Tag Archives: 2000s

AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.

I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.

I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already. Continue reading

LIGHT – M. John Harrison (2002)

41atffz3pxlDamn: hard review to write.

China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”

Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.

Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light. Continue reading

THE DARKNESS THAT COMES BEFORE – R. Scott Bakker (2003)

the-darkness-that-comes-beforeA couple of weeks ago I read this review of the recently published The Great Ordeal on Speculiction. It instantly triggered me to read the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy, as The Great Ordeal is the third book of The Aspect Emperor series – a sequel to that first trilogy.

My previous review highlighted Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Theodore Sturgeon and his More Than Human. Coincidentally, R. Scott Bakker begins his book with a quote of Nietzsche from Beyond Good And Evil.

I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact that which these superstitious people are loath to admit – namely, that a thought comes when “it” wants, not when “I” want …

It’s not just some fancy quote to set the mood, as in Before They Are Hanged. It spells out the theme of the novel. Kellhus, the main character, was bred and raised by the Dûnyain, an ancient monastic order that makes it its goal to achieve control over one’s impulses and desires. The title of the book refers to the same theme:

The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

If you’re not philosophically inclined, don’t let that quote put you off – the book isn’t full of preachy stuff like this – on the contrary: it’s character-driven, and there’s plenty of action and awe.

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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU – stories by Susanna Clarke (2006)

the-ladies-of-grace-adieuSusanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.

It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.

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ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT – Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

img_20160914_153857047Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.

The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All StreetsGreat DayGuns Before ButterHappy Birthday, 1951Brighten UpThe Unicorn TrapUnknown SoldierSpoilsJust You And Me, SammyThe Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.

The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.

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ALTERED CARBON – Richard K. Morgan (2002)

Altered CarbonIt’s hardly surprising Netflix has announced a 10-episode series based on this book. If done right, this “pure high-octane science fiction” mixed “with the classic noir private-eye tale” will lend itself pretty well to the 21st century TV audience.

Altered Carbon is Richard K. Morgan’s debut, and instantly got acclaim. It won the 2003 PKD award, and comparisons to Blade Runner and Neuromancer are found in reviews all over the net. More on that later.


It’s an entertaining read, and fairly easy at that. Don’t believe reviewers who speak of a complex plot: one has to pay attention, yes, but the story simply goes from point A to B: easily recognizable events take the protagonist by the hand throughout the murky world to the inevitable conclusion, and new clues pop up at regular intervals. Events as: being ambushed, being shoved into a limousine to see some mighty powerbroker, being confronted by a female cop followed by kissing, being tailed, being seduced by the wife of your client, being put into a fighting pit (bare knuckles to the death!), going to an arms dealer to get new toys, etc., etc. All in all, pretty pulpy stuff.

That’s not to say the novel doesn’t have merit:

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WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf HallWolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bring Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm – an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. Yet it is the other way around, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.

Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.

Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is visibly meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.

He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.

He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?

&

I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.

There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and make some remarks on Mantel’s style.

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