30 May 2016

White Tiger

A review of White Tiger by Kylie Chan (Harper Voyager, 2011) – originally published in Interzone

White Tiger is Kylie Chan’s first novel. Originally published in Australia in 2006, HarperCollins has now decided to make it more widely available.

It is a contemporary fantasy novel written in the first person. The protagonist, Emma Donahoe, is an Australian English teacher working at a kindergarten in Hong Kong. The novel begins with her giving up her job at the kindergarten to become the nanny of four-year-old Simone (an unnaturally well-behaved and intelligent child). Simone’s father is John Chen, a wealthy and very attractive Hong Kong businessman. However, it is not long before Emma discovers that Chen is really an incognito Chinese god. To be precise, he is Xuan Wu, one of the senior deities of the Taoist pantheon and a god closely associated with Chinese martial arts. The fourth major character in the novel is Leo, an Afro-American martial arts expert and John Chen’s bodyguard. Leo also happens to be stereotypically gay (to the point of choosing clothes for Emma and John!).

All is not well with John Chen. He is trapped in human form and seriously weakened. The demons have already killed his wife, and the king of the demons has offered a reward for his head. Of course, that makes everyone close to him a potential target, so Emma finds herself on the receiving end of a crash course in martial arts and their esoteric counterparts.

There is a lot of potential in this novel. New voices in urban fantasy are always welcome, and the use of Chinese mythology (in which the author is seemingly well-versed) makes a very welcome change from the usual rehashed Eurocentric mythologies that tend to dominate this genre. Add to that the promise of lots of martial arts action and the stage seems to be set for something really exciting.

Sadly her descriptions of the martial arts involved are surprisingly vague given their importance in the story. Strangely, for an author who has put a lot of emphasis on her knowledge of Chinese culture and mythology, Kylie Chan uses the Japanese term ‘kata’ when referring to the various martial art forms rather than the more authentic ‘taolu’. I must confess that I was quite unimpressed by many of the fight descriptions: her numerical rating of demons and the fact that they explode into black goo when they are defeated made them seem like something out of a computer game!

But my main complaint about the novel is that it seems bloated. There is lots of action of the ‘one damn thing after another’ variety, but there are also various subplots that don’t seem to drive the story forward at all. For example, Emma’s former employer, the slightly sinister Kitty Kwok, keeps trying to contact her. And we are treated to regular conversations over lunch with her girlfriends, April and Louise, in which we hear a good deal more than we really need to about April’s relationship with a minor Hong Kong gangster. Perhaps she is laying the groundwork for important events in later volumes, but if so a little more foreshadowing might have been in order.

And, after nearly 550 pages, surprisingly little seems to have been resolved. Our heroes have survived a major demonic assault; Emma seems uncannily adept at martial arts and something unspecified about her frightens the king of the demons; she has become John Chen’s consort but for various reasons they must remain celibate; and, in the event of something happening to John Chen, she will become Simone’s guardian.

Perhaps the lack of resolution relates to the fact that White Tiger is the first volume of a trilogy. Perhaps she is working on a really large scale and the loose ends and unresolved issues will all work together into a satisfactory conclusion in another 1000 pages. But I’m not sure I have the patience to wade through those pages, particularly if they involve much more girl talk over dim sum!

27 May 2016

John Bainbridge Webster (1955–2016): some memories

It was something of a shock to hear that John Webster died suddenly on Wednesday – just a month short of his 61st birthday. John was increasingly being described as one of the most significant English-speaking theologians of his generation and he still had so much more to contribute to the world of theology (I think particularly of a rumoured five-volume systematic theology).

