Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: The Buried Life

Book Review: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Centuries after the Catastrophe that made living on the surface of Earth too dangerous for most humans, Recoletta is a thriving underground city.  Conditions have improved on the surface enough so that there are farming communities up there, but the vast majority of people would rather stay safe, thank you.

The Buried Life

Inspector Liesl Malone of the Recoletta Municipal police force is one of the people keeping them safe.  She’s just finishing up a long case involving explosives smugglers when Malone is alerted to a murder.  It happened over in the wealthy part of town, so needs delicate handling.  The inspector is surprised to learn that the victim is a historian, and disturbed to find that whatever he was working on at the time of his murder was stolen.

Across town, Jane Lin is a specialty laundress for the well-to-do, hand-washing and mending the clothing and other fabric items the Whitenails (so called because they don’t have to do manual labor and can wear their fingernails long) can’t trust to ordinary servants.  Her best friend, reporter Fredrick Anders, informs Jane of the murder, but it has nothing to do with her.  Until, that is, a missing button enmeshes her in the case.

Recoletta is a city of secrets, especially as the Council has forbidden civilians from studying “antebellum” (apparently the Catastrophe was at least partially a war) history, and also banned various kinds of literature deemed unsuitable for the current civilization.  Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar find themselves stonewalled by the Directorate of Preservation, which has the monopoly on historical research, even as the death toll mounts.

Jane Lin, meanwhile, keeps stumbling on clues and finds herself becoming attracted to the suave and darkly handsome Roman Arnault, who has an unsavory reputation and may or may not have anything to do with the murders.  After all, not all dark deeds are connected.  But many are.

The setting has a vaguely Victorian feel, with gaslight and frequent orphanings.  The title comes from a poem by Matthew Arnold.  But this isn’t steampunk as such, and the author doesn’t feel compelled to stick to one era for inspiration.

In the end, this book is more political thriller than mystery, with an ending that upsets the status quo and paves the way for a sequel or two.

One of the things I really like about this book is that the underground cities are not completely isolated from the outside world.  You can go to the surface any time you want, visit farms and other cities, there’s even immigration!  The hermetically sealed civilization has been overdone in science fiction.

A jarring note for me was the infodump characters used at one point in the narrative.  They have names that are too referential to be a coincidence, and feel like the author is just trying to be cute.

Overall, a solid effort that I would recommend to the intersection of science fiction and political thriller fans.

Book Review: The Killing Moon

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams.  Their entire culture is centered around the power of narcomancy to draw magical power from dreams to heal and perform other wonders.  The most powerful of these “humors” is dreamblood, which is only produced by a person’s final dream.  Thus a small group of holy men called the Gatherers are dispatched to bring gentle death to the aged and incurable–and sometimes those that would threaten the peace of the city.

The Killing Moon

Ehiru is considered the most skilled of the Gatherers, in much demand to bring surcease to the suffering.  But his most recent Gathering has gone horribly wrong.  He has condemned a man to eternal nightmare, and threatened his own sanity.  Why, Ehiru is even seeing what looks like a Reaper, a mythical corruption of the Gatherers that has not existed for centuries.

Sunandi is the Voice of Kisua, an ambassador from that ancient land to Gujaareh.  She is suspicious of the magic that pervades the entire city; to her euthanasia and assassination are evil.  Sunandi is investigating the sudden death of her predecessor (and foster father) Kiran.  Is the Sunset Prince of Gujaareh up to something even more sinister than she expected?

Nijiri is a faithful follower of Hananja, whose long loyalty and training are rewarded when he becomes a Gatherer-Apprentice under the tutelage of Ehiru, his personal hero.  However, this is not an auspicious time to become a Gatherer, and Nijiri may end up having to do the unthinkable to remain true to his vows.

This fantasy novel is the first in the Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a Hugo Award for her book The Fifth Season.  The geographical setting and other details are evocative of Ancient Egypt, but this is very much not Egypt, or even Earth, as is quickly made clear by the existence of the Dreaming Moon.  Ms. Jemisin’s introductory note mentions that one of the difficulties was coming up with names that sounded right, but didn’t mean anything in Egyptian.

Many of the cultural details revolve around Gujaareh’s unique form of magic; for example, the equivalent of temple prostitutes don’t have sex with the worshipers, but instead guide them into erotic dreams from which healing “dreamseed” can be extracted.  The Gatherers are central to this story; they have great power and special training, but must devote themselves to self-control–losing that control makes them vulnerable to becoming Reapers.  Unfortunately, someone has found a way to pervert the system and use it for their own purposes.  Peace is the will of Hananja, but whose definition of “peace” will it be?

