Friday, November 4, 2016

Why I Love Strands of Starlight

I picked up Strands of Starlight by Gael Baudino almost entirely because of the cover art -- the rest of the motivation I needed involved the description including the Inquisition and Elves. I've never been shy about my feelings in regard to the usual wisdom that one shouldn't "judge a book by its cover" -- that wisdom applies better to people than to books. Cover art is no less art and their visual design and appeal are important. Thomas Canty's work brought me to a lot of good fiction - particularly the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collections put together by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling. The more important part here was that I picked it up at all, and that I was a teenager.

It's no big secret that I was sexually abused as a child. In spite of that -- or perhaps because of it -- I found my peace in school and learning, in roleplaying games and speculative fiction of all sorts (fantasy, science fiction, horror). I had more adult friends than peers my own age. Though I was assigned a therapist by the state, I didn't find him helpful. What 16 year old would?

It's been nearly 20 years since I was an angry teenager in a therapist's office, arguing with him over what he thought he knew about me and what I knew about myself. I still think he was wrong; I didn't blame myself and didn't need to move through the step of admitting that I blamed myself so that I could realize it wasn't my fault. I already knew that, I already knew people could be "sick in the head" since my father was an alcoholic and abused my mother. I wasn't burdened with guilt from thinking I had caused my own abused and maybe that's really what saved me.

Still, as I've gotten older, as I've learned to reflect more on my experience of being human and what I've learned about the human experience through stories, I sometimes have epiphanous moments where I better understand myself and the things I've loved.

I have loved Strands of Starlight from the moment I started reading it. I have loved it for more than 20 years, though I never could quite put my finger on why, beyond the facts that:
1) the cover was beautiful
2) Baudino's storytelling voice flowed well for me
3) it mixed real world bits with high fantasy bits -- I hadn't experienced magical realism yet, though I feel a strong connection to the stories that seed our reality with magical possibility.

I heard three words today: Redemption through Transformation. And I suddenly knew what I'd been trying to figure out for so long, what I'd been so close to figuring out on more than one occasion when I found myself looking at this book -- holding a copy I'd found in a used bookstore in my hands, or dusting off my second copy (I lost the first), or preparing to send a friend a copy because it was like giving them a piece of my soul even if they didn't know it.

As part of the story, Miriam, the protagonist -- like so many protagonists -- can only achieve redemption (and revenge) through transformation, and it occurs on a very literal, physical level for her. As a teenager, I was essentially powerless. As an adult, it isn't a whole lot better. But I needed to believe in the possibility of setting things right, of gaining some modicum of control over things happening to me in my life.

As a teenager, I lost control of a lot of things, including my body. When I manifested Hashimoto's and my thyroid ceased regular function, I put on a lot of weight in a very short amount of time. This loss of bodily control was just as hurtful to me as my abuse, maybe more so since there wasn't someone doing this to me... my body was doing it to itself.

I saw this in Miriam, too. I related strongly, even if I didn't realize it, to the figure of a girl who had done nothing wrong but was treated by a dominant system as though she were guilty of some crime. For Miriam, it was her power of healing which didn't fit the church's paradigm. For me, it was being asked what I did to provoke my abuser - a man of nearly 40, when I was 6. It was being accused of lying and stealing by a foster mother who was more accustomed to younger children. It was having my escapes taken away from me by a religion-sponsored children's home. And Miriam did the thing I wanted to do -- she escaped to a world where people valued her and didn't care about her past. And she changed. She took power for herself. Without spoiling the story -- because of course I hope you'll read it -- she did the things I wanted, needed to do, even if I hadn't consciously realized it.

Maybe this is also why I like "unlikeable" characters, like Miriam or Meche. But that's a whole other can of worms...

It seems silly and oversimplified, put like this. Stark black letters on the white (digital) page.  But it's powerful and it was a story I needed as a teenager, and to an extent still need today. We all need stories like that; stories that tell us that we are not defeated, that someone like us can, has, will find a way through the pain and suffering and will find beautiful things.

Is it always happy endings and rainbows? No. I would argue it isn't even often happy endings and rainbows, but that's not what hope is for or about.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reviewish: Certain Dark Things

I am extremely excited to talk about Silvia Moreno-Garcia's second novel, Certain Dark Things, which released today (October 25th). Ultimately, I'm giving this one five stars; I loved it. But, I want to talk about it, so you can decide that you want to take a chance on loving it too.