Several obituaries have already appeared on the theological blogosphere. They have rightly focused on his significance as a Barth interpreter, though it should not be forgotten that he was also at the forefront of making that most cryptic of German theologians – Eberhard Jüngel – accessible to an English-speaking readership. I’m not going to try to compete with them because to be honest I haven’t read as much of his work as some of them clearly have. For me, John was a friend rather than an authoritative other. So, instead, here are a few memories awoken by this news:

  • We first met when he applied for the post of Doctrine Tutor at Cranmer Hall, Durham. I was part of the interviewing process (along with the rest of the academic staff of St John’s College not to mention various carefully selected undergraduates, ordinands, and members of the domestic staff – the Principal liked to get a lot of perspectives on potential staff members!). To be honest, John’s CV didn’t stand out from the others on the shortlist. However, John sparkled at interview and S.E. behaved so obnoxiously that by the end of the weekend John’s appointment was a certainty.
  • John sitting proudly behind the wheel of his first car – a Lada Riva.
  • John’s ordination in Durham Cathedral; Peter Baelz preached on ‘What use are these deacons?’ ( I think John’s subsequent career amply answers that question.) Interestingly, John never trained for the priesthood – the Church of England allowed certain people (notably lecturers at Anglican theological colleges) to be ordained without jumping through the usual hoops. It was a system open to abuse, but in John’s case they struck gold (not just a fine theologian but a good preacher and a natural pastor).
  • John preaching to a room full of inmates at one of the prisons outside Durham (I had gone along as moral support). You could could have heard a pin drop!
  • A philosophical theology weekend organized by John, which gave a number of young theologians including Kevin Vanhoozer a chance to deliver papers in an informal and unthreatening environment.
  • Chatting with Rowan Williams during the 1986 Barth Centenary Conference. We were discussing John’s appointment to Wycliffe College, Toronto and Rowan commented that John was ‘the finest Anglican theologian of his generation’.
  • Arriving jetlagged at Toronto Airport to welcomed by John and immediately taken for a restorative cup of coffee.
  • John warning me that reading Barth’s commentary on Romans is like watching a very long war movie!

23 May 2016

Naked City

A review of Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow (St Martin’s Griffin, 2011) – originally published in Interzone

Another month, another anthology of urban fantasy – or so it seems. In the last issue of Interzone I reviewed Peter Beagle and Joe Lansdale’s recent volume, while George Martin and Gardner Dozois’s new collection is due out next month.

In their take on the genre, Peter Beagle and Joe Lansdale set out to define urban fantasy and classify it into a number of sub-genres, which they illustrated by means of a number of carefully selected previously published stories. In her new anthology, Ellen Datlow has taken a very different tack: she commissioned a series of new stories from a range of authors with the brief that the city in which the story was set should be as important to the story as anything else.

Perhaps most striking is the sheer diversity of the twenty stories in this collection. That diversity is echoed in the title, Naked City, which recalls the documentary/crime photography of Weegee, a crime movie and a spin-off TV series, which had the catchphrase, ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city, this has been one of them.’ Here we have detective stories, supernatural romance, vampires, soft science fiction, possible steampunk, humour and outright horror. There is traditional fantasy and there are one or two offbeat stories that refuse to be categorized. There are historical settings and contemporary settings in cities that include London, Berlin, Haifa and, of course, New York, while other stories are set in cities entirely of the imagination.

Several are set in existing fictional universes. Of these I had previously read only Ellen Kushner’s Swordpoint (the novel behind her contribution, ‘The Duke of Riverside’). So this volume has given me a welcome introduction to several new novels and in one or two cases new novelists, notably Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (on the strength of ‘Curses’, the opening story of the collection, because I’m a sucker for supernatural detective fiction) and Melissa Marr’s Graveminder (because I enjoyed her transposition of noir to a contemporary Hades).

With contributions from the likes of Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shephard, Lavie Tidhar, John Crowley and Naomi Novik, there are many gems in this collection, but my personal favourite was, undoubtedly, ‘Oblivion by Calvin Klein’, a striking piece by Christopher Fowler. Set in the department stores of London, this story focuses on the city as the home of consumerism. For the protagonist of the story, shopping has become a drug and as a compensation for the lack of sexual satisfaction in her marriage. Beneath a veneer of biting wit, Fowler has hidden an uncompromising attack on consumerist values. But, for me, the real highlight of this story is his language, which simply makes it a joy to read.

