BOOK REC: The Glass Republic (Skyscraper Throne II) by Tom Pollock: dark urban fantasy for Gaiman and Mieville fans

The Glass Republic (The Skyscraper Throne, #2)The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in Pollock’s inventive urban fantasy series plays with two tropes, fusing them together. He mixes the magic/hidden London trope with the mirror world idea. The novel takes place after the events of THE CITY’S SON, mostly focusing on Parva (Pen) Khan, who was victimized by a living spirit of barbed wire, called the Wire Mistress. Pen’s face has been deformed by scars and she’s had to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery. She also suffers from a smidge of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When she returns to her high school, she is subject of gossip which is exacerbated by the fact that she can’t very well tell everyone about the hidden/magic part of London of streetlamp spirits, living statues and garbage goddesses. On top of that, Pen is responsible for the firing of a popular teacher who propositioned her. Pen’s only real friend is her mirror-sister, who lives behind the glass, in London-Under-Glass.

When Pen’s mirror-sister goes missing, she goes to the Glass Republic to figure out the mystery. The world there is ruled by a rigid caste system, with full-faced mirrostocrats lord over the half-faced populace. Pen’s mirror-sister is a member of the Mirrostocracy, due to a lottery that raises one member of the lower class into their ranks. That Parva Khan is known as the Face of the Lottery. Pen finds herself enmeshed in a complex political scandal involving slick senators and a revolutionary group called the Faceless.

The world building is spectacular. Pollock has a thing for urban decay, and he works it into magic system. It’s a little bit Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere) and a little bit China Mieville, particularly the Bas-Lag novels. Pen is also a great character, even more appealing than Beth in the first novel. Pen is vulnerable and strong in equal measure. She’s also a sexually-fluid hijab-wearing Muslim. (Representation matters!)

The only weak points are the scenes with Beth—the hero of the first novel. They felt a little building-blocky. But Pollock’s rusting, rotting imagery makes those scenes flow.

REVIEW: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. Manifest Destiny as a literal demonic force.

The Half-Made WorldThe Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous painting by John Gast called American Progress in which a giant white woman garbed in gossamer leads American settlers Westward into an ominous, uncreated world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilman didn’t have that very picture as a screensaver when he penned his New Weird Western novel, The Half-Made World. The ominous, bleak tone of this work also brings to my mind a song by the gothic/worldbeat Dead Can Dance, a song called “Frontier.” DCD’s female lead singer is known for her ideoglossia—Lisa Gerrard, like Elizabeth Fraser and Jonsi of Sigur Ros sing in private languages on the phoneme-level. On this song, however, she sings one recognizable phrase: “I see the bloodstains on the floor.” Or, I think that’s what she’s singing. I bring this up, because this novel is about the bloodstained mythic past.

The plot of the novel has been explained by others—or you can read the cover flap copy. The Half-Made World is chase and quest novel, complete with a MacGuffin. On this level, it is suspenseful and has the juggernaut-like pacing of both cinematic and literary Westerns. But it is the world-building and more importantly, the trope-twisting that is truly fascinating.

Gilman presents the West as a literally uncreated landscape, where creatures and plants are in their experimental or “beta” phase. Land and sea haven’t resolved themselves as separate entities. This part of world is stewarded by the First Folk, who may or may not be human or may or may not be immortal. They are described as long, pale black-maned people with red eyes and seem to live in a kind of amorphous Dreamtime existence. (The First Folk seem more modeled on Aborigines than on Native Americans—and even here, there is a interesting trope-twist). The settled West presided over by two rival faction demonic Spirits. Controlled by sentient Engines, The Line wants to colonize the West and turn it into a grim industrial land. (The current, real-world issue of fracking resonates here). The Gun is an anarchistic organization, who seem to worship chaos and destruction. They possess their Agents and almost become symbionts with them. (The spirit-symbionts live in their Agents’ supernaturally powered Guns; unhoused Gun spirits return to a Lodge—which reminds one of the creepy otherworld lodges referenced in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series).

