Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Book Review: The Snow Queen

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Kay and Gerda are best friends who live in adjacent garrets, and often visit each other across the roof, where their parents have installed flower boxes with rosebushes.  They are like brother and sister, and very happy together until one day Kay’s personality changes.  He has been pierced in heart and eye by shards of the Devil’s distorting mirror, so now Kai only sees the flaws and ugliness of people, and his heart is slowly turning to ice.

The Snow Queen

In mid-winter, Kay recklessly goes sledding without Gerda or any other companion, and winds up hitching his sled to the sleigh of the Snow Queen.  As it happens, the queen of all snow has seen Kay before, and decides to keep him, kissing away his memory of family and friends.  Everyone else is convinced that Kay has frozen to death or drowned in the river, but Gerda is not so sure.  When the weather thaws, Gerda goes looking for Kay, having many adventures along the way.

This is one of the many fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), one of Denmark’s most famous authors.  First printed in 1844, it’s also one of his longest fantasy works (but still only about forty pages without illustrations) and much acclaimed.  It’s been adapted many times, and has inspired other works such as the movie Frozen.

Since this is a public domain story, easily downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg, or available at your local library in the children’s section, the main reasons to look at this particular edition are the fresh translation by Jean Hersholt and illustrations by Finnish-heritage artist Sanna Annukka.  The language flows well (though parents will want to read it with their children the first go-round to explain some of the words.)   The illustrations are striking, and perhaps a little frightening in places (this would be a good time to introduce young readers to the variety of Scandinavian art.)  The art is very stylized, which works well for the magical beings involved in the story.

The Snow Queen is very much steeped in Scandinavian Christian folklore, from the hobgoblin who is in fact the Devil and his cruel mirror, to Gerda’s prayers bringing angels to defend her in time of need.  It’s stated that Gerda’s simple faith and innocence give her power–it never occurs to her that it’s odd to be able to speak to flowers (but not get much out of the exchange) or that a robber girl will suddenly choose to help her on her quest rather than kill her.

And this tale is surprising rich in  female characters: the wise Grandmother, alien Snow Queen, selfish Flower Witch, clever Princess and wild Robber Girl, as well as sweet Gerda herself.  Some of these characters would make good stories with their own adventures.  It’s notable that there is no confrontation with the Snow Queen at the end–she’s away on a business trip when Gerda arrives to free Kay.  Perhaps this is for the best, as someone must see that snow gets where it belongs.

One aspect that may be troubling for parents is that after Kay is affected by the distorting mirror, he only finds beauty in mathematics, logic and symmetry.  He’s noted for being able to do arithmetic in his head–with fractions!

The book has sturdy covers and thick pages, so should survive frequent re-reading by youngsters well.  Recommended to families that don’t already have a copy of this classic tale, and people who like this style of art.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

And now, let’s have the trailer of a Finnish movie adaptation!

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.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

Manga Review: The Twin Knights

Manga Review: The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka

This is a sequel to the classic Osamu Tezuka work Princess Knight (“Ribon no Kishi” or “The Ribbon Knight” in Japanese), about Sapphire, a princess raised as a boy due to strange circumstances.  Queen Sapphire is now married and gives birth to twins, Prince Daisy and Princess Violetta.  There’s a question of succession, as the inheritance rules were changed to allow women to ascend the throne of Silverland, but don’t account for twins.

The Twin Knights

The equivalent of a coin flip makes Prince Daisy the heir apparent, which enrages the Duke and Duchess of Dahlia.  They kidnap the prince and have him abandoned in the Forest of Slobb.  To calm the people while the search for the missing prince is ongoing,  Queen Sapphire and her husband regretfully decide to have Violetta disguised as her brother on alternate days.

Years pass, and when Violetta is in her teens, things reach a crisis point.  She must leave the castle to seek out her brother, who, yes, is still alive.  Many perils await, and not all who begin this fairy tale will be alive at the end of it.

Osamu Tezuka innovated in many areas of Japanese comics, and Princess Knight was one of the first shoujo manga (girls’ comics) in Japan; certainly it’s the first one anyone still remembers.  This sequel was also written in the 1950s  It shares the same simple but dynamic art style and attitudes towards gender issues that were progressive for the time it was written but seem outdated today.

There’s a lot of exciting action, some comedy, and a bit of confusion involving mistaken identities.  Princess Violetta ends up impersonating Prince Daisy,  impersonating himself!   Even though Queen Sapphire is much more ladylike now, she hasn’t forgotten her sword skills.  In the fairy tale tradition, there are several deaths, with the evil tending to die gruesomely (but tastefully–this isn’t a gorefest.)

An important supporting character is Emerald, Queen of the Gypsies.  Although she and her people are depicted sympathetically (and Emerald is heroic when her temper doesn’t get the better of her), it’s still pretty stereotypical.  Parents may want to talk to their children about the real-life Roma and the prejudice against them.

I’d especially recommend this volume (and the series it’s a sequel to) to fans of the Disney princesses, as Tezuka took a lot of his early inspiration from the Walt Disney style.

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