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07-30-10: Subterranean Press and Robert R. McCammon Wake at 'The Wolf's Hour'

The Time Before Cheese

I just pulled my 21-year old Pocket Books pink-covered "Special Advance Reading Copy" of 'The Wolf's Hour' down from its spot on the top shelf in my library / studio / office. It's a book that takes me back, and speaks to my daily routine as well. I'm taken back to the heart of the 80's horror boom, when Pocket Books sent me one of the first ARCs I'd ever received.

Folklore tells us that the wolf's hour stretches from 3 to 4 AM – right when I wake up, thanks to hereditary insomnia. I need less sleep. Books like 'The Wolf's Hour' make it easy to stay awake.

I am positively deluged with mass-market paperback ARCs these days; it seems that there are hundreds of writers creating works of "dark fantasy," "urban fantasy" and "paranormal romance," all of which involve horror tropes in relatively realistic settings. These novels are cheerfully cheesy, with covers featuring scantily clad women and muscular men, all impossibly handsome or beautiful. It's a fertile field, but one can easily forget that it was not always so.

Those of us who have been reading in the field for a while remember the 80's heyday, and some of those authors who have since gone off the radar still stick with us. Robert R. McCammon is certainly foremost in this league; and the soon-to-be-reprinted novel 'The Wolf's Hour' (Subterranean Press ; November 2010 ; $75) set a standard that demonstrated how pure cheese, taken with complete and honorable seriousness, could yield a reading experience as memorable as it was enjoyable.

The premise summarized is like something out of Corman Classic; Michael Gallatin is born to Russian royalty, but bitten by a werewolf, he joins the pack and spends his youth on the Russian steppes. Cut to World War Two, and he's Allied spy behind the Nazi lines and a werewolf hunting down a weapon that could change the course of the war. In human form, he's a handsome gentleman, prone to romance. But he's a werewolf and a spy so there are inevitable ... complications.

McCammon takes his cheese seriously, and the novel combines detailed, nuanced historical fiction with superbly-imagined horrific fantasy. The characters are over-the-top and utterly memorable, the set-pieces are literally burned into your memory. Derring-do and dastardly deeds crowd the pages. Werewolf-ripped gore spatters gobbet of flesh into horrific scenes of men at war. There are more pitfalls in this type of fiction than you can possibly imagine, but McCammon powers past them all with clean prose and the kind of headstrong verve of a man on a mission.

All of the inception points of today's paperback parade are there; sex, history, and the supernatural. But McCammon was pulling all this out of thin air, and his creation stands the test of time. It would be nice enough to see this as a mass-market paperback again, but Subterranean Press has pulled out all the stops. Their new hardcover is a signed, limited edition with some gorgeous art by Vincent Chong. You also get a new Michael Gallatin novella, 'The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs.' New century – new memories.

'The Wolf's Hour' is not the only McCammon work of note. The current popularity of 'The Passage' should encourage readers to look at McCammon's version of the vampire apocalypse, 'They Thirst.' He wrote a memorable science fiction novel about monsterific aliens titled 'Stinger.' I remember reading them all ... rising in the wolf's hour, alone on the couch under a cone of light.



07-28-10: Rule Britannia, In Space (two)

En route, RJ Frith and Peter F. Hamilton

The stand-alone space opera novel is pretty close to an oxymoron these days. This might be more annoying if those working the field were less competent and if the genre itself did not demand the big-story treatment. That said, we have examples of both ends of the spectrum upcoming from Pan Macmillan/TOR UK. Yes, the final volume of Peter F. Hamilton's Void trilogy is out.

And to accompany it, we have a first novel by a new author who won the "War of the Words" competition. It's pretty short, comparatively and does not describe itself as "the first in a series."

That mystery entry is 'The Nemesis List,' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; November 5, 2010 ; £16.99) by R. J. Frith. Frith won a contest held by "SciFiNow," which in an article on its own website describes itself as "The UK's best sci-fi magazine." But that's the folks who run the contest, not the winner speaking. And so far as speaking goes, we judge the book not by its contest, but by its contents.

In that regard, I have to say that 'The Nemesis List' is a very odd piece of British space opera. It's set in a future where space has been conquered at the cost of freedom, and takes a riff from the paranoid dystopian visions of George Orwell — and Rupert Murdoch. An authoritarian government controls science by controlling the scientists, keeping any advances to itself. Unfortunately, when it decides to experiment on humans, one of them escapes. Frank Pak is the hardworking onetime soldier who now has his own ship with a passenger who will bring more trouble than he's worth. In spite of the iron-fisted controlling government, both crime and rebellion exist. Toss in an escaped experiment and trouble is certain.

