RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: November 2020

“Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies” by John Langan

John Langan’s Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies is a bit different from his previous collections in that it’s a tribute to the writers who inspired him. Each story is paired with a note about how it came to be and which writers (or filmmakers) Langan was drawing on when he wrote it.

Unsurprisingly, Langan’s inspirations include many of the classic authors of horror and weird fiction. Also not surprisingly, Langan takes the themes or subjects they wrote about and makes them his own. In the title story, he riffs on one of Lovecraft’s lesser-known tales, “The Nameless City.” In Langan’s version, the eldritch family secrets stand alongside mundane ones and may even be the less frightening of the two. The first story in the book, “Sweetums,” owes its origin to Robert W. Chambers’s “King in Yellow” mythos. Like Chambers’s work, it creates ambiguities about what’s real and what isn’t. Another Lovecraft-inspired story is “The Horn of the World’s Ending,” which is interesting for its historical setting.

In addition to these early writers, Langan also builds on the work of more modern masters, including Stephen King and William Gibson. Probably my favorite story in the collection was “Irezumi,” which blends cosmic horror with cyberpunk elements. It’s the kind of hyper-imaginative work I’ve come to associate with Langan. The stories “Inundation” and “Zombies in Marysville” both share a theme that Langan has some experience with: that of “approaching a great catastrophe from the margins.” Some of Langan’s strongest previous work, such as his story “The Shallows,” have adopted this perspective, and it’s great to see him return to it here. These stories were both inspired by the work of Stephen King, and while King’s characters are often right in the middle of the catastrophe, his focus on character interactions is a trait these Langan stories share.

It’s not only written work that has provided the spark for Langan’s imagination. Another of my favorite stories from the collection, “To See, To Be Seen,” draws on the classic horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Another strong story, “The Underground Economy,” had its genesis in both the stories of Robert Aickman and the films of David Lynch. This feels like a particularly apt pairing, since both artists were known for works that had a surreal or unsettling feel, rather than outright horror.

Overall, this collection does a wonderful job of showcasing Langan’s range as an author. It’s a great collection for both new and veteran fans: new fans because serves as a “travelogue” of his work, and old fans because of the exploration of Langan’s literary influences.

“Hull Zero Three” by Greg Bear

Greg Bear is a veteran science fiction author, having written more than 50 novels in that genre and won several Nebula Awards. His latest novel, Hull Zero Three, adds a horror tinge to its sci-fi premise. The unnamed narrator wakes up on a spaceship with no companions, no clothes—and no memories. While he runs into another person fairly quickly, he also runs into ravenous monsters. Something has clearly gone very wrong on the ship, but what?

As one might expect from Bear, Hull Zero Three takes a longstanding trope of science fiction and does something new with it. HZT is far from the first book to feature a generation ship, but the source of tension here is very different. Most generation ship stories focus on the challenges of maintaining a self-contained society over such a long period of time, or the disruption of transferring from the ship to the destination planet. The narrator of HZT spends substantial portions of the novel completely alone and another chunk with only one other person. Even when he’s part of a group, the conflict isn’t about governance or social roles; it’s focused on survival and information-gathering.

Readers of Bear’s earlier novel Darwin’s Radio won’t be surprised by the creative biological concepts included in HZT. This applies not only to the monsters, but to the side characters as well. While the main character and the first person he meets both have standard human body plans, the same can’t be said for all the companions they collect along the way.

Bear’s imagination is also on display in his descriptions of the ship itself. The vessel is huge, with many different environments. The landscapes in HZT are as expansive as anything you’d see in a fantasy novel. Moreover, as the narrator travels through the ship, slowly recovering memories and piecing together what happened, one gets the sense of a character on a quest. Once again, Bear does the unexpected by transplanting a fantasy story structure into a science fiction setting. Overall, he’s written an interesting book that will keep you thinking and guessing.

“Warbreaker” by Brandon Sanderson

After finishing Oathbringer, I asked people which of Brandon Sanderson’s works I should read next, and by far the most popular response was Warbreaker. Though technically a standalone novel, Warbreaker has more direct connections to Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series than his other novels. The small, mountainous nation of Idris is obligated by treaty to send a princess to marry the God-King of the much wealthier and more powerful country of Hallandren. Siri is that princess, and she quickly finds herself embroiled in court intrigue, as well as finding that there’s much more to the God-King than meets the eye. Meanwhile, her sister Vivenna is determined to rescue her. And one of Hallandren’s lesser gods, Lightsong, struggles to unravel the meaning of his prophetic dreams.

Sanderson is well-known for his meticulously constructed magic systems. Warbreaker is no different. While the magic is color-based, with an artistic focus that many readers might first associate with softer magic systems, it’s as well-defined as any of Sanderson’s other systems. Some of the explanations of how the system works do feel a bit infodumpy, but this is reasonable given Vivenna’s starting ignorance of the topic. Sanderson also does a great job of making the magic feel like an organic part of the world. It’s incorporated into the political and economic organization of the Nalthian countries, and people have philosophical or religious beliefs about how it should be used.

There’s a diverse cast of characters as well. The princesses Siri and Vivenna have very different personalities and don’t always get along so well, but it’s clear that they care deeply about each other. Lightsong’s humor makes him a fun character to read, and I was rooting for him to figure out what his dreams meant. The cynical mercenary Denth was an interesting character to read about as well. And then there’s Vasher and his talking sword…

I’ve heard Warbreaker described as a prequel to the Stormlight Archive. I think that’s overselling the connection a bit, but there certainly are elements that make their way from one to the other. Readers who want to find out if they’re likely to enjoy Sanderson’s writing but aren’t willing to make a commitment to reading thousands of pages may find Warbreaker a reasonable jumping-in point. As someone who has read the Stormlight Archive, I found the tangential connections interesting, and it whetted my appetite for the new Stormlight book that’s coming out in a few days. If Sanderson ever decides to write another book set on Nalthis, I’ll definitely pick it up.

“The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Posted on

My favorite volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is Vol. 9, “Worlds’ End,” which contains several layers of nested stories. Erin Morgenstern’s new novel, The Starless Sea, reminds me of this volume. Stories are nested within each other, and a story that appeared early in the narrative may resurface later in new guises. On top of that, different stories intersect with each other, and a single character may play different roles in different stories. A book review will sometimes say that a particular novel “rewards careful reading,” and I think this is true of The Starless Sea. In the same way that trying to piece together the clues in a mystery novel can increase one’s enjoyment of it, I found it fun to try and guess the meanings of the various stories told within The Starless Sea.

Moreover, these ancillary stories have the same tone and atmosphere as many real-life folktales, to such a degree that looked up a couple to see whether or not they were Morgenstern’s own inventions. Even when she does draw from pre-existing source material, Morgenstern adds or changes elements to fit the needs of the story she’s telling. Which of course just makes the stories seem more real, since different versions of a story may exist in different cultures, and interpretations can change over time. The Starless Sea is very much a story about stories, including the way that storytellers and readers (or listeners) interact with tales. In her world, as in ours, stories aren’t static.

The danger in telling a story like this is that the characters might turn into archetypes or ciphers without any real personality of their own. But while the characters of The Starless Sea’s main plot are definitely connected to those of the nested stories, they feel like people with their own personality traits, quirks, and goals, not just metaphors. One major arc of the story is a romance between two of the characters, and I was rooting for them. Morgenstern made them feel like real people, and I was invested in whether or not they would get to be together.

Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, was widely acclaimed and won a Locus Award. With The Starless Sea, she’s proved herself to be more than a one-hit wonder. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.