Let me start with a history lesson; in Moreno-Garcia's collection of short stories, Love & Other Poisons, there is a story called "A Puddle of Blood" - it's available to read online (just click on the title), if you're interested. In fact, it might help convince you that this novel is worth a few hours of your time. Adding a little more prestige to its mantle, this short story is also found in Evolve 2: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead and Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. But I strongly suggest picking up Moreno-Garcia's collection directly - it is a trove of great storytelling. Of course, I have more history - none of it personal - with the author, which I discussed in my reviews of Love & Other Poisons and her debut novel Signal to Noise. The internet has opened crazy new horizons for readers and writers alike, and I'm so glad that this is one I continue to explore. And so, with the stage set, let me tell you a little about Certain Dark Things.

Mexico City. Vampires unlike any you've known. Cops and gangs. And a little bit of utterly realistic - in its unhealthiness, its naivety, and its sincerity -  love.

Certain Dark Things follows the events that unfold when Nick Godoy, a Necros vampire and spoiled heir of his family's dynasty, chases Atl into Mexico City, a vampire-free zone, and she meets Domingo, a street kid who helps her. Other primary players are Ana, a cop who would be a good cop if she weren't enmeshed in a system so corrupt that corruption is the only way anything gets done; Rodrigo, a 'Renfield' to the Godoy family, sent along with Nick to babysit the spoiled brat; and Bernardino, a Revenant vampire.

The story is told from several points of view, though my mind folded the storytelling down into three essential perspectives (if you're much more detail oriented, this might make you crazy): Domingo-Atl, Ana, and Rodrigo-Nick. Each has their own interpersonal stories warping and weaving together, bringing these three forces together and to a head at the story's end, but these are the primary forces driving and moving the plot through its paces.

And its pace is good! The story is built up with purpose, so that as the plot unwinds one thing follows and flows into the next.

The world building is solid, the reinvention of vampires is convincing, and the characters are dirty and flawed. While Moreno-Garcia's strengths unfold beautifully in terms of her world building and vampires, her characters have become a consistent point of interest and engagement for me. Domingo is naive and allows himself to romanticize vampires, even though he's familiar enough with the monstrous parts of them. Atl is stubborn, spoiled by her own admission, and unwilling to be vulnerable--and when she is, she becomes angry and defensive over it. Nick is rash, cocky; though I cannot say I ever felt much sympathy or empathy for Nick, I am very aware of people like him. And Ana - who, for some reason, makes me think of Hannah McCabe (from Frankie Y. Bailey's mysteries) - is someone who might have been a good person, a heroic figure, if she weren't so mired in a world that has no space for that sort of thing. These are flawed people, but they read like real people. Their multi-dimensionality is built in seamlessly. They are flawed in ways that often make them unlikable, but those flaws are utterly believable, and for people who recognize the good and the bad in themselves and others, this author's work is a breath of fresh air. We are given characters more like ourselves, and it makes being human a bit easier to swallow.

All in all, Certain Dark Things earns every star I'm giving it and it is possible it deserves bonus stars; strong characterization, solid world building, a well-paced and engaging plot-line are topped off with the revamping of the vampire (you can't blame me, I can't be the ONLY person to have made that pun) through a lens that isn't all European lore. As if that weren't enough, these vampires remain monsters, despite their unmasking - unlike other takes in urban fantasy that try to integrate monsters into society as members (which I have also enjoyed). In a way, with the tangled legalities, the threats of human and monster violence, and the gang/clan conflicts, Certain Dark Things is exactly the kind of story I wanted out of certain vampire-based table top games, but never quite achieved.

On top of this, Certain Dark Things is another "satisfying ending" notch for Moreno-Garcia's belt. I struggle with endings, as a reader and a writer, and I have seen big names flop so hard at the end of a book that I can't imagine how they bounce back. With both Signal to Noise and Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has crafted satisfying conclusions to stories that could have gone badly in so many different ways.

5/5 stars!

Transparency: I received this book through the publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, via NetGalley. I do not receive any affiliate bonuses from links to books (or other products) on this blog.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reviewish: Swords v. Cthulhu

Getting back in the review saddle, post-graduation and what a way to start off - with an anthology! I received an advanced copy for the purposes of review, and am delighted to say it didn't let me down.

Swords v. Cthulhu 
edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington
Stone Skin Press

If you purchase directly from Stone Skin Press, you get the ebook version for free.

It's no secret that I loved-more-than-words Bullington's previous editorial release through Stone Skin Press (Letters to Lovecraft) for its blend of Lovecraftiana and Academia. It tickled every possible soft spot I have for Lovecraft-inspired work and my desire to see creative work intersect with academic analysis. I have a warped sense of fun, what can I say? I didn't honestly expect this anthology to hold up against that benchmark, but in its own way, it absolutely did.

A spiritual successor to Shotguns v. Cthulhu (which I didn't review), this collection requested a few primary markers to tie the whole thing together; "a Mythos element, an action sequence, and melee weapons [to] carry the day." Did it deliver? Yes.

