Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Five

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The major arc in this volume of the always marvellous Fables series describes Boy Blue’s return to the Homelands on a secret mission. And in the process, he retrieves huge amounts of intelligence, and finally uncovers the identity of the Adversary. Despite hints in previous volumes, I must confess that it took me by surprise, but it totally works (and his description of his rise to power is chilling). And Boy Blue is pretty awesome as a lone hero, cutting a swathe through the Empire on his mission.

Back in Fabletown, we see a delegation of Arabian fables arrive in embassy, and how the European ones struggle to deal with them, as well as seeing just how well, or badly, Prince Charming is dealing with being mayor. Some other old favourites get screen time too (including a surprisingly awesome role for King Cole, who’s been a bit of a comedy side character until now), and there are some surprises in store for others. Snow and her boys appear, but in a side capacity, just driving the plot forward.

Oh, and there’s also the preparation for the spinoff Jack of Fables series, which actually starts the book. I must confess that Jack has never really done an awful lot for me. He’s arrogant, lazy and a bit of a grifter. His escapades in Hollywood were mildly amusing, but I don’t really have any interest in seeking out the spinoff.

So, apart from Jack, another complete success. The whole ‘Adversary’ plot is picking up pace and after five volumes, I’m pretty invested in the major characters. I look forward to the next one now.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401234966
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2012

The Tea Master and the Detective

By Aliette de Bodard

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard a lot of good things about this gender-swapped Holmes and Watson in space. However, in amongst that, nobody thought to mention that “Watson” is actually a mindship; a biological person, but wrapped into a starship shell close to birth and genetically engineered to live longer and fit into that system. It sort of reminded me of Anne McCaffrey’s Brain/Brawn books. Like Watson, The Shadow’s Child is traumatised, although moreso than Watson ever was, and Long Chau, the consulting detective that she partners with, is more abrasive (and drug addicted) than Holmes (even the Benedict Cumberbatch version) ever was.

I enjoyed the story a lot. I’ve read other short fiction set in the same universe, but this grabbed me more than any of them. While I found Long Chau extremely irritating, as a character she’s marvellous, and I really want to read more about her and about The Shadow’s Child. The universe is very interesting as well, and although I didn’t really understand the “deep space” that left The Shadow’s Child so traumatised, I want to find out more.

The fact that it’s a novella means that the story is pared back, and I would love to see a longer piece, to let the protagonists just be for a bit, and give a bit of space to the background as well. (Also, being a novella, the paper versions are priced around the same as a full-length novel, although the ebook version is cheaper).

So can we get a full-length novel? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Book details

Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Year of publication: 2018

Magic for Beginners

By Kelly Link

Rating: 2 stars

I’m afraid I really didn’t enjoy this book much, and what’s worse is that I feel bad for not enjoying it. The author is obviously very familiar with story and storytelling, and the stories in this collection reflect that familiarity and her playing with it and twisting it. Unfortunately, what we ended up with was something well out of my comfort zone and into the surreal. Now I don’t mind a certain level of surrealism (I’m very fond of Robert Sheckley, who didn’t object to going down strange narrative roads at times) but this was too much for me.

I got the book as part of a Humble Bundle and it took me literally years to get past the first story. Having managed that in the end, I struggled with the rest of it. Sometimes the story was just bizarre from the start, without much in the way of structure or plot (The Hortlak, The Cannon) but others start off interesting, or at least hinting that there’s a plot but spiral into strangeness (The Lull, Stone Animals). The one I found most disappointing, possibly because it was the one I enjoyed the most, right up until the last page, was Some Zombie Contingency Plans about a guy who’s not long out of prison and drives around, with a painting in the boot of his car, crashing parties. I was enjoying the slow pace and the actual structure of this. I just don’t like where it went in the end (assuming that I’m reading it right).

So a strong collection if you like works that know the limits of story and are happy to go beyond that, or works with a strong streak of surrealism running through them. Unfortunately, I like neither of those, so I’m afraid this is not for me.

