Angels and Devils in Deepgate

•February 6, 2008 • 1 Comment

A few months ago, I stumbled onto a short, one-paragraph story synopsis that instantly caught my attention, and I found myself so intrigued that I went out and bought the novel on the spot. The author was new, and had an interesting but perhaps unlikely background for a novelist. (In hindsight, this may not be the case after all, given the novel’s very dark fantasy subject matter). Nonetheless, by the time that I finished the four page prologue I knew that I was in for a real treat and more exciting yet, that I might be in on something new and perhaps truly visionary. As it turned out, I was correct.

The novel is called Scar Night, and the author is Alan Campbell. Picture this: an ancient, crumbling city hangs suspended above a seemingly bottomless abyss on a series of gargantuan chains; a network of lesser chains, cables, and ropes support outlying districts filled with warehouses, shops, residences, and even the wooden walkways and thoroughfares that connect them all together. This is Deepgate, which lies at the heart of Campbell’s world. The residents of this improbable city worship Lord Ulcis, the god of chains, and each month at the dark of the moon they are tormented by a demonic angel known as Carnival who flies over the rooftops searching for unwary victims.

The richly Victorian atmosphere in Campbell’s story is palpable. For me, it was instantly reminiscent of my favorite works of literature in the English language; the Gormenghast novels of the great British fantasist Mervyn Peake (read my commentary on these novels elsewhere here and also on my Nightfall Books website). Mix Peake with Neil Gaiman (think Neverwhere), stir in some Fritz Leiber and sprinkle on a little Jack Vance, and you may start to get a feel for how the story reads. That said, whether or not any of these writers were influences on Campbell, this novel is remarkably original and is an absolutely stunning debut effort. It is the experience of a novel like this one that is why so many of us love to read.

I won’t spoil any surprises for you, and there are many in this book. Suffice it to say that it is a rare and wonderous, albeit dark and sometimes gruesome, adventure that awaits you.

Fortunately, Campbell is following this book with both a prequel and a sequel! I’ll bring you a review of the former, titled Lye Street, here soon. In the meantime, if you’d like to preorder a copy, you can do so at Nightfall Books. The latter, alternatively titled Penny Devil and Iron Angel in the UK and US, will be released later this year.

Until next time, happy reading!

Bears, Borribles, and Bogeymen

•October 2, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Today’s recommendations include another eclectic mix of titles: two older fantasy trilogies, a reprint short story collection of weird tales, and a new omnibus reprint collection by one of the acknowledged masters of science fiction and science fantasy.

Before the days of the Internet, book shoppers were largely limited to perusing the shelves at their local bookseller or chain book store. Occasionally other options were available: I learned about the work of some science fiction authors with whom I had had limited or no experience by listening to the Hour 25 radio program on Friday nights during the 70s and 80s. But still, it was the book stores where most discoveries were made. During such a shopping trip during the 1980’s, I happened to pick up The Borribles by British author Michael de Larrabeiti, and a bit later its sequel The Borribles Go for Broke. The books were apparently written for the “juvenile” or “young adult” market – that is certainly how they were marketed – but this was not an issue. I have read and enjoyed a great deal of such “juvenile” fiction over the years – still do, for that matter – including works by Madeleine L’Engle, John Bellairs, and Philip Pullman (see below). I enjoyed the Borribles books so much that I read and reread both novels several times, and gave copies to friends and relatives who were also avid readers. Wanting more, I watched for new Borrible titles to appear, but none did. Eventually, I stopped searching.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago: it occurred to me one day to search online for further Borrible books, and I was pleased to discover that de Larrabeiti had indeed written a third (and apparently final) book called The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis. As my two paperback copies were now two decades old, I purchased the trilogy as a single volume from Tor Books (shown above). This edition is now o.p., but the three novels have been re-released separately and are now available.

Okay, so what are the books about, and what is a Borrible? To quote from deLarrabeiti’s own website:

“Borribles are runaway children whose ears become pointed as they take to the streets, indicators of their independence and intelligence. As long as their ears remain unclipped they will never age; for this reason, they wear woollen hats pulled low over their ears in order to remain undetected by the authorities, who find their freedom threatening to the social order. Borribles are skinny, scruffy, and tough; they have nothing to do with money, and steal what they need to survive.”

The stories revolve around a particular group of Borribles who live in Battersea and their adventures in and around London, Battersea, and other English cities and towns, fighting Rumbles (intelligent, child-sized rats) and other Borribles, all the while trying to evade the SBG, the section of the London police force dedicated to capturing all Borribles. Synopses of each of the three volumes are available here: http://www.michaeldelarrabeiti.com/books/borribletrilogy.html.

Suffice it to say that with the Borrible trilogy, de Larrabeiti has created one of best and most unique fantasies that you will ever read. Highly recommended.

The next item is another fantasy trilogy written for a younger audience that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is: The Northern Lights (published in the U.S. as The Golden Compass, soon to be a feature film), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Like de Larrabeiti, Pullman has created an alternate reality in which his stories play out. In the case of the Borribles, that alternate reality substitutes for our own. In Pullman’s case, that alternate reality coexists alongside our own, with characters crossing between the two worlds as the storylines proceed. This alternate reality is one in which science and magic co-exist and all humans have a personal animal familiar called a daemon. The stories are rich, complex, and fascinating in their inventiveness. Again, highly recommended.

