Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: Black Light, Elizabeth Hand (1999)

Been a while since I posted anything here. Been a while since I finished a book. Oh, I’ve been readin’, but I’m in one of my phases in which I just can’t finish anything. Nothing quite scratches the itch, ya know? So I thought to myself, I thought, “Hey, man, I really enjoyed Elizabeth Hand’s novella Wylding Hall. And I liked Generation Loss. Maybe I should read something else by Hand.” I’m clever. I know things. So I went to the library and found Black Light (HarperCollins, 1999). And I’m here to tell you I walked away a little sad. And a little hungry. But that didn’t have anything to do with the book.

Paperback edition.

Paperback edition.

Black Light begins promisingly enough. Teenager Charlotte “Lit” Moynihan lives in the New York village of Kamensic, a quaint little town inhabited mainly by actors and their families. Lit’s parents, for instance, are both on television. Lit’s neighbor, Hillary, is her best friend and occasional lover. Ali, a bit of a stoner, completes the triad. The first third of the book faithfully recreates the seventies teenage experience. The crew skips school, drinks, and listens to music. All right, all right, all right. And the entire town looks forward to the Halloween party to be hosted at Bolerium, the estate owned by Alex Kern, Lit’s godfather.

The first half of Black Light is quite strong. Hand is particularly gifted when it comes to setting and atmosphere. Hand describes Kamensic with just the right degree of detail; readers will find themselves envisioning the village. But there is something “off” about Kamensic. The graveyard is full of tombstones that feature sculptures of animal heads. The roads leading to and from the village never seem to be in the same place twice. And, as Halloween approaches, every family hangs creepy terracotta masks on their doors. Seriously, it’s weird.

E-book edition.

E-book edition.

And…then things stall. Soon enough Lit is bundled off to Kern’s party where, it is not-so-subtly hinted, she will play a starring role. And it might have something to do with a giant horned god with a massively erect phallus, of which Lit had a vision earlier that day. Hand begins to reveal the mysteries behind Lit’s dreams, Alex Kern, and the party. Suffice it to say that there are religious themes, of a sort, with which Hand has dealt before; she studied anthropology in university. But it all becomes somewhat muddled. There are secret societies that are facing off against one another, and of course Lit is caught in between.

The party takes up the entire second half of the book, and, sadly, seems interminable. Lit wanders Bolerium looking for her friends. Lit experiences visions. Lit engages in weird rites. Drugs. Orgies. Dead gods. It all just sort of meanders, much like the labyrinthine Bolerium itself. In keeping with its apocalyptic themes, Black Light ends not with a bang, but with a whimpered “meh.” Recommended mainly for hardcore Hand aficionados.

Similar books:

  • For my comments on Generation Loss and Wylding Hall, see my post on my “Winter of Discontent.”
  • If you like atmospheric horror novels that start off strong and then peter out, consider Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.
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Review: The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

There is a genre of fiction–perhaps “subgenre” is more accurate–that might be termed “Jewish fantasy.” Like the folktales on which they draw, entries in the genre hover between magical realism, the tragic, and the absurd. The Golem & the Jinni (2013) is a recent (and popular) example, as is Michael Chabon’s alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). Because Jewish fantasy imposes on readers certain special requirements, for instance, rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, the genre is not for everyone. At least one acquaintance of this reviewer couldn’t finish The Yiddish Policemen’s Union because it was “too Jewish,” by which he meant it included too many things about which he knew too little, Yiddishisms, of course, but also obscure religious concepts likely only to be understood by Jews and those non-Jews with an interest in religion. This is a difficult hurdle to cross. Helene Wecker circumvented it by minimizing her novel’s “Jewishness”; Chabon, macher that he is, went all in. Stephanie Feldman treads a careful middle ground in her debut novel, The Angel of Losses (2014, Deckle Edge).

When Marjorie and her sister, Holly, were children, their Grandpa Eli told them wondrous stories about the White Magician. Now an adult, studying for a PhD in literature, Marjorie misses the sweetness of that time in one’s childhood when, in retrospect, things seem to have been perfect, just the way they were meant to be. Life has moved on in unexpected ways, as life often does. Eli turned mean in his old age, moved out of the family’s house, died. Holly defied her family by converting to orthodox Judaism for love, and marrying Nathan, a member of the Berukhim (roughly, “blessed ones”) sect.

