The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan: A dreamlike travelogue

The GracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Winner of this year’s Lambda Literary Award in the SF/H/F Category

Beautifully written, with a meandering plot.
The story moved slowly and the dramatic tension was in the doldrums. The lapidary prose and the elegiac mood is what propels this novel forward, rather than a proper plot. The worldbuilding was vague, both a strength and a weakness. (It suffers from the Planet of White People syndrome issue; seriously, where are the POC?) The characters were well drawn but some POVs were unneccesary and didn’t really reveal anything. (Why, for instance, is there a whole chapter from the point of view of the messenger, or from one of the clowns? They add nothing to the story). I feel the author missed opportunities to build suspense; the plot only takes place in the last 20 pages or so. It is better to take this book as a dreamlike travelogue than full-fledged novel. I’m looking forward to Logan’s next book.

Pop Music & Magic in “Signal to Noise” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to NoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A charming slice-of-life magical realist book set in Mexico City in the late 80s and in 2009.
Late 80s Mercedes Vega (Meche) is a prickly, sarcastic 15-year old who has developed twin interests in pop music nerdery and spellcasting. She manages to combine the two, and becomes a sorceress who uses vinyl records as a focusing agent for her spells. She press gangs her two friends–bookish Sebastian and girly-girl Daniela–to form a makeshift coven. Mayhem, of the normal teenaged variety, ensues. Flash foward 20-odd years finds Meche, who’s moved to Oslo, is still prickly and sarcastic, still smarting from the fallout of her experiments in sorcery.

Signal to Noise is a gentle, character-driven novel, less about magic and more about the carefully crafted people Moreno-Garcia makes.
Fans of Jonathan Carroll and Mary Rickert would enjoy this book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. This visionary novel’s Tiptree Award honor is well-deserved!

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A snake bite opens The Girl in the Road, a novel that seems to have all of the hallmarks of a thriller. The book is set in the near-future, a time where the West’s power has waned and India and Ethiopia have become world powers. Technological wonders, such as sub dermal implants and new energy sources, abound. Political turmoil still exists, and the heroine Meena believes that the death of her lover and the poisonous snake found in her bed are connected to a terrorist organization. Meena inexpertly treats her wounds, and starts running. She is being followed by a young barefoot woman; she sees the young woman in crowds, staring at her, relentlessly on her trail. The narrative pace is quick and full of feverish imagery. Told in first person, present tense, Meena’s story manages to mix, in near perfect equilibrium, her suspenseful flight, the world she lives in (minus the dreaded InfoDump technique sometimes employed by Science Fiction writers), and her character. We learn that Meena has been raised by her grandparents, due to the fact that her own parents died in mysterious circumstances that may or may not have to do with the terrorist organization that is pursuing her. We also learn that Meena is polyamorous, with a broken trail of lovers of both genders, and her one true love is a transgender/genderqueer woman. The breathless narrative of the first part ends with a stunning cliffhanger.

Then we are thrown into the first person narrative of another woman named Mariama. Her narrative takes the form of a long, incantatory letter to another woman, named Yemaya. Mariama recounts her first few memories. She was born the daughter of a sex slave, in extreme poverty in India. Upon the death of her mother at the hands of the slaveowner, she runs away. She eventually becomes a stowaway on a truck traveling to Addis Ababa. Before then, she has her own experience with a snake. Mariama eats a piece of sea snake which gets lodged in her chest, and bothers Mariama during times of fear and stress. She imagines the fragment of sea snake as a living entity within, which she calls the kreen.

The rest of the novel alternates between the two narratives. Meena, the woman of the future, eventually heads toward Ethiopia, in hopes of finding out why her parents were murdered. As she travels on the Trail, a kind of high tech ocean-based energy source, Meena loses her grip on her sanity. Mariama, who exists in some earlier but undefined time, begins her own trip to Ethiopia, where she meets the mysterious Yemaya, a beautiful fugitive who has her own agenda. The relationship between the two women, separated by the span of years, slowly becomes apparent.

