Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

Darkest Light by Hiromi Goto

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lam-Ang Experiment

Mina V. Esguerra, me, and Michael Co

I was abducted last Saturday to attend The Lam-Ang Experiment announcement (it's a graphic novel by Michael Co) and the Pintakasi celebration (Carljoe Javier is one of the writers for the film).

January 30, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles


Skirmish by Michelle West

Friday, January 27, 2012

My Room

January 27, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles


The Weird edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Thursday, January 26, 2012

January 26, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles


When We Were Executioners by JM McDermott

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January 25, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles


 Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila by Carlo Vergara

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January 24, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

 The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 23, 2012 Links and Plugs

Just plugging IDW's Zombies VS. Robots fiction line.

Interviews and Profiles
Zombies vs. Robots: Pammi Shaw: Creator of Gods and Also Blogger by Brea Grant

Comic Review: Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila by Carlo Vergara

In retrospect, the original Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah graphic novel — first published a decade ago — was a product of its time. You had a superhero(ine) who was a parody of Darna, who in turn was a derivative of the Captain Marvel formula. The villains spoke in the same tone and inflection as celebrities that's part of the Filipino zeitgeist, and the comic was sprinkled with several pop culture references. But more than just a gag, Carlo Vergara subverted the expectations of what it means to be a successful mainstream title: your lead was a gay superhero, events took place outside of Metro Manila, and the language made good use of both English and Filipino, not simply in the mishmash Tag-lish that was prevalent.

The challenge of a sequel, especially one which took almost ten years (take note impatient George R.R. Martin fans), is to deliver something that progresses the narrative, instead of simply rehashing the same formula. Vergara could have simply done that, with few people rallying in protest. But Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila, at least the first of what is supposed to be a three-part book (the original was released in two parts), comes out as fresh and daring as the first series was. One trait I admire when it comes to Terry Pratchett is that his writing has evolved over the years: if his initial Discworld books was simply an extended comedy and commentary on the fantasy genre, his later novels include depth and layering that has legs beyond the jokes. That's the case here, as Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila has this sense of gravity that wasn't present in the original. To illustrate the seriousness, the first scene in the book is a monologue by Ada, who recounts his fears and expectations. It isn't a dilemma of how to defeat a super-villain, but rather how to deal with his current relationship, especially in light of his troubled past. The narrative starts out slow and the humor is downplayed early on. Another example of deviated formula is how Zsazsa's iconic costume is not to be seen save for the cover. Instead, the hilarity stems from her improvised outfits. In many ways, it's understandable if fans of the original will be shocked at the sequel: as I said, this is an evolution, rather than simply a rehash of what's come before. These past ten years, I've grown as a reader, the times have changed, and Vergara has "leveled-up" as a writer/artist as well.

Despite the changes to the comic, Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila retains the essence of what made the original wonderful, with its one-part parody, one-part social commentary, one-part romance, and one-part adventure. There are superhero fights, and there is a memorable scene where Zsazsa, in a chicken costume, fights a giant cockroach with a giant slipper. Class struggles is also a theme in the book, expressed in both explicit and implicit ways. What I appreciate about this comic is how Dodong takes a more prominent role in the narrative, a genuine co-star instead of simply being the McGuffin as he was in the original. And perhaps one of the problems of the portrayal of homosexuals in the Philippines is for the past few decades, it's revolved around one archetype: the flamboyant gay man. Dodong is a stark contrast to that model and hopefully becomes part of changing public perception.

When it comes to art, what's great about Vergara is he understands what makes a great comic work, and puts it into practice. One weakness, for example, of many local artists is how a lot of their artwork is covered by either dialogue or text boxes, especially when they underestimate how lengthy the Filipino language can be. That's not the case here, even when monologues are long. Vergara knows panel structure, and his four horizontal panel framework is well utilized. One good example of this is how the panel-less pages leave no room for ambiguity when it comes to reading direction. Where I'm skeptical is when Vergara switches to his "humor art", the equivalent of super-deformed characters in manga. That's not to say that I'm convinced on its effectiveness, but considering the default style Vergara uses, it can be jolting instead of a seamless experience. I'm on the fence with this one, and probably needs more deliberation on my part. There is also the question of cover design, for while I understand the rationale behind the retro look, it's also a far cry from the content of the comic.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila is a complex beast and might well be one of the most important comic releases for the year. Carlo Vergara is attempting to outdo himself and so far, he's on the right track.