Book details

Publisher: Small Beer Press
Year of publication: 2005

A Matter of Oaths

By Helen S. Wright

Rating: 4 stars

Rafe is an oath-breaker. As such, he’s had his identity wiped, and is mostly shunned by his colleagues in the Guild of Webbers. But Commander Rallya takes a chance on him, and is rewarded with a fine officer, and Rafe finds respect, admiration and, eventually, love on her ship. But Rafe’s past won’t stay dead, and it comes after him, and those he loves.

The first two thirds of this book is really enjoyable. We come to know and admire Rafe the same pace as his shipmates and enjoy the love he finds with Joshim, a colleague on his ship. I must say that I’m still confused as to why a faction was after him in the first place. I thought I’d read it carefully, but didn’t get that at all. The whole thing goes a bit wonky in the last third or so, as Rafe is captured and the previously prominent Rallya seems to be sidelined a bit. The world-building was interesting and I would definitely like to find out more about the history of the Twin Empires and how the emperors became immortal.

In fact, there’s a huge amount of scope for a sequel. I was surprised to find that Wright doesn’t seem to have written anything else since this. Although it’s a little disappointing towards the end, there’s a lot to enjoy and, as I say, a lot of scope for a sequel, not least the bombshell thrown in the last page. And as well as this what’s with the F’sair trying to steal Guild secrets and what was the web room in Julur’s palace? Who built it? It seems pretty advanced and has control over bits of the palace. That seems out of place for an emperor as paranoid as Julur is portrayed.

The book was originally published in 1988, and I guess it must have been a hard sell at that time, given that the protagonists are a black, queer man, and a grumpy, and very strong, older woman. One thing I like about the book is that not only are men and women completely equal in the Guild, but there are people from all over the LGBT spectrum, and sexuality is embraced, not hidden away.

Off the back of this book, Wright obviously has talent, and I’d like to see more by her. This interview following the re-publication of the novel suggests that she’s writing again and maybe we’ll see the fruits of that soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9781448216970
Publisher: Bloomsbury Caravel
Year of publication: 1988

Lumberjanes: To the Max Edition, Vol. 4

By Shannon Watters

Rating: 4 stars

The fourth ‘To the Max’ edition of the Lumberjanes series first sees a group of Lumberjanes elders show up for an inspection, and promptly get kidnapped by a giant bird. It’s up to Roanoke to save them, with some help, of course. Later, we get the return of Diane from the first volume and the volume is rounded off with a little story, told by April to her notebook, about a bird-boy who starts following her around (spoiler: he doesn’t eat any of their faces).

I enjoyed the first two stories in this book immensely. Kittens, giant birds, Greek gods, courtship and friendship come together in deeply touching stories that make us think that the world will be all right, whatever happens. Some of us have great families, some not so much, but friendship and found families make it all better. The last story didn’t grab me quite so much, with a lack of depth and of the things that make Lumberjanes so great to me. I wasn’t hugely as fussed by the art style used in it either, although it did suit the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684151837
Publisher: BOOM! Box
Year of publication: 2018

A Tolkien Bestiary

By David Day

Rating: 4 stars

This book is more an encyclopaedia than a bestiary, since it covers various peoples and even individuals as well as races and creatures. The art is lovely, not necessarily what I would associate with Tolkien, but strong and beautiful nonetheless. There are line drawings spread throughout, pretty much on every page, and there are a number of colour page spreads clustered in a few areas as well. It’s pretty comprehensive, using all of Tolkien’s primary works of Arda, and with an index to primary sources at the back as well as a general index of the book itself.

Parts of it did make for rather uneasy reading, though, generally where races of men other than the Edain/NĂºmenĂ³reans were mentioned, as they were inevitable dark skinned and either evil in and of themselves or under the sway of Melkor/Sauron. This is something that may be easier to ignore in The Lord of the Rings, as they come up less, but in a book about races, it’s rather more stark. This doesn’t stop me from loving either book, but it’s a reminder of the world that Tolkien grew up in and the cultural shorthands he took for granted.

But looking beyond that, it’s a gorgeous book, impeccably researched and illustrated that deserves a place on the bookshelf of every Tolkien fan.

Book details

ISBN: 0855331887
Publisher: Mitchell Beazley
Year of publication: 1978

The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

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