- On the Map by Simon Garfield (The Map Room)
- The Book of Thomas by Robert Boyczuk
- Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
- Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
- A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
- Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
- Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
- Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
- The Human Division by John Scalzi
- My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek
- 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Art of the Map by Dennis Reinhartz (The Map Room)
- Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman (The Map Room)
- Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer (The Map Room)
- The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
- The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue
- Redshirts by John Scalzi
- Glitter and Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
- Horse of a Different Color by Howard Waldrop
- A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton (The Map Room)
On the Map by Simon Garfield
The Book of Thomas by Robert Boyczuk
The Book of Thomas by Robert Boyczuk is set in a medieval world ruled by the Catholic Church from Rome, but that world is not ours: it’s a built world of concentric spheres, with heaven the outermost sphere and hell the innermost, and Rome is in the sphere just below Lower Heaven, where the angels live. Its inhabitants accept this state of things as much as medieval scholars in our world accepted the pre-Copernican view of the universe.
The Book of Thomas kind of reads like a Philip Pullman novel set in a world built by Ted Chiang, with a protagonist contributed by Gene Wolfe. A child whose father is murdered by the Church trains as a singer and is brought to Rome, where he quickly falls into plot and intrigue. Sin is omnipresent: Boyczuk’s Church is thoroughly debased and corrupt, and there is quite a bit of sexual violence that some readers will be uncomfortable with. It’s a dark book (ChiZine published it, after all). But Boyczuk’s narrative is gripping and persuasive, even if his narrator-protagonist isn’t sure what’s going on most of the time. Exposition comes over time, without infodumps, as is the proper way of doing things.
There are maps in this book, which I should make note of. Like Wolfe’s Severian, Thomas has an excellent memory, which serves him well in a world where books other than the Bible are prohibited, and knowledge of the various spheres is forbidden knowledge. Maps are something he commits to memory; in one instance he destroys the map after studying it. In another, he is shown a marvellous map of the world, with all its layers, and commanded to memorize its forbidden knowledge for his mission. In its use of memory as a weapon against tyranny, it’s rather redolent of Fahrenheit 451.
This is the first book of a series, which means it ends at a thoroughly maddening point, just after the main characters discover the world-threatening problem they’ve been called upon to solve. There are unresolved points, why-did-the-author-do-this moments that will presumably make sense in subsequent volumes. I think I’ll keep reading.
I received a copy of this book via a Goodreads Giveaway.
January 24, 2013
Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
Red Planet Blues, the latest novel from Robert J. Sawyer, is an expansion of his award-nominated (and rather good) novella, “Identity Theft” (2005), which makes up the first ten chapters. Red Planet Blues is a murder mystery set on Mars in first-person noir mode: Mars’s lone gumshoe, Alex Lomax, must solve disappearances and murders among a Martian population of fossil hunters (Martian fossils fetching hefty prices back on Earth), many of whom have uploaded their consciousnesses into sturdier, artificial bodies. Behind the crimes is a lost motherlode of Martian fossils; whoever rediscovered the site would be very, very rich.
Sawyer wrote part of the book while in residence at Berton House, and the tinge of Klondike gold is both deliberate and unmistakeable. Red Planet Blues is engaging and pleasant reading, its plot filled with lots of fun and satisfying twists and turns. It benefits from a relative absence of the on-the-nose philosophical discussion that can occur in Sawyer’s novels: much was left unsaid about the implications of transferring a consciousness into an artificial body, but I think this is a topic Sawyer has tackled in previous work.
I’m not an avid mystery reader, but Red Planet Blues does feel like a very light shade of noir: science fiction has gone much darker than this. Sawyer’s detective, while he likes his boobs and his booze, is more three-minute egg than hard-boiled. The atmosphere is thin on Mars. But I would not be at all disappointed if Sawyer continued in this vein; I enjoyed it more than I did his last novel, Triggers.
