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Children of Earth and SkyChildren of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I've actually been reading this one from my own hardcover and the library's borrowed Kindle edition. Given the size of this book, it only made sense to be able to carry it more easily and finally be able to read it more often in more places.

In either format, this is a gorgeous, if slow-paced (mostly) read. Set in a slightly alternate version of Renaissance Europe and ornamented with light touches of the fantastic, it follows several characters through one momentous spring of warfare, politics, and conspiracy. Intriguingly, these characters are on different sides of the conflicts -- and Kay manages to make us care about them all.

The overall message seems to be that war happens to people, not to faceless groups of them. Despite the historical/fantastic setting, this has a distinctly contemporary ring to it due to the religious conflict at its center.

I took my time getting through this, but Kay's prose isn't something to wolf down. It's meant to be savored, and thought about, and rolled around in the mind. Highly recommended for both historical readers willing to expand their horizons a bit, and fantasy readers open to a more subtle approach to the uncanny. There is also a short but highly informative acknowledgments section at the end, for those who are curious about which bits of history had their serial numbers filed off.





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Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An absolutely beautiful rendition of these myths, with a distinctive "voice" that somehow manages to be both plain and deeply poetic. I went through this one slowly, because many of the stories read more like prose poems, & seemed far too musical to just breeze through.

Gaiman manages to call up the true dark / hopeful spirit of these myths, drawing a clear distinction between the more familiar Greek or Roman stories and the grim Northern ones with their certainty that even the gods are doomed.

This book includes an extensive & very helpful glossary of names & places, though I found a few missing when I went to look them up from the stories. All in all, a must read (and probably must buy) for mythology enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys ancient tales told well.



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Mira's Last Dance (Penric and Desdemona, #4)Mira's Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a slightly iffy five stars, because it's actually the second half of a plot begun in Penric's Mission . .. but five stars none the less, if you're a Bujold fan.

The best of this, for me, was the continuing exploration of Learned Penric's relationship to his very complicated "demon" Desdemona. She is actually several separate personalities, and one of them (Mira, a noted courtesan dead for over a century) turns out to have exactly the skills needed to resolve the situation Penric & Co. found themselves in at the end of the last novella.

Pen being male doesn't slow Mira down a bit, though it does add to the lighter feel of this entry in the series. It also adds a bit to Bujold's examination of what it means to be male or female, and the importance of recognizing / honoring the gray areas.

If you're new to this series, be sure to start with Penric's Demon. These novellas are very serialized -- and besides, why miss out on more of a good thing?







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I don't usually post about crowdfunding projects, but I've recently backed one (also rare for me!) that I'm pretty excited about.

Tony C. Smith of the District of Wonders podcasts is doing a Kickstarter for a new SF/F anthology.  It's entitled Everyone: Worlds Without Walls.  Its stated goal is to:

explore and celebrate how we are greater together – and, conversely, the need to tear down walls of ignorance, prejudice, and injustice.

The TOC for this one is international, diverse, & impressive -- and will expand as stretch goals are met.   Dr. Amy H. Sturgis[livejournal.com profile] eldritchhobbit will be writing the introduction. At this point, there are 21 writers involved!

With 10 days to go,  the project's original goal and one stretch goal have been met.  Pledge levels range from the extremely reasonable -- which gets you a e-copy of the anthology -- to more generous amounts for additional rewards.

All details, including that expanding TOC, can be found here.

(Full disclosure: I am backing this, but I am not one of the writers or otherwise involved with the project.)
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Penric’s Mission (World of the Five Gods, #3.7)Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This third entry in Bujold's Penric & Desdemona series (long may it prosper!) has a distinctively darker tone than the two previous novellas, though it never veers into grimdark territory.

When the young Temple sorcerer and his much more experienced demon find themselves betrayed during a diplomatic mission, they must use all their skills to escape from almost certain death. The action and interpersonal intrigue never stop after that. Bujold delivers a coherent magical system, well-crafted fight scenes, and even a touch of honest romance in this one, and any fan of her World of the Five Gods will find this a must read.

Those new to these novellas should definitely start with Penric's Demon, since the plot is quite serialized. A fourth adventure -- Mira's Last Dance -- should be available soon, and I'll be preordering that for my Kindle at the earliest opportunity.




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Penric and the Shaman (World of the Five Gods, #1.6)Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Another delightful return to Bujold's World of the Five Gods, though with a somewhat confusing look into how shamanism works in that culture. (I've been told that reading The Hallowed Hunt first might help. I have somehow missed this one, & definitely intend to do that!)

This is very clearly the second in a series, so reading Penric's Demon first will let the reader get the most out of another right-sized fantasy adventure featuring a very young "full-braid divine" and his much more experienced demon. I'm already looking forward to reading the third of this series, now waiting on my Kindle.