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

 

Holly is pregnant, and she and Nathan need to move Eli’s things to make room for the baby. With that in mind, Marjorie rushes to what once was her family’s house–now alien, rearranged for Jewish needs, like keeping kosher–to rescue the notebooks in which Eli recorded his stories of the White Magician. Only something is wrong; the notebook she finds mentions not the White Magician, but the “White Rebbe.” (The term “rebbe” is related to “rabbi.” Its meaning is more general; rather than referring to a clerical office, which it can, it may also indicate a spiritual leader, and so on. Regardless, it is a honorific.) But Marjorie recalls her Grandpa dimly eyeing the orthodox Jews in town and complaining about “those people.” Clearly, things weren’t quite what they appeared.

That’s a lot of exposition in order to review a book that isn’t 300 pages long, but I think it demonstrates the quandary in which writers of Jewish fantasy find themselves. The size of their potential readership is inversely proportional to the degree of Jewish detail they incorporate into their story. Feldman is clever: She begins with a non-Jewish character, Marjorie, who is writing a dissertation on the trope of the “Wandering Jew,” and whose sister is a convert to Judaism. Explication of potentially bewildering topics, then, is embedded in the nature of the story. In the opinion of this reader, Feldman deftly avoids “infodumps” by working details into the natural course of characters’ conversations. There are, of course, some awkward moments. The descriptions of the database on which Simon, Marjorie’s love interest, is working–an application that permits users to track worldwide Jewish “wandering–may cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. (But it was like candy to this graduate of history and library science programs.)

The story alternates between Eli’s diaries and Marjorie’s narration, a structure that should work, but which this reader found frustrating. Folktales are simplistic by nature, and, by mimicking that quality in the chapters devoted to Eli, the narrative, at times, becomes jumbled. It is difficult for the reader to differentiate from one another characters that are rendered in brief. Is this guy the one who…no, that’s the other one. Later in the narrative, as the mystery of the White Rebbe is revealed, all becomes clear, and the identities of characters are sorted out. Readers should prepare themselves for some potential early confusion, though.

Feldman’s real strength is her portrayals of her characters. Marjorie, the very definition of a “type A” personality, is a bit of a pill. Her resentment, distrusting relationship with Nathan is well-drawn. Likewise, Feldman masterfully draws Nathan as the stereotypical ultra-orthodox Jew, distant and studious, only to subvert that image as the story progresses. Holly is a particularly engaging character, an artist and free spirit who took upon herself a lifestyle that Marjorie perceives as constrictive. Indeed, female readers who have a sister will find in the dynamics of Marjorie’s and Holly’s relationship much with which to identify.

The Angel of Losses is well told and engaging, and compensates for its early structural weaknesses with gorgeous prose and identifiable characters. For those readers sensitive to it, religion is present, although it is treated either, in folktale form, as “magic,” or as a source of family contention. Marjorie, for instance, perceives Holly to be subservient to her “patriarch,” Nathan. Ultimately, it is family, and family drama, that is the driver of Feldman’s narrative, and that’s something to which every reader can relate. A promising debut, The Angel of Losses is especially recommended to readers who love folktales and strong female characters.

Review: City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s been some time since I read a book I enjoyed so much that I wished it wouldn’t end. Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (September 2014, Broadway Books) is one of those books. Gorgeously written, epic in scope, and brimming with big ideas, City of Stairs should be on your must-read list for 2014.

Welcome to the ruined city of Bulikov, center of the Continent and Seat of the World. The Continentals, once favored by the gods, have been cast down, and their holy city occupied, by their former slaves, the Saypuri. A generation earlier, the great Saypuri hero, the Kaj, developed a weapon capable of killing the Divinities, and used it to liberate his people. The Kaj’s slaying of the builder Divinity, Taalhavras, resulted in a cataclysmic moment known as “the Blink,” when the removal of the divine architect’s magics reordered reality, wreaking such havoc that Bulikov is still in ruins decades later. As the novel opens, the Saypuri, now the premier world power, occupy Bulikov, ruling the restless Continentals and denying them the right to speak of their fallen gods.

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

Whew. You still with me? It’s better the way Bennett tells it, more seamless, more natural, and in a way that’s deliciously agonizing: What happened to the Divinity Kolkan? Is he going to explain it? Spoiler: He does. I believe Bennett has achieved with City of Stairs what might be termed “page turner” status.

