October 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Bradbury Season

In a recent essay, author Cherie Priest wrote about what steampunk is. Beyond explaining the appeal of Jules Verne and Mary Shelley, she also shared a very prescient bit on what bothers her about the bulk of steampunk titles: “My only tiny gripe was that most of the steampunk art and fiction I was seeing appeared to be centered around Victorian London.” Priest then proceeds with a checklist of reasons why the US fit just fine into the steampunk world. If you still have any doubts, look no further than her latest novel, Boneshaker which is firmly set in the 1880 Seattle that never was. There are airships, weapons of great and mass destruction, a walled city, not one but two (or maybe he’s just one) evil masterminds and -- bonus -- zombies! There’s also a killer shifting narrative between a mother and teenage son that is all about action, being smart and kicking butt. London, you have most certainly met your match.

Readers learn from Priest early on that in the fairly recent past, a large portion of Seattle was destroyed by the “Boneshaker,” an experimental piece of mining equipment that carved a tunnel under the streets, wreaking all sorts of havoc and somehow releasing a cloud of toxic gas (the “Blight”) that immediately poisons anyone who ingests it. The infected don’t die, however, but turn into zombies who then mindlessly feed on anyone they can get and are highly infectious. To protect everyone who is left in the region, and stuck without federal support because the government is still bogged down in the Civil War, local leaders build a wall around the infected part of the city to keep the Blight in. Everyone mostly lives on the outside, in a grey world that does not thrive so much as barely hang on. There are those who found a way to live within however, and it is their story that captures the narrative.

The Civil War is still raging, the area has gone to hell and Briar struggles everyday with the knowledge that her lawman father was a hero in the final days of destruction while her husband was the one who caused it. Her son, Zeke, longs for the truth about both men, and in pursuit of that he sneaks under the wall to get back to his parent’s house and find whatever secrets might remain. He has a gasmask, and a plan to get out in 24 hours. After an earthquake blocks his escape route, Briar, far better prepared with a very big gun, goes over the wall in an airship to rescue him. What follows is a mash-up of action, history and science that is everything good about steampunk while maintaining a decidedly original Pacific Northwest twist. If you like the genre, you’ll love this and if you’ve been worried that it’s getting stale or trendy then you will be thrilled with Priest’s way of taking the formula and turning it inside out. The setting is solid but the characters are what makes Boneshaker sing. Briar, Zeke and the people (good and bad) they meet are all memorable. Bored with vampires? (Of course you are.) Give Cherie Priest fifteen minutes of your time, trust me -- you won’t look back.

In case you’re wondering why so many steampunk novels do take place in Victorian London settings, then George Mann’s excellent The Affinity Bridge proves how well the two fit. This detective story matches Queen Victoria’s agent, Sir Maurice Newbury, and his assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, against a mysterious plague in the slums (more zombies!) and some engineered automatons who might be malfunctioning in a very big way. There’s a crashed airship that carries a royal secret, a trail that leads to technological wonders -- or not -- and a missing man who no one seems to have the time to find because they are busy discovering bodies and uncovering secrets. The intrigue is fast and furious; and utterly and completely buried in fog. It’s also a wonderful mystery with many thrilling moments and a delightful twist or two. We’re talking robotic Queen Victoria! (Or maybe cyborg Queen Victoria -- not sure, but all very cool and creepy.) It’s steampunk to the max with lots of witty 1930s banter and some Holmesian detecting. And the zombie thing isn’t half bad either.