In fact, the whole novel has the dark surreality of a Lynchian film. It puts the phantasmagoria into fantasy. It’s a rare novel that manages to be both high-low and pulpy at the same time.

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My novel BEREFT gets a great review from Lambda Literary

Reviewer Lydia Harris says of BEREFT:

“Gidney’s storytelling abilities, complemented by his deftness with words and strong writing skills, result in an outstanding contribution to the young adult genre. The believably realized characters, strong description, and relevant knowledge of the adolescent experience, when combined with his willingness to take on the “hard” controversial issues facing today’s youth’s marks him as an author to watch. Undoubtedly his future work will be even more rewarding for readers”

Read the rest of this great review over at Lambda Literary Online.

Gidney’s storytelling abilities, complemented by his deftness with words and strong writing skills, result in an outstanding contribution to the young adult genre. The believably realized characters, strong description, and relevant knowledge of the adolescent experience, when combined with his willingness to take on the “hard” controversial issues facing today’s youth’s marks him as an author to watch. Undoubtedly his future work will be even more rewarding for readers. – See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/24/bereft-by-craig-laurance-gidney/#sthash.ZCCNJcDy.dpuf
Gidney’s storytelling abilities, complemented by his deftness with words and strong writing skills, result in an outstanding contribution to the young adult genre. The believably realized characters, strong description, and relevant knowledge of the adolescent experience, when combined with his willingness to take on the “hard” controversial issues facing today’s youth’s marks him as an author to watch. Undoubtedly his future work will be even more rewarding for readers. – See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/24/bereft-by-craig-laurance-gidney/#sthash.ZCCNJcDy.dpuf
Gidney’s storytelling abilities, complemented by his deftness with words and strong writing skills, result in an outstanding contribution to the young adult genre. The believably realized characters, strong description, and relevant knowledge of the adolescent experience, when combined with his willingness to take on the “hard” controversial issues facing today’s youth’s marks him as an author to watch. Undoubtedly his future work will be even more rewarding for readers. – See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/24/bereft-by-craig-laurance-gidney/#sthash.ZCCNJcDy.dpuf
Gidney’s storytelling abilities, complemented by his deftness with words and strong writing skills, result in an outstanding contribution to the young adult genre. The believably realized characters, strong description, and relevant knowledge of the adolescent experience, when combined with his willingness to take on the “hard” controversial issues facing today’s youth’s marks him as an author to watch. Undoubtedly his future work will be even more rewarding for readers. – See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/24/bereft-by-craig-laurance-gidney/#sthash.ZCCNJcDy.dpuf

Short Story Recommendation: The Thing Under the Drawing Room by Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry’s story, The Thing Under the Drawing Room, is now up at the inaugural issue of the online zine Interfictions. It’s as colorful as a Jack Vance tale, with a distinct hint of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s a mash-up of the Mighty Thewed Barbarian trope and the coming drawing room comic tale. It has a sardonic wit that reminds of certain Tanith Lee fiction–and like many of Lee’s characters, sexual orientation is amorphous.  Berry’s prose is neat and crisp, and not purple. Maybe a little lavender. This is the second of Berry’s pieces I’ve read; check out the wonderful but very  different A Window or a Small Box now up at Tor.com.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: The Castings Trilogy by Pamela Freeman. Grim-Dark meets Social Justice Allegory

The Castings Trilogy (Castings, #1-3)The Castings Trilogy by Pamela Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this omnibus novel last week. The writing is at times lyrical and the characters are solid–I could see them outside of the plot. Many readers have complained about the shifting POVs–in addition to the three main characters, Freeman adds first person vignettes from superfluous characters. Frankly, I loved that about the book.
!.) It makes the 11 Domains seem like a real world because she focuses on really mundane characters;
2.) Those tales really do come together in the end, as a wondrous tapestry of pain and catharsis and story telling.

