Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fragile Things (Short Fiction Fantasy)

My first reaction after I finished reading Fragile Things was to wonder why I hadn’t read more by Neil Gaiman.So far, I had only read The Graveyard Book and American Gods. As demonstrated by Fragile Things, Gaiman is a master storyteller. In most of the stories, the details come together in just the perfect way, with a wonderful twist at the end. The styles of the stories vary. Some are more traditional; others are shaped more like poems. One story is a novella. In “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot,” Gaiman tells fifteen microstories. One story won a Hugo; another won the Locus Award. “A Study in Emerald” is a fresh twist on the time-honored Sherlock Holmes tale. “Goliath” is a heartfelt twist on the Matrix. Some of the stories, I confess, I didn’t quite understand. While the stories are from the science fiction and fantasy genres, most of them are thoughtful.

Fragile Things left me with such a good feeling that I want to read more by Gaiman.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Shaman (Science Fiction Novel)

While I am a great fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, I have mixed feelings about his most recent novel, Shaman. It is a rite of passage novel set in Paleolithic France. The greatest strength of the novel is its ability to look at universal themes. In addition, it is well-paced and has an interesting plot. As with the Mars Trilogy, I enjoyed Robinson’s descriptions of the environment. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the accuracy of the description of Paleolithic life. Also, I found myself irritated with the all-pervasiveness of sexuality in the first part of the novel. At the risk of sounding like a prude, enough is enough, aren’t there some other interesting things to describe.

In the beginning of Shaman, a very young man, Loon, sets off on a “wander,” where he spends a period of time alone in the wilderness. It is to mark his official apprenticeship as a shaman. Yet, Loon is earmarked to be the apprentice by default; his deceased father was the true apprentice to the tribe’s shaman, Thorn. Loon’s interests lie elsewhere. Loon goes against Thorn’s wishes and marries a woman, Elga. Her past is a bit of mystery. When another tribe steals her, Loon tries to rescue her, with tragic results. By the end of the story, Loon has agreed to take on the role of the new shaman.

The very opening of the story opens with the words “We had a bad shaman.” The very end of the story could have read “We had a good shaman.” While the story centers around Loon, the reader slowly pieces together why Thorn was a good shaman. It speaks to the universal experience of not realizing how good a teacher or a parent was until they have passed or they can no longer understand the gratitude that we hold in our hearts. The story touches on a number of other universal themes. Most of the story focuses on the universal themes of trying to live up to other people’s expectations and trying to become one’s own person. Another major theme is regret. Thorn is forced to make some very difficult decisions, doing the very best he can in a nearly impossible situation. The decisions literally haunt him to the end of this life. Yet another theme is that of otherness. Are the “Old Ones” human? The individuals kidnapped from another tribe are not considered human. Lastly, there is the universal theme of trying to fill another person’s shoes after they are gone.

Shaman doesn’t describe much that is supernatural. It contains very few instances of Loon or Thorn practicing what we typically think of as “shamanism.” In fact more of the story describes making cave drawing.

While I’m glad that I read Shaman, it is definitely not on my list of books that I would most likely recommend.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Down These Strange Streets (Urban Fantasy Short Fiction)

When I read that Down These Strange Streets edited by R. R. Martin and Gardner Duzois was a book of urban fantasy short stories, I expected something very different from what I ended up reading. I imagined gritty detectives tracking down supernatural bad guys in modern cities. And, in fact, the book does have some stories like that. But, most of the stories are hard to pin down, transcending genres. A number of them are part historical fiction, including stories that take place in Caesar's Rome, WWII Aleutians, Prohibition Era United States, Babylon in its declining years, and eighteenth century Jamaica. Almost all the stories have some element of mystery, but they are not all what I would personally describe as "fantasy." Many of the stories have good plot twists.

My favorite story was "The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery" by M. L. N Hanover. Not only did it have a good plot, but it also gave me a new paradigm to think about, puzzles vs. mysteries. Briefly, an exorcist is brought into a murder investigation to prove or disprove that a suspect is possessed. The exorcist is mild mannered, to say the least. He is even a Unitarian, making him seem even more ordinary. This all sets the reader up for a a wonderful twist at the end. I am new to M. L. N Hanover, so perhaps fans will not be as surprised by the ending.

My runners up for favorites were "It's the Same Old Story" by Carrie Vaughn and "In Red, With Pearls" by Patricia Briggs. "It's the Same Old Story" was a touching story about a friendship between a mortal and a vampire that spans close to 70 years. "In Red, With Pearls" was more of what I expected from an urban fantasy, a werewolf trying to find out why a zombie tried to murder his gay partner. The intensity of the werewolf's loyalty was one of the things that made the story attractive for me.

Down These Strange Streets introduced me to some writers that I had never read before. At some point I would like to read novels by a number of them, including Hanover, Vaughn and Briggs. This book also marks the beginning of what I hope to me a year focused more on short fiction and less on novels. I want to have a better understanding of what makes a good story, and short fiction seems like a good place to start.