Friday, January 20, 2012

January 20, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

 Phantasmagorium January 2012

Book Review: Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter

There's an art to introductions and afterwords — in this case written by Robert Shearman and Jeff VanderMeer respectively — and what's difficult about writing this review is that they've said what I wanted to say when it comes to Angela Slatter's Sourdough and Other Stories. The former sets the tone for the collection, while the latter captures what makes Slatter's writing unique and refreshing. I'll steal a line from VanderMeer:
"You could call what she's created her 'take' on folk-tales, but I think that's too limiting. She's not just riffing off of what's gone before but creating something new that's less stylised and more three-dimensional."
Whether it's anthologies or collections, chronology is important. There's a rationale behind the editor's — or in this case, author's — choice. The opening story, "The Shadow Tree," is brief but quickly sets expectations for the stories to come, conveying the atmosphere of a dark fairy tale. More importantly, it hints that this could be something along the lines of Arabian Nights, with Slatter acting as a modern Scheherazade. That's not quite the case when the reader gets to the second story, but that concept resurfaces as the collection progresses. To a certain extent, Sourdough and Other Stories feels more like a mosaic because of the interconnectedness; part of the pleasure of rereading the book is discovering all sorts of links between the stories. And here's what's brilliant: some writers simply order the related stories consecutively. If the reader isn't paying attention, they can miss out on the fact that the minor characters in the current story were the main characters from the second story that preceded it. The stories actually work quite well independently. However, there'll always be that extra layer between the reader's imagination and the gap between stories, which Slatter stimulates. The power of the final story in the book, "Under the Mountain," is that it's propelled by everything else that came before it, much like a rollercoaster that's reached its apex before the steep descent. Thematically, it also goes back to what was established in "The Shadow Tree," and an example of how the collection is greater than the sum of its parts.

Slatter also manages to strike the balance between maintaining tone without losing the reader's interest. One glaring flaw of Lovecraft's collections is that after the third story or so, it's likely that the reader will get bored due to the formula and repetitiveness of his style. Here, there's always something new to look forward to, yet each story still follows the established framework. Related to that is there's no weak story in the collection: every piece, from start to finish, is excellent. Forget mediocrity, these stories are enough to rekindle a jaded reader's interest. Good writers are able to write a great story; doing several of them, while still retaining the same motif, and then delivering something more, is a feat few writers can claim.

When it comes to themes, there's always this sense of darkness that's missing from many of today's sanitized fairy tales. Slatter isn't being cruel to stand out, but the tragedy and hubris feels natural and organic, a necessity rather than narrative contrivance. That's not to say there are no happy endings here, but they come at a steep price. Nor are the stories feeble attempts at didactic moralization. Slatter's protagonists are also female, embracing the adversities they encounter and using it to fuel their metamorphosis. Even as they commit selfish acts, the readers understand their motivation, and sympathizes with them. It's that delicate balance that propels her stories from being pastiches and homages to something uniquely Slatter.

I came upon Sourdough and Other Stories at the dealer's room during World Fantasy Convention 2011. It was expensive, competing with my budget for other rare books like those published by PS Publishing. But I bought it, and having read read it, I feel I underpaid for it. Readers — genre fans or otherwise — should read Angela Slatter's fiction. Discovering her book is the equivalent of realizing you've fallen for your best friend: they've been there all this time, it's only recently that you've noticed their great qualities, and there's still time to re-assess your original appraisal.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 19, 2012 Links and Plugs

And SOPA required reading.