The action begins when Shara, a top Saypuri agent, arrives in Bulikov to investigate the murder of the Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui. Saypur had dispatched Pangyui to investigate the Divinities, to learn why it was they favored the Continentals at the expense of the rest of the world. Of course, having access to the Continental legacy, access the Saypuris deny the Continentals, made Pangyui enemies. Pangyui’s murder isn’t so straightforward, of course; Shara’s investigation points to layers of conspiracy…

The plot of the book, as Byzantine as it is (and I say that as a compliment) takes back seat to Bennett’s world building. Hear me out! If you’re like me, you’re weary of the world building fad, an overused device that should support, rather than supplant, the act of storytelling. City of Stairs is an example of world building done right. (Seriously. Broadway Books, put that on the cover and sell it to all the aspiring writers out there. They need this.) Bennett’s world feels natural and alive. The age of miracles ended when the Kaj killed the Divinities (and his armies rounded up and slaughtered their “children,” fairies, nymphs, and other, more exotic, creatures). Shara and her cohort inhabit a fallen world in which it’s illegal for people to mention the Divinities’ names, but where some followers still adhere to their gods’ laws. Kolkashtanis, followers of the Abrahamic lawgiver and meter-out of punishment, Kolkan, insist upon modesty, and are horrified by women’s seductive “secret femininity.” Most impressive, Bennett achieves this level of detail seamlessly and naturally: He invites the reader into Bulikov.

Of course, even the best books suffer from problems, and City of Stairs is no exception. The Dreyling (read: Viking) Sigrud, the muscle to Shara’s brains, appears to be a fan favorite, but, to this reader, at least, was one dimensional, especially in contrast to Shara’s inner life and the conflicted emotions of her former lover, Vohannes Votrov. Sigrud, capable of any physical feat, has been robbed of meaning and pursues death. Attentive readers will be able to predict Sigrud’s fate soon after Bennett introduces him.

I prefer this cover.

I prefer this cover.

The plot, although wonderfully complex, feels, by the end of the book, to be too finely planned. There are no loose ends; every thread is accounted for. While that degree of closure might be satisfying to some readers, it lends an artificial air to the book’s ending. Certainly, readers will have suspended disbelief early on, when they learn that gods and men once (literally) walked and talked with one another. But it’s the old conundrum of convincing readers that something fantastic is real, only to break the spell by noting something mundane but incorrect, like the top hat Ben Franklin wore. The very comprehensiveness of the story’s resolution strains credulity–but this is a minor quibble, given the book’s strengths.

Bennett, too, engages in some very obvious and, at times, heavy handed commentary. There is something provocative, of course, about deicide. Kolkan, a stand-in for the Abrahamic god, is cast in particularly poor light, as are his adherents (although, to his credit, Bennett makes even Kolkan a more complicated character that readers might expect at first blush). The followers of Olvos, the Divinity who disappeared millennia previously, wear orange robes, eschew wealth, and serve their fellows, an obvious reference to Buddhism, or, at least, its ideals. Ultimately, the relationship of people to their gods is revealed to have existed in a way that points towards Bennett’s message for his readers (a message that this reader found understandable but unrealistic).

Complaints aside–and they are minor ones, I assure you–City of Stairs is a remarkable book. Readers have asked if City of Stairs is “epic fantasy” or “urban fantasy.” The answer, as cute as it might be, is both, and neither. City of Stairs is not readily classifiable; it plays with, and transcends, genre. Fantasy has painted itself into a corner with its retread of the same tired tropes on one hand and its retreat into nihilistic “grimdark” on the other. City of Stairs is the antidote to that conundrum: It is fantasy’s way forward. City of Stairs is highly recommended and not to be missed.

Review: The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

All things must end. “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Etc., etc. Seven years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, many readers continue to mourn the loss of the Boy Who Lived. Someone, somewhere, always will. It’s not for Harry they shed tears, of course, but for themselves, for growing up and giving up the ability to totally immerse themselves in other worlds, for the sacrifice of childhood to adulthood and the innocence that goes with it.

And after four years and three books, beginning with The Magicians, through The Magician King, and ending now with The Magician’s Land (Viking Adult, August 5, 2014), Lev Grossman makes clear that that was his subject all along: The loss of the worlds we inhabit as children, our desperate efforts to retain them, and, ultimately, our quest to move on, to strike out anew in an undiscovered country.