Red Planet Blues is out next month; I got an advance copy at World Fantasy last November.
February 14, 2013
Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
My search for examples of maps being used as a fantasy fiction trope brought me to the works of James A. Owen, namely, his Imaginarium Geographica series of young-adult novels, six volumes and counting. This series takes multiple myths, fairy stories and more conventional works of fiction, from many different eras and traditions, and tosses them together in a mythic bouillabaise. Its setting is the “Archipelago of Dreams,” where every imaginary place — “Ouroboros, Schlaraffenland and Poictesme, Lilliput and Mongo and Islandia and Thule, Pellucidar and Prydain”1 — can be found.
It sounds very meta, but it doesn’t succeed at all, at least not for me. I’m afraid I couldn’t manage past the second volume.
So many different characters and writers are thrown together that the whole fails to cohere. There are no characters who do not turn out to be some famous writer or well-known character. Not only does this make character development all but impossible, the plot becomes one surprise reveal after the other: mystery character X will end up being anyone from Mordred to H. G. Wells. At the end of the first volume, the three protagonists — Jack, John and Charles — turn out to be C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, but, like many of the other allusions and reveals, it’s unnecessary: with all the breathless hugger-mugger that takes place they could have been anyone else without a single change in the text.
Now in a crowded jumble of every myth and fantasy trope, character and writer prior to the 20th century, there is bound to be some reference to maps. And there is: the three protagonists are designated the keeper of the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas that serves as a key to the entire archipelago. The phrase “Here, There Be Dragons” is used by John as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the various languages used on the map. In the first novel — also titled Here, There Be Dragons — they’re up against the Winter King, who, when he conquers a land, its map becomes shrouded in shadow. “He thumbed through several pages until he came to one of the vanished maps. It was a yellow-tinged sheet of parchment, like many of the others, but taking the place of the illuminations and notations were several large, indistinct smudges, as if the drawings had been hastily rubbed out.”2
But in the end, the Imaginarium, along with the Cartographer the protagonists visit more than once, is just one trope among many competing for the reader’s attention. It’s as though Owen is trying to juggle a dozen balls while performing as a one-man band on a high wire, desperately trying to maintain the attention of an audience who can’t sit still for more than a few minutes.
February 25, 2013
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan’s novel, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, is a much more conventional book than I’d been expecting. That’s no fault of the author: I’ve read too much strange stuff using strange narrative structures. It’s more memoir than alternate natural history, set in a secondary world roughly equivalent in culture and scientific knowledge to nineteenth-century Europe, with obvious cultural analogues of Britain, Russia and Italy. Only there are dragons. It tells the story of Isabella, later Lady Trent, a dragon-mad woman who overcomes the constraints of class and gender in a quasi-Victorian society to become the leading authority on dragon biology. Or rather it begins her story, because this appears to be the first book of a trilogy, and encompasses her early life and first major expedition to study dragons, which takes place at a rather suspicious village suffering from unexplained dragon attacks.
This is Isabella’s Bildungsroman; the dragons, at least so far, are more in the background, McGuffins admittedly red in tooth and claw that serve as a focus for her frustrated desires and move the plot forward. The memoir is written in the voice of the old Isabella looking back on her life with a critical eye, and from the standpoint of the woman she became. It’s a very interesting narrative approach, but its drawback is that the outcome is never in doubt. I sometimes felt that she wasn’t thwarted nearly enough: her father, husband and patron support her to varying degrees, and the obstacles are rather easily overcome, considering. Rebelliousness without serious consequences isn’t significant. But in the context of a rather fun and pleasant adventure story — which this is, and I can recommend it as such — this does not pose undue problems. It’s a Victorian-science romp with dragons: that is sufficient for a lot of you, I expect.
A special note must be made of the artwork. If Todd Lockwood does not get a Hugo nomination for his incredible cover art and interior illustrations, there is no justice. Along with the maps by Rhys Davies, the interior drawings, done as though sketched in the field (as Isabella herself does during the expedition) are a marvellous bonus.