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The Deed of Paksenarrion (The Deed of Paksenarrion, #1-3)The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


An old-school, character-focused high / epic fantasy -- originally a trilogy (Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, (Divided Allegiance, and (Oath of Gold), now published in one volume. The trilogy originally came out in the late 1980s, which is when I think I may have encountered it. I recently reread it, over several months, as “comfort reading.”

And I’m glad that I did.

Many of the plot devices – and certainly the standard Northern European fantasy trappings – are a little dated now. Though gritty enough, the storyline would probably be considered YA. However – and it’s a big However – the notion of a Hero’s Journey for a heroine still resonates, and there are still far too few of them in modern fantasy.

Elizabeth Moon’s prose is tight and clear, her characters are fully worked out, and her knowledge of military subjects comes from actual experience. This is a well-crafted page-turner suitable for fantasy readers of any age, though younger female readers might appreciate it a bit more.




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Penric's Demon (World of the Five Gods, #3.5)Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Set within the Chalion / Five Gods portion of Bujold’s works, this novella is a must-read for her fans (I’m one of them) – and recommended for other fantasy enthusiasts who enjoy world-building and complex characterization without massive doses of graphic violence. Though there’s plenty of action & convincing darkness, the narrative would work for both YA and adult readers.

As always with Bujold, relationships take precedence here. When a young lord whose family has seen better days accidently becomes the newest host of a “demon” (a supernatural being linked to religious magic), he reacts by trying to make friends with the entity. This unusual choice – demons are generally treated as unwilling servants of the sorcerers they inhabit -- drives the rest of the narrative at a brisk pace. Readers of Bujold’s Chalion novels will discover small but tasty additions to that lore. Readers new to the series are unlikely to find themselves lost, but may not appreciate this adventure quite as much.

This novella is a fine example of a fantasy written to its proper length, and no further. I was fully satisfied with the tale when it ended, though (of course!) I wished there were a few more waiting in the wings.




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The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Although this short but incredibly concentrated collection is apparently a modern classic, I’d never run into it until now. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the more elegant bits of darkness I’ve read in some time.

In these ten tales, Angela Carter doesn’t so much retell various fairy tales & legends as rip them apart and rebuild them entirely. Her style is elaborate, poetic, and measured. Her viewpoint is unabashedly feminist, yet critical to the point of cynicism. Her obsessions – and she seems to have had quite a few – are worked out over & over again, reflections in a series of precisely warped mirrors.

Whether this approach works or not depends upon the individual reader. It certainly worked for me – once I slowed down enough to absorb these stories as the near prose-poems they are. My personal favorites were “The Bloody Chamber,” “The Tiger’s Bride,” and “The Lady in the House of Love,” but YMMV – and it’s almost sure to. Do yourself a favor, though, and read this collection in order. Many of the tales play off previous ones, and skipping around may dilute the effect.




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Searchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and FantasticSearchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic by S.T. Joshi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


[Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology. I won’t be discussing it here.]

Taking its inspiration from a quote by H.P. Lovecraft (in “The Picture in the House”), this anthology focuses on weird places and disturbing locales – from a variety of perspectives. Not all are Lovecraftian, though a goodly number are.

Although the stories do have some flow between them – assuming they are read in sequence – this is a remarkably diverse assortment. Straight-up Lovecraftian adventure? It’s here. Haunted house tales? Also here. Ditto for dark SF, literary weirdness, at least one bit of graphic violence, and many approaches in between. The quality in general is quite high, though these tales skew toward “disturbing” rather than “blatantly horrific.”

My personal favorites in this one were by John Shirley, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Simon Strantzas, Brian Stableford, and Nancy Kilpatrick.




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The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This lyrical, melancholy, & frequently strange novel is set in post-Arthurian Britain, somewhere between historical & magical. The land lies under a strange mist which thwarts long-term memory, though many suspect this has advantages as well as disadvantages.

When an elderly pair of Britons set out from their underground community to find their son in a neighboring town, they find themselves entangled in increasingly mythic situations. Their traveling companions include a Saxon fighter, a young orphan with a mysterious wound, and the nearly ancient Sir Gawain (yes, that Gawain) -- all in search of a she-dragon who may be causing the mist.

This set-up may sound like standard fantasy, but nothing about this journey is straightforward or completely explained. Ishiguro changes viewpoint characters often – though always with proper identification – and the reader is never sure how much of what he/she has just learned is real & how much is false memory. The ending is heartbreaking, though some loose ends remain. Or perhaps it’s only that dragon mist . . .

