Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10

Manga Review:  Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10 by Hiromu Arakawa.

In the country of Amestris, the highest form of science known is alchemy, the ability to transmute substances into another form.  It seems limited only by the Law of Equivalent Exchange “to obtain an object, something of equal value must be lost.”  Transmutation of humans is therefore forbidden.  But grief-stricken child prodigies Edward and Alphonse Elric decide to break this taboo when their mother dies prematurely.

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 10

They do not get their mother back; Ed loses an arm and leg in the process, and Al’s entire body is consumed.  Ed is able to preserve Al’s consciousness by binding it to an empty set of armor.  They both gain the ability to perform transmutation without the cumbersome necessity of an alchemical circle, and Ed has his missing limbs replaced by automail, a form of cybernetic prostheses.

Edward Elric is determined to find a way to restore Alphonse’s body, but to do this he’ll need information on the Philosopher’s Stone, an item that allegedly allows transmutation to be performed without equivalent exchange.  To do this, Ed joins the State Alchemist corps, becoming “a dog of the military” and codenamed “the Fullmetal Alchemist.”  He soon finds himself and Al enmeshed in a government conspiracy, and about to learn even more hard truths about the nature of alchemy.

Fullmetal Alchemist was originally published as a monthly shounen (boys’) serial in Monthly Shounen Gangan.  It did very well, spawning two anime series (one with a different ending than the manga, which was still being written at the time), video games and light novels.  Arakawa went on to write Silver Spoon, the anime of which I’ve previously reviewed.

In the volume I have at hand, Alphonse, the military team led by Roy Mustang (“the Flame Alchemist”) and Ling, prince of Xing (essentially China) have temporarily teamed up with Barry the Chopper (serial killer who’s also been bonded to a suit of armor) in an attempt to make the government conspiracy break cover.  They engage in battle with the homunculi Envy, Gluttony and Lust.  The battle between Roy Mustang and Lust is particularly heated.

Meanwhile, Edward and Major Armstrong head across the border into the wasteland  that was once Cselkcess before the unknown disaster that destroyed it overnight.  In the ruins of the capital city, they meet with an old friend who gives them information on the conspiracy.  Edward also meets a group of Ishbalan refugees, and learns the fate of the parents of his friend Winry Rockbell.

In addition, the Elric boys’ father Van Hohenheim resurfaces after many years.  He had abandoned the family some time before his wife’s death, and hadn’t been heard from until now.  Ed is…less than pleased to see him.  The readers know, but Ed does not, that Hohenheim looks almost identical to the person codenamed “Father”, creator of the homunculi.   That’s pretty suspicious.

This is a pretty nifty series.  The monthly format allows more plot and character development per chapter, and Arakawa doesn’t let that opportunity pass.  There are some heartwrenching moments, as well as exciting battles.  (Even in this volume, Roy finally manages to defeat Lust, but at a terrible cost.)  The art is distinctive and competent, if never spectacular.

Alchemy, which is basically magic, works by a set of rules which is easily understood, and seeming exceptions are carefully explained over the course of the series.

Less good is that some of the comedic bits get overused, particularly Edward Elric’s oversensitivity about his height.  And while yes, the particular usage of the Seven Deadly Sins for the homunculi is nifty, that particular structure for a villain group is nearly a dead horse by now.  (And Lust is the only female in the group.  So shocking.)

I understand there are omnibus volumes out now, which will make collecting the series faster.  Also, because this series was very popular, the hipper libraries may stock it in their teen rooms.

Recommended for fans of shounen manga.

And now, the first opening for the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood anime:

 

 

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)

 

 

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

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