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Monthly Archives: October 2019

“I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky” by Brian Hodge

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My introduction to Brian Hodge came through two pieces of short fiction: “The Same Deep Waters as You” and “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood.” (The latter can be found in Ellen Datlow’s excellent anthology The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea; I don’t remember where I read the former.) Both pieces impressed me so much that I sought out Hodge’s longer work. His novella I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky is a cosmic horror story that also speaks to the power of art.

The vivid imagery of New England settings in the writing of Lovecraft and Stephen King gives their stories a strong sense of place, and Hodge does the same for Appalachia here. His language is particularly evocative when describing the environmental devastation wreaked by coal mining and the poverty left behind as the industry abandoned the region. At first, the discovery of potentially valuable paintings seems like an opportunity to bring some money and public attention to a community that the rest of the country has largely forgotten about. This being a horror story, there turns out to be a sinister power behind these works of art. But was the painter trying to exorcise his demons or to call them up?

That sense of place infuses the paintings that are so important to the story, and not just because the aforementioned sinister power is a localized one. Hodge talks about Conklin (the painter) incorporating natural elements such as leaves and moss into the paintings. These small details—for example, Conklin using moss as a stippling sponge—help the reader to imagine more than just a generic landscape. A tale in which art is so central stands or falls on how well it can make the reader visualize those artworks. Hodge succeeds admirably, and that’s a large part of what makes the book so engaging.

Another strength of the book is the way it deals with the common genre trope of body horror. I gather that Hodge has written some hardcore/extreme horror in the past, but here he eschews gore in favor of a more philosophical look at radical transformation. What’s particularly interesting is the way he juxtaposes this with the transformation that humans have imposed on the landscape. Humanity adapted the land to suit their needs, but the story shows something rooted in the land beginning to adapt humans to its needs. For such a short work, there’s a lot going on here, and it makes me either to try out Hodge’s full novel The Immaculate Void.

“The End of All Our Exploring” by F. Brett Cox

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The End of All Our Exploring is F. Brett Cox’s first short story collection. It’s a wide-ranging book, with pieces that fall under the umbrellas of historical fiction, magical realism, science fiction, and horror.

While I enjoyed the book overall, it unfortunately gets off to a weak start. The first two entries, “Legacy” and “The Amnesia Helmet”, end with a summary of the main characters’ lives over the next few years. These endings feel limp and perfunctory, even though the stories that came before them were engaging.

Luckily, Cox hits his stride soon afterwards and doesn’t let up. My favorite story in the collection is “What We Did on Our Vacation: My Whole World Lies Waiting.” I’ve always loved the sort of weird fiction or “quiet horror” that strives to be unsettling rather than outright terrifying, and Cox nails that style here. The piece maintains an eerie atmosphere throughout, partly because exactly what’s going on is hinted at but never explicitly explained. It’s also very character-driven, using the supernatural phenomenon encountered by the main characters as a metaphor for how people can grow apart over time, becoming strangers to each other.

Another story I particularly enjoyed was “The Deep End.” Most stories about mysterious phenomena understandably locate them in sparsely-populated areas. Also, when not in the wilderness, they tend to be in old structures. “The Deep End” sets its tale of a supernatural encounter in an artificial, modern, contained location that’s crowded with people at the time. This makes the story feel truly fresh and original. I also appreciated the references to various urban legends about the jets and pumps in pools, as well as one gesture toward Chuck Palahniuk’s infamously disturbing short story “Guts.”

A trait many of the stories in this volume share is their keen sense of time and place. This is only to be expected for the historical fiction pieces, especially since, as described in the notes at the end, a couple of them are based on real incidents in places Cox has lived. But the more fanciful stories share this grounding in realistic landscapes and communities. “It Came Out of the Sky” is a particularly strong example. The story’s details of landscape and community make it feel like something that could really have happened and make the plot feel even more otherworldly by contrast. Throughout the book, Cox’s writing is at its most powerful when sea serpents, zombies, and witches exist alongside battered pickup trucks, women gossiping in beauty salons, and the awe-inspiring beauty of a star-filled summer sky.

“In an Absent Dream” by Seanan McGuire

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Despite their differences in setting and tone, In an Absent Dream could almost be a companion piece to another Seanan McGuire novella (written as Mira Grant), In the Shadow of Spindrift House. Both force their protagonists to make heart-wrenching choices between their biological and found families. The similarity of theme made reading both pieces in quick succession an interesting exercise.