Interviews and Profiles


Secrets of the Demon by Diana Rowland

Book Review: Death's Heretic by James L. Sutter

Neither crime nor mystery is alien to speculative fiction: most of the novels in Isaac Asimov's Robot series, for example, are mysteries, or at the very least, logic puzzles (this is also true for the Foundation stories). So it's not surprising to see those kind of elements in more recent novels like The City and The City by China Mieville, or Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Death's Heretic follows that vein of mystery-in-my-fantasy but to anyone who's Game Mastered a Dungeons & Dragon's game, the concept isn't so far fetched: the constraints are all there, the Game Master simply has to make sure they follow all the rules. Of course the elements of what makes a great game doesn't necessarily translate to fiction and James L. Sutter has a handle on that. When we think about stories set in a Dungeons & Dragons setting (or in this case, Pathfinder's Golarion), one element that frequently comes to mind is the concept of the adventuring party. Sutter eschews that approach — and he's not the first one to do so either — and goes for a more focused narrative. Death's Heretic revolves around Salim Ghadafar, a warrior that's coerced into the service of a death goddess.

From a perspective of craft, Sutter is transparent when it comes to technique. The template, especially with the formula for most mysteries, is evident. The author doesn't abuse this, however, and makes every scene interesting, whether it's complex suspects or interesting vistas. The key here is that Sutter doesn't repeat himself, and maintains the momentum he's established. As far as the story is concerned, the only qualm I have is when Salim finally encounters the culprit of the crime. The author breaks consistency with what was previously established, not to the point that it disrupts the plot, but it is a bit jolting if the reader remembers the details from the previous scene.

A lot of the appeal of Death's Heretic stems from Sutter's protagonist, Salim. Dungeons & Dragons — hence Pathfinder — has a cosmology where the objective existence of deities can be proven. Salim professes to be an atheist and that's tricky to pull off, given the assumptions of the setting. But neither is this a propaganda tract as Sutter does justice when it comes to the portrayal of the other side. What's compelling is that the premise establishes complications and conflict, and the dynamic there is played up. Salim isn't simply a lone wolf archetype, but a genuine, fleshed-out character.

For the most part, Death's Heretic channels the spirit of classic sword & sorcery, adapts it for a modern audience, and is sprinkled with Sutter's personal touch. It makes for fast, leisurely reading, the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie for speculative fiction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

January 18, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

The Taker by Alma Katsu

Book Review: Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti

Disclosure: I'm the eBook designer for Twelfth Planet Press.

For me, it's interesting how Western culture has commercially appropriated the term superheroes. In many ways, it's an over-examined construct that's often been linked to spandex-clad characters. Japan, for example, has no shortage of people possessing strange, uncanny abilities rivaling that of Superman or Mr. Fantastic, but we don't call them superheroes. If you distill them down to their core concept, they are nothing more than fantasy — or science fiction, depending on your poison. Unfortunately, at least as far as fiction is concerned, most attempts to tackle the superhero sub-genre, when they're not media tie-ins, end up as either pastiches, homages, or parodies. Enter Bad Power, a collection which utilizes elements that we've come to associate with superheroes, but Deborah Biancotti avoids the baggage that usually comes with the term, especially since she never uses it.

The stories in Bad Power revert to the core concept of superheroes. The characters don't have spectacular origin stories, but revolve around dealing with the fantastical in the what appears to be the mundane world. In many ways, it's reminiscent of what made the TV show Heroes good, while avoiding the pitfalls it made. It's not because Biancotti avoids the term superheroes, but rather due to her avoidance of overused tropes and conventions. Yet she's also tapping into the same zeitgeist, as evidenced by the title, or the way she subverts those cliches. There are no supervillains in the book for example, although some characters are clearly flawed and immoral.

There are two things you need to know about Bad Power. The first is that it takes place in the modern world, with the public remaining mostly ignorant about the existence of people with powers. The second is that the book contains five stories, each a standalone piece, but are also connected so that reading all of them creates a holistic description of the setting. Some of the stories work better independently than others. "Cross That Bridge," for example, is perfectly readable even if you haven't read what preceded it, although doing so adds another layer to the narrative. "Web of Lies," on the other hand, doesn't have as much of an impact, unless you understand the backstory behind it, or the implications of the ending.

Biancotti's technique always revolves around character, or more precisely, her primary protagonists. It's not only through their perspective that you view the world, but you also sympathize with them and relate with their circumstance. It's what makes "Bad Power" and "Cross That Bridge" the strongest stories in the collection, because it leaves this emotional resonance rather than simply piquing your sense of mystery.