March 4, 2013
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is one of two novels to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards this year. It’s the first volume of a new fantasy series, but it’s not your typical medieval western Europe with the serial numbers filed off. A whirlwind of a story set in an Arabian-flavoured secondary world with magic spells and ghuls and dervishes, Throne of the Crescent Moon has a lot to offer. It also, atypically, features older protagonists, notably old and fat Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, who wants nothing more than to be happy and rest in the city he loves. Of course he doesn’t get what he wants, or we’d be bored, and we’re never bored reading this book.
It’s fun, but it’s not perfect. Some of the elements don’t quite cohere, some aren’t sufficiently exposited, and there are other small indications that yes, this is a first novel. If anything the pace is too quick. Though the biggest problem I had was with the multiple point-of-view narration, which is handled inconsistently. Done properly, multiple POV narration would grant face-time and story nature to each POV character in a balanced fashion; as Amal points out in her review, everyone’s point of view “shores up and justifies Adoulla’s perspective.” Is this Adoulla’s story alone or isn’t it? I suspect we’ll find out in future volumes.
April 1, 2013
Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
In Glamour in Glass, also a Nebula nominee, Mary Robinette Kowal is doing something very interesting. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, to which this is a sequel, was essentially a Jane Austen pastiche with a fantasy element — namely, glamour, an aetheric substance that artists can shape to form illusions. As Austen homage Shades was note-perfect, but Glamour is a departure from the form, which is what’s interesting. With Jane and Vincent suitably married, the wider world, and history, drop in their lap, in the form of a trip to Belgium during Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Politics and intrigue compete for attention with new innovations in glamour and her family’s more domestic aspirations. Jane has adventures and takes the lead in ways that seem quite atypical for a Jane Austen-style narrative (but then I’ve only seen or listened to dramatizations of Austen, not read the books themselves, so what do I know). Much more complex and ambitious, if a little less perfect, but it’s not like Mary could have played Shades’s note again and again.
Kowal’s third book, Without a Summer, comes out today, and from what I’ve seen it looks like she will continue her gentle deconstruction of the archetype.
April 2, 2013
Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal continues to do interesting things with Without a Summer, the third installment in her Glamourist Histories. As with its immediate predecessor, the Nebula-nominated Glamour in Glass, Kowal adds not only the fantasy element of glamour to her Jane Austen homage, but also contemporary politics and events — in this case, the Luddite protests and the eruption of Mount Tambora.
The mix of climate and social unrest is crystallized by the book’s introduction of the coldmongers, tradesmen who use glamour to lower temperatures by a few degrees, cooling things in summer and making ice in winter. It’s dangerous work, and in the Year Without a Summer they don’t have enough of it, and they’re being blamed for it as well. The coldmongers’ plight gets wrapped up in Jane and Vincent’s domestic troubles: Vincent must deal with the return of his father into his life, and Jane is trying to help her sister, Melody, find a husband, with surprising turns on that front.
The latter subplot takes a slight turn towards Emma, but it doesn’t quite come to term with so much else going on. Lots of tension and drama, though the end suffers a bit from a certain Regent ex machina: Jane and Vincent don’t so much as triumph as are rescued. That said, this is arguably the most satisfying of the three books so far.
April 12, 2013
The Human Division by John Scalzi
The Human Division is John Scalzi’s return to the “Old Man’s War” universe. It also represents a departure for him: a series of interconnected stories contributing to a larger narrative, released as as a weekly series of episodes, as though this were a TV series. Each Tuesday since the middle of January, a new chapter has turned up on my Kindle. The last chapter was released last week, and the hardcover (and compiled ebook) come out next month, so it’s time to take a look at the book as a whole.