Next is a short story collection by a writer who I was unfamiliar with until I purchased this book. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Eric Frank Russell was best known for his science fiction, much of which remains in print today. But, he was also a master of the weird tale. Darker Tides is a limited edition collection from Midnight House that reprints the contents of his long out-of-print volume Dark Tides along with many of his other stories originally published in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Fantastic, and Strange Stories. I love making literary discoveries like these: it’s a fine book, and a great read.

Finally for this post, there’s the new collection by one of my favorite authors, Jack Vance. Much has been written elsewhere about this writer and his works, so I’ll simply say that I’ve read most of what he has written over the years, and there is no finer writer in the realm of science fiction and science fantasy. Among my very favorite titles are his five volume Star King series. Smart, witty, clever, and inventive, Vance is a master of the form. He has a clean, refreshing style that avoids contrivances and the many clichés of the genre. The Jack Vance Treasury is a “best-of” collection from Subterranean Press; it is currently only available as a signed limited edition, but Vance titles are widely available in paperback format. I urge you to check them out – don’t miss the many amazing worlds of Jack Vance.

A Peake at a Master of Fantasy

•October 1, 2007 • 2 Comments

The Gormenghast Novels
I first discovered the works of Mervyn Peake in 1969 or 1970. The thanks for this, as with so many of the other authors that I have profiled on my website at www.nightfallbooks.com, go entirely to the effort by Ballantine Books in the late 60s and early 70s to reprint classic works of fantasy fiction, often long out of print and forgotten. I was perusing the fiction racks at the Cal State Fullerton bookstore one afternoon when the wonderful Bob Pepper cover art on the Ballantine edition of Gormenghast caught my eye. Intrigued by the comments on the cover and inside the book, I purchased the trilogy and read the first two volumes back to back. I have not been the same since. No books I have ever read have had the intense impact on me that these two have. They are now, and I’m certain will forever remain, my favorite works of literature.

The Story
Set in a rambling, crumbling castle as large as a city, in an unknown time on an unnamed world, the first two novels of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy are among the most astonishing works of fiction ever written. The first book, Titus Groan, chronicles the birth and first year of life of its titular hero, Titus, heir to the throne of Gormenghast, his ancestral home. His father is Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of the House of Gormenghast. Brooding, distant, and introspective, he is uninterested in all aspects of his life and family, living only for the endless series of monotonous rituals that punctuate each day, and for the time he spends alone in his great library each night. Titus’s mother is Gertrude, Countess of Groan, a huge mountain of a woman who, like her estranged husband, lives isolated in a world of her own, a world filled with countless wild birds and an army of white cats. His only sibling is his sister Fuchsia, already a young teenager when he is born. Like her parents, Fuchsia lives virtually alone, estranged from them both, attended only by her old and long suffering nurse, Nannie Slagg. Their world is the great castle Gormenghast, and it is within its walls, surrounded by a sea of servants and retainers, that they play out their sad and empty lives. We meet key figures in the life of the castle, and of Titus, including the Earl’s faithful servant Flay, the ancient Master of Ritual Sourdust and his elderly son Barquentine, the enormous and repellent head chef Swelter, Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor and his sister Irma, and the dark youth Steerpike.

The second novel, Gormenghast, continues Titus’s story. Years have passed, and he is now a young boy of eight. The story grows along with him, introducing many new characters and covering more years as he grows into a young man. This time around though, the typically dark and tragic storyline is punctuated by surprising and often hilarious episodes, most notably perhaps being those involving the Professors in the castle school. Despite these moments of lightness however, the monumental events and intrigues begun in the first novel deepen and darken further as Titus’s world and his life change forever, and the story builds to an unforgettable climax.

The World of Gormenghast
The world Peake creates in the first two novels is unique in my literary experience. Most singularly, it is a world completely out of place and time. Peake makes no reference anywhere in the books to the setting: no country names are mentioned, no cities or towns, no oceans or continents. The time is likewise ignored, and (with one exception only) there is no way to place the story in time, because Peake completely eschews technology of any kind. There are no electric lights, no machines or motors, no radios or telephones. Even more than this, seemingly the only humans in this bleak world are the inhabitants of the castle and those of a poor village that nestles against its outer walls. It is difficult to describe this, how it reads, but I can tell you that it nevers matters, and I did not even notice it until I was well into the story. In fact, this isolation from “reality” makes the world that much more real intrinsically, and completely absorbing and believable.

Dark, brooding, oppressive, and strange beyond words, Titus Groan and Gormenghast will haunt you forever with their bizarre and tragic characters, disconcerting images, and unrelenting strangeness. For fans of speculative fiction literature, these two books, along with their much less effective counterpart Titus Alone, are not to be missed at any cost. Once read, they will never leave you, and I am certain that, like me, you will read them again and again over the years, always marvelling at the world Mr. Peake has created.

Editions in Print
Thanks to the good folks at Overlook Press, you can buy these wonderful novels in separate hard cover or paperback editions, or an omnibus edition.