For the most part, Bad Power is an interesting and fun read. It's brief enough so you never get tired, and the order of the stories (read it in chronological order!) has a significant bearing on how you interpret them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 17, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

Heiresses of Russ 2011 edited by Joselle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman

Book Review: Under the Moons of Mars edited by John Joseph Adams

A decade ago, I still sought classic science fiction and fantasy texts, such as Heinlein and Saberhagen. Unfortunately, while some works were readable, several failed to withstand the test of time, whether due to a readership that has grown and matured, or simply because of outdated norms. I never got to read Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series, nor do I have the inclination to do so, since it's probably one of those works that fall under the latter (problematic probably doesn't even begin to describe it). Still, with the Barsoom series celebrating its centennial this year — along with the coinciding movie debut John Carter — I picked up Under the Moons of Mars without knowing anything about Barsoom save for the premise, and simply trusting John Joseph Adams and the anthology's contributors.

Those sharing my plight have nothing to fear. Under the Moons of Mars works even without prior knowledge of Burroughs's fiction, and those that are baffled can consult the Appendix by Richard A. Lupoff (never needed it). As an anthology, the book has an interesting structure, because it's entertaining and convincing, and this is coming from a reader who doesn't romanticize Burroughs. No story feels derivative, and each one explores a different facet of Barsoom's cosmology (it's surprising how many of the stories don't feature John Carter as a main character). This, in fact, ties in to what makes the politics of Barsoom problematic, although it is not without its own redeeming qualities, as pointed out by Tamora Pierce in the Foreword. Some stories book subvert and modernize the mythos — and more importantly, does so in an engaging fashion — which is what makes them stand-out: "The Ape-Man of Mars" by Peter S. Beagle, "Vengeance of Mars" by Robin Wasserman, "Woola's Song" by Theodora Goss, "A Game of Mars" by Genevieve Valentine, "A Sidekick of Mars" by Garth Nix, and "Coming of Age on Barsoom" by Catherynne M. Valente for example. Their equivalent is the contribution of John Gardner's Grendel and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon to Beowulf and Le Morte d'Arthur respectively. Other stories, on the other hand, remain distinctly the author's own while still being faithful to the conventions of the milieu: "A Tinker of Warhoon" tackles some of the themes Tobias S. Buckell has written in his other works, while Valente's piece is distinctly Valente, even as she makes herself part of the story.

Each story is also accompanied by an illustration. They are a welcome visual, especially for Barsoom's propensity for alien physiques, but some of the artwork would have been more impressive had they been rendered in color. (A lot work well with the black and white medium.)

I won't lie. Under the Moons of Mars has a tough constraint to work with, and the authors make the most out of that framework. The stories in this anthology are fun and interesting, perhaps the same emotions evoked by fans who read Edgar Rice Burroughs in their childhood. I wouldn't label them as the best of the best, but the inner child in me is gleeful when I read about a standoff between John Carter and Tarzan, or discover the secret habits of calots (they need their own plushie...).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews

If there is an argument for character vs. plot (although there is no shortage of plot in the book), Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews should be the textbook example. The appeal of the novel is its protagonist, Kunzle the Quick. In many ways, he is the stereotypical thief: quick-witted, cowardly, and an opportunist. The problem of lesser writers, however, is actually conveying those three qualities to the reader. Kunzle is easily one of the most charming characters I've read recently (he's charming to the reader; people who meet him hate his guts) and carries the narrative forward as he injects levity and entertainment without jolting the reader from the seriousness of the circumstance. The strength of Matthews's writing is that his characters have this sense of vulnerability: Kunzle is hardly the best thief in the business, and that can be said for his companions — or the antagonists in the story. This is media tie-in fiction but it's hardly one where the protagonists are invincible.