Inevitably in a collection of such diversity, there were some stories I didn’t enjoy. For example, Peter Beagle’s ‘Underbridge’ is well written, but the protagonist is an unpleasant character who meets an unpleasant (and, once the story is set up, rather predictable) end. Another one that didn’t work for me was Jeffrey Ford’s ‘Daddy Longlegs of the Evening’, which read like straightforward horror rather than dark fantasy. For some reason, the urban setting did not seem particularly important in this story (unless perhaps the possessing spider is to be taken as some kind of metaphor for the dehumanizing effect of the city).

Taken as a whole, Naked City is a fascinating snapshot of the state of urban fantasy in 2011. It should be essential reading whether you are an established fan of urban fantasy or someone who is wondering whether this kind of fiction is for you.

16 May 2016

Corvus

A review of Corvus by Paul Kearney (Solaris, 2010) – originally published in Interzone

This is very loosely a sequel to Paul Kearney’s March of the Ten Thousand, which was a fantasy version of Xenophon’s Anabasis. The new novel is set twenty years later among the bickering city states of the Macht, and Rictus, the young hero of March has grown into a legendary mercenary commander who is beginning to feel his age and is seriously considering retirement.

However, his future plans are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Corvus (Kearney’s fantasy realization of Alexander the Great), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Initially Rictus goes along with him out of curiosity, but soon he comes to recognize and respect the younger man’s military and political genius. Later he is told the truth of Corvus’s parentage: a revelation that binds him even more closely to the would-be unifier of the Macht.

The main thrust of the story is the tale of Rictus’s part in helping Corvus achieve his aim of uniting the Macht under his rule. And this element of the novel is underpinned by the sheer excellence of Kearney’s description of combat and warfare. This is no straightforward glorification of violence. Rather the brilliance of the description serves to highlight the sheer brutality of Hellenistic-era warfare.

Kearney’s characterization is as strong as his description. As a result, the reader comes to sympathize with characters on both sides of the conflict, which in my view greatly adds to the believability of the plot. Having said that, I felt that Rictus seemed a bit too heroic at times. Some of his narrow escapes from death are frankly unbelievable. One in particular, from which he recovers in matter of weeks, would put any normal modern person in intensive care and probably leave them permanently crippled (and I don’t believe the author’s implied explanation that his magical breastplate could have partially protected him from the kind of injuries he should have sustained in that mishap).

There is also a major subplot recounting the disaster that befalls Rictus’s family as a result of his support for Corvus. I found this element of the novel less enjoyable mainly because it felt rather predictable, but also because it could be read as reinforcing the old patriarchal myth of male dominance and the need for women to be protected by strong men.

I also have a quibble about Kearney’s naming policy. Corvus is just about acceptable, though knowing that it meant ‘crow’ gave me misleading expectations about Corvus’s character. But what possessed him to burden his hero with the name Rictus? Frankly it is an even worse choice of name than Guy Gavriel Kay’s choice of Aileron for one of his characters!

Corvus is definitely swords without sorcery. The only unearthly element is the apparently magical armour that has come down to some of the warriors of the Macht from time out of mind. A gift of the goddess? A remnant of some former high-tech civilization? And yet it clearly is historical fantasy of the subtle kind we have come to expect from the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kearney has, it seems, entered quite faithfully into the early Hellenistic thought world, giving us a vivid and horrific picture of Hellenistic warfare in fantasy trappings. That certainly has the benefit of helping to transport the reader into another culture. But it has the downside of tacitly accepting the negative aspects of that culture, particularly its patriarchy and the perennial myth of redemptive violence.

But, my quibbles and philosophical doubts aside, this is an excellent read. Don’t be put off by the fact that it is a sequel, it works perfectly well on its own. If you are looking for a gritty, action-packed novel that does not skimp on characterization, you need look no further. And once you’ve read this one, you will surely want to work your way through Kearney’s earlier novels.