I was torn between four stars and five for this one, but finally settled on four due to a few too many “what just happened?” or “how does this relate to the overall plot?” moments. I suspect some might be my fault rather than the author’s. I’m an experienced consumer of fantasy fiction, but this tale is definitely on the thin literary edge of that genre.




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Dreams from a Black NebulaDreams from a Black Nebula by Wade German

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a generously-sized collection of (mainly) formal dark verse, skewing toward the Clark Ashton Smith end of the weirdness spectrum. The poems are divided into five sections, one of which seemed to be a loosely-connected sequence (“Songs from the Nameless Hermitage”).

Wade German is a relative newcomer to weird poetry, but he’s a fine technician in a wide variety of forms – sonnets are a particular favorite in this collection – and knows how to vary them for effect. His free verse is also well-structured and effective, though possibly less musical.
The overall effect of these poems is rich and dreamlike, and I found myself taking them a few at a time rather than rushing through.

Recommended for fans of traditional genre poetry, Weird Tales-style dark fantasy, or both.




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The GolemThe Golem by Gustav Meyrink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This “review” is more in the nature of a few comments on my first-time reading experience. I am frankly not qualified to discuss German language literature – even in what I’m told is an excellent translation. I know little about Gustav Meyrink, beyond a couple of biographical articles, and I’ve never read anything by him before.

That said, I’ve just had a truly mind-bending excursion through the Jewish ghetto of pre-WW I Prague. The atmosphere is pure Gothic. The narrator is thoroughly unreliable, even to himself. He may or may not be dreaming the entire story – though he denies it – and he spends a lot of that time in various altered states. In the process, he is introduced to a dizzying variety of occult concepts (and traditions!). He falls in and out of love, meets up with a cast of grotesque villains and hapless heroes, gets drawn into a murder plot, finds himself imprisoned . . . on and on, in the sort of dream-logic plot that never fully resolves.

Or maybe it does, and I was just too bewildered to recognize that.

I can’t say that this was the clearest narrative I’ve ever read, but it was definitely one of the weirdest (in a very good way). The Golem is currently celebrating its hundredth year since publication, so this one’s got staying power. If you enjoy the Gothic, the weird, or the dark esoteric, it’s probably well worth your time.




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Love & Other PoisonsLove & Other Poisons by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is an remarkably varied collection of dark fantasy tales – some darker than others – likely to appeal to those who prefer their terrors subtle. Many reflect the author’s Mexican heritage, adding a unique flavor to everything from the Lovecraftian “Collect Call” to the nearly SF “Distant Deeps Or Skies.” Another particularly successful tale in this collection is “A Puddle of Blood,” which introduces Aztec mythology into the world of the undead. The world-building in this one is intriguing, and leaves the reader hoping for more about these characters.



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The 2014 Rhysling AnthologyThe 2014 Rhysling Anthology edited by Elizabeth R. McClellan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Originally meant as a voting tool for the Science Fiction Poetry Association's annual Rhysling Awards, this year’s Rhysling Anthology is once again an attractively produced, perfect-bound reader's guide to the previous year in speculative poetry. All poems were nominated by the members of SFPA.

This year’s anthology offers 103 pages -- in my voting copy, anyhow -- of short and long-form verse, in a wide variety of styles. (Formal verse, however, is not extensively represented.) Many of the field’s most familiar names appear, along with a promising slate of newcomers.

I noticed somewhat less emphasis on fairy tale & myth this year, and a few more “slipstream” poems which seemed only marginally speculative. SF, fantasy, and straight-up dark verse continue to receive their share of attention. The quality of the poetry itself is high, though the wide spectrum of topics and approaches makes it unlikely that any one reader will appreciate every offering. I’d recommend taking it as a multidimensional box of cosmic chocolates, selecting a few at a time for maximum enjoyment.

A full listing of this year’s poets and poems appears here: http://www.sfpoetry.com/ra/rhyscand.html




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The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Here’s a different view of the Trojan War, told by the usually marginalized Patroclus. Since most readers likely to pick up this book already know the ending, Miller’s challenge is to make the journey worthwhile. By focusing on Achilles’ mostly non-combatant lover – and, to a lesser extent, other “bit players” like the war prize Briseis and Achilles’ sea nymph mother Thetis – she offers a less heroic and more personal view of this legendary conflict. The gods are very much in play here, and most of them are every bit as petty and ego-driven as the mortal combatants.

Aside from the infrequent patch of slightly purple prose, Miller’s style is clear and lyrical. Even without much true suspense (until the ending!), the pages turn or click / swipe quickly. Rather than include too much explanation of each character’s role in the story, she also provides a comprehensive glossary with references to various classic texts. Even readers who think they know this story well are likely to find a few surprises here. I certainly did.

