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Monthly Archives: April 2020

“The Gameshouse” by Claire North

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When I first picked up Claire North’s The Gameshouse, I was curious as to why it appeared as “The Gameshouse #1-3” on Goodreads. As it turns out, the three sections of The Gameshouse were published as separate novellas in 2015. Each one follows a different protagonist as they compete in games where the pieces are other people, the boards are cities and nations, and the prizes to be won—or lost—can be power, memories, or even life itself.

In the first two segments, North creates an evocative sense of place and time. She captures the intrigues of the nobles of Renaissance Venice and the lives of ordinary people in pre-WWII Thailand. Bringing these places and people to life illustrates one of the central conflicts of the book, between those players who see the uninitiated as mere pieces on a board, and those who recognize them of having their own goals, hopes, fears, and lives. The reader is of course meant to side with those taking the former view, and that’s easy to do when North brings her settings and minor characters so vividly to life.

The third section takes us into a much larger conflict, and the character we follow travels all around the world. Although our glimpses of the individual places he visits are necessarily much shorter, North still imbues them with a sense of reality and dignity. Several threads that were set up in the earlier parts of the story are resolved here, but as in the best stories, there’s also a sense that there’s more to come.

The Gameshouse is an unconventional narrative, but I was drawn into its world and invested in the characters. Each time, I wanted the unlikely hero to win. I’m hoping to see more from North in the future.

“The Last Light of the Sun” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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I’ve written before about Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderful historical fantasy. The Last Light of the Sun takes place in the same world as his Sarantine Mosaic duology, Children of Earth and Sky, and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Unlike those stories, however, the focus isn’t on what would be continental Europe in our world, but instead an analogue to the British Isles. Bern Thorkellson, forced into servitude after his father was exiled for murder, steals a horse in the middle of the night and sets out to find a better—or at least, different—life. Meanwhile, the young Cyngael prince Alun ab Owyn witnesses something impossible in the aftermath of a battle, and it will change his life forever.

One difference between Last Light and Kay’s other works is that magic plays a much more central role in the story. The fantastical elements in Kay’s books are typically understated. Here, on the other hand, one of the major plot threads revolves around the Fair Folk and their ability to steal the soul of a recently-deceased human under certain conditions. The greater presence of overtly supernatural elements may come as a surprise to some readers, but Kay deftly handles these aspects of the story. His descriptions of the faeries portray them as both alluring and dangerous. He also does an excellent job of treating them as a truly separate species from humans, with their own way of perceiving and interacting with the world. When Alun has a conversation with one of the fey, they have difficulty finding common ground because so many of their basic assumptions about how people think and feel, or about how the world works, aren’t shared. Kay’s faeries aren’t just humans with butterfly wings, and that makes them stand out from many other contemporary portrayals.

Another major theme of Last Light is that the world is always in the process of changing. The characters in Kay’s books are often caught up in pivotal moments of history, and no one individual sees the whole picture. The characters in Last Light make choices that have great personal meaning, and are sometimes downright heroic: to save a life at risk to oneself, to enter a haunted wood, to converse with a fairy. But those choices fit together like puzzle pieces, creating a whole bigger than any of the characters can see. And this brings us back to the more subtle magic that we’re used to seeing in Kay’s stories. Is there some sort of fate working behind the scenes in Last Light, to put people where they need to be for certain outcomes to occur? Bern questions this a few times, but we’re never given a solid answer, which is probably as it should be.

The book isn’t perfect. Kay uses a somewhat different writing style here, with sentence fragments representing singular emotions or images that rise in a character’s mind without necessarily being connected to other thoughts in a logical way. It’s an interesting technique, but it got repetitive after a while. I also felt that Kendra’s abilities came out of nowhere and that the relationship between her and Alun developed too quickly and easily. Overall, though, The Last Light of the Sun is an engaging, character-driven story that adds more depth to Kay’s setting.

2020 Bingo Squares: Features a Ghost, Magical Pet (the dog Alun obtains is strongly hinted to be more than just your average dog), Features Politics.

“Sefira and Other Betrayals” by John Langan

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John Langan’s third short story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, was finally published in 2019 after a long delay. It’s worth the wait.

Langan tends to anchor his collections with a novella-length piece: “Laocoön, or The Singularity” in Mister Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and “Mother of Stone” in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. In Sefira, the anchoring novella is not the last piece but the first, and is also the title story. As with several of Langan’s other pieces of short fiction, “Sefira” is a reimagining of a classic monster, in this case, a succubus. A woman whose husband fell prey to the succubus chases the demonic being across the country, but her motives aren’t entirely about revenge: she’s undergoing a mysterious transformation, and the time to halt or reverse it is running out. This supernatural transformation serves as a metaphor for the curdling of the relationship between the woman and her husband and the psychological effects that has on her. Like much of the best horror fiction, the inner demons are just as terrifying and destructive as the external ones.

“The Third Always Beside You” is another story that uses a supernatural lens to examine a marriage strained to the breaking point by infidelity. Here, the paranormal element doesn’t enter until the very end of the tale, though once it’s revealed, the reader can see where its influence made itself felt earlier.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even really past.” That’s a major theme of the works in Sefira. While the title story and “The Third Always Beside You” apply this to interpersonal relationships, “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” portrays the effect of a past evil on the mind or soul of the people who committed it. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the way in which the pull of the past on individuals is mirrored on a more cosmic scale. Is the being the main characters encounter at the climax bound to them as much as they’re bound to it?

A symbol briefly mentioned in “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” links that story to both Langan’s own “Mother of Stone” and to Laird Barron’s “Old Leech” stories. Langan’s novel The Fisherman includes a reference to “Mother of Stone,” extending the chain of connected stories. Another piece from Sefira keeps that chain going even further, with Langan having said that “Bor Urus” is meant to take place in the same universe as the others. Here, the gateway to an otherworldly place isn’t fixed in a circular stone chamber or along the banks of a creek. Instead, it appears from time to time at the height of particularly intense thunderstorms. Once again, Langan makes masterful use of juxtaposition, this time between the natural and unnatural. He also gives us a haunting portrayal of the tension between fascination and terror the one would expect might accompany an experience of the supernatural.

While Sefira doesn’t quite reach the heights of Carnivorous Sky—both “Mother of Stone” and “Technicolor” in that collection are truly extraordinary stories—it’s a very strong book. People who are already fans of Langan’s work will find a lot to enjoy here, and hopefully it will introduce new people to a writer whom the L.A. Review of Books was right to call “a Leviathan of modern weird fiction.” (And for those who’ve read The Fisherman, I see what you did there, L.A. Review of Books writer.)