Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

Archive for May, 2017

In today’s “Sunday Shorts,” we’ll take a look at a couple of the stories from:

TITLE: Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction

EDITOR: K.M. Szpara

195 pages, Lethe Press, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 9781590216170

DESCRIPTION (from the back cover):  There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.

MY RATING: Five out of five stars

MY THOUGHTS: There are sixteen stories in the inaugural edition of Transcendent (the sophomore volume will be out later in 2017, edited by Bogi Takács). They are all roundly wonderful, entertaining and instructive in so many ways. But the purpose of “Sunday Shorts” is to focus on a story or two rather than reviewing the entire book. So:

“The Shape of my Name” by Nino Cipri starts the collection. It’s a time-travel story in which the ability to time-travel follows essentially the matrilineal lines of a family, But what happens to that process when a child born female identifies as male? The main character navigates his relationship with his mother, father, distant uncle and distant cousin, all complicated by the vagaries of the way time-travel works for this particular family. Cipri’s use of sensory detail at the start of each main section (“2076 smells like antiseptic gauze,” “1954 tastes like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in fresh milk”) helps ground the reader in familiarity before spinning off into details of time-travel and cause-and-effect. I enjoyed the story so much that I read it twice through back-to-back, and then again when I was done with the anthology. I can safely say the time-travel rules are clearly consistent and intriguingly parceled out to the reader. You may not understand how they work at the start of the story, but you will at the end. The voice of the main character is assured and confident but still recovering from old wounds and slights, especially in relation to his mother. That relationship motivates all of the time-travel the main character does, in search of answers and closure – something I’m sure all of us who travel in linear time are also always looking for. This is a fantastic start to a great anthology.

“The Need For Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács takes place in a science fiction universe of political intrigue and space-travel driven by the energy generated by intense emotion. (If the author has other stories set in this same universe, I haven’t read them but would gladly do so. I really need to seek them out.) While the world-building is immersive (surrounding the gone-awry negotiations of the planet Ohander to join the Alliance), it’s the character interactions that pulled me in and kept me reading. The story, to me, drives home the point that even the most open-minded and accepting of us have our blind-spots and walls. In this case, it’s the unwillingness of a politician named Miran Anyuwe (pronoun: they), who clearly has no problem with trans* and gender-fluid fellow space travelers, to accept the relationship of the Master and crew-member of the ship which Anyuwe is trying to escape danger on. The interaction between Miran Anyuwe, Master Sanre, and the narrator comes to a head at a pivotal moment over the way in which the narrator generates the necessary energy to power their ship, plunging them all into increasing danger as the story builds to its conclusion. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the story any more than that – but I was engaged in the story from first word to last.

“Treasure Acre” by Everett Maroon is one of the shortest pieces in the book, and hangs on the classic question: If you could go back and change your past to make it easier to be the person you want to be in the present, would you? The man and young girl in the story are digging in her mother’s backyard for a treasure box the girl buried when even younger, the box holding a key to the girl’s future and the man’s past. The story is wistful, nostalgic and full of questions and answers in a scant four pages, and put a smile on my face at the end, while making me wonder how I’d handle the same situation if it was presented to me.

Those are just three out of the sixteen stories in TRANSCENDENT. The rest run the gamut of speculative fiction, from SF to fantasy to horror, by authors I was familiar with (Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, E. Catherine Tobler (one of her Circus stories), A. Merc Rustad, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Molly Tanzer (a wonderful Lovecraftian story), and authors to whom this was my first exposure (Holly Heisy, Jack Hollis Marr, B R Sanders, E. Saxey, Margarita Tenser, Alexis A. Hunter and Penny Stirling). An anthology well worth seeking out if you haven’t already, and to which I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.

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TITLE: Forever and a Death

AUTHOR: Donald E. Westlake

463 pages, Hard Case Crime, trade paperback format, ISBN 9781785654237

Publication Date: June 13, 2017. (I received an uncorrected proof advanced review copy from the publisher)

DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): Two decades ago, the producers of the James Bond movies hired legendary crime novelist Donald E. Westlake to come up with a story for the next Bond film. The plot Westlake dreamed up – about a Western businessman seeking revenge after being kicked out of Hong Kong when the island was returned to Chinese rule – had all the elements of a classic Bond adventure, but political concerns kept it from being made. Never one to let a good story go to waste, Westlake wrote an original novel based on the premise instead – a novel he never published while he was alive.

Now, nearly a decade after Westlake’s death, Hard Case Crime is proud to give that novel its first publication ever, together with a brand new afterword by one of the movie producers describing the project’s genesis, and to give fans their first taste of the Westlake-scripted Bond that might have been.

 

MY RATING: Four out of five stars

 

MY THOUGHTS: Anyone diving into this book expecting a straight up Bond pastiche based on the back cover copy might feel a bit disappointed at first. Based on Westlake’s script treatments, the book does have many of the classic Bond tropes: international locales (the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian Outback, Singapore, Hong Kong), dangerous technology (the “soliton wave”) in the hands of a ruthless megalomaniacal businessman (Richard Curtis) out for revenge on the city and nation that wronged him (Hong Kong, during the transfer of control from Great Britain to China). But what the book doesn’t have is a highly-trained, snappily-dressed, quip-tossing super-spy as the central figure. Instead, Westlake gives us an ensemble of would-be heroes (none of them government spies, most of them not even trained hand-to-hand combatants) who slowly come together, and each make a valuable contribution, to stop Richard Curtis from destroying Hong Kong.