The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

It is apt to compare Harry Potter and the world of The Magicians Trilogy, as the latter is a response to the former, with some Narnia thrown in for good measure. But if Harry Potter’s universe is one characterized by authenticity, by sincerity, then Grossman’s creation is a jaundiced one, not seen through a glass darkly, but ironically. The cheeky tone of Grossman’s storytelling is likely to have put off readers who take seriously their diversions into fantasy, but it is, ultimately, the right approach: How else to deal with a story that’s been told countless times? How else to avoid maudlin tropes and sentimentality? As Umberto Eco writes in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, once a sentiment has become wrote, it can only be expressed sincerely via the mechanism of irony. It’s altogether fitting in these self-referential and hyperaware times that an author tell his story with a wink and a nudge.

Of course, readers unfamiliar with Grossman’s previous work will wonder just what I’m getting at. In short, The Magicians Trilogy is set in a world in which (surprise) magic is real. Gifted young men and women are spirited off to Brakebills Academy (think Hogwarts, natch) to learn the intricacies of sorcery. Lest readers longing to belong to such a world get all dewy eyed, know that the learning of magic is grueling, arduous process accomplished only by the most brilliant students. It isn’t fun. To top it all off, the fairy tale world of Fillory (see: Narnia) turns out to be real, and is at once more horrible and goofy than a reader might expect, unless that reader is revisiting as an adult the books she consumed as a child, and thinking, “Talking animals, huh? I really enjoyed this?” But of course you did; it was written with children in mind.

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman

Not so The Magician’s Land. Readers know that Quentin Coldwater, Grossman’s protagonist, and his friends survived Fillory in The Magicians and became its kings and queens in The Magician King. Cast out of Fillory by the ram-god Ember, Quentin is a young(ish) man adrift when The Magician’s Land opens. He finds his way back to Brakebills and becomes an adjunct professor, learning his focus (minor mendings), teaching, and working on a project inspired by a stray page captured in the Neitherlands (sort of a transdimensional interchange). Quentin enjoys himself; he’s growing up. Needless to say, things fall apart: A prank played by a student, Plum, on one of her peers goes awry, and Quentin is implicated. Plum inadvertently summons into Brakebills a niffin (demon) not unknown to Quentin–Alice, last seen at the end of The Magicians. Quentin and Plum are dismissed from Brakebills and take up “mercenary” work, a path that will ultimately lead them back to Fillory. Which, it should be said, is dying, and can’t be saved.

If that all seems like a bit much, well, it is, but Grossman handles it much more adeptly than I. Grossman shifts his perspective from Quentin and Plum (in our world) to Eliot and Janice (in Fillory) and back again, without losing the thread. Readers will not find themselves lost; Grossman does not overreach. His worlds are approachable and do not require extensive exposition in order to understand them. His attention to the details of his worlds is impressive. There is a description of Plum’s and Quentin’s time as whales (it will make sense when you read it) that is especially striking. All of which is to say that, for all his irony, Grossman is capable of creating truly mysterious and inspiring lands.

Perhaps the most affecting part of The Magician’s Land is an extensive chapter given over to Rupert Chatwin’s diary, written just before his death in North Africa in World War II. The Chatwin children, of course, were the original discoverers of Fillory, and one in particular, Martin, played a key role in The Magicians. Grossman, via Rupert, tells the story of Edwardian English children abandoned by their parents and “rescued” by the world of Fillory. It is an association that has serious consequences for all of the Chatwin children. More than Rupert’s tale, though, it serves as Martin’s “backstory,” a belated but layered introduction to Fillory’s mythology.

If there is a weakness in The Magician’s Land, it is a certain disjointedness in Grossman’s storytelling. Certain events do not seem to serve much purpose, and characters are introduced only to disappear later on. Perhaps this is to be expected, as it reflects the realities of our everyday lives. Still, some aspects of the novel seem tucked in with the intention of neatly wrapping up threads from other books, rather than serving to organically advance the plot of The Magician’s Land. (The subplot of Plum’s and Quentin’s post-Brakebills operation and their encounter with Betsy comes to mind.) It’s almost as if Grossman is lamenting the loss of the world he created, and needs to revisit every character one last time. Still, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise successful novel.

And if Grossman feels a sense of loss as he completes his trilogy, it’s understandable. Not only is The Magicians Trilogy his baby, but that nostalgia is his subject. Quentin, having found Fillory and lost it, must come to grips with life after the fantasy. We as readers must do so, too; we are no longer the tweens who grew up with Harry Potter. As Grossman suggests, we needn’t abandon our childhoods altogether, nor can we accept them with the rose-colored lenses of youth. We look on, unblinking, and honor them with jokes and snide remarks that cut them down to their true size and show them for what they really are. We can never lose our childhoods, since they are part of us and will always inform who we are. You should make a point of making Fillory part of your world. A humorous and well written conclusion to a successful trilogy, The Magican’s Land is highly recommended.