While all of the classic elements are enough to make The Affinity Bridge a good read, it’s the ever-present sense of fun, mostly due to the dialog between Newbury and Hobbes, that keeps things hopping. Newbury is hiding a few things -- both personally and professionally -- but as hard as he tries, he can’t keep it all from the very tenacious Hobbes, who is an ever-efficient version of every single partner John Steed ever had. As a female reader, I discovered to my massive relief that Mann did not write Hobbes as quirky or silly sexy or even worse, dull and disposable. This time out we have the timeless banter of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or -- to be very Sci Fi -- Mulder and Scully, except the paranoia bits are true. Hobbes is as critical to the story as Newbury, and both are essential to uncovering just why the airship crashed and who’s behind all the murders. The mechanical bells and whistles of the steampunk genre are present with just the right touch of hinted mysticism and evil (both political, corporate and otherwise). But set all that aside and just sink into the story itself, because story is, first and foremost, what The Affinity Bridge is all about. It’s a fast ride with good guys and bad that’s pitch perfect and fun. As far as I’m concerned, steampunk was made for October; catch Priest and Mann back to back and give yourself a true seasonal literary treat.

Fantasy writer Laini Taylor takes a break from her Dreamdark series with a short story collection in the delightfully creepy Lips Touch Three Times. The first story was the biggest winner for me. As a longtime fan of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” I was very pleased with Taylor’s variation: “Goblin Fruit.” Set in a contemporary high school with a teen protagonist from a family Morticia Addams would appreciate, “Goblin Fruit” is all about knowing you are about to fall for the wrong guy but not caring because it feels so good. Women of a certain age will certainly identify with Kizzy, while teen readers will likely wax rhapsodic over why Jack is worth the risk  -- worth any risk -- because just like Bella and that damn Edward he is so FINE that nothing else matters. Everyone’s been where Kizzy is in this story, but Taylor ups the ante by making her aware of just how bad things with Jack could go. Kizzy comes from people who know monsters are out there and she ought to know better -- her whole life is about knowing better -- but still and always it is undeniable attraction in “Goblin Fruit” and Rossetti knew how that combination worked: “They sounded kind and full of loves/In the pleasant weather.” Poor Kizzy faces such a difficult choice, but with how wonderfully written this story is by Taylor, who knows how much any of us would waver if we stood in her shoes?

The other two stories are also quite strong: “Spicy Little Curses Such as These” takes place in early 20th century India and involves a deal made with a demon that invokes a curse upon a beautiful maiden. The setting raises this one above its “Sleeping Beauty” roots and Taylor brings the British period in India alive. Anamique’s romance with James, as she struggles to control the urge to rebel against the curse, is artfully written.

“Hatchling,” which is rooted in Iranian geography and thus seems aligned with Persian myths, is the most imaginative of the three: creating a world where changeling children are used as pets then tossed aside after maturing enough to produce another child to entertain the ever bored faerie folk. This is a story of decadent royal courts and every bad thing we’ve ever thought about Marie Antoinette or others who ruled with such a casually dismissive attitude. It’s a harsh story but a good one. The more dangerous aspects make it only that much more compelling. “Hatchling” is both thriller and morality tale; a mystery, a fantasy and layers of love stories. In the end, it gives the reader exactly what its two companions have done as well -- a brush with the darkness that is smart and scary at the same time. Collectively, there’s nothing flip or foolish about Laini Taylor’s writing and along with illustrator Jim Di Bartolo’s richly evocative illustrations, Lips Touch is a perfect example of how October can be both the most romantic and frightening time of the year.

Malinda Lo deserves a lot of credit for taking on Cinderella in her new book, Ash. While some readers will likely be familiar with the fairy tale’s older, darker origins, most still rely on childhood memories of the Disney version. In that case, with a fairy godmother, sewing mice and a noble prince to save the day, Cinderella is more about waiting for your prince to come than anything else. Lo doesn’t address the happily ever after tradition here so much as turn it on its head and most seriously, return this old story to what it was from the beginning: a tale of a young girl’s near-overwhelming grief at the loss of her parents and her battle to survive under the abusive thumb of a cruel and unyielding stepmother. Lo does not discard all of the tropes -- fairy is here and so is romance -- but Ash is a mature retelling of a classic and one that startles as much by its subtlety as it does with its hint of passion.