The collection of talent alone (and a delay in responses to submissions due to the high number of writers trying to get their tentacles into this door) is impressive. From Stone Skin Press;

Natania BARRON • Eneasz BRODSKI • Nathan CARSON
Michael CISCO • Andrew S. FULLER • Adam Scott GLANCY
Orrin GREY • Jason HELLER • Jonathan L. HOWARD
John Hornor JACOBS • John LANGAN • L. LARK
Ben STEWART • E. Catherine TOBLER • Jeremiah TOLBERT
Laurie TOM • Carrie VAUGHN • Wendy WAGNER • Caleb WILSON

Most remarkable about this collection overall was the zest and gusto that I felt from many of the stories. I had a strong sense that this was reflective both of the authors and the editors in charge of the project.

Hands down, my favorite of the lot was Orrin Grey's "A Circle That Ever Returneth In" which draws the reader in with a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative, using Lovecraft's "Shining Trapezohedron" (from "The Haunter of the Dark"). Grey is deft with his application of the second-person narrative, and the piece evoked a lot of nostalgia for old D&D modules. But, lest you think the format is all fun and games, Grey doesn't let readers off the hook; this narrative is true to the sense of dread and entropy endemic to the Mythos. On my first read-through, I probably got the best ending a poor soul could hope for...  (A small note: this was also the most problematic story for me to enjoy in the true spirit of things, since I was reading from a PDF. At the time of this writing, there is no digital option on Amazon, but be aware.)

In juxtaposition to Grey's playful approach, other authors offered darker and more stark stories. John Hornor Jacobs' "The Children of Yig" is one story to take a Norse approach, yet steers clear of making heroes out of a historically violent culture. Still, it was easy to slip into Grislae's story; there is always sympathy to be had, even when your protagonist is a pillaging, murdering raider--particularly when that protagonist must inevitably come up against creatures of the Mythos.

Overall, this collection is solid and I would happily recommend it to readers interested in fun stories that still remain true to the heart of despair that beats in the dark universe of the Mythos.

If you're still curious but not yet convinced, check out the Sword v. Cthulhu Teasers over on the Stone Skin Press site, where you can sample the stories included in this collection.

5/5 Stars!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reviewish: The Maids of Wrath

In 2015, Wordfire Press published Josh Vogt's urban fantasy novel Enter the Janitor, the first installation in The Cleaners series. Somehow, I completely missed the boat on that book. Now it's in my to-read pile. However, on April 11th, the sequel will be released and I got my hands on an advanced review copy of The Maids of Wrath!

ARCs were offered in exhange for an honest review. (Seriously, Mr. Vogt went so far as to remind
folks that he didn't want "only positive reviews" but anything from not-so-great to "downright damning.") The good news - for Vogt and readers - is that The Maids of Wrath was a dazzlingly fun read.

When the Cleaners are beset with an emotion-twisting affliction, it's up to Dani and the others to find out what's going on and put a stop to it before their entire HQ is put into quarantine (which translates to a state of perpetual suspension with no known time limit). Complete with its own mystery, this entry into the Cleaners series brings up mysteries from the previous book and layers on the intrigue. There's definitely an impression that Vogt has a lot more ground to cover before the Cleaners are all washed up.

It is a sequel to the previous Cleaners series book, Enter the Janitor, and picks up with characters that I assumed were the focus of that book. However, it didn't take long before I was on my feet, as a reader, and moving along with the narrative. Vogt did a spectacular job setting up The Maids of Wrath in such a way that a reader inexperienced with the previous text could jump right in. He was also pretty light with the reminders of events from the previous novel; while I can't say from experience that they wouldn't be too repetitive for a reader of Enter the Janitor, I can say that I've read series before and recognized the light touch approach here that finds the sweet spot between too much information about a previous installment and too little. That's definitely a huge plus in this book's favor.

Beyond that, Vogt's humor is refreshing, and caused me to laugh out loud while reading more than once. In particular, Dani feels that being forbidden to use her powers during her training is "about as fair as not letting a person use their mouth in a pie-eating contest." In addition, the pacing make this an exceedingly easy read. The action never gets too amped up or bogged down. I found the characters memorable and even quite likable - those that left room to be liked (even gruff Lucy).

If you're looking for some good clean fun, you cannot go wrong with this book. Doubly so if you already loved the first one!

As a somewhat aside, Vogt gives the rather mundane notion of cleaning a whole new life in this series. At one point - when the functionality of Dani's bucket is described - I earnestly wished for a tabletop or computer RPG conversion of this universe. (This shouldn't be surprising, given Vogt's work in the world of RPGs - his debut novel, Forge of Ashes, was a Pathfinder Tales tie-in.)
The level of detail and thought throughout the novel are apparent in brilliant jewel-like moments like this.

You can pre-order Maids of Wrath through Amazon or Smashwords; links are provided on the author's page.

5/5 Stars!