09 May 2016

Lavinia

A review of Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin (Gollancz, 2009) – originally published in Interzone

In this novel Ursula Le Guin re-works the later volumes of Virgil’s Aeneid. She tells the story of the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy from the perspective of a minor character in Virgil’s poem. Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus of Laurentium and is destined to become Aeneas’ second wife. And that is nearly all that Virgil tells us about her.

As Lavinia herself complains, Virgil slighted her life and scanted her in his poem. But now Le Guin sets the record straight. She remains faithful to Virgil’s account of how the Trojans settle in Italy, choosing to expand on Lavinia’s life rather than alter the story as it has already been told. Latinus is still warned by an oracle that his daughter must marry a foreigner and so he offers her hand to Aeneas. King Turnus, Lavinia’s former suitor, still takes offence and launches a war against the Trojans. And Aeneas still kills Turnus in single combat. But Le Guin carries on where Virgil left off, telling us of the marriage of Lavinia and Aeneas and their life together until his death just three years after landing in Italy. The closing pages of the novel continue the story of Lavinia as she brings up Silvius, the son she bore Aeneas, and faces down her stepson Ascanius, and then on into old age . . . and beyond?

Lavinia can be read as a historical novel in the sense that Le Guin has lovingly re-created the relatively simple bronze age culture that ultimately gave birth to Rome. In the course of telling Lavinia’s story, she paints a sympathetic picture of their daily lives (admitting in an afterword that she has played down their primitiveness). I was particularly struck by her portrayal of the part religion played in their lives – a much simpler, more pantheistic religion than that imagined by Virgil, a religion of ancestral spirits and numinous places.

At court, Lavinia cultivates a self-effacing persona to appease the uncertain temper of her mentally unstable mother. With her peers, she is altogether more spirited – running wild with girls of her own age, going alone to holy places, even spying on the Trojan camp when they first arrive in Italy. But she is an unlikely heroine by the standards of modern culture. Where we are conventionally encouraged to find freedom and fulfilment by expressing our individuality, Lavinia finds them within the constraints imposed upon her by society. She embraces her role as priestess of the household. She accepts that it is her fate to marry Aeneas. Indeed, she is initially drawn to him not by love but by a sense of destiny and by her awareness that Aeneas shares that piety, that acceptance of fate. Ultimately she learns to use those constraints to her advantage as, for example, in her conflict with Ascanius over Silvius’ upbringing. But why has Le Guin written her protagonist in such a passive manner? One simple answer could be her hatred of anachronism (which anyone who remembers her scathing comments on aspects of Kathryn Kurtz’s Deryni novels will know). The freedom she accords Lavinia is the only freedom available to a woman in the kind of patriarchal society portrayed here.

But there is another dimension to Lavinia’s private spiritedness, which transforms the novel from simply a historical novel into something much more experimental. Lavinia dares to argue with her original creator, Virgil. Le Guin’s Lavinia is not simply a character in a historical novel but a character who is aware of herself as the product of someone else’s imagination. At several points in her narration of her life story she recounts visits to the sacred spring of Albunea where, across the centuries, she speaks with Virgil as he lies dying. So far, so strange. But even aware of her fictionality she doesn’t hesitate to question and contradict her creator – on trivia, such as the colour of her hair, and the fundamentals of life, such as the necessity of war. And the strangeness is compounded by a passing remark of Virgil, which reveals that he too has a vague sense of being involved in another story – a story in which he acts as guide to someone he meets in a dark wood. And, to some extent, Virgil guides Le Guin’s Lavinia as elsewhen he guides Dante.

But ultimately Lavinia like Dante is left to go on alone. The Aeneid breaks off with Turnus’ and Virgil’s death. Thereafter Lavinia has to forge her own path. In contrast to the violent and very obvious ending of the Aeneid, Lavinia ends in quietness and mystery in the sacred grove that meant so much to Lavinia in life . . . a grove now haunted by a little owl that sometimes remembers what it was to have been a Latin princess who loved a Trojan hero.

I have read and re-read most of Ursula Le Guin’s novels many times. They are clever and well-written and contain moments of greatness. But this one towers above them. When the time comes to compile lists of the great novels of the twenty-first century, Lavinia ought to figure strongly.