The latest installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream chronicles young Lundy’s time in the Goblin Market. The Market is centered on the notion of “fair value.” Everything runs on a barter system, and those who try to cheat a transactional partner face magical punishment. Because the concept of “fair value” is so important to the story, it says some interesting things about economics. An authority figure in the Market explains that the price that’s considered “fair value” isn’t the same for everyone—in part, it depends on how much the person had to start with. She uses the example of a vendor demanding a single ribbon in payment both from a person with ten ribbons and from a person with only one. This, she says, is unfair because the proportional cost for one person is so much greater than the other. At first, this seems to make sense, but with a little more thought, it’s easy to see how it could become exploitative. The inhabitants of the Market never show any bias with regard to gender, skin tone, or even species. But in the real world, one could imagine a vendor charging more to members of a disfavored minority. So which way is truly fairer?

McGuire makes an interesting choice in how she describes Lundy’s adventures in the Market. The people in the Market itself are either friendly or indifferent to Lundy. However, the Market seems to exist in a larger world, in which there are some perils. We’re told about Lundy fighting the Wasp Queen, who’s taken up residence in an outlying area. But we don’t see this battle. A later fight with a different adversary similarly takes place off-screen. This is clearly a deliberate choice on McGuire’s part. While Lundy thinks of her trips to the Market as adventures, the parts of them that fall into the traditional definition of that word are pushed to the side of the narrative. The really important things are the development of Lundy’s friendship with Moon, her growing understanding of the Market’s rules, and the various bargains she makes. In keeping with that, physical danger isn’t the greatest menace Lundy faces. This mostly works, although I feel the emotional resonance of Lundy losing a friend in the battle with the Wasp Queen would have been stronger if we’d seen that friend in the immediate narrative as we do with characters like Moon and the Archivist.

In an Absent Dream is another great entry in a stellar series. The next book, Come Tumbling Down, is due out early next year. I get the impression it’s intended to be climactic, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be the last volume in the series. I hope not, but even if the journey ends here, I’ll be happy to have taken it.

“Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson

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The second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series continues the adventures of Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar as they seek to re-establish the Knights Radiant and prevent the return of the Voidbringers. Sanderson expertly balances character development, plot movement, and worldbuilding in a way that makes WoR just as satisfying as The Way of Kings.

Throughout TWOK, we saw the Parshendi only as enemies of the Alethi. Because the primary viewpoint characters were Alethi, the Parshendi were shown as a mysterious “other” who had broken a treaty and assassinated a king for no known reason. In WoR, we learn a great deal more about the Parshendi—not only their importance to the plot, but their culture and society. Seeing the war of the Vengeance Pact from the other side enriches the story and also emphasizes that most conflicts between mortals aren’t simple matters of good vs. evil.

Speaking of which, another major thread in WoR concerns a plot to assassinate Elhokar, the ineffectual king of Alethkar. Upon learning of the plot, Kaladin is torn about whether to let it go forward or not, and Sanderson makes the reader feel that this is a legitimate dilemma. While Elhokar is merely incompetent rather than truly evil, his actions are costing lives, and Alethkar has no mechanism for peacefully removing a bad ruler. Is the aspiring assassin no better than the man who killed the previous (good) king, or is he more like Jaime Lannister? Kaladin may have the patronage of a powerful lord and the personal power of a Knight Radiant, but that doesn’t mean his life is always going to be easy. Sometimes those difficulties will come from obstacles placed in the way of his goal, but sometimes they arise from trying to figure out what his goal should be.

For all its virtues, the book isn’t completely flawless. At the end of TWOK, Dalinar received a revelation about the source of his visions that has important implications for the Vorin faith and maybe even Roshar’s cosmology in general. Dalinar didn’t spend much time grappling with that, and that didn’t feel realistic to me. Also, I would have liked to see the Bridge Four members’ reaction to Kaladin’s imprisonment as it happened, rather than just hearing about it afterward.

Readers of my review of TWOK may remember that I listed several theories. None of them were definitively confirmed. One was half-right, and one was…sort of connected to the truth, I guess? I developed one new theory during the course of the book, but it was disproven in the last chapter.

One side character I particularly enjoyed was Lift, so I was happy to hear that she features in the novella Edgedancer. I’ve been told that it doesn’t spoil anything for the third book in the series, Oathbringer, and that in fact many fans read it first, so that is what I will probably do as well.