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Monthly Archives: May 2017

“Voices in the Night” by Steven Millhauser

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Steven Millhauser’s We Others is one of my favorite books, so I was excited to read his latest short story collection. Most of the stories in Voices in the Night fall into the category of magical realism, with a tendency to focus on the way the strange and inexplicable can disrupt the day-to-day rhythm of a person’s life.

Many of us have felt the disappointment of seeing a favorite restaurant or shop go out of business and be replaced by something else. Sometimes, a longtime resident of a neighborhood will be dismayed to see its character changing over time. These feelings are taken to an extreme in “Coming Soon,” in which the main character gets lost in his own neighborhood as buildings are remodeled and replaced at an ever-increasing pace.

“Coming Soon” isn’t the only story in this collection to focus on the relationship between a person and the community in which he or she lives: the theme resurfaces in different guises in one story after another. In “Phantoms,” ghostlike apparitions are a fact of life in a particular town. They come to define the town to such a degree that its residents feel set apart from people living everywhere else. In “Elsewhere,” a phenomenon brought on by the citizens’ boredom with their comfortable suburban lives reawakens them to the wonder of ordinary things. A similar ennui due to the (comparatively) easy lives experienced by 21st-century suburbanites takes a much darker turn in “A Report on Our Recent Troubles.” In “Mermaid Fever,” the discovery of a mermaid corpse on a beach transforms a town, becoming first a curiosity and then a collective obsession bordering on mass hysteria.

Several of the stories draw their inspirations from myth, folklore, or religion. “Rapunzel” is a retelling of the titular fairy tale. “A Voice in the Night” features a man recalling how he laid awake at night as a child after learning the Biblical story of Samuel. “American Tall Tale” gives us an untold story of Paul Bunyan.

My favorite of the pieces in this collection was “Elsewhere.” It’s a truly beautiful story, evoking the sense of awe that’s the hallmark of great speculative fiction. I also enjoyed “The Place,” in which the titular location exercises an influence over those who visit it that’s both wondrous and unsettling. Millhauser’s previous collections gave me high expectations for his short fiction, and Voices in the Night did not disappoint me.

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“Twelve Kings in Sharakai” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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Bradley P. Beaulieu’s “Song of Shattered Sands” series takes place in a city that lies in the center of a vast desert. Sharakai is a center of trade and learning, but once it was an embattled settlement on the brink of destruction. Twelve men saved it by making a pact with the gods of the desert. Those twelve men still rule Sharakai, for the gods gave them the gift of immortality. If you’re thinking, “What’s the catch?” to yourself, you’re on the right track. The followers of those kings made a great sacrifice, one that echoes down to the present day of Sharakai. But not everyone thinks the sacrifices are worth it (especially since the population seems to be doing most of the sacrificing, with the twelve kings reaping most of the benefits).

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is its sense of place. Sharakai feels like a living, breathing city, and the glimpses we get of characters from the nations outside the great desert give the reader the sense of a wider world beyond the city’s borders. (Twelve Kings in Sharakai takes place entirely in Sharakai and the nearby regions of desert, but I’m hoping that the sequel will give us a more direct look at one or more of the other countries.) The vividness of the setting is enhanced by small touches: a snowboard-like device called a zilij is used for personal transportation over short distances in the desert; a tribe marks the palms of their hands with tattoos so that they can only be seen when the hands are extended open (as opposed to being clenched around the hilt of a weapon); a neighborhood with a convoluted network of streets is known as The Knot.

Beaulieu also avoids the pitfall of simplifying the central conflict of the book too much. The main character, Ҫeda, wants to bring down the kings, but doesn’t think much of the main organization opposing them. A secondary character has a vendetta against that group—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on the side of the kings. The novel certainly has some suspenseful action scenes, but the intrigue between and within factions kept me turning the pages too.

I hadn’t heard of Beaulieu before someone told me about this book, but now I’m looking forward to reading the sequel and to seeking out some of his other work.

“Everfair” by Nisi Shawl

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Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair takes the reader to a place that steampunk, and fantasy literature in general, rarely goes: Africa. A partnership between British socialists and African-American missionaries purchases a large chunk of the Congo from its colonial ruler, King Leopold II of Belgium. The novel follows a fascinating cast of characters: a Chinese man from Macao who builds clockwork prostheses for freedmen who were mutilated by their former masters; a king who’s been waging a guerrilla war against the Belgian colonists; an American missionary who finds himself being drawn to the faith of his African ancestors.

This isn’t a simplistic story. The mostly-atheist Fabians and the devoutly Christian missionaries sometimes find themselves at odds over what direction their society should take, and neither group’s interests always mesh with the desires of the indigenous people they’re trying to help. The characters are also presented as real people who have both virtues and flaws. Daisy, for example, is genuinely appalled by the atrocities committed against the Africans by the Belgians, and is dedicated to making the society of Everfair work. But she disapproves when her son George falls in love with the leader of the missionaries, a black woman named Martha.

Despite these strengths of setting and characterization, the book has one major flaw: pacing. Everfair spans decades, and the novel simply isn’t long enough to give major events the space they deserve. Battles, life-changing decisions, and technological discoveries rush by so quickly that the emotional impact is blunted. One major character death even happens off-screen.

Everfair had the potential to be a great book, but the serious pacing issues hold it back to only being a good book. If Shawl can overcome this in her next novel, it will be a gem.