Young Aisling or “Ash” struggles mightily with the loss of her mother early in the story and is very nearly broken with incapacitating grief. Her father’s subsequent remarriage is a shock, as is his rapid illness and the dishonor (due to poorly managed finances) revealed by his death. From a happy childhood in the country, Ash finds herself transported to a city home with a stepmother who feels duped by her husband’s lack of wealth and two stepsisters who lumber under the weight of finding necessary lucrative marriages. Drawn repeatedly to her mother’s grave and the happy memories she represents, Ash finds herself walking the borderlands with faerie, a place she was taught to respect by a family friend and now hopes will show her the way to her lost parents. While she is not suicidal in the conventional sense, Ash does want to end her miserable life and sees an escape into faerie as the way to accomplish that. She meets Sidhean who offers to take her away but not yet -- he is waiting for something from her and she must be patient until he is satisfied, so she can leave her pain behind.

This being a Cinderella retelling, there is of course a prince, a ball and a masquerade. The step sisters are preening ninnies, the stepmother an uncompromising harridan and magic makes a romantic moment possible. But this is also Lo’s version of Cinderella, and so there is a heavy bargain made for that magic and Sidhean is no sweet-faced fairy godmother. Also the romance, which is with the king’s huntress, does not overwhelm Ash nor provide her with an easy way out. The struggle here is with grief and finding a reason to live. While love can certainly light a spark it cannot save you, not when you are filled with this much despair. This is what the typical Cinderella stories miss -- that it was a tale full of sorrow and not about being noticed in a pretty gown. How do you go on when everyone and everything you ever loved is taken from you? Is it reasonable to expect Ash to be excited about a prince she has never even exchanged a word with? Her stepsister Ana sees him as a financial solution to her woes (money and prestige will fix everything). This would be the Gossip Girls solution to life in the 21st century. But Ash must find a way to simply bear living without her family and it is that pain which makes faerie -- even with the harsh price paid to gain entrance there – so appealing. Happily ever after is so much more complicated than the princess stories would have us believe. Lo knows this, and she makes sure that her readers know it as well.

Ash is a very subtle tale of grief and longing that requires a quiet read; it is not about hot passion so much as a cool appraisal of life’s tragedies and decisions to survive. There is a happily ever after here, but it is found in Ash’s decision to live and love and find happiness. That she makes unconventional choices will just endear her even more to her readers and elevates Ash high above the standard fare. Read this one as the leaves fall and the weather changes; it is a perfect autumn tale that will haunt you long after the last page is turned.

Older teens looking for many tales to choose from should turn to Twists of the Tale: An Anthology of Cat Horror edited by Ellen Datlow. Published for adults, the language and situations can be rough; high school crowd and up is the best audience. You will find many creepy tales: the homicidal kitty in Stephen King’s “The Cat From Hell” (he has his reasons) to Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s sad story of loss, “Incidental Cats.” A.R. Morlan’s “No Heaven Will Not Ever Heaven Be…” is actually a solid bit of Midwestern drama that harbors a light touch about art and inspiration (and ends exceedingly well) whereas Susan Wade’s “White Rook, Black Pawn” will drive conspiracy theorists over the edge. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, now I’ll be checking out all the strays in the neighborhood for signs of battle!

Gahan Wilson’s “Best Friends” belongs on an episode of Angel (in the first couple of seasons, please) and is a taut thriller of two men and the women between them (and also cats, of course). Kathe Koja and Barry Malzberg go into a bleak corner of society with the story of a whore and her pet in “Homage to Custom.” Sometimes all something has to be is true to be horrifying and from Koja, in particular, I would expect nothing less than this sharp peek into those who harbor on the edges, in the places where we leave them.

