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Monthly Archives: December 2017

“The Hum and the Shiver” by Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver is the first of Alex Bledsoe’s series of novels about the Tufa, a group of people living in rural Tennessee whose mysterious origins give rise to rumor and superstition. Most of the Tufa are musically talented and can even work magic through their songs, so music is central to the story. As a music buff, this is one aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed.

Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, and as the name suggests, they usually involve teenaged or young adult protagonists. The Hum and the Shiver is unique in that it gives this “discovering/choosing your place in the world” plotline to an adult. Main character Bronwyn Hyatt has just returned home after a tour of duty in Iraq. But even though she’s off the battlefield, she’s not out of trouble: death omens and a ghost make it clear that something nasty’s about to happen at home, too. In dealing with this, Bronwyn has to confront her own potential power and the (to her) restrictive elements of Tufa culture. Will she take her place among the Tufa’s leadership or return to the wider world?

Bledsoe presents a wide range of characters and gives the reader a good feel for their personalities. As I was reading, I felt invested in the characters. I also enjoyed puzzling out the mystery of who and what exactly the Tufa are. There is, however, one plot thread that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Partway through the book, there are some hints that certain events may not have unfolded the way we (or the characters) had been told. I had thought that unraveling this would be a major part of Bronwyn’s journey of self-discovery, but the thread is left unresolved.

Bledsoe has written several other novels about the Tufa, and I’m looking forward to reading them.

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“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids is an intriguing mash-up of genres. As the title suggests, its primary influence is such “kid detective” series as Scooby Doo. (In fact, a villain actually says, “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”) By necessity, there are also shades of other stories in the genre, such as Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. In large part, the book is a love letter to those stories, so anyone who grew up reading those (myself included) will find much to love here.

The novel’s plot centers on the team of erstwhile kid detectives revisiting an old case. As events progress, it becomes clearer and clearer that there was more going on than just a guy in a costume impersonating a monster. The main characters now find themselves dealing with a cosmic/Lovecraftian horror story. Cantero skillfully handles the melding of styles without allowing either one to completely overwhelm the other.

I did have one stylistic complaint. At times, the narration switches into screenplay style without any real reason. This was jarring and pulled me out of the story whenever it happened. Aside from this flaw, I enjoyed the book.

“Strange Weather” by Joe Hill

After writing several best-selling novels, Joe Hill has produced a collection of four novellas, Strange Weather. As the title suggests, weather phenomena play a role in each story, though not always as a central element.

Among the stories, “Loaded” is the only one that’s overtly political. It deals with both mass shootings and “blue on black” violence (the killing of unarmed African-American men by police officers). However, Hill doesn’t sacrifice plot or dialogue for the sake of his political point. For the most part, the characterization doesn’t suffer either, although I feel the piece would have been even stronger if one particular character’s situation had been more nuanced. The story takes place in a town that’s in the path of a wildfire. This seems particularly apt, given that fire is often used as a metaphor for conflict.

In my opinion, “Snapshot” is the strongest story in the collection. There are some conceptual similarities to Stephen King’s “The Sun Dog,” but “Snapshot” is definitely its own entity. It kept me turning pages, and there’s a great Easter egg at the end for readers of Hill’s other work.

“Rain” is notable primarily for the uniqueness of its characters. If one were to simply describe the characters, without any context about the plot or author, you could be forgiven for thinking that they’re probably part of a screwball comedy. That might not sound like a promising cast of characters for a horror story, but Hill makes it work.

One of the strengths of Stephen King’s stories is that they’re often just as much about the human characters’ interactions and problems as they are about various supernatural menaces. “Aloft” shows that Hill has absorbed this lesson from his father’s writing. The main character is stranded on a distinctly odd cloud after a skydiving accident, but this plight is very much intertwined with his anxieties, friendships, and romantic relationships.

Occupying a middle ground between the shorter pieces of 20th Century Ghosts and Hill’s novels, all four of these stories are well worth a read.

“Sailing to Sarantium” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels take place in a version of medieval/Renaissance Europe in which recognizable places and people are supplemented by what he calls “a quarter-turn towards the fantastic.” The first volume in his Sarantine Mosaic duology, Sailing to Sarantium, is no exception, with the magic even being a significant element of the plot.

I had previously read Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, and while that novel stood on its own, Sailing to Sarantium shed additional light on some of its events. It also shows some hints of things to come, enriching the setting Kay has built.

Another similarity between the Sarantine stories and Children is that the protagonist is an artist. In this case, Crispin is a mosaicist who’s been commissioned to work on the largest and most magnificent temple to Jad the sun god in the world. Kay masterfully describes some of the technical details of mosaic-making without it becoming dry or boring. Activities like setting tiles and examining the angle of light through a window are invested with Crispin’s enthusiasm for his art and awe at the work of his fellow artists.

As with Kay’s other novels, there are complex political machinations going on. We see this maneuvering not just through Crispin’s eyes, but through those of various participants and bystanders. Much of what occurs in Sailing to Sarantium is setup, with the payoff presumably to come in the second half, Lord of Emperors. I’m looking forward to that book and eager to see what choice Crispin will make.

“In the Village Where Brightwine Flows” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands has rapidly taken its place as one of my favorite fantasy series. Its central character, Ҫeda, is a gladiator seeking to bring down the brutal rulers of her desert city. Along the way, she interacts with a number of other interesting characters: the arena owner (and smuggler) Osman, her childhood friend Emre, the apothecary Dardzada, and the scholar Davud, just to name a few. Unlike the other entries in the series, the novella In the Village Where Brightwine Flows shines its spotlight on one of these secondary characters.

Dardzada the apothecary raised Ҫeda after her mother’s death. In this story, he has to put his chosen professor aside to become an investigator when the son of a prominent nobleman turns up dead. I enjoyed seeing Dardzada interact with someone other than Ҫeda, and it was interesting to see aspects of Sharakhani intrigue that don’t revolve around the main plot of the novels.

The stories in the Shattered Sands series have gradually given the readers more insight into the culture and politics of the nations that surround the Great Shangazi Desert. Of Sand and Malice Made gave us a look at the Kundhunese social structure and religion, while With Blood Upon the Sand took us into the heart of Qaimir. Brightwine continues to expand the setting by setting a chunk of its tale in a neighborhood of Sharakhai settled by Mirean expatriates. We’re introduced to traditional Mirean medicine and a Mafia-like organization known as the Jade Masks. This further broadening of horizons is one of the things that made the novella enjoyable.

The next novel in the series, A Veil of Spears, is due out next spring, and Brightwine left me wondering whether a couple of new plot threads for that story were being set up here. The Jade Masks seem to be well-served by the status quo—will that put them at odds with the Moonless Host? Will Dardzada’s brother, a sinister captain in the Silver Spears, show up again to make trouble? Will we be seeing more action set in the Mirean quarter of Sharakhai? The story stands on its own, but also whets the reader’s appetite for what’s to come.