Aug 27, 2011

Monkey droppings - A triumphant triad of delights

It has been a while since I've last posted. Apologies, all seven of you. I have no excuse save laziness. And I am working on a new book, so there's that. There's only so many words I can use in a day.

But today, a cornucopia! Three (3!) semi-short reviews of a magical bent, guaranteed* to provide you with endless hours of top-notch entertainment.
*not a guarantee

The Magician King (Viking, 2011)
Lev Grossman
He liked the dryads, the mysterious nymphs who watched over oak trees. You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.
In 2009, Lev Grossman combined an intense fervor for the fantasy genre with a talented imagination to his novel The Magicians, an ode to the Harry Potter/Chronicles of Narnia books sheathed in adult post-modern sensibilities. Following his fallible young 'hero' Quentin Coldwater through the rigours of (for lack of a better description) magicians college Brakebills, Grossman posited a finely-hued world made up of the realities of today and the possibilities of true magic. It ended on a note of melancholy, as Quentin — older, slightly wiser, and hardened through combat — re-entered the fictional world of Fillory to find what he sought: true adventure. It was a bold, absorbing work that left as all good novels of the genre do, on an uncertain note, as if there are further exploits to tell.

Two years later, and here we are, presented with The Magician King, an immensely worthy follow-up that expands upon the themes of the original while further laying out a world many will desperately yearn to be true. If the Potter fanatics, now grown, are looking for a new sensation to whet their starving imaginations, this is the series to do it.

King begins where most fantasy novels end: Quentin and his friends are kings and queens of the land of Fillory, growing fat, lazy, and bored. Unsatisfied, Quentin decides to explore beyond the limits of Fillory, to the rarely visited Outer Island, which was owing his new kingdom in back taxes. "It wasn't the Fellowship of the Ring, but then again he wasn't trying to save the world from Sauron, he was attempting to perform a tax audit on a bunch of hick islanders." Taking a cue from The Voyage from the Dawn Treader, Quentin commandeers the ship Muntjac, and sets out with Julia (his friend from Magicians who was denied entry to Brakebills) to see how far the limits of his royal powers can take him.

To better keep the story grounded for the reader, Grossman also relates the tale of Julia, a secondary character in Magicians who proves herself a darker and arguably more interesting specimen than Quentin. Julia, denied a proper magicians education, takes to the back alleys and side streets of the world to learn magic the hard way. Her adventures, grim, gritty, and sexual, balance against the wondrous fantasy world which (as my experiences with Ed Greenwood have proved) can be a bit of a chore to read after a while.

As always, the subtext of maturation weaves through the stories, Quentin coming to understand that wisdom and maturity do not simply come with age. The ending, as fantastical in setting as it is emotionally devastating in impact, comes through Grossman's expert handling of character (from my perspective, a true rarity in such novels). The Magician King is a work of maturity as well, an acceptance that there are gray areas to the human experience that cannot be resolved either through magical summonings or acts of heroism. Its only drawback is that I will now have to wait years for the promised finale.

Low Town (Doubleday, 2011)
Daniel Polansky
I awoke with a headache that made my swollen ankle feel like a hand-job from a ten-ochre-an-hour hooker.
It is such a simple idea: take the tenets of the hard-boiled detective novel and apply them to a middle-ages fantasy world a la Middle Earth. It's a bold concept, and easy to completely screw up, so it's a relief when Daniel Polansky debut novel Low Town turns out to be fun. It's icing on the cake when it turns out to be fantastic, a mix of Mickey Spillane and J.R.R. Tolkien that goes down as smooth as a vial of pixie's breath.

The 'hero' is a nameless gent known only as The Warden, once an enforcer of law, now a drug-dealing low life in Low Town, the harshest district of the city of Rigus of the Thirteen Lands. Life is hardly easy, but The Warden has been able to carve a niche for himself through a keen mind and a judicious use of physical violence. When a small girl goes missing, it is only another hardship to ignore, but when The Warden discovers the girl's mutilated corpse, he finds himself unwillingly placed in charge of hunting down the killer.

Polansky layers his tale with all the tropes of the classic pulps; casual racism (here mostly represented by a race known as the Kiren), stool pigeons, drug use, flashes of vivid violence, both men and women of loose morals, and moments of gloriously over-the-top prose such as "Its voice was shattered porcelain and bruises on a woman." The Warden is an anti-hero straight from Andrew Vachss' Burke school of brutal enforcers with rarely-exposed glimpses of moral outrage.

All this would be fine (and I'm sure, based on what's on the page, that Polansky could deliver a hell of a classic pulp novel should he wish), but the author pushes the story into delirious WTF territory with his setting, as well as as the liberal doses of sorcery, wizards, and otherworldly monsters. What's most interesting, however, is not this unusual setting, but Polansky's refusal to rely on magic as a crutch, instead crafting the tale as a true mystery. The Warden may understand the perils of magic, but he's no practitioner of the dark arts; he doggedly pursues leads and suspects through clues and informers, not through, say, a magical portal that reveals all to those who are pure of heart. The world may have access to magic, but The Warden is a creature of the real.

While there may be other examples of fantasy noir, I can't say I'm too familiar with them, Jeff Vandermeer's brilliant Finch and China Mieville's astonishing The City and the City being the exceptions. Low Town may not be in quite the same league, being closer in spirit to John Meaney's flawed but inherently interesting fantasy police procedural Bone Song. Yet Low Town is a confident debut from a new talent, and I await further exploits of Polansky and The Warden with real excitement.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Voyager, 2011)
Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (eds.)
His one, platonic, relationship seems to have been with a young mathematician and computer scientists named Alan Turing. Their dalliance let to the latter's formulation of his famous Wykeham-Rackham Test, which raised the question of whether it would be possible to devise a robot so lifelike that it would be impossible to tell it apart from a human being while making love to it.
There's a fair amount of geeky in-joking in the above two sentences. If you don't quite get it, then you may find The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities to be quite odd. If you do get it, then you'll find the Cabinet to be right up your alley.

Cabinet, a companion to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (now out of print, but I'm going to definitely track down a copy for myself), is a brilliantly imagined conceit, an examination of the strangest collection of antiques, oddities, and stories assembled by the genius Thackery T. Lambshead, a man who "existed on the fringes of medical science." After his death of "banal pulmonary failure" at his house in Whimpering-on-the-Brook, England, his vast accumulation of artifacts and curios has been catalogued, and careful selections are presented here, along with stories penned by some of the modern genre greats.

As befits the fictional collection, Cabinet harbours a myriad of delights, along with gorgeous paintings, sketches, and photographs (the book itself is gorgeous). Luminaries such as Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, Mike Mignola, Alan Moore, Lev Grossman, Tad Williams, Minister Faust, and dozens beside contribute tales, descriptions, and more, resulting in an anthology of vastly differing styles and themes. The entries, bearing titles such as Dunkelblau's Meistergarten, The Electrical Neurheographiton, the Clockroach, and The Thing in the Jar, are wondrous and strange, completely original, and sadly fictional (I want an Automatic Nanny).

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is an anthology of prodigious brilliance, bizarre wit, and expansive imaginations. As evidenced by this, alongside their amazing anthologies Steampunk, Steampunk II, and Bestiary (cross your fingers on that one, and yes, I am a contributor), Mr. and Mrs. Vandermeer are purveyors of the weird of the highest order.


1 comment:

Buried In Print said...

That sound you hear is the scribbling on my TBR list. Thanks.

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