The Castings Trilogy subverts many fantasy tropes. The reluctant Chosen One doesn’t have a whole lot power or agency in her world–she’s not really magical. The Big Bad has a legitimate beef, mainly, the ethnic caste system in his world. And the male lead isn’t a hidden prince. The kingdom is a group of Balkanized nations rather than a united kingdom. And the history of ethnic cleansing and oppression isn’t clear-cut; its complicated.

The magic system has a sense of wonder–ghosts, elemental spirits, necromancy and fortune-telling–but it’s also organically built and consistent.

The Castings Trilogy is a unique take on the Grim-Dark epic fantasy that adds a dash of social justice as a subtext.

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Best Gay Stories 2009

Author Tom Cardamone gave a terrific review of Sea, Swallow Me on Amazon.com. In his words:

Anyone who caught Kara Walker’s retrospective at the Whitney was immediately challenged to think about race and art. Her surreal silhouettes carved meaning out of every room. Regardless if the viewer came away with a positive or negative impression, it was obvious that existing concepts had been broken, challenged, expanded and, as someone who was blown away by the show, I would add rightfully so. I discovered the same powerful intonations within Craig Gidney’s collection, Sea, Swallow Me and Other Stories.
In the opening tale, The Safety of Thorns, the trappings of the plantation meld into the realm of myth and discovery with strong poetic imagery, yet the characters rise from up off the page with a stark realism. A slave boy is given a powerful elixir by a devil, but still has to find the strength he needs to grapple with reality from within. Equally impressive stories follow. It would be easy for the casual reader/reviewer to exclaim delight at discovering a gay black writer introducing gay black characters into the otherwise lamely heterosexual elf-white worlds of fantasy, but I found the author’s pallet much more assured than that; like Walker, his art is not only arresting, subversive and naturally erotic, it stretches boundaries and genuinely puts the speculative back in speculative fiction. Importantly, the stories are as engaging as challenging; no one will close the book thinking they’ve been slipped a thesis a’ la latter-day Delany.
The three best stories, the aforementioned The Safety of Thorns, the titular Sea, Swallow Me, and A Bird of Ice, respectively open, support the middle, and (nearly) close the book. Sea, Swallow Me allows the reader to swim within some spectacular writing and nearly drown in a feeling of otherness. A Bird of Ice takes place within the snowy confines of an ancient Japanese monastery. A young monk is courted by a member of the fairy folk and ends up confronting much more than the homoerotic awakenings of adolescence. Not that the remaining stories are by any means filler. The few pieces I suspected of being early work still possessed all of the strengths exhibited in the best work. All offered a diversity of setting and theme, making the book one of constant exploration. In fact, when not paying close enough attention while reading the story Strange Alphabets, I thought I’d caught the author making that obnoxious freshman blunder of naming a character after a beloved writer: Rimbaud. I was genuinely thrilled to realize my mistake as the story concerns the train-bound sexual (and quite sticky at that) adventures of the actual poet, a nice historical twist, which, like the exceptionally short Magpie Sisters, keeps the book off-balance. Meaning it surprises. This is not your comfortable Renaissance Fair of modern fantasy and that’s a good thing. Hell, it’s startlingly refreshing.
Fantasy is seriously lacking in gay fiction written by gay men. Funny, that in writing this review I was initially hesitant to bring up race, for fear that by implication I would give potential readers the impression that in some way the polemic (as if that’s somehow inherent to discussions of equality) shapes or invades these stories. Not so. The artist Kara Walker deftly works in black and white with obvious, evocative success. Craig Gidney wields a vivid rainbow of promise.

A quick note: Cardamone’s forthcoming book of speculative fiction, Pumpkin Teeth, is simply brilliant. I highly recommend it!

Finally, one of my pieces, Strange Alphabets, will be featured in the forthcoming Best Gay Stories 2009, ed. Steve Berman.

Best Gay Stories 2009