Review: The Supernatural Enchancements, Edgar Cantero

If you have ever considered living in a house because it’s rumored to be haunted, then Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements (Doubleday, August 12, 2014) is next up on your “to read” list.

The story, set in November and December 1995, begins when our hero, A., unexpectedly inherits his long-lost cousin’s mansion “and all of its contents.” A., a slightly shiftless 23 year old student, makes a beeline from Europe for Axton House, located in Point Bless, Virginia. A. and his traveling companion, Niamh (pronounced “Neve”), happily take up residence in their sprawling new home. Encounters with the locals indicate that the house has a “history,” that A. and Niamh may not be its sole occupants, that they might be sharing their space with a ghost, the eponymous “supernatural enhancement.”

The Supernatural Enhancements, Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, Edgar Cantero

But The Supernatural Enhancements is not merely a ghost story. A.’s relative, Wells, committed suicide at age 50–on the anniversary of his father’s suicide at the same age. Yet more eerie, Wells left in his study a note with an encrypted clue, the significance of which A. and Niamh only discover after a burglary. Wells was up to some strange stuff, pursuing the study of some occult knowledge, access to which is available to A. and Niamh only through hints and accidents.

Early in the novel, when it is just becoming clear that Axton house may have a ghost and that Wells was up to some pretty odd stuff, A. comments on one of his favorite TV shows, The X-Files. An avowed atheist, A. nonetheless echoes the sentiment of the famous poster from Mulder’s office: “I want to believe.” Looking around at the congregants at the church service Niamh forced him to attend, A. feels not contempt, but envy. Really, as A. and Niamh find themselves in ever more complicated and bizarre situations, the story becomes about credulity: Are you able to believe that there might be more to something than its surface might suggest?

The truth is out there.

The truth is out there.

Cantero narrates the story using a variety of “documentary” formats, including A.’s journal entries, letters home to Aunt Liza, Niamh’s notepad (she is a mute and communicates through writing), and audio and video recorder footage. The effect may take some getting used to on the part of some readers, but it works: Cantero achieves a smooth narrative flow early on. Cantero’s decision to approach the story this way is canny: It roots the reader in the world as A. and Niamh experience it, and also limits the reader’s exposure to outside knowledge. In effect, readers know what A. and Niamh know, at least insofar as they report their findings in their letters and journal entries. Ultimately, this results in a deepening of the mystery, as, for instance, readers read a transcript of a video that (purportedly) shows A.’s encounter with the ghost. Of course, exposure to primary documents is a fraught exercise: Can you trust what the authors are telling you?

Part of what makes The Supernatural Enhancements so fun to read is the fun Cantero has with his characters. A. is immediately recognizable, a young twentysomething male with a slightly indifferent air, who is nonetheless thoughtful and well-intentioned. Niamh, 17, is something of a pixie, engaging in such cute activities as sledding across the mansion’s roof. Afflicted with muteness, it is Niamh who acquires the audiovisual equipment that is employed throughout the house and which is ultimately responsible for large parts of the story. A. and Niamh do what any young people in possession of an old mansion might do: They make spaghetti dinners and eat in the large formal dining room, they map the floors (leaving a trail of chickpeas on the floor to the bathroom on their first night), and they watch The X-Files. There is an obvious romantic subplot that A. scrupulously avoids, adding tension to their relationship.

The Supernatural Enchancements defies expectations. The novel becomes darker in tone as A. is drawn deeper into Wells’ mysteries, but only the canniest of readers will have a notion of what’s to come. The story’s climax is swift and shocking, and all the more affecting for it. Of course, I can’t divulge details here (no spoilers!), but when an author has you yelling, “No! NO!” it’s a sign that he has successfully pulled you into his story.

The Supernatural Enchanements is less a ghost story than it is a tale of the fantastic, of encounters with the occult, and of solving puzzles and finding treasure–all while young and, supposedly, carefree. Cantero balances the darkness with whimsy, so readers expecting creeping dread and buckets of gore are warned away. So, too, are readers who might be put off by the epistolary style. That said, The Supernatural Enchancements is a fun book (and that’s meant in the best possible sense) and a fine story: A great success for Edgar Cantero. Highly recommended for fans of the fantastic.