There’s quite a bit of world-building, and it’s nice to see a fantasy setting based in ancient African civilizations.  It’s also quite pleasant that it’s not “good vs. evil” as such, either.  Gujaareh’s use of magic does a lot of good for its citizens, but Kisua’s worries about the ethical problems of narcomancy and the dangers of collecting dreamblood are not unjustified.  Is denying a painless death to someone who cannot be cured of their constant pain who might live on for years yet unable to move worth holding to a principle?  But if you allow this “good death”, who is there to stop all deaths that serve Hananja from being declared “good?”

Some of the characters fell a little flat for me, and a map would have been nice at a couple of points to make it clearer why certain journeys had to be made in a specific way.  On the other hand, there’s a glossary, and in the paperback edition I read, there’s an “interview” of the author by the author that explains a great deal of the reasoning behind details of the setting.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well worth searching out if you’re looking for something different in your fantasy worlds.

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

In the Year of Our Lord 1770, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and King Louis XV of France decided to seal an alliance between their countries with a political marriage.  Thus it was that Louis-Auguste (later Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette were married.  So it was in our world too.  But in this story, the commander of the Royal Guards, protectors of the young princess, was Oscar Francois du Jarjayes, youngest daughter of General Jarjayes, who had been raised like a boy.

The Rose of Versailles

Soon Antoinette, Oscar and Oscar’s faithful servant Andre, were plunged into the swirling politics and complicated romantic relationships of the court.  Thus begins the ultimately tragic tale of the Rose of Versailles.

This popular and highly influential 1979 anime was based on the best-selling shoujo (girls’) manga Versailles no Bara by Riyoko Ikeda.  The manga had started out as a biography of Marie Antoinette, with Oscar as a supporting character to be involved in combat scenes where the ruler could not be placed, but the princely woman was immensely popular with readers and eventually became the star of the story.  (Especially once the queen retired from public life to raise her children.)  The anime therefore expanded her role at the beginning a bit.

The series is highly dramatic, often melodramatic, with shocked expressions, flowing tears and glittering roses.  Some modern viewers might find this all a trifle overdone, especially as many newer anime series have homaged famous scenes and effects from this one.  Romantic tension is high.  At least initially, Marie Antoinette and her young husband do not get along well, and she develops an interest in the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, who reciprocates.  Oscar also has a thing for von Fersen, but is not reciprocated, while her childhood friend and servant Andre pines for Oscar but knows that a commoner can never marry a noble.

In addition, while Oscar is known to be a woman by most of the nobles, her handsomeness and chivalry cause her to be admired in an almost romantic fashion by various ladies, most notably a young woman named Rosalie, who turns out to have a secret of her own.

While the broad historical outlines of the series are accurate, many of the details are fictionalized or exaggerated.  For example, the Duke of Orleans was probably not directly behind every plot against Marie Antoinette.

In addition to the standard sword-fighting and the horrors of the French Revolution, there’s an attempted sexual assault at one point (the man stops when he realizes what he’s about to do) and a twelve-year-old commits suicide rather than submit to an arranged marriage.  (It’s pretty clear that her much older intended husband intends to consummate the marriage immediately.)  Towards the end, the narration specifically tells us two of the characters get it on.  The imagery is tasteful, but the content may be too much for younger or more sensitive viewers.

The series switched directors about halfway through; the earlier part has much more incidental humor, while the later half is more somber, befitting the way events get worse and worse for both Oscar and Marie Antoinette.

This is a classic, and now legally available in the United States with subtitles.  Recommended for French history and romantic tragedy fans.

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

When George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a lad, his father Mad Jack often told him tales of the vrykolakas, immortal beings who fed on the blood of the living.  Now he’s nominally a student of the university at Cambridge, where a young woman has been found murdered and drained of blood.  As both the world’s greatest living poet and England’s greatest expert on vampires, Byron feels that he is the best person to undertake an investigation.  After all, he must also be the world’s greatest criminal investigator!

Riot Most Uncouth

This new mystery novel is loosely based on real life poet and romantic figure Lord Byron (1788-1824).  It blends some actual things that happened (Byron really did have a bear as a pet to thumb  his nose at Cambridge’s “no dogs in student housing” rules) with a fictional murderer on the loose.

Byron makes a fun narrator; he’s vain, self-centered and often drunk enough to miss important details.  On the other hand, he’s fully aware that he is not a good person and is reasonably honest about his character flaws.  We learn the circumstances that shaped him, including his abusive father and being born with a deformed leg–but it’s clear that Byron could have made much better life choices at any time.  Some people may find him too obnoxious as a protagonist.