The Human Division picks up after the events of The Last Colony: Earth and the Colonial Union, the government of the off-world human colonies, aren’t on the best of terms, and somebody in the shadows is off making mischief between them, the Conclave, and various other races. A “B-team” of diplomats, including Harry Wilson from Old Man’s War, is sent in to put out diplomatic fires, but the book takes advantage of its structure to offer other viewpoints as well, and go down alleyways that wouldn’t have appeared in a regular novel.
Some of those alleyways are absolutely worth exploring: there are moments of real pathos, as well as utter hilarity, that might otherwise have been missed. But the end result is a certain amount of slippage: the story progresses a lot less over the book’s 130,000-word length than would have happened in a typical novel of shorter length. And the book’s ending, leaving the resolution of the problem set out in the first chapter to a just-announced sequel, has disappointed some readers who expected some closure. This sort of ending is typical of fantasy novels, but uncharacteristic of Scalzi: every one of his eight previous novels has been taut and self-contained.
This book is essentially the science fiction equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie: at a macro level it doesn’t quite cohere, but on a scene-by-scene basis it can be very good indeed.
April 15, 2013
My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek
My Beloved Brontosaurus looks at the gap between dinosaurs in the popular imagination and the latest paleontological research, and the gap between the dinosaurs the author, dino-blogger Brian Switek, grew up with and how we see them today. That gap is epitomized by the title dinosaur: Brontosaurus excelsus was real to science for all of 24 years, between Marsh’s description of it in 1879 and Riggs’s reclassification of it as a species of Apatosaurus in 1903, but someone forgot to tell the non-scientists, and the name lived on in the popular imagination.
Switek goes on like this throughout, debunking surprisingly out-of-date beliefs, adding specificity to what is generally known and bringing us up to date on a number of topics, from dinosaur pathologies to (in a funny chapter) mating, from feathered tyrannosaurs and raptors to the changing shape of Triceratops and Pachycephalosaurus skulls, plus the latest on extinction theories. Light, breezy and sharp-tongued, with lots of personal anecdotes — Switek was another dino-obsessed kid; he just refused to grow out of it (very sensible).
If you’ve been following the paleontology blogs, you may find much that is familiar; if you inhaled a ton of paleontology while you were young and are curious to see what’s happened since, this book might well be your thing.
May 9, 2013
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Hugo Voter Packet includes electronic copies of the nominated works, including the one book nominated for best novel that we didn’t already own: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. There was a time in the mid-1990s when I wouldn’t have missed a new novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, but I fell behind in the early 2000s, when I was reading less fiction; I still haven’t read The Years of Rice and Salt, though I bought it when it came out in hardcover, and I’ve only read the first of his “Science in the Capital” trilogy.
2312 reminds me of why I liked Robinson in the first place. Set three hundred years in the future, in the eponymous year, it’s a big-picture look at the solar system, at a grand scale, with digressions and essays, snippets and transcripts, in the style of John Dos Passos (John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge being earlier science-fictional iterations of this style), dealing with terraforming on many worlds, interplanetary economics, artificial intelligence and the environmental rehabilitation of a substantially warmed and distressed Earth.
There is considerable, understated grandeur here as Robinson describes his transformed future solar system: a city on rails on Mercury, fleeing the Sun; asteroids converted into wildlife refuges; a frozen Venus hidden by a sunshade. But in the foreground there’s this odd-couple romance between the Mercurial Swan and the Saturnine Wahram, whose roles in a secret project undertaken by Swan’s late grandmother bring them together again and again.
Its style is quintessentially Robinson: contemplative and focused on his characters’ inner lives, tinged more with melancholy rather than excitement, thoughtfulness rather than adventure. It draws upon the planetary romances of his early career, e.g. The Memory of Whiteness — Terminator, the moving city on Mercury, comes from “Mercurial,” a story first published in 1985 — and infuses it with the environmental concerns and critique of capitalism that are nearly always present in his near-future science fiction. It can, in a way, be seen as a summation of Robinson’s entire career.
