2001 SFX Reviews

James Bibby: Shapestone

(Millennium, 214pp, £5.99, ISBN: 1-85798-930-9)

James Bibby's Midworld is a deeply familiar place, not just because his three Ronan the Barbarian novels were set there. It's the standard medieval fantasyland, littered with orcs, elves, trolls, rulership disputes, and D&D-ish spells that sound like bad cocktails. Barman, mix me a Soul Shackle!

The storyline is straight action-adventure, sometimes quite gory. Macoby, daughter of her land's dying regent, is under pressure to marry a suitable co-ruler. She picks up an amulet of awesome power, with a reluctant ghost attached. Horny young monk Glart has visions of resulting danger to Macoby and all Midworld, and sets out on a rescue mission. Meanwhile Inspector Heighway of the bungling police force dimly realizes there's dirty work afoot ...

Bibby throws in plenty of jokes, many of them routinely laddish. People keep getting drunk and hilariously hungover, like Legless the elf in that well-known pub the Troll's Bollocks. Glart's monastery is St Cedric's University of Magic, SCUM for short, and a suggested name-change leads to the numbingly droll acronym SCROTUM. More bizarre is the compulsive punning on Inspector Morse titles, with reporter Colin the Sinister writing improbable news stories to justify headlines like The Siren Twirl of Knickerless Quin. As for the arcane language of magic, the tackiest spell here is used to magically disguise a young woman as an over-made-up harridan: "Facies Barbara Plaustriterrae habe!" Cart. Land. Oh dear.

Shapestone isn't a tremendously polished book, and the comic timing is erratic, but it races along cheerfully enough and produces smiles if not outright belly-laughs. The last but one plot twist is signalled well in advance by scenes told from the viewpoint of the bad guy, which so determinedly avoid his name ("The man sighed") that any fool can guess the apparent villain must be a red herring and quickly deduce the real one. Or maybe I've read too many detective stories.

Evil is duly thwarted, Midworld is saved – what a surprise – and the two nicest characters get to have hot sex together. OK if you don't mind a blend of slapdash and slapstick.

Elizabeth Moon: Liar's Oath

(Orbit, 506pp, £6.99, ISBN: 1-84149-016-4)

First came Elizabeth Moon's "Deed of Paksennarion" fantasy trilogy, followed by two prequels set ages earlier. In Surrender None, rough-hewn peasant Gird led a rebellion against the nasty aristocracy of "mageborn" magic-wielders, and won with a little help from the gods. This is prequel number two.

Ruling the roost as Marshal-General, Gird is naturally prejudiced against the surviving mageborn, but isn't keen on genocide either. His compromise is to forbid use of magic – very frustrating for Gird's sidekick Luap, who has both magepower and royal blood but once swore a mighty oath not to take advantage of either. Now look again at this novel's title....

Moon is good at showing the frictions of winners and losers trying (not always very hard) to live together after the big war where most fantasy series end. It tends to drag a little, though. For example, one clue to flaws in Luap's character is that his official biography of Gird strains the truth too far, rewriting this earthy fellow as just another routine mythic hero. Good point. But when this point is repeatedly made by different people for about fifteen pages, you begin to weary of it.

So, bending his oath somewhat, Luap sets up a separatist colony of the mageborn in a far-off magical stronghold whose elf and dwarf builders warn him ominously about the dire perils of taking possession, but won't say why. Bad move. Two-thirds of the way through this fat book, an offstage chorus of dark elves starts gloating at regular intervals about their plans for Luap's downfall; he was more interesting when he was doing it unassisted. With fifty-odd pages to go, the narrative lurches into fast-forward – "Years passed, peacefully enough" – and speeds towards a sudden eruption of violence. Blink and you'll miss it.

Liar's Oath is an inoffensive, literate fantasy, but casual readers may nod off during its slow-moving early sections.

Anne McCaffrey: The Skies of Pern

(Bantam Press, 447pp, £16.99, ISBN: 0-593-04330-8)

Anne McCaffrey's "Dragons of Pern" series has come a long way since bagging the major SF awards in 1968. That first novel Dragonflight – originally published as two 1967 novellas, "Weyr Search" and "Dragonrider": the first won a Hugo, the second a Nebula – offered lashings of romance and adventure, with human-ridden dragons incinerating the dreaded Thread (Spores from Space) with their fiery halitosis. Great stuff. But what could happen next?

The saga has drifted in various directions, featuring lots of McCaffrey's patent Cinderella heroines battling male chauvinism to find true love and/or cute pets like dolphins and the micro-dragons called fire lizards. Since the ancestors of planet Pern's human colony arrived by spaceship, there's always been a threat that by rediscovering high technology the dragonriders could put themselves out of business – and in All the Weyrs of Pern, this effectively happened.

What challenge can follow? There's a red herring in the form of tiresome terrorists called Abominators who smash up new advances in glassware, medicine and printing, but they're pretty feeble opposition. Life gets substantially more exciting when a large lump of comet hits Pern, causing chaos, tsunamis and dozens of opportunities for heroic last-minute dragon rescues. (Not a spoiler: the map at the front reveals all.)

