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“Inland” by Tea Obreht

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I loved Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, so I was eager to read her new offering. Inland is set in the American West in the late 1800s, and one of its two main plot threads concerns a little-known piece of history: the attempt to use camels as pack animals for the US Army. The fictional main character Lurie joins up with the Camel Corps after being caught stealing from one of the camel drivers, a real historical figure known as Hi Jolly (because no one in the 1800s can be bothered to pronounce Hadji Ali). Lurie has two secrets: he’s a wanted outlaw, and he’s haunted by the ghost of his foster brother.

The other story thread concerns a woman living in the tiny town of Amargo, Arizona. As the book opens, Nora is waiting for her husband to return to their homestead with much-needed water. Her youngest son insists he’s seen a strange beast on her property, and a feckless relative of her husband claims to have seen the ghost of a “lost man.”

I’ve quoted William Faulkner’s line about how the past isn’t dead and isn’t even really past in a couple of other reviews because it’s a common theme in literature. Lurie and Nora are both haunted by their pasts, and in at least one case, that haunting is literal. In the hands of a lesser author, that premise could easily become trite, but Obreht makes you feel for the characters and infuses the idea with real meaning. Similarly, she reinvigorates the conventional trope of “a boy and his dog” by making the dog a camel. The way she turns stories we’ve all seen before on their heads is one of the greatest strengths of the book. It doesn’t hurt that the camel-drivers have some truly hair-raising adventures along the way.

The section of the book set in Amargo is also compelling. We see first-hand how hard life there is, but we can also understand why people like Nora are unwilling to let it be swallowed up by the larger and more successful town of Ash River. Tobey is an endearing character, and a revelation late in the book about the depth of Nora’s husband’s love for her is genuinely moving. None of the main characters are without flaws—sometimes serious ones—yet we can’t help wanting them to succeed.

The one major flaw in the novel is that it takes so long for the two story threads to join up. Reading Inland feels a bit like reading two different books with similar themes at the same time, rather than reading a single coherent narrative. But those narratives are engaging enough that I still enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to whatever Obreht does next.

“Cold Print” by Ramsey Campbell

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Ramsey Campbell is Britain’s answer to Stephen King. He’s written dozens of novels and short story collections, the vast majority of which fall into the horror genre. Cold Print collects a number of his short stories written from the 1960s through the 1980s. Many of these are Lovecraftian or cosmic horror stories. One of the most interesting parts of reading this collection is watching Campbell’s development as a writer. Many of his earlier tales are direct pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, and while Campbell’s talent is still in evidence, the later stories are more rewarding. He references “my struggles to be myself” in the introduction, and reading through these stories in order shows that struggle playing out.

One of the ways in which Campbell makes Lovecraftian themes and ideas his own is by transplanting them into different settings. While Lovecraft did set some of his stories in cities (“Pickman’s Model” takes place in Boston, for example), most of his well-known stories are set in small towns (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Dunwich Horror”), isolated farmsteads (“The Color Out of Space”), or even more remote locations (“At the Mountains of Madness”). Cold Print, by contrast, places a surprising number of its tales in urban locations. The action of “Before the Storm” occurs entirely in a high-rise office building, and the main character of “The Tugging” is more likely to be found on a bus or in an office than sitting on the porch of a rundown farmhouse. But the best example of Campbell’s ability to evoke transcendental horror in a mundane urban setting is the title story, “Cold Print.” Campbell identifies this as the story where his struggles to be himself finally succeeded, and I would have to agree. He paints a vivid picture of a city coated in slushy, grimy snow—and the city’s inhabitants seem just as grimy. They’re perfect servants and/or nourishment for the unearthly entity Y’Golonac, and therein lies the real terror of the story: not in the sheer alienness of the Great Old Ones, but in the idea that deep in our hearts, we might have something in common with them.

Another example of Campbell’s original take on the Mythos is his willingness to use non-human entities as viewpoint characters. In “The Insects from Shaggai,” the human main character is possessed by one of the titular insects. It proceeds to show him the journey of its people from the distant reaches of the universe, and so a large chunk of the story is told from its point of view. “A Madness from the Vaults” goes even further, being set entirely on a distant world called Tond, with all its characters being inhabitants of that world.