What readers need to know about the Pathfinder Tales line is that it's Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off. There's an appendix at the back but honestly, it's unnecessary, mainly because the narrative follows the best practices for telling a story, and most of the fantasy references like dwarves and orcs have become part of the zeitgeist. Matthews writes a compelling beginning, and it's enough to pique the reader's interest. Matthews's alter-ego has professed his interest in Jack Vance and the novel captures the atmosphere of the stories of the Dying Earth series, albeit modernized and adapted for Pathfinder's setting.

One problem with Song of the Serpent is that the tone shifts in the middle of the book: while the battle scene is competent, it detracts from the character-centric development and slows down the momentum. Because Kunzle is easily the most fleshed-out character, whenever the spotlight drifts away from him diminishes the reader's interest. While his solo adventures were fun to read, towards the end of the book, he's surrounded by companions — not quite the standard adventuring party — and while they have their own quirks and foibles, they're not as remarkable as Kunzle. Only the ambitious troll comes close to matching the thief's personality.

That's also not to downplay the impact of the mystery surrounding the various characters, which Matthews brings to a satisfying conclusion. What starts out as a rescue-the-princess story evolves into something more convoluted, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever weaknesses Song of the Serpent has is redeemed by the last line of the novel, which stays true to the characterization of Kunzle. It's a punchline, yes, but it's an entertaining one.

January 16, 2012 Links and Plugs

Just a shout-out to the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop Fundraiser.

Interviews and Profiles

The Thorn and The Blossom by Theodora Goss

Friday, January 13, 2012

January 13, 2012 Links and Plugs

Interviews and Profiles

Everything is Broken by John Shirley

    Book Review: Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett

     "It's not fair," I told Lisa L. Hannett over Twitter. When we talk about an author's style, it's usually a quality that's refined and polished over years. Hannett is one of those rare writers who can write using a variety of voices — and does so wonderfully. It's not simply having an ear for dialog, but possessing the ability to translate what's spoken into the written word and using it to convey to readers the mindset, upbringing, and culture of her characters. Every story in Bluegrass Symphony, for example, has a unique, unmistakable narrator. It's not simply knowing the difference between first-, second-, and third-person narratives, but knowing when to use it and understand the nuances of each perspective. Some writers, for example, avoid second-person because it's difficult to immerse the reader, but when Hannett does utilize it, it's a seamless experience. It's also not simply about sticking to one central theme as Hannett writes using different premises: fortune-telling hens, soul-smoking mayors, minotaur-infested dystopias, or even immortality-rewarding beauty pageants. But despite these seemingly disparate concepts, there's also this sense that this is uniquely a Hannett piece, as the reader will always find some form of tragedy and darkness lurking underneath every story.

    That's the impression one gets after reading Bluegrass Symphony, and it's a clever title for a short story collection. There's no story titled "Bluegrass Symphony," and the author provides an explanation at the end of the book, but just from hearing those two words, it already conveys a certain expectation — and the reader wouldn't be wrong. If this were the Philippines, I'd label Hannett's stories as provincial, but for non-Filipinos, the country, would be a better description. Hannett certainly captures that kind of atmosphere, even when she's writing all these diverse stories — and as an aside, another unfair fact is that eleven of the twelve of the stories in this collection are original to the book. They are all very good stories, immediately winning you over with tone and character, but they're also challenging that if you skip a beat, you'll miss out on important details. There's insight at the end of each story, but it's not necessarily one that readers will always welcome: Hannett's fiction seldom ends pleasantly, or if it does, it comes at a steep price. "From the Teeth of Strange Children," for example, explores various types of relationships (some predatory, some otherwise), in addition to contributing something new to the vampire mythology. The exploration of these relationships is what makes the story shine, and it's these mixture of emotions that give it resonance. I'm still on the fence when it comes to the the effectiveness of the ending in "The Short Go: A Future In Eight Seconds," but it's a memorable dystopia, one that Hannett writes convincingly through her effective characterization. "Down the Hollow" is transgressive and haunting, yet is brief enough and contains all the elements that makes Hannett's stories wonderful and unique.