I was waffling between four & five stars for this one, but the last three chapters – which should not have worked at all, given the condition of the viewpoint character at this plot juncture! – pushed it over the line for me. Five stars, solid. If you like Mary Renault (especially The Persian Boy) or well-researched fiction about the Classical world in general, you’ll probably find this one well worth your time.




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RavenwoodRavenwood by Nathan Lowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A highly entertaining Podiobook fantasy from the author of the "Share" SF series (and, yes, I've listened to all of those, too). I'm not sure how well Lowell's storytelling translates to print -- but on audio, he makes treadmill sessions & household chore time fly by.

Ravenwood is a pagan-themed tale featuring a rarity in in most fantasy: a woman protagonist over fifty (or at least close to it!). Tanith Fairport is a healer and long-time student of herb lore, on the road to improve her knowledge & escape an abusive past. When she stops to help a sick woman in a small, new village, she expects to be on her way by morning -- but fate (or perhaps the All-Mother) has a different plan for her.

What follows is a detailed, character-rich account of Tanith's next few months in the village (later named Ravenwood, for spoiler reasons), helping its mostly young inhabitants get themselves established. Bandits, business problems, & her own discovery of herself as more than a simple healer keep the plot humming along, though I wouldn't call this a tale of high adventure. Rather, it's a story of personal growth with a fascinating, somewhat magical setting.

Listeners who enjoy strong believable heroines over the age of 30, Wicca-type pagan details, and/or plenty of information about herbs (and village life in general) will welcome this one. I'm hoping for more Tanith Fairport adventures, though none are currently being offered in audio form.






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Boy's LifeBoy's Life by Robert McCammon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Although I enjoyed Robert McCammon’s horror (particularly The Wolf’s Hour) in the past, I’d never thought of trying his less horrific novels – until now. And I’m so glad I did.

This year-long visit to the 1964 world of eleven-year-old Cory Mackenson in small-town Alabama is a Ray Bradbury-tinged delight. After a grisly murder plunges the protagonist and his father into a mystery no one else in town seems willing to solve, the reader is treated to four seasons of compelling characters, increasingly strange events (including a river monster attack and an escaped triceratops), and relentlessly beautiful prose. Many chapters function as nearly complete stories on their own, creating a mosaic of memorable people and themes.

There’s more than a touch of Southern Gothic here, as well. Madness, family secrets, and hauntings abound. The darkness never overwhelms the light, however, and McCammon is careful to tie up all important loose ends in a 1991 epilogue. Fans of Bradbury, quiet horror, and/or literary fantasy should all put this one on their Must Read lists.




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Looking for a good way to wind up National Poetry Month?

Check out the Amazing Stories site for Diane Severson’s[livejournal.com profile] divadiane1transition” review of Mythic Delirium, a 15 year old spec poetry standard (in print) now heading for a new life as an online ‘zine.

Diane reviews its last print issue -- #30 – which offers a retrospective sample of the poetry published in previous issues. Several of the poets included supply notes on their poems and/or their feelings about the long history of Mythic Delirium.

Also included are audios of poems by Shira Lipkin, Kendall Evans & David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Amal El-Mohtar, Gary Every, Theodora Goss, Jennifer Crow, Joshua Gage, & Yours Truly.

I’m extremely happy with Diane’s rendition of “Lost Over East Texas,” my commemoration of space shuttle Columbia.

Find this review, TOC of issue #30, & links to the audio poems here.
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I'm very happy to report that Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk!, edited by Lois Gresh, is now available for preorder from PS Publishing.

This anthology encompasses dark fiction of all stripes, from straight horror to dark fantasy, the weird, & dark SF. (My own tale, "When the Stars Run Away," is of this final persuasion.)

I've included the TOC below. For more information, or for preorders, please check here.

***

•The Rest is Noise – Nicholas Kaufmann
•Beneath Their Shoulders – Norman Prentiss
•Ignis Fatuus – Scott David Aniolowski & T.E. Grau
•The Flea Circus – Cody Goodfellow
•The Corpse Detective – Darrell Schweitzer
•When the Stars Run Away – Ann K. Schwader
•Reign – Michael Marano
•Golden State – Lisa Morton
•Sidestep – Lynn Spitz
•Five-Star Review – David Sakmyster
•Little Bastards – John D. Haefele
•Gurrl UnDeleted – Nancy Kilpatrick
•Thirst – James Alan Gardner
•What Was Called – Nick Cato
•Faceless – Yvonne Navarro
•Death Eater – Christopher Fulbright
•Aunt Paloma – Mark McLaughlin
•Medieval Metaphysics – Robert M. Price

***

August 2017

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