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Monthly Archives: January 2017

“Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories” by James Blaylock

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James Blaylock’s Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories has recurred throughout my adult life like the aquarium shop in his “The Shadow on the Doorstep.” I first read it while still living with my parents. Years later, I sought out a library copy without remembering much about the book besides vague central concepts from a couple of the stories (“a man mails himself back in time”, “artificial dragons”, “weird aquarium shop”). On both reads, I enjoyed it immensely, so I decided to purchase a copy of my own—and read it again, of course.

Three of the stories in the collection (“The Ape-Box Affair”, “Two Views of a Cave Painting”, and “The Idol’s Eye”) feature Langdon St. Ives, about whom Blaylock has written a series of novels. These light-hearted stories, in which St. Ives builds such contraptions as a spaceship or a time machine on an estate outside Victorian London, recall the pulp fiction of the 1950s-1970s, as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s “White Hart” tales.

The Langdon St. Ives stories fall more-or-less into the subgenre known as steampunk, and there are certainly elements of this in the World Fantasy Award-winning “Paper Dragons” as well. While it’s set in modern-day California, it also features dragons made of wire, gemstones, paper, and clockwork. The narrator agrees to help his neighbor make contact with the enigmatic Augustus Silver, a renowned creator of such dragons. In the process, he begins to question how much of what he’s seeing is real, how much is imagination, and just how thin the line between those two really is.

While most of the stories in Thirteen Phantasms fall squarely within the realm of speculative fiction, there are a few that, while they deal with unusual subject matter, don’t have any overt fantastical elements. These stories share a common theme: repairing a romantic relationship that has gone awry. In “Doughnuts,” the protagonist and his wife must each come to terms with the other having a great enthusiasm that they don’t share. In “Bugs”, a main character who finds it easier to talk to bugs than people grapples with his wife’s attempts at reconciliation. In both of these stories, the human relationships are beautifully rendered, and the quirky settings breathe new life into what could otherwise be bland domestic dramas.

“We Traverse Afar” (co-written with Tim Powers) and “The Old Curiosity Shop” also deal with the relationships between husbands and wives. In these stories, however, one member of the partnership is deceased, and the other must deal with what is left behind. Both stories are powerful examinations of grief and healing. The best speculative fiction tales are often those in which the relationships between the characters and their internal struggles are as central as the supernatural goings-on. Blaylock tells that kind of story perfectly here.

Despite the high praise I’ve given to some of the other pieces, “The Shadow on the Doorstep” remains my favorite story. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale, and truly captures a central theme that runs through Blaylock’s work: the idea that you don’t need to travel through time and space in search of marvels. If you’re paying attention, you may find that they’re just around the corner, and that they’ve been there all along.

“Sleeping Giants” by Sylvain Neuvel

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In Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, young Rose Franklin is out riding her bike when she falls into a huge hole in the ground that’s appeared overnight and lands in the palm of a gigantic metal hand. Years later, she is the head of a secretive government project to study the hand, and to find other objects left behind by the same previously-unknown civilization. Eventually, it becomes clear that the hand is but a piece of a truly colossal statue…or perhaps something even more remarkable than that.

Sleeping Giants is a fairly quick read, but don’t mistake that for simplicity of plot, theme, or characterization. Neuvel’s characters are well-rounded in the sense that they have both flaws and virtues, and their reactions to the “sleeping giant” are shaped by their past experiences and their interactions with each other. As they work to figure out who built and disassembled the giant, and why, its larger philosophical and geopolitical implications unfold around them.

The novel is composed almost exclusively of interviews with the main characters by a shadowy unnamed figure, with an occasional transcript of a news report or radio transmission. While such “false forms” have been used to great effect in a number of short stories and novels, here they create a filtering effect that makes some scenes less dramatic than they should be. The reader is kept at arm’s length, and this dulls the impact of even such action-packed scenes as a fight between one of the main characters and naval officers on a submarine. This is really the only thing keeping a good book from being great, so I’m hoping that Neuvel will find a way around it in the sequel, Waking Gods, which is due out this spring.

Reading Summary, 2016

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This year, I read 27 books, up from 2015’s total of 22. Genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 11

Science Fiction: 2

Horror: 3

Historical Fiction: 1

Mystery: 1

General Fiction: 2

Nonfiction: 3

Mixed Genres: 4

This year’s selection is more heavily skewed towards fantasy than my reading list from last year. On the other hand, I read three nonfiction books this year, whereas I didn’t read any in 2015. I also read into five(!) new-to-me series this year: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth, Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona/World of the Five Gods, Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files, and Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children.

Favorite book: Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It was hard to choose a single favorite between this and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, as both were engrossing stories set in interesting worlds with compelling characters.

Least favorite book: The Narrator by Michael Cisco. Most of the books I read this year were excellent, so calling this my least favorite book isn’t saying that it was bad, just that it wasn’t quite as good as the others. Despite being set in a fantasy world, the novel brings a sense of realism to the war that the main character is drafted into, partly by showing the characters spending most of their time waiting or planning rather than actually fighting. While there’s a lot to be said for this approach, it did lead to some problems with the book’s pacing, and there were sections where I found it hard to stay interested.