    Bluegrass Symphony is one of those collections that feels more like an anthology due to the author's wide range. This is easily a must-read book of 2011, doubly so since most of the stories aren't reprints.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    January 12, 2012 Links and Plugs

    Interviews and Profiles

    The Flame Alphabet: A Novel by Ben Marcus

      Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

      There are novels that defy categorization: they don't fit into common marketing conventions, or at the very least, aren't limited to the stereotypes associated with their genre. The prose of Zoo City wasn't immediately striking — its appeal to me was due to an entirely different reason — but there's skill in it being plain. And perhaps that's the paradox here. There's so much going on in Zoo City: it's science fiction, it's fantasy, it's crime... but the narrative is focused, down-to-earth, and ultimately, the conceit doesn't get in the way of telling an actual story. Lauren Beukes writes a complete, solid novel, and while some writers mask their weaknesses with style, Beukes allows her text stand on its own, guiltless in front of a jury.

      What is memorable, however, is how there's this continuous interaction with the reader even once you've put the book down. I've spent the past few days pondering on the possibilities of Zoo City fan fiction, and it's not everyday that such a story inspires me so. Nonwriters might simply dismiss this as the concept, the same way that they might approach an author and offer to sell them an "idea" they had. But that's not truly the case, as it's Beukes's execution (in this case, conscious restraint) that makes the novel work. I've heard comparisons to Philip Pullman's Golden Compass but I think those conclusions are unfair because the animal companions — for lack of a better term — behave differently in each novel (the social implications alone are different). There is also the way that Beukes hints, insinuates, and implies a larger backstory, but never tips her hand. In that sense, Zoo City feels like a realist novel, as the reader remains ignorant of the underlying cosmology of the world by the time they reach the end. Instead, the anchor to the narrative is the central protagonist, and her ending isn't a convenient resolution.

      In terms of technique, Beukes utilizes elements of the epistolary novel to great effect. They feel authentic and modern; whether they'll date themselves in the future is best left to speculation, but as far as the present is concerned, it's well done. Nor do I feel, at any point, that they are extraneous. The inclusion is justified and again, Beukes doesn't jump at every opportunity to insert news clipping, emails, or letters. There's a compelling reason for their place in the story, and the author includes just enough to whet your appetite without breaking the momentum.

      Perhaps a key element in describing Beukes's style in Zoo City is restraint. The author never feels insecure about their technique or the reader's intelligence. What you end up with is this polished novel that's clear, concise, and imaginative, without drawing too much attention to its uniqueness. That might be a detraction for some narratives but in the case of Zoo City, it works.

      Wednesday, January 11, 2012

      January 11, 2012 Links and Plugs

      Interviews and Profiles



       The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

      Book Review: Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

      Some novels take time to develop: it can be front-loaded exposition or a scenic tour of the book's setting. What's striking about Queen of Kings is Maria Dahvana Headley eschews that method and delivers a story that dives immediately into the action and never gives the reader time to catch their breath. It's one exciting scene after another, making this a quick read that can't be put down.

      It's a common misconception that the appeal of a story is its concept — in this case, the secret history of a shapeshifting, blood-drinking Cleopatra. While that's a reasonable elevator pitch, what makes the novel work is Headley's conscious decisions with technique. First, the chapters are quick and short, and while the descriptions can get sparse, it follows the narrative's agenda of getting to the exciting bits as soon as possible. Second, the author has an awareness of her genre's strengths and weaknesses. The introduction of certain characters like the senate or Virgil might appear abrupt, but since this is historical fantasy, the reader is equipped with knowledge of these personalities so their presence feels natural — if not outright warranted by the reader. On the other hand, characters that are new to the story are given their proper introduction, but just enough so that it doesn't bog down the narrative. By most accounts, Headley exercises brevity, and it's a practice that's in the service of the story.

