Harry W. Greene’s Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art is definitely more hit than miss, precisely because it is much more than a memoir.

Greene, who writes far too well for a biologist, is the author of the highly lauded Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature (1997). That book combined science, photography and personal experience in a lyrical and literate fashion, and may well have been the only snake book to win a literary award.

In Tracks and Shadows, the mix is more personal. In tracing the origins of his own career, parallelling it with that of Henry S. Fitch (1909-2009), a major figure in herpetology, Greene ably sketches out the why of fieldwork. Too many stories deal with the travel and the chase but elide the purpose of going out into the field to collect snakes; Greene shows us the science.

It’s a personal viewpoint, but this is not an autobiography; little of Greene’s personal life is mentioned past graduate school. There is plenty to indicate why a former mortician’s assistant and army medic became a herpetologist, less that reveals how he writes as well as he does. The scholar fades into the background of his own work: present as a field biologist in the context of a discourse on field biology.

As for that work, Greene is a snake ethologist: his research focuses on snake behaviour — why snakes behave the way they do, from hunting to defence to reproduction. The best parts of the books are the discoveries: his dissertation showing that primitive snakes all constrict in the same fashion, implying that constriction as a tactic is ancient; the discovery that night snakes predate on diurnal prey during the day; the evidence of parental and social behaviour in black-tailed rattlesnakes. The idea that there is more going on in those little serpentine heads than we expected is frankly quite exciting. Greene’s elegant writing cannot help but make that excitement infectious.

Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art
by Harry W. Greene
University of California Press, October 2013
Buy at Amazon (Kindle) | publisher’s page | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Lockstep

Book cover: Lockstep In science fiction, faster-than-light travel is a narrative convention that allows you to move standard human beings over interstellar distances cheaply. But if you want to do science fiction rigorously — with the net up, as Gregory Benford calls it — you have to go without FTL (it’s not an engineering problem; it breaks known physics). They’re mutually exclusive. The problem is, you can’t have an interstellar civilization without FTL, can you?

My father and I have been debating this back and forth for years. On the face of it it’s intrinsically impossible: if you can’t have FTL, the distances and costs involved in travel make trade and communication prohibitive. To accelerate goods and people to relativistic velocities would be insanely expensive, and it would still take decades to get there. Hardly anything would be worth the shipping costs: it would be easier and cheaper to synthesize what you need rather than import it. Transmutation is less expensive than interstellar trade. (No doubt this is why sf focuses on rare goods, from melange to unobtanium.)

Absent that trade, there’s no rationale for having an interstellar civilization. Even if you were able or willing to colonize other planets (though again, the cost of sending a colony ship is of a magnitude that many in science fiction fail to grasp), the colonies would be on their own. With no reason to trade, how would the investment in a colony ship be recouped? And what purpose would there be for an interstellar government — Empire, Federation, whatever — if there was no trade for it to regulate?

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The Snake Charmer

Book cover: The Snake Charmer Herpetologist Joe Slowinski died on September 12, 2001, in the forests of northern Burma, approximately thirty hours after he had been bitten by a many-banded krait. He was only 38. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is both a biography of Slowinski and an account of the expedition that cost him his life.

The biography, drawing on family interviews and personal papers, takes up the first two thirds of the book. It reveals a type of character rather familiar to those of us who muck about with snakes: fearless, reckless (he was bitten numerous times) and just a little feral, absolutely fixated on the subject matter, and dripping, perhaps, with a wee bit too much testosterone. A difficult personality who nonetheless engendered fierce loyalty. But Slowinski was more than just Steve Irwin with a Ph.D.: he was stone-cold brilliant, a major contributor to the field of phylogenetics, and in particular to the systematics of elapid snakes — a point that James makes clear, if not at length. (Can’t say I blame him.) The final third reads like a feature article in Outside (and one was written about the incident, by another author), cataloguing the mishaps and bureaucratic nightmares involved in going deep into a restricted area of a country run by a deeply corrupt and paranoid regime, and the heroic attempts to keep him alive once the krait envenomated him while his support networks stateside were dealing with 9/11.

Where The Snake Charmer shines is in its portrayal of Slowinski himself; for all his reckless behaviour, he was not necessarily much for introspection. James has had to do his homework. I would very much have liked to see a bibliography, though, as in several James mentions publications that I wanted to look up for myself. In terms of the herpetology, for someone who is not necessarily well-versed in it James does a creditable job, though it’s clear he’s drawing on secondary sources for his material on snakes, and he makes a couple of minor errors that a herp-aware copyeditor (hi there) would have caught. But I’ve seen much worse. All in all an interesting read.

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James
Hyperion, June 2008
Buy at Amazon (Kindle) | author’s page | publisher’s page | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Review: A History of the World in Twelve Maps

If somebody who was vaguely interested in maps wanted a book to get them started, I think I might point them toward A History of the World in Twelve Maps, written by Renaissance Studies professor Jerry Brotton. This book first appeared in September 2012 in Great Britain, where it’s now out in paperback. The U.S. edition came out last month in hardcover.