But, in spite of all the trappings of a speculative thriller, The Girl in the Road is not a plot-driven novel. It belongs to a micro-genre of Visionary Fiction, the sort of work championed by Steve Erickson, Helen Oyeyemi, or Angela Carter. The subtext of the novel is as intricately crafted as the foreground. It is a novel that uses the conventions of genre fiction without being bound to them. The novel is allusive and illusory, full of dream logic, and references to mythology. The images of roads and serpents flow through both women’s stories. Meena, for instance, chooses the name Durga (an avatar of an Indian goddess) as an alias, and Mariama interacts with a woman whose name is Yemaya (an orisha, or pan-African goddess of the sea).

Byrne’s prose is rich, poetic, and musical. Many sections deserve to be read aloud. Readers should also know that this a very adult novel—both Meena and Mariama’s sexuality play an important part in the story and define their characters. The world Byrne creates is marvelous, and like the best speculative fiction, it manages to both have a sense-of-wonder and also serve an as allegory. The interplay of the personal and the political, myth and technology is woven throughout this novel.

Other reference points: Toni Morrison’s magical realism and Afro-Canadian Caribbean fantasist Nalo Hopkinson’s novel The Salt Roads, and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. The Girl in the Road is a mythic quest novel masquerading as a futuristic SF novel.

My author interview with Ms. Byrne is forthcoming.

On ‘Babel-17’ by Samuel R Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Critics and fans tend to divide the work of Samuel R. Delany into two periods: pre-and-post Dhalgren. The argument is that Dhalgren marked a change both stylistically ( non-linear narrative, postmodern techniques) and subject matter (eroticism, power differentials, and liminality).

While Babel-17 does have a more straightforward, genre-cognizant plot, the trippy, mind-fuck aspects of his later work are very much in evidence. The story concerns a poet/linguist/starship captain(!) and her attempts to decipher a mysterious language. The prose is dense and beautiful, full of poetic images. The multicultural cast is peopled with colorful characters, and many of the trademarks of Delany’s post-Dhalgren work are very much in play: sexual and societal outcasts and complex theoretical frameworks—this time, about the effect of language on the cognitive process.

Skin Deep Magic Story Notes: On “Zora’s Destiny,” the Conjure Woman of African American Literature

This story was commissioned for a young adult anthology that never came together. The anthology editor called me up with an idea to write an essay about an influential African American figure. I volunteered for Zora Neale Hurston for a couple of reasons.

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First and foremost, she was a fascinating, larger-than-life figure.  You know the cliched stories about people who “run away and join the circus”? Zora actually did run away and join a traveling “Negro Follies” show! In addition to being a brilliant novelist, she was an anthropologist and her scholarship on Hoodoo (African-American folk magic) and Haitian Voudon is considered to be seminal. She had a humorous streak, evident in her letters. She was a fixture in the Harlem Renaissance/“Negro Arts” movement, and an artist whose talent only became appreciated posthumously.

The other reason I chose Hurston was this: the house I live in now is directly in front the house where she boarded as a student at Howard University. In other words,I live in the same house (even the same number), but on a parallel street. The coincidence was too strong to ignore. The story I wrote was one of those rare “channelled” pieces that rarely spring forth (most of my writing is hard work).

“Zora’s Destiny” is a completely fictional piece that imagines Hurston’s childhood and foreshadows her life’s work and legacy. I can only hope that Hurston might have approved of this tribute.

Author Felice Picano recommends my collection of short fiction, “Skin Deep Magic”!

Over at Elisa Reviews, Felice Picano, a multi-awarding winner author and member of the influential Violet Quill group (a collective of important gay male writers), had this to say about Skin Deep Magic.

“These are wonderful, fanciful, fantastic stories in their nature and yet oh so real in the truths they convey. My favorites are “Mauve’s Quilt”,  “Zora’s Destiny” and “Death and Two Maidens,” but they are all intriguing and fresh and totally individual. “Lyes” is probably the funniest of the lot. It had me and my friends howling with recognition and laughter!”

Felice Picano, Author and Historian, 2010 winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award

What a way to begin 2015!

Tanith Lee’s “Ghosteria 2: Zircons May Be Mistaken”: a poignant zombie novel

Ghosteria Volume 2: The Novel: Zircons May Be MistakenGhosteria Volume 2: The Novel: Zircons May Be Mistaken by Tanith Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The new Tanith Lee novella combines elements ghost story conventions and zombie apocalypse fiction in an truly unique way. The “twist” is clever, but the short novel is more a contemplative character study. The assembled cast are ghosts from a variety of eras that are all haunting a historic Great House in the moorlands of England. They share their histories in monologues that range from tragic to humorous. The faceted narrative mode shifts from contemporary to gothic and even has a smattering of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Simultaneously, humanity has been plagued with zombies, which do not affect the undead company. The fantastic contrivances, though crucial to the plot, take a back seat to the leisurely character reveals. In this way, the novel reads more like a play. (“The Ghost Monologues” would also be an apt title). Zircons May Be Mistaken might be the only zombie novel full of pathos and an exploration of the “human condition.”