Frith writes with the sort of close focus of military science fiction, minus, to a certain extent, the weapons fetishism. This is a gritty, fast-paced chase novel set in an unpleasant extension of the present. The nanny state has gone a little mad, and that makes those who are not comfortable conforming very mad. No, there's not a lot of genre-based innovation here, there is a great sense of pacing. Frith's close focus keeps the novel very tight and makes it seem real, even though you have the usual set of technological advances.

Now, while it does not proclaim itself in the ARC title as "First of the Nemesis Universe Sequence," or whatever, that door is pretty much always open. To this reader, it seems much more like an escapee from the US military SF genre (alwys happen to serialize) than anything that might come out of the UK. Wherever you might want to pigeonhole it, 'The Nemesis List' is an effective piece of space fiction. Surprise always works in favor of the writer.

On the other end of the spectrum, we may think we know exactly what to expect from Peter F. Hamilton, but that doesn't make his book one whit less enjoyable. 'The Evolutionary Void' (UK, Pan Macmillan; September 3, 2010 / US, Del Rey / Random House ; August 24, 2010 ; $28) concludes the second series set in his Confederation Universe, and it's a blast. Hamilton has in this set of books offered readers two stories, a fantasy novel embedded within a science fiction novel. Of course, we know that the two are tied together from the get-go, and Hamilton has worked wonders keeping us in suspense as to how and why these two tales are intertwined. Add to this a cast of characters some of whom hail from a previous 2,000-page series, and you can't help but feel the history.

That's Hamilton's strong suit, and he plays it well. You have to know that going in, each book will be titanic, and the overall series will be even more so. But Hamilton creates vivid characters, amazing set-pieces and compelling story and character arcs. If lifting a doorstop-sized book is against your nature, don't even go here, but do rest assured that you're missing out on "world goes away" reading.

On a publishing note, in the UK, Pan Macmillan has made the odd decision to jettison the work of Jim Burns for the third volume here and bring in Steve Stone, with makeovers of the covers of the books in first series set in this universe, ''Pandora's Star' and 'Judas Unchained.' I like Steve Stone's work, and it fits in well enough with feel of Hamilton's writing. But if you see the cover image, it does look a bit surprising. Of course, it's kind of secondary to the surprise of the US edition coming out first. But no matter where it's published, Hamilton's work is UK Space Opera, through and through.

The upshot of all this is that with four new space operas out, and a few new works by Alastair Reynolds the happily and amazingly prolific Neal Asher, British SF, and space opera in particular, offers us a bunch of great reading. All we need is a time machine to take us out of the day to read it — or, in my case a good bout of insomnia. The curse that is a blessing to readers!



07-27-10: Rule Britannia, In Space

UK Space Opera Demonstrates Excess is Not Enough (Part one, the Arrived)

It reminds me of the good old days ... back when I was buying everything with a Jim Burns illustration and a UK publisher. Pan MacMillan and Tor UK are trying their best to give space opera a good name, and who knows but that they might succeed. To a degree, they already have. But only one of the four books I'm going to cover in the next couple of days is assured of making it over to the US. So if you want to read some imaginative, well-written science fiction that will speak to the present without immersing you in the misery around us, you'll probably want to contact your local book importer.

The Arrived; well, yes, it sounds like the direct to "SyFy Channel" threequel of The Arrival. But in this case, it's good news, in that it means you can already pick up the first-edition hardcover versions of Gary Gibson's 'Empire of Light' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; July 2, 2010 ; £17.99) and Tony Ballantyne's 'Blood and Iron' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; June 18, 2010 ; £17.99). Here in the US, we get name-brand, highly talented authors writing novels about children's toys transformed into sub-human mall food fare. In the UK, they get original novels with both plots and ideas that are thrilling. I'm suggesting you send your money overseas, via one of our home-grown independent booksellers. Ziesing, Legends, Borderlands ” you know the names. Both books are series entries, worth your time and your mind.

If the idea of sentient robots intrigues you, then the chances are that you have already read Tony Ballantyne's intriguing Recursion Trilogy. He's following that up with the Penrose series. First up was 'Twisted Metal,' which set up the warring robot nations Artemis and Turing City on the planet of Penrose. 'Blood and Iron' continues that story but adds humans to the mix. Yes, puny humans on a planet of robots. But as the robots discover, we humans are not so helpless as we might seem to be. And there's the prospect of that moon ” what are we doing there?

Ballantyne's novels have a peculiar but intriguing feel of fable, thought-experiment and yes, battling robots. But there's an intelligence and philosophical distance to the writing that keeps this well away from robo-pulp. Ballantyne is constantly mixing and re-mixing concepts of free will and programming, intention and direction, soul and mind even as he is spinning a complicated tale of political and military intrigue. He invests his robots with feelings and succeeds at getting us to empathize with them. And given that this is the usually-deadly second book in a series, Ballantyne handles the bridging aspects well-enough to give us resolution without losing momentum.