Meanwhile, in between traditional romantic interludes, dragon-enhanced sex, and frictions between segments of Pern's feudal system, one dragon develops a handy new power. This, in conjunction with general alarm about further Deep Impact events, makes it fairly easy to predict what dragonfolk will find to do when they don't have Thread to kick around any more. Eventually they themselves catch on to the idea, and all ends happily.

It's a crowded novel, with a five-page list of named characters to keep track of, and much cutting to and fro between locations. Although it reaches an appropriate destination and will surely please the fans, the story feels overly diffuse. Impossible to recreate the driving tension and mystery of that first book. We all know too much about Pern nowadays.

Small Press Gang

Small press publishers are multiplying like rabbits. The major outfits are leery of marginal books that might or mightn't sell; sometimes little ones successfully step in where biggies fear to tread. At colossal expense, SFX had its current small-press pile conveyed to me in a tumbril ...

Most fun was Junk DNA by Tania Glyde (189pp, £7.95; Codex Books, PO Box 148, Hove, BN3 3DQ), whose SF theme is a kind of anarcho-feminist echo of the big hiccup in human evolution that powered Greg Bear's technothriller Darwin's Radio. Antiheroine Regina, failed performance artist and inept therapist, distributes an unlicenced wonder drug that brings deep bliss but has alarming side effects. It makes women irrationally terrified of the monsters in our midst – children. So the countryside fills with vast separatist camps of female refugees escaping the little horrors. Bye-bye, human race!

All this is blackly comic, full of good lines and knowing satire on style and fashion. A telling aside about SF's conquest of the media: "the most unattainably futuristic concepts, once the province of a few fiction writers, became commonplace and extremely boring, and were then used in advertising." Surreal moments abound.

Despite the incidental goodies, though, there's not much narrative drive until around halfway – when the subplot about Regina's horrible neighbours, forever verbally abusing their very odd child Lucy, escalates to murder. Is death by carnivorous mouse a fictional first? In the end it all goes apocalypse-shaped, bringing a quirky book to a science-fictionally conventional close, not unlike Hollywood's short cut of zapping spare plot problems with one last colossal explosion.

What's famous, trendy, cool Jeff Noon doing away from his usual publishers with Cobralingus (122pp £9.95; Codex again)? Maybe it's the poetry ghetto effect; his "remixed" prose in Needle in the Groove hovered at the edge of verse, and Cobralingus goes a lot further. The conceit is that various text inputs are being processed by the software Cobralingus Engine, actually Noon in a clever digital disguise, to produce the intermediate stages and finished "outlets" printed here.

Sources include Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Herrick, Zane Grey, the Bible, the shipping forecast, and lists of towns, streets, Tarot trumps, lunar features, and things Jeff Noon did that day. Processing involves mixing, injections of language drugs like "etymol" or "anagramethane", stylistic makeovers, alleged randomization, shaping into concrete-poetry form, "ghost edit" deconstruction into scattered residues of letters, and a dollop of pretentiousness. The unfolding results are ... strange. People who like books like this will like this book. I didn't much, myself.

Horror fiction has been sagging in commercial popularity, except for the lucky few with names like Stephen King. By contrast, its small press scene is hyperactive and must be the last haven of old-fashioned ghost stories. Paul Finch's By the Gas Flame Flickering (76pp, £4.00; BJM Press, 95 Compass Crescent, Chesterfield, S41 9LX) comprises four specimens with nineteenth-century settings, commended in the introduction as "chilling, moving and downright petrifying."

Well, no. This subgenre is a literature of comfort, whose fans must feel a cosy glow when (as here) a rustic describes a ghostly carriage or "spectral trap", almost as familiar as the "blunt instrument" of golden-age detection. Hauntings, madness, retro firearms, mildly agreeable grue. An author who really wanted to chill would omit the italics, the exclamation marks and probably the whole second sentence in: "Then he noticed a figure gliding up out of the fog behind him! He knew it was gliding, because from the corner of his eye he could see no motion of legs!" You know my methods, Watson.

Also from BJM, Alone in the Dark by Paul Kane (99pp, £4.00) had its pages pre-stuck together with gobs of blasphemous ichor, or possibly glue from the binding. Its twelve stories cover a fair range, from visceral horror (with occasionally predictable punchlines) through edgy urban nightmares to offbeat notions like a man taking conscious control of his autonomic body functions, or a tour through the image-filled House of Memory of the artist Magritte. Kane is best when taking risks with these bizarre flights of imagination, and least interesting with riffs on too-familiar themes like the deal with the devil. Promising, but he hasn't yet arrived.

Somehow a nonfantastic novel slipped in: The Horizontal Split by Paul Pinn (171pp, no price; Time Bomb Publishing, PO Box 3061, South Croydon, CR2 7ZT). This sometimes woundingly intense borderline-horror thriller has three female leads, all literally insane. Sarah sinks into clinical schizophrenia, hears scary voices and runs off on a lunatic quest to India. Pursuing mother Janet is a psychopath who's also gunning for her rich husband Bill. Janet ropes in Melissa, whose lunatic fixation on psychologist Alan has wrecked his career, despite which Bill recruits Alan to help track Sarah amid temples, burning ghats and snake-charmers ...