MUSIC REVIEW: Monajjfyllen by Autumn’s Grey Solace. Otherworldly and Angelic music.

Monajjfyllen

There’s a song on Autumn’s Grey Solace’s new digital mini-LP (or long EP) called “aelfsciene”, which means “fairy-bright’  in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English). ‘Fairy bright’ is an apt description for these glittering compositions. Singer Erin Welton’s sweet airy soprano and complex, ethereal melodies are indeed, otherworldly. She’s drifted to a more glossolalia (speaking-in-tongues) style favored by Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard; the lyrics themselves might as well be in Old English, since the song titles are all in that language. The music, created by Scott Ferrell, is built up of various guitar textures that form a kind of aural trompe l’oeil. Guitars mimic drones, sighs, pianos, cellos, and harps, held together with gentle rhythms. It’s ambient music using standard rock instrumentation. “Monajjfyllen” is the brighter companion piece to their earlier, and darker post rock album, “Eifelian.”

Interstitial Fiction: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell & Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Bone Clocks

Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks tells the story of warring immortals through several different perspectives. On one side, the Horologists, are immortal mind forces, (not unlike Doro in Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series) that are continuously reborn in various bodies. A nemesis group, Atemporals, live forever by vampiristically ‘decanting’ the life forces of random victims. But if you’re expecting a straightforward fantasy adventure, you will be surprised. Mitchell’s novel is concerned with an ordinary teenage girl in 1980s England and the people she comes across. Holly Sykes is a rebellious girl growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and her concerns are her boyfriend; her over-protective Irish mum; her weird brother Jacko; and the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. The story gets in motion when a betrayal by her boyfriend and her best friend spurs her to run away from.  Sykes’ life has intersected with with the Horologist/Atemporal in enigmatic episodes that she puts down to dreams or hallucinations. Sykes narrates the story in the breathless present tense of a self-absorbed teenage girl. The fantastic takes a back seat to the High Drama of teen angst. Then, abruptly, her story ends on a suspenseful note. Then we are thrown into the mind-space and narrative of the narcissistic, sociopathic Cambridge student Hugo Lamb. It takes a while before the significance of the character-and-scenery change to take shape, but along way, we get a realistic character study of a privileged cretin. The next character hops are: a war reporter in Iraq, a bad boy British novelist (a kind of roman a clef), and the narrative of one of the Horologists. These different stories, all monologues, operate as linked novellas. Some are more fantastic than others. The war reporter’s piece, for instance, is a journalistic current event reportage. The novelist’s piece is satirical romp of the British literary life, while the Horologist’s tale is pure speculative fiction. Sometimes, The Bone Clocks gets mired down in the mingle-mangle minutiae of its characters life, and the plot comes to a stand still. But there are sparkling scenes and strong characters to pull you through the draggy bits. It might be my favorite Mitchell novel.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance

The Southern Reach Trilogy (comprising of the alliterative titles Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) tells the story of a ‘soft’ apocalypse and/or an enigmatic invasion using a variety of narrative techniques that give the work deeply personal feel. The opening Annihilation is a first person account of an expedition into a transformed landscape.  It’s psychedelic/trippy nature reads more Leary than Lovecraft. It’s a kind of speculative guidebook, filtered through a biologist’s awe (in both the spooky and the amazed connotations) at Nature. Authority takes the third person-limited perspective of an interim director, sent to clean up an off-the-rails organization. It’s a kind of Kafka-esque workplace drama, full of alienation, anomie, and paranoia. The tone in Authority expands to (dark) comedy to fill out the otherworldly ambience. The concluding novel, Acceptance, ends the trilogy on a haunting note, rather than a pat and dry Hollywood ending. It’s the most character driven novel of the three, and the sections, both within and outside of Area X, are underscored with an elegiac quality. The result is speculative fiction that has real emotional resonance.