For this reader, the most intriguing aspects of this series remain the clear ties to Ballantyne's previous trilogy. Give that series began with a novel titled 'Recursion,' I suspect that the ties between the two may become clearer as the series progresses. In any event, in and of itself, Penrose is a lovely planet to visit. In a novel, at least.

Gary Gibson, meanwhile offers up a find conclusion to his "Shoal" trilogy in 'Empire of Light.' Once again, we're in the midst of a war with The Shoal, and once again, we're proving to be as effective enemies against ourselves as the aggressors we are fighting. Dakota Merrick and Lucas Corso are at the center of the melee, and Gibson has writes up a storm of bad behavior to engulf the galaxy. If we can just about break a planet with automobiles, coal factories and farting cows, just think what we can do to a galaxy with some really powerful technology. Appropriately, the mind boggles and remains shamelessly, relentlessly entertained. Gibson leaves himself some wiggle room for a sequel series, and let me suggest that any book he writes is going to trump novelizations set in the universe of some media or game-based silliness.

Yes, you'll have to go out of your way to find these, at least for now. But two hard cover novels, nicely produced, of excellent, original space-opera series fiction are well worth the trouble. It sure beats reading novels about toys.



07-26-10: Brian and Wendy Froud Seek 'The Heart of Faerie Oracle'

Cards, Books and a New Perspective

OK, I'll confess. I read my horoscope regularly, online and off, in both the San Francisco Chronicle Website and the LA Times Website. It's not that I believe that the stars or my birth date have any influence on my life. But a good, well-written horoscope can on occasion serve the purpose of getting me out of my ever-enclosed perspective.

This is not so different from reading a book. Books serve the purpose of getting us out of our own lives, with the idea that when we return from the reading experience, we'll have a fresh perspective.

Another source of POV comes from an iPhone application that is based on a series of cards devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975. Each card in the deck (virtual on the iPhone) contains a cryptic statement or direction meant to help artists who are stuck get a fresh start.

Brian and Wendy Froud have now devised their own take on this idea, 'The Heart of Faerie Oracle' (Abrams Publishing ; March 21, 2010 ; $25), is a follow-up to 'The Faeries' Oracle,' a sort of faerie Tarot deck with a small-format hardcover. The card art is gorgeous and the book is written with intuitive vision.

Don't think I'm going over the New Age edge. But getting out of one's own head is indeed a serious business. It's easy to fixate on crap that is unimportant. When this happens, having some sort of gimmicks to get you to the next step is simply acknowledging the way the human mind works. That said, we have a product you have to pay money for to look at here, so let's open the box.

Yes, there is a box holding this collection of cards and a book. It's nice enough, and has as you would expect, glorious artwork by Brian Froud. Inside you'll find a 137 or so page book and a deck of 68 "oracle" cards. The cards do not come in their own box, which is sort of a shame. But that encourages you to keep box, book and cards together, so perhaps this is by design. Not such a big deal.

The book, written by Wendy Froud, is a nicely-designed setup for the Frouds' idiosyncratic take on the Tarot. She starts with a how-to, and makes it easy. This is pretty important. The horoscope is useful because it's easy. You read it and think, "What's that about?!?!" or, if you're lucky, your mind is redirected to reconsider some aspect of your life anew. Oblique Strategies does the same thing. There's not a lot of set up. 'The Heart of Faerie Oracle' offers three ways to "read" the cards, none of them head-scratchers.

You've got seven groups of Faerie, Wendy tells us, and each group has associative factors. Then you're down to the individual cards. Most of the book consists of images of the cards and Wendy's musings on what they mean to you. She's obviously read more than a few horoscopes. She knows how to treat the thin line between suggestion and prediction, how to imply and inspire as opposed to instruct. The prose never gets to too airy-fairy, which is critical in something titled 'The Heart of Faerie Oracle. 'The book itself duplicates the image on the cover and is printed in somber browns. Readers looking for a consistent entrée into a thoroughly imagined world of faeries, with a sort of taxonomy of faeries will not be disappointed.

That leaves the cards, which, printed in color, and comprise a pint-size collection of Brian Froud's incredible art. They're beautiful of course, and given the size, they're startlingly detailed. The images are layered and perfectly evocative of the sensibilities echoed in the prose. While there are some that trend slightly towards the darkness, the overall, and the images themselves are largely dark, the feel is decidedly upbeat. Overall, the Frouds has a talent for nuance, which is what is called for.

You may or may not want to buy the deck to help sort out your troubled (love) life, but whatever your purpose, be it to play with your own mind, or to simply add a slab of magnificently rendered faerieana to your collection, 'The Heart of Faerie Oracle' delivers you a fine chunk of prose, lots of color images and a synthesis of this world and the next. The Frouds clearly see more than the rest of us, and have the talent to help readers get a glimpse as well.



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