Against a background hot with local colour and rancid with local smells, these obsessives and a gaggle of local hirelings bounce off one another in frenetic pinball-machine action. Clearly the only possible closure is to kill most of them off, which duly happens. Effective writing and a nasty final twist, but these people seem so awful and/or hopeless that one doesn't much care about their fates.

Pinn grips us better in The Pariah (278pp £6.00; Time Bomb again), featuring the evil superpsychic Paymer who can read minds and inflict agonizingly painful death at any distance. Besides persecuting individuals, he openly takes on British society, phoning the police and even Downing Street to gloat over what nastiness he plans next. The horrors are many and explicit; the story's kept taut by the driving need for this monster to be hunted down and the seeming impossibility of doing it. But wouldn't you know it, one emotionally scarred victim of Paymer's godgames has a touch of the same talent ... Powerful, violent and occasionally emetic.

Still more terrifyingly puke-making is D.J. Conway's Magickal Mystical Creatures (259pp $14.95; Llewellyn, PO Box 64383, St Paul, MN 55164-0383, USA). At first glance this looks like a fantasy bestiary, but the telltale K in "magick" is a warning that Conway believes in the whole lot – unicorns, centaurs, gargoyles, you name it – as living occult presences ripe for ritual invocation. She reports finding a baby troll under her kitchen sink; one shudders to think what might be at the bottom of her garden. Leafing though, I sensed the very real presence of those proverbial astral entities the Kobblers and the Bollocs.

Exit Langford at magickal, mystical speed, before the hitmen from several small presses track him down ...

Jonathan Carroll: The Wooden Sea

(Gollancz, 247pp, £16.99, ISBN: 0-575-07080-9)

"How do you row a boat on a wooden sea?" Like a Zen koan, the question doesn't make much sense. The same goes for US police chief Frannie McCabe's life after burying the peculiar stray dog that died in his office.

The dog doesn't stay buried. Neither does a multicoloured feather from no known bird, which reappears in curious places like McCabe's own daughter's new tattoo. What's that dog doing in a painting dated 1750? Supernatural shocks jolt McCabe out of middle-aged contentment ...

His own 17-year-old delinquent self returns, loudly disgusted that he's grown up as a cop happily married to an aged woman "like forty years old". A pathetic girl suicide comes to life long enough to say "I didn't do this." McCabe is briefly fast-forwarded to the bitter end of old age in the wrong country with the wrong wife, because history took a turning that shouldn't have happened.

Aliens from somewhere that sounds like Rat's Potato are manipulating our harried hero; aliens or angels, though they look human and can be thoroughly petty. Something hard to define but metaphysically important needs doing, they say, and offer McCabe a truly horrible choice. Someone has to row the wooden sea. And the only help McCabe will get is from his tiresome other selves.

Jonathan Carroll loves to take us inside the heads of likable, enviable, wealthy people (even policeman McCabe is well-off from a previous marriage) – and then, bit by bit, show their lifestyle's bright facade as thin ice crazed with fracture lines. Beneath there's a void of horror, uncertainty, and magical flux. Few people get out alive; no one survives unscarred. McCabe at least gets what he asks for, though not at all what he wants.

As usual, Carroll's storyline is twisted, surreal and indescribable, and for a change it ends on a note of bizarre optimism. A haunting, compelling read.

Kelley Armstrong: Bitten

(Little, Brown, 451pp, £10.99, ISBN: 0-316-85539-1)

This debut novel offers a tasty confection of werewolves, sex and vendettas, garnished with obligatory lashings of gore that conceal a gooey centre of romance – which sounds indigestible, but after the first nibble it's quite hard to stop.

Heroine and narrator Elena has the traditional romantic choice between the nice chap she lives with and her arrogant, obnoxious former lover Clay, who happens to be a werewolf. Unfortunately Clay once got carried away, bit her, and made her the world's only female werewolf (normally a male-inheritance thing). It's hell sneaking out regularly by night so her current live-in lover won't notice the Change ...

Clay belongs to alpha male Jeremy's "Pack" of organized, ethical werewolves in upstate New York. Less scrupulous shapeshifters known as "mutts" object to the Pack's policy of executing them merely for enjoying themselves in human-killing sprees which might expose the big secret that werewolves exist.

When the Pack comes under threat, Elena the fiercely independent runaway is summoned from her cosy Toronto home to help. Some mutt out there has had the bright idea of recruiting serial killers and upgrading them via a bite to full werewolf strength and talent – ideal anti-Pack mercenaries. As the bodies pile up, and sightings of strange large dogs multiply, even small-town police become suspicious.

There are entertainingly violent set-pieces, like a manhunt through a crowded airport and a blood-crazed werewolf running amok at a rave party: "I realized it wasn't his belt, but a loop of intestine." Both sides suffer heavy losses.

Elena and her acid repartee successfully steal the show throughout. Though you can guess right away how her romantic dilemma will resolve, she has bags of charm. Also, werewolves seem a healthy change from too many would-be-cool vampires: unlike Dracula's pallid, Gothic kin, Elena worries about her weight and works out hard at the gym. Gory, sexy fun.