Notes from the Easy Chair

•September 29, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I tend to keep two or three books in my reading rotation at any given time, unless I happen to have picked up one of those stay-up-all-night-to-finish titles (you know the ones). Lately, I’ve been juggling a few cross-genre titles, including several from a handful of late, great British authors and one from a new young American fantasy writer.

First up is Strangers and Pilgrims, an outstanding new omnibus collection of supernatural fiction by Walter de la Mare. Published by one of my favorite specialty publishers, Tartarus Press in the UK, it’s a beautiful monster of a book at 500+ pages, and is not to be missed if you are a fan of ghost stories or supernatural fiction in general, especially by the early masters of the genre.

Second is Thermopylae: Battle for the West by popular historian Ernle Bradford. I’ve been fascinated by ancient history since childhood (yes, that long ago), particularly Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. After reading Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 last year, I had the urge to go back and take a longer, deeper look into the epic but hopeless battle for the Hot Gates in 480 BC that has been widely considered ever since as a turning point in the development of Western civilization. Bradford’s book, first published in 1980, takes a detailed look at the events leading up to and throughout Persian king Xerxes’ ultimately doomed campaign against the West, as well as the aftermath of that campaign. Highly recommended, particularly if ancient Greek history is your thing.

The next book is Summer Lightning, the latest in the seemingly endless flow of P.G. Wodehouse titles that make their way into my rotation. The prolific author, considered by many to be the greatest British comic writer ever, may be best known for his Wooster and Jeeves stories. As good as they are, my own favorites are his stories about Blandings Castle and its colorful cast of characters, of which Summer Lightning is the third novel in the series, and the fourth book chronologically (the preceding title was a short story collection). Some Wodehouse critics claim that he merely tells the same story over and over. Sure, there are similarities – the stories are typically light, humourous, period pieces dealing with the foibles of a revolving group of characters in a more or less constant group of settings. But does this make them any less enjoyable? Hardly – in fact, each book let’s the reader visit once again with comfortable and quirky old friends. And that’s a good thing indeed. If you don’t know Wodehouse (pronounced “wood-house”), I encouraged you to become acquainted.

Finally, we have dragons – but more on that in a minute. I read a lot of fantasy in the early days, including all of the old masters, along with many of the more modern ones. Still, I haven’t read much pure fantasy in a long time. This is due in large part to my current preferences in fiction literature. But the fact remains that the book racks at the chain book stores these days are overflowing with new science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles, much of it less than satisfactory. Still, there are terrific new authors working in the field, while many old favorites are still writing. What’s more, many of the classics are being reprinted again.

Now, back to those dragons. Among those terrific new writers is Naomi Novik. Her Temeraire tetralogy of historical fantasies involves the unlikely combination of dragons and the Napoleonic Wars! I bought the first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, for my wife, and decided to start reading it myself last night. When dragons are handled well – Ursula LeGuin comes to mind – they can make for great stories. However, they’ve been overused and abused by lesser authors so often that although I had read much of the hype online regarding these books, I was still skeptical. Much has already been written elsewhere about the Temeraire saga, but for now I’ll simply say that fifty pages in Novik had me. First, she’s a fine writer, which was a pleasure to learn for myself. Second, she tells a good story. And third, she has – thus far at least – avoided most of the typical dragon cliches. As many others have noted, Novik is more fond of semicolons than any other author I can think of, and she has yet to totally convince me that these dragons are the real deal. Still, I’m hooked now, and will report further here after I have finished the series.

Supernatural Fiction: Good vs Grue?

•September 28, 2007 • 1 Comment

Like all literary genres, this one has evolved over time to reflect changes in popular culture, societal mores and values, and world events, among other things. In recent decades, a trend towards more bloody, horrific, and sexual themes has become apparent. In many cases, modern purveyors of horror fiction seem engaged in trying to outgross and outsex one other with each new title. The results often end up as nothing more than ultra violent pornography. This trend seems to mirror a similar trend in horror cinema over the past twenty years or so, one which is becoming increasingly disturbing.

Fortunately for those of us who appreciate a more subtle and psychological approach to our chilling tales, there are a number of writers working in the genre today who deliver in this regard. Two of these are Australian author Terry Dowling and American author Thomas Tessier. Despite a largely more cerebral approach to their subject matter, their stories are often dark and disturbing, and do not shy away from adult themes. Cases-in-point are Tessier’s 2000 Ghost Music and Dowling’s 2006 Basic Black.

Both titles, currently out of print from Cemetery Dance, are effective but uneven collections of each author’s supernatural short stories. I admit to thinking “huh?” after finishing a few of the stories in each book, but this does happen to me on occasion. Each time it does, I first wonder what I might have missed while reading the story, and then I wonder whether the problem lay with me or with the author. But don’t let this deter you: check out one or both titles, if you can find them in some form. In fact, the single most eerie, unnerving, and downright disturbing story I have read since Ramsey Campbell’s The Pattern is Tessier’s innocently titled In Praise of Folly. It has a “quiet” yet shudderingly chilling ending that should make your blood run cold. It did mine…