      The third element that makes Queen of Kings such an enticing read is the way the author tackles conflict. In many traditional narratives, high fantasy included, there is the sense that the reader knows how it's all going to end. One reason for this is that conflict — and war — tends to be polarized: you have the protagonist's side and the opposing side, usually good vs. evil. That's not the case in Queen of Kings as there are numerous agendas in play at any given time so it's not even a two-front war but sheer chaos. It even comes to a point where the reader isn't sure whether they should be rooting for a particular character or not. What's impressive with Headley is that while some authors might hold back, whether in creating too many factions or simply the lengths the various characters will go to, here it all seems like an organic progression that keeps the reader guessing. Is it contrived? Of course, it is, and Headley even scores bonus points when it comes to aligning the narrative with known history, but what's satisfactory is that it never seems manufactured. Contributing to this is the continuous sense of confusion among the characters, especially early in the novel, where their perception is different from what's objectively taking place. We've seen it utilized to great effect in epic fantasies like The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, but all Headley needs is a few pages and two chapters to illustrate contrasting views of the same incident. There are other techniques which Headley uses such as juxtaposition, but for the most part, it's the author's ability to weave the illusion of chaos that sets the book apart.

      In Queen of Kings, the reader never knows what's going to happen next as alliances are made left and right, along with betrayals and double-crosses that go hand in hand with them. The presence of history and mythology is also a resource the author mines, which makes its inclusion a rational and seeded solution. Maria Dahvana Headley writes a focused, compelling narrative that excels in what it's supposed to do, and is a great example of synergy with authorial intent.

      Tuesday, January 10, 2012

      Book Review: Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors by Livia Llewellyn

      I want to begin this review with a digression: what makes a great James Bond actor? Arguably, the best in the film's franchise, whether it's Sean Connery or Daniel Craig (sorry Pierce Brosnan), is due to their unpredictability. Despite their charm, there's always this sense that they can murder you without a moment's hesitation. This element isn't limited to what's written on the script but extends to the charisma, personality, and believability of the actor. I bring this up because one recurring motif in Livia Llewellyn's stories is the way she writes her characters: they are compelling protagonists, but the reader is never quite sure whether they should ally — I use the term because they automatically win the reader's sympathy — with them or fear them. In most cases, it's both, and it's amazing how Llewellyn conveys this through prose — without the aid of actors.

      As a collection, Engines of Desire is aptly titled. There's a certain roughness when it comes to the word "engine" but it's also workman-like and efficient. Llewellyn's prose isn't perfect as there's bits here and there that could be polished, but overall, it gets the job done. The inclusion of desire, on the other hand, is what separates the author from her peers, as it is a common element in most of Llewellyn's stories. If the topic was Lovecraft's bane, the author incorporates it into her narrative and channels it into something primal that triggers our collective lizard-brain. It's sensual, yes, but just like her protagonists, one must always question whether surrendering to it is safe. The image that springs to mind when describing this collection is that of an Ouroboros: the narrative is engaging, but it also fuel for what comes next, thus creating this cycle of satisfaction and hunger.

      There are ten stories in this book and the only time the author falters for me is "Brimstone Orange" mainly due to its length. One would argue that the other flash fiction piece in the collection, "Teslated Salishan Evergreen," should suffer such a fate, but its parameters are well-defined (a faux encyclopedic entry on a fictional plant) and the concept is executed perfectly. When it comes to must-reads, it's a tie between "At the Edge of Ellensburg" and "Jetsam". Both contain elements of what makes Llewellyn terrific and unique: forbidden passion, characters that are double-edged, and a darkness that simultaneously destroys and saves. Thematically, the two stories are different from each other, but both bear the distinction of a Llewellyn story without the heavy-handedness of Lovecraft pastiches. "Her Deepness," a lengthy, fantastical (steampunkish?) piece, is similarly engaging, although it lacks a certain level of eroticism that marks her other stories.  Still, it's a memorable story that digs deep into one's inner darkness, both literally and figuratively. The titular story, "Engines of Desire," is nothing to shrug off, and it's an interesting technique that showcases why O. Henry-type stories aren't necessarily to be praised: Llewellyn reveals her hand early on and it's the character's motivation that piques the reader's curiosity.

      While Llewellyn's writing can be demure when it needs to be, for the most part, it's seldom elegant, and that's the potency of the author's technique. Imagine the word "fuck" for example, and while other writers might use it to simply insult, Llewellyn's apt usage is such that it both seduces and kicks the reader in the groin. The author is unapologetic when it comes to Engines of Desire, and to read such a collection is to know corrupted passion. Such base emotions are seldom spoken in polite company, and that's where this book revels in.