There are several other excellent tales, from authors such as the ever venerable Joyce Carol Oates, a bit of spy vs spy fun from a William Burroughs classic and Jane Yolen manages to make you cry in only a few phrases with her poem “Flattened Fauna Poem #37: Cats.” I must make special mention of Douglas Clegg’s “The Five” which first is about kittens in a pipe, then in a wall and then about the little girl who saw them first, wanted to save them, and heard them long after her father said they were gone. You can feel the foreboding as you read each line; the tension builds and you keep hoping that no, it’s not going to be like that -- it won’t be, will it? But Clegg does what he must because some stories are like that and so are some lives (we know, we know) and dammit, it has to be this way. And you hear the kittens too, for a moment when you finish reading and you hate it; you hate so much about the horrors that Clegg insists we see. Sad, stunning and brutal. If you want to be really scared then go there with Clegg.

Finally, Leon and the Place Between by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith is a picture book, which means it will likely be completely overlooked by teen readers. While I can certainly attest to its high kid appeal for the younger set (my seven year old son thought it was as cool as Lego Star Wars, if that gives you an idea of its awesomeness), I think magic lovers and artists will find this one utterly irresistible. The illustration and design are gorgeous -- absolutely striking in every way -- and the story itself, of a young boy who volunteers for a trick at a travelling magic show, is an urban fantasy that succeeds on all levels. Leon and his siblings set out to be amused for an afternoon but on a whim he steps forward at an invitation and falls into “the place between.” That is where the magic waits and where Leon discovers that yes, it really is all real.

McAllister writes Leon as the typical middle class kid, bickering with his brothers and sister, pushing and shoving and watching to see if Abdul Kazam can follow through on the promise of his show. Through his eyes we see the jugglers and the cavalcade of animals and toys on the carousel and Kazam himself -- a man both dark and light, both filled with possibility and menace. He’s classic carnival, right out of Bradbury’s best.

The words in the story alone conjure compelling images, but Baker-Smith’s illustrations are beyond amazing. They are color and spark to create a carnival on the page. The lushness of purples, scarlets and bronze convey brocades and velvets which create the sensation of elegance and richness. But its old school images from the illustrator of a man in top hat with cane, a boy on a flying carpet, a lost white rabbit wearing jewels that really stay with you. Readers will want to sink into Leon’s adventure and the author’s effort to recapture that moment in childhood when the amazing is both possible and probable. It exalts childhood to a new level -- a magical level that we all casually dismiss just as we drive by the carnival and scoff at the magician. Teenagers know what it is like to leave all this behind -- they are the ones, after all, who initially turn their backs on it. But if you know an art lover, or a kid with a penchant for sleight of hand tricks, or any fan of urban fantasy then Leon and the Place Between will be an unexpected treasure.

Cool Read: Just when I think there is no need for another Darwin book, along comes a title like A.J. Wood and Clint Twist’s Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure to completely knock my socks off. For inquisitive readers of the middle grade years and older (and absolute candy for teen naturalists), this is one glorious book. Filled with a light narrative highlighting various aspects of Darwin’s life and travels in full two-page spreads. Wood and Twist excel at pulling together a collection of ephemera, lists, notes and short biographies that manage to provide both a written and visual peek into Darwin’s life. There are bugs and animals and bones, reproductions of paintings made during the Beagle voyage, a copy of Darwin’s letter to his father asking that he might be allowed to go, a map of the trip and the ship and things you would never expect to find like a pamphlet on “Orchids and Other Exotic Tropical Plants of the South American Rain Forest.” Templar Books has published a feast -- an absolute feast -- for the eyes and mind with this one. From the cool latching type folded cover, to the decorated endpapers and many, many foldouts and booklets. The artwork is extraordinary and the text provides just enough to keep the narrative intact without bogging down the illustrations. This is a gift book for young scientists that will stay with them for ages. I am ever bowled over by what has been achieved here.

Colleen Mondor blogs regularly on literary matters and more at chasingray.com. She also invites readers looking for recommendations for teen boys to check out the group blog, guyslitwire.com