The neatest twist in the plot is that there are two private investigators that claim they were hired by the murdered girl’s father, who are not working together…and in a mid-book flash forward we learn that the father doesn’t know which of them he actually hired.

Bits of Lord Byron’s poetry are scattered throughout, and are the best writing  in the book.  A word about the cover:  the Photoshopping is really obvious and a bit off-putting.

As mentioned above, Byron’s father is emotionally and physically abusive, there’s a lot of drinking and other drugs, gruesome murders (the corpses are lovingly described), on-screen but not explicit sex  scenes, and some profanity.  Period racism, sexism (Lord Byron himself is especially dismissive of women) and ableism show up in the story and narration.  The ending may be unsatisfying for some readers–Lord Byron has odd standards of justice.

Recommended for Lord Byron fans, and historical mystery readers who don’t mind a protagonist who is more flaws than good points.

Magazine Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master

Book Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master by Kenneth Robeson

Quick recap:  The Avenger, Richard Henry Benson, is a wealthy adventurer who took early retirement to spend time with his wife and daughter.  They were murdered by criminals, and he has sworn vengeance on crimedom, gathering a team of highly skilled people known as “Justice, Inc.”  As mentioned in my review of #7, sales on the title weren’t doing so well, so editorial ordered some changes that removed the Avenger’s weird appearance and retconned his age to be considerably younger, with these changes taking place in Murder on Wheels.

The Avenger #8

This had a direct effect on the first story in this volume, House of Death.  It had originally been finished by Paul Ernst (writing as Kenneth Robeson) under the title “House of Hate.”  But then the editorial decision came down, Murder on Wheels was hastily put in place instead, and this story was stowed away.   Then it was rewritten to change Benson’s appearance to the new look, excise his uncanny face-change ability, and put in a line explaining where the new team member Cole Wilson was.  By that time, the next story also had “Hate” in the title, so this story was retitled.

So, what is House of Death about?  It’s about an once powerful and wealthy family, the Haygars.  Political changes and bad health have whittled away the family’s fortune and numbers, leaving only a handful of cousins from various parts of the world.  They have come to America for a reunion, each bearing a small gold coin to identify themselves.  However, those coins also mark the bearers for death, and at least one of the Haygars is an impostor.

The story has an interesting opening, focusing on Milky Morley, a down on his luck mugger who attacks a man on a lonely street for the “profit” of a wad of bills from a country that doesn’t exist any more, and a small gold coin of no known nation.  He is only the first person in the story to die because he’s touched one of the coins.

Nellie Gray gets to be particularly useful in this story once the scene switches to an island off the coast of Maine.  She brachiates ala  Tarzan, kills a guard dog with an improvised boar spear, and saves the lives of several of the male members of the team.  And if she gets in trouble in the deadly house of the title, it’s because everyone else has had a turn.

The Hate Master, also by Paul Ernst, opens with a scientist disappearing from an isolated laboratory by unknown means.  Then a Scottish terrier is torn to pieces by rabbits.  It’s soon clear that the scientist has developed some means of causing animals and people to hate on command, which may be tied to a wealthy politician who’s running for president.  (Will Murray’s article in this volume claims this was the first appearance of a “hate plague” in the hero pulps.)  There’s an unpleasant scene of the political candidate whipping a dog with a copper wire

Both stories happen to have the gigantic Smitty’s ankles torn up by small animals, and have sections set in Maine.

After the two main stories, there are two shorts.  “A Coffin for the Avenger” by Emile Tepperman appeared in Clues Detective, and has the Avenger up against a Nazi spy codenamed “the Black Tulip” after the villain’s horticultural ambitions.  There’s a chilling first bit with a straitjacketed man forced to “drive” a car into a hotel lobby, only one of a series of events the Black Tulip has orchestrated.  The villain boasts that he never overlooks a detail–he’s wrong, and it’s a short story because the Black Tulip’s henchman has failed to notice the neighborhood kids playing games.

“Death Paces the Widow’s Walk” by Bruce Elliott stars detective Nick Carter (see the review I did of one of his books) investigating an apparent suicide on Martha’s Vineyard.  The suicide note is an obvious forgery, and the most likely suspect, the man with bald nostrils, has vanished.  It’s a double “locked room mystery” and Nick cuts the solution very close to his own death.

While not quite up to the earlier stories in the series, these Avenger tales have some great plot twists and exciting action.  Recommended to pulp fans.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

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