And it won the Nebula Award last weekend. I suspect it’ll be the heavy favourite for the Hugo Award as well. It’s up against Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Mira Grant’s Blackout and John Scalzi’s Redshirts — I’ve read all but the Bujold, and so far I’m preferring 2312.
May 25, 2013
The Art of the Map by Dennis Reinhartz
Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman
Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer
The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
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.
June 28, 2013
The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue
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.
The fact that Aoife is a mapmaker should be a hint as to why I picked this book up: it seemed a good fit for the Fantasy Maps project. A question I often ask when dealing with stories about maps (rather than stories that have maps: this one does not) is, what purpose do maps serve in the narrative? It is through mapmaking, to be sure, that Aoife discovers the Guardians; it is an engine that drives the plot. But it also serves as a reference point for Aoife’s identity. At the beginning, she leaps at mapmaking as a chance to be someone different:
This you wanted to do, although you didn’t know why. You banished the thought that you would be denied the training. You wanted to be good at something other than what was expected of you, for life. You threw yourself at chance. (p. 4)
And midway through, after her exile, she reflects on that choice:
What you loved about being a mapmaker was the freedom to be outside, even though you so often stood still for hours on end. You felt the sun air rain. You liked the precision of the work. The relationship of angles and points. The creation of order and meaning. There, too, were the secret subtleties. You had your own maps of oddities and wonders, favorite cake eaten here, favorite story learned there.
You liked the art of mapmaking. You, like your adopted people, believed function and beauty belonged together. However, your craft wasn’t limited to creation of a map necessarily. That was the end result, when in fact the pleasure was deeper, wasn’t it? Go beyond the effort, the job you had to do. Yes, you were untethered from the role of a woman, freed from the restraint. (pp. 108-109)
Mapmaking, for Aoife, is a way to escape, a path to freedom.
July 1, 2013
Redshirts by John Scalzi
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.
Redshirts starts off as a below-decks adventure, the kind we’ve seen before on Star Trek and Babylon 5, where the focus is, just this once, on the junior officers and lower ranks. But it very quickly transpires that away missions on the Intrepid, the flagship to which plucky Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned, have an abnormally high death rate — at least for said junior officers and lower ranks, as they discover when they compare notes. Okay then, what we have here is a satire: a sendup of the redshirt trope in TV science fiction. (Actually, according to the novel’s listing on TVTropes, it sends up a metric arseload of tropes.)
But then it goes to another level: Dahl and his presumably doomed comrades come to realize that they are characters in a TV show and said TV show’s Narrative frequently interjects in their lives to wreak havoc and kill them off in pointless ways — because said TV show is terribly, terribly written. So a third of the way in, the book has gotten very, very meta. Avoiding certain death by avoiding the Narrative is futile, so they hatch a crazy plan to travel through time and alternate realities, back to our present day, to stop the show from being produced so they can live.
It works, of course, because they bring one of the main characters, who The Narrative will not let die, with them. It’s all a little too pat, a little too easy: they figure out what’s happening, they come up with a solution, the solution works. That there’s not much in the way of plot complications is my main criticism of this book; it’s a possible reason why the main story is as short as it is.
To fill out the book, Scalzi added three astonishing codas that deal with the aftermath of the adventures of the main story. They’re incredibly potent, and subversive in their own right, dealing with the bit characters of a story about bit characters, and they take the book in yet another direction.
I’m surprised to discover that I like Redshirts better now, looking over it a second time, than I did when I first read it. It’s funny, tautly written (especially in comparison with The Human Division [my review], which spins its wheels a little) and has real, earned moments of pathos. I think it might have a real shot at the Hugo, even against Kim Stanley Robinson’s Nebula-winning 2312 (my review).
[In the end, it did win the Hugo.]
July 10, 2013
Glitter and Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
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.
October 3, 2013
Horse of a Different Color by Howard Waldrop
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.
December 6, 2013