It’s a history of cartography that takes a rather unique approach: instead of providing a straight narrative history, Brotton focuses on twelve maps (or, more precisely, mapmaking endeavours), ranging from Ptolemy’s Geography to Google Earth. But Brotton does a lot more than talk about just twelve maps.

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Horse of a Different Color

Book cover: Horse of a Different Color Horse of a Different Color is, by my count, Howard Waldrop’s seventh collection of previously uncollected stories, and collects stories that first appeared between 2003 and 2010. This is a slim volume; Howard was never prolific, and his stories have never come easily to him, but during this time he also had some pretty serious health issues to deal with, which cut into what productivity there was.

In the ten stories that make up this collection, the usual Waldrop themes are on display. Easily the field’s most eccentric and idiosyncratic writer, Howard fishes the most obscure streams of history and popular culture, blending them in a gonzo but laconic fashion that rewards the informed reader. But that’s not to say that Howard’s stories are pure fun. Sure, my favourite story of the book is “Avast, Abaft!,” where the Pirates of Penzance meet Captain Hook in the surreal and brain-explodey fashion of such Waldrop stories. But the quieter stories can pack considerable emotional heat. Take “The Wolf-man of Alcatraz,” which mashes up exactly what you think it does, or “Ninieslando,” a devastating story about Esperanto-speakers on the front lines of World War I.

In Howard’s stories, forgotten character actors appear in alternate worlds whose difference is so subtle, mentioned in passing five pages ago, that you probably missed it. A classic example is the title story, “The Horse of a Different Color (That Your Rode in On),” which features a sixth Marx brother (who in real life died in infancy), vaudeville, pantomime horses, and the Grail quest. Along with “Why The Ile Fit You,” which opens the collection and also features one of Howard’s beloved character actors, or “The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew …,” which invents a post-Kong life for Ann Darrow, the meat of the story is well below the surface: you have to watch carefully or you’ll miss it.

That hey-wait-what-just-happened-here also takes place “The King of Where-I-Go,” a terribly sweet story of a brother and sister that starts with polio and ends somewhere quite different. At an emotional level it’s arguably the most effective story in the book.

The stories of Horse of a Different Color don’t all have the firepower of my favourite Waldrop stories, but there’s still some very good stuff here. It’s not a good entry point, though. If you’re new to Waldrop, you might start with his first collection, Howard Who?, or the two-volume best-of collection from Old Earth Books: Things Will Never Be the Same (short stories) and Other Worlds, Better Lives (novellas). Everything else is, alas, out of print.

See Paul Di Filippo’s review. Jonathan Strahan has compiled a Waldrop bibliography.

Horse of a Different Color
by Howard Waldrop
Small Beer Press, November 2013
Buy at Amazon (Kindle) | Buy at Weightless Books | publisher’s page | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Glitter and Mayhem

Book cover: Glitter and Mayhem You know, I shouldn’t have liked this anthology as much as I did.

Small-press anthologies can be hit or miss in terms of quality, but the editors of Glitter and Mayhem, John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, have assembled a crack team of up and coming writers, many of whose work I actively seek out.

Theme anthologies can often misfire: if the theme is too constraining, the resulting stories can be too similar to one another, as though there was only one way to do a story on that theme. Yet this book fairly crackles with diversity and inventiveness. It turns out that the anthology’s writers could do an awful lot with the anthology’s theme of “roller rinks, nightclubs, glam aliens, party monsters, drugs, sex, glitter, and debauchery.” More than anything else, there’s an emotional rawness to many of these stories that’s drawn from the intensity of their settings. Glam as crucible.

(At least one of these stories was bleak and sad and true enough that it made me want to call up the author to see if she was okay.)

And even though that theme doesn’t really speak to me — my eighties were not your eighties: I’m about as far away from glam as you can get on the spectrum (I wear fleece and drive a Subaru, for crying out loud) — I found Glitter and Mayhem to be a blast to read, simply because it was so much fun: funny, sad, sexy, transgressive, defiant stories of all kinds (detective stories, fantasies, horror, and science fiction with aliens) with people of all kinds (rich and poor, men and women, straight and gay, trans and cis, young and old). I didn’t enjoy every story equally, some I liked quite a bit more than others, but on balance Glitter and Mayhem was a pleasant surprise.

I received an electronic review copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Glitter and Mayhem
edited by Lynne M. Thomas, John Klima and Michael Damian Thomas
Apex Publications, August 2013
Buy at Amazon (Kindle) | Buy at Weightless Books | publisher’s page | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Around the Moon

Around the Moon (Autour de la Lune) picks up where From the Earth to the Moon left off — in fact, there’s overlap, because the first chapter of Around the Moon recounts the launch of the Columbiad from the perspective of its passengers. Today the two books can be read uninterrupted, and in fact the diptych is shorter (and less interminable) than, say, In Search of the Castaways. For contemporary readers, though, there was a gap of several years between the two: From the Earth to the Moon was first serialized in the fall of 1865, with an illustrated edition in 1868; Around the Moon was serialized in November and December 1869, with illustrated and omnibus editions coming in 1872.