There are two stories I want to give special mention to as being particularly unique. “The Plain of Sound” posits an alternate dimension in which physical objects can be formed by sounds made in our dimension. In addition to that intriguing premise, the tale is notable because of its ambiguous ending. Are the inhabitants of the other dimension truly as malevolent as the human characters come to believe, or are the tragic events of the climax due to the humans’ own paranoia and fear of what is different? The last story in the book, “The Voice of the Beach,” is one I had read before in another anthology, and I was happy to find it hasn’t suffered on rereading. The narrator’s growing sense of claustrophobia and isolation makes for a wonderful ratcheting up of dread, and the lyrical descriptions of the “patterns” on the beach enhance the terror rather than lessening it.

Overall, this is a great collection. Readers new to Campbell might appreciate the later stories more because they’re more polished and original, but longtime Campbell fans will enjoy following his growth over what amounts to the length of a single novel.

“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.)

“Desdemona and the Deep” by C.S.E. Cooney

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C.S.E. Cooney has written a great deal of short fiction, including the World Fantasy Award-winning collection Bone Swans. Desdemona and the Deep is her first work of longer fiction, a standalone novella about a set of three linked worlds. When Desdemona’s father trades away thirty-six miners to goblins, Desdemona is determined to get them back. But to reach the Bone Kingdom where the goblins dwell, she’ll have to pass through the twilight realm of the fey-like Gentry. Both worlds are full of both wonder and peril, and the journey will leave Desdemona forever changed.

There are some wonderful characters in this book. Desdemona herself starts out as a spoiled heiress, but finds a deep well of compassion in herself when she learns just how her father has maintained his wealth. Chaz, her best friend, at first seems very passive, willing to go along with whatever scheme Desdemona’s cooking up at the moment—but appearances can be deceiving. Farklewhit’s just delightful, and the plight of the Gentry Sovereign is truly sad and touching.

The other strength of the story is its worldbuilding. Many fantasy settings have a fairyland or spirit world side-by-side with the world humans know, often with pathways that open only under specific conditions. Desdemona goes a step farther by giving us three linked worlds and takes care to make the two supernatural realms different from each other. The human society is placed in an era not often explored in fantasy; the closest analogue is the 1920s. These details of setting make the tale seem fresh and unique even to a veteran reader of fantasy.

The one major flaw is the pacing. With such a rich world and so many interesting characters, the book is just too short to give everything the attention it deserves. I would have loved to see Desdemona spend more time in each of the Worlds Beneath, to see more of her mother’s crusading for social reform, and to explore the setting more fully. It would be absolutely wonderful to see Cooney write a full-length novel in this world.

“The Copper Promise” by Jen Williams

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The first book in Jen Williams’s Copper Cat trilogy is a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure yarn. Wydrin, better known as the Copper Cat, and her friend Sebastian have been hired to explore the caverns under an ancient ruin. They do find what they’re looking for, but in the process, they unleash an ancient evil that threatens to overrun the world. To defeat it, they’ll have to deal with erratic magic, a trickster god, and a murderous demon-worshipper.

I enjoyed both Wydrin and Sebastian as characters, largely because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Wydrin, like many roguish characters in fantasy, is full of snark and witty banter. But as the story progresses, we also see her deep devotion to her brother and loyalty to Sebastian. Sebastian also seems, at first glance, to fall into a fantasy archetype: the brooding warrior with a tragic secret in his past. The additional depth in his character comes when he’s given a chance to forget about the past that’s gnawing at him, but at the potential cost of his humanity. His response to this shows the reader a lot about him, and brings him to a place where he can finally start moving forward.

The major flaw in the book, for me, was that this depth in the protagonists wasn’t met by similar complexities in the antagonists. Both the ancient evil referenced above and a more human villain who plays an important role in the story are simple forces of destruction and bloodshed. In a story with more than one bad guy, having them be essentially the same in motivation (if very different in power) can get to feel repetitive and boring. The ancient evil’s minions, who have no experience of the world and begin to diverge from their creator’s intentions as they gain that experience, were more interesting than the Big Bad herself. The later part of the plot, in which the heroes must retrieve an ancient weapon and lure the villain from one place to another to set it off, also felt rather formulaic. Overall, this was a quick, fun read, but I don’t know if I’m invested enough to read the sequels.