03 May 2016

Impossible Stories

A review of Impossible Stories by Zoran Živković (PS Publishing, 389 pages, limited edition hardback, 2006)

The nice people at PS Publishing have collected five of Zoran Živković’s mosaic novels into a very attractive limited edition hardback. Many of the short stories of which the novels are composed first appeared in Interzone but it is good to have them gathered together in a more durable form.

So what is a mosaic novel? It is more than just a themed collection of short stories. To my mind, ‘story cycle’ would be a fairly accurate translation. The individual stories within a particular cycle may be very different but they share certain themes, motifs and possibly characters. And the final story in each cycle tends to be a recapitulation of those themes and motifs. Živković’s use of the term ‘mosaic’ is suggestive: each story is a complete entity in itself, but when the various stories in a cycle are fitted together they constitute a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first cycle in the collection is ‘Time Gifts’. In each story the devil offers someone a time-related gift. An astronomer facing possible execution is offered a vision of the future and with it the choice between posthumous fame and a long life of obscurity. A palaeolinguist facing retirement and obscurity is given the chance to visit the distant past as a disembodied spirit and hear for herself the languages about which she has speculated. A watchmaker is given the chance to change a tragic event in his past, thus creating a very different present. Finally, an artist in an asylum learns the stories of the other characters from the devil. But, as you might expect since the devil is the source of the gift, each gift hides a curse.

As the title suggests, ‘Impossible Encounters’ relates a series of meetings: a narrator recounts a post-death meeting, a young man meets his Doppelgänger on a mountain top, a science fiction writer meets a character from his latest novel, a businessman meets God on a train journey, a priest with a guilty conscience is absolved by the devil. Finally, the author meets a character from ‘Impossible Encounters’. Tying the stories together are the themes of death, loss and forgetfulness.

‘Seven Touches of Music’ explores the revelatory impact of music on the lives of seven characters: a teacher, a librarian, a widower, a spinster, a painter, a dying scientist (hints in the story imply that Živković had Einstein in mind) and a luthier’s apprentice. In each case, the central character has an unusual or extraordinary experience that is connected with music, and in each case the experience leaves them more isolated from their fellows than before. Perhaps because of my love of music, I found these stories particularly evocative.

‘The Library’, which won a 2003 World Fantasy Award, examines the nightmares that can be created by misplaced or excessive love of books. Perhaps the scariest one for writers is the story ‘Virtual Library’ in which an author discovers a website on which he can read all his future works. Živković has chosen to use the first person in all the stories in this cycle, which makes reading through them in succession a bit of challenge as you have to remind yourself that each ‘I’ is a different narrator.

Finally, ‘Steps Through the Mist’ presents five women of different ages each confronting in her own way the hand of Fate. However, you might only discover that all the stories are about women by reading the dustjacket, since the central three stories are written in the first person. Again Živković uses a variety of tools to tie the stories together into a satisfying whole, not least the mist of the title, which appears throughout in one guise or another.

Not content to see five of his mosaic novels merely juxtaposed in a single book, Živković has supplied an epilogue for the entire collection. ‘The Telephone’ draws together the central themes of each story cycle into a final autobiographical fantasy (or should that be fantastical autobiography?) in which a writer receives a phone call from the devil.

Živković’s characters are simply drawn, perhaps even bland, but nonetheless effective. Often they are unnamed. Most of the time they seem very ordinary but they do tend to be neurotic, even obsessive-compulsive. Likewise the settings of these stories are unembellished, almost generic, though almost invariably claustrophobic: dingy mid twentieth-century Eastern European cities (no, they are never identified as such, but that is what his urban descriptions evoke in my mind’s eye), small (often rather shabby) rooms, fog-bound hilltops. Even when he describes an abundance of light, it seems to be blinding, imprisoning.

I can’t say that Živković’s work makes for comfortable or enjoyable reading. It is too dark and claustrophobic to be either. But it is certainly one of the most compelling things I have read in a long time.