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Redshirts

Book cover: Redshirts I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts as soon as it came out, more than a year ago. I never got around to writing a review of it at the time. I was up to my neck in other things, as usual, and besides, I had a vague idea of doing a longer piece exploring its commonalities with other genre novels that do subversive and metafictional things with narrative conventions, like Charles Stross’s Jennifer Morgue and Diana Wynne Jones’s Dark Lord of Derkholm. But with me, getting ambitious is often at direct odds with getting finished, so nothing came of it.

But now it’s up for the Hugo Award, one of five nominees, and it’s just won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, so it’s not an inopportune time to revisit it. It’s been a year, so there are spoilers.

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The Mapmaker’s War

Book cover: The Mapmaker's War

The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue’s second novel, is an unusual book. It’s fantasy, but does not appear to come from the genre tradition. It’s written in the second person, in the form of a memoir, a dialogue with the narrator’s self, with asides written between vertical bars | like this | and not a single quotation mark in site. The effect is fugue-like, a clear narrative line obscured by memory, the regular trappings of epic plot subsumed beneath the strong narrative voice of the narrator. A mapmaking woman named Aoife, who becomes the wife of the king, discovers a peaceful culture across the water in the course of her mapmaking. It comes to pass that her kingdom plans war against these people; she warns them and is exiled to the culture she warned, where she comes to terms with herself. This isn’t an adventure story, in other words, nor a fairy tale, but something subtler, more personal, more revelatory.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds

Book covers: The Best of All Possible Worlds (both editions) I’m not sure what to make of The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord’s second novel, even less what to say about it. It’s a science fiction novel set on Cygnus Beta, a polyglot world which has taken in refugees from the destroyed world of Sadira. Our protagonists — Grace Delarua, a liaison officer and our narrator, and Dllenahkh, the Sadiri exile with whom she forms a strong bond — visit a series of vivid and strange Cygnan settlements to find Sadiri genetic and cultural traits to help save the Sadiri.

Lord’s focus is on the interpersonal relationships — in particular, the romance between Delarua and the impossibly reserved Dllenahkh — and on the mixture and remixture of cultures on the planet. In Lord’s universe, humans arose on several planets other than Earth; each human variant has its own cultural and genetic tendencies, but they’re blurred through long admixture. Wholly alien things and familiar cultural references appear together. It’s an effect Lord was aiming at, based on her afterword, and she’s achieved it through a light touch and kind, sympathetic characters.

The problem is that this comfortable setting is wholly at odds with the backdrop of planetary genocide: the Sadiri have arrived because their world has been wiped out; the survivors were off-world, in male-dominated occupations, so the surviving population is terribly gender-imbalanced. Lord does not, as L. Timmel Duchamp points out in her review on Strange Horizons, engage with these ethical issues; the trauma of survival seems to me strangely — and perhaps inappropriately — underplayed. There is conflict and even abuse, but it’s handled so gently that it’s cognitively dissonant.

The Best of All Possible Worlds
by Karen Lord
Jo Fletcher Books, January 2013 (U.K.); Del Rey, February 2013 (U.S.)
Buy at Amazon (Kindle, U.K.) | publisher’s page: U.K., U.S. | Goodreads | LibraryThing

Review: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

Book cover: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps does what it says on the tin: you really will find out more than you ever wanted to about the sea monsters that appeared on medieval and renaissance maps. (Van Duzer defines them as anything that a contemporary reader would consider exotic, whether it was real or imaginary, so walruses appear along with krakens.) It’s a dizzying catalogue of them, all kinds of them, from medieval mappaemundi (actually, there’s a Roman map in there too) all the way to Ortelius and the late sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century sea monsters were giving way to sailing vessels, and to a loss of ornamentation and illustration in general.

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Review: Here Be Dragons

Book cover: Here Be Dragons Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.

But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps — nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.

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Review: The Art of the Map

Book cover: The Art of the Map In The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments, retired history professor Dennis Reinhartz explores the design elements at the margins of western maps from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It is both a lavishly illustrated book and a close interrogation of the design elements used by western cartographers during the period in question.

From compass roses to cartouches, to sea monsters in the oceans and people and animals in the margins, these elements were used to fill up the otherwise empty corners of a map (of which there were many in this period), set the tone for the map, or otherwise provide information. Most of these elements are gone today (most: National Geographic still makes use of insets and commentaries). Even most fantasy maps, which ape in many ways the maps of this period, may have little more than a cartouche and a compass rose, and are spare in comparison to their historical kin.

Reinhartz organizes his book by elements: ships, sea monsters, plants, animals and people all get their own chapter. With what seems to be a rather small sample of maps, he often returns to the same, familiar maps to discuss a different element. But because The Art of the Map spans more than 300 years, we are not looking at a specific style or usage: the differences between a 16th-century portolan chart and a 19th-century bird’s-eye map of a city are quite substantial.

This book does not make a specific, scholarly argument about these map elements; it’s an appreciation of them, illuminating their essential character by repetitive example. But its intense examination of antique maps’ marginal elements may well open your eyes to, and appreciate, parts of the map that, as present-day readers with present-day map-reading habits, you may well have glossed over.

The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments
by Dennis Reinhartz
Buy at Amazonpublisher’s pageGoodreadsLibraryThing

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