And that, to me, is what makes this an excellent adventure novel accessible to anyone instead of just another James Bond adventure, of which there are dozens readily available. The closest we get to “Bond” is engineer George Manville, who creates (that’s not the right word, given he’s taking work others have done in a lab and putting to practical test in the real world) the “soliton wave” without knowing the nefarious use to which Curtis intends to put it. He spends the first third of the novel clearly as The Hero, discovering the villain is up to no good, rescuing the female lead and learning how to be a hero from a paperback book he’s reading … but then the author takes Manville out of the action for most of the middle third of the book. So even though he’s perhaps the most Bond-like (rugged good looks, handy with a gun, figuring out Curtis’ intentions), he’s not the only focal point of the book.

Female led Kim Baldur isn’t quite a classic Bond femme fatale. She’s beautiful, knows how to scuba dive, and is dedicated to the cause to which she volunteers (the Planetwatch environmental group), but she’s also a bit innocent and a bit impetuous, which puts her in danger in a way most “Bond girls” aren’t. She does, however, manage to hold her own in several fight scenes and contributes equally to the story’s resolution.

The “good guy” team is rounded out by Kim’s boss at Planetwatch, Jerry Deidrich and his boyfriend Luther Rickendorf. Jerry’s hatred for and distrust of Richard Curtis pulls the couple into the action when evidence mounts that Kim is not as dead as she seems to be at the start of the story (remember that impetuousness putting her in danger thing). Jerry feels like a bit of a one-note obsessive character, but Luther is very well-rounded. I honestly love that Westlake had no problem spreading what would mostly have been Bond’s role equally among a straight guy, a straight woman, and a gay couple. I have no idea when Westlake actually wrote this novel (sometime after the treatment was passed on by MGM in the mid-90s and the author’s death, a good span of years) but even with all the strides genre fiction has made over the past several years, it still feels a bit daring and unusual to have the female lead and a pair of gay guys be as much of a focus as the straight guy (especially in that middle third of the book, when George is virtually unseen and all of the plot movement depends on Kim, Jerry and Luther). I do have one quibble with the way Jerry and Luther are handled, but discussing it would be too much of a spoiler for this review (but it is partially the reason I’m giving the book four stars instead of five).

Another great thing about the way Westlake has crafted the book is that even the secondary characters (the Australian, Singapore, and Hong Kong cops the heroes deal with, and Curtis’ henchmen) all have distinct personalities and backgrounds that influence the proceedings. None of them are “just” cops or henchmen, “just” plot devices.

But the most compelling character in the book is Richard Curtis. His history, his motivations, his narcissistic personality, drive the book from start to end. Literally, as the first and last scenes hold him as the focal character. Curtis is a villain worthy of Bond, no doubt, both in personality and in the plan he’s so determined to enact.

The fight scenes are dynamic as well, full of little details that immerse the reader in each fistfight, gun battle, and foot chase. The description of the first, legal, activation of the soliton wave, and an early cat-and-mouse chase aboard a dark yacht were my favorite action sequences.

Full of interesting characters, engrossing action scenes, and a solid tie to an actual recent historical event, Forever and a Death is definitely worth seeking out when it hits the stands on  June 13, 2017, whether you’re a Bond fan or not.

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I’m taking a page and title from my friend ‘Nathan Burgione’s blog, and will be posting reviews of short fiction (novellas, novelettes and stories) on Sundays here on the blog. Reviews of novels and non-fiction will appear on Tuesdays, and other types of posts (interviews, updates on my own writing, etc) will appear on Thursdays. At least, that’s the plan going forward.

This week’s Short fiction review is:

 

TITLE: Buffalo Soldier

AUTHOR: Maurice Broaddus

144 pages, Tor.com Publishing, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 978-0765394293

 

DESCRIPTION: Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent Desmond Coke finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari. Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone. Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.

 

MY RATING: Five out of five stars

 

MY THOUGHTS: It’s no secret I’m a fan of Maurice Broaddus’ work. I loved his “Knights of Breton Court” modern-day-urban take on the Arthurian mythos. I loved most of the stories in his recent short story collection “Voices of the Martyrs,” and even the stories I didn’t love I at least liked. I suppose eventually he’ll write something I don’t enjoy, but this novella is not that time.

 

In novellas, as with short stories, the author cannot spend a great deal of time describing the setting and history: the action needs to grip the reader and propel us along just as quickly as in a short story. But it is clear Broaddus’ world-building for Buffalo Soldier is complete and massively detailed. The reader gets just enough historical detail to glean that the American Revolution failed while Jamaican independence was successful, and that what we know as the United States is divided into three main regions: Albion, ruled over by Regents of the British government; Tejas (Texas and environs); and the Six Civilized Nations (various native tribes, occupying fortified holdings in the west after being forced out of the east).  The novella is set in what feels like the present day, or close to it. The politics and history that led to these divisions is hinted at with carefully placed familiar names and locations from our own history. The technological world-building is equally hinted at throughout the book, quick glimpses of steam-based weaponry and transportation tiding us over until a key reveal.

 

But it’s the characters that draw the readers into this world and keep us there; Desmond Coke, Lij Tafari, and the mysterious Cayt Siringo. Coke’s world-weariness is palpable in the early pages and deepens as the story progresses: he knows he’s doing the right thing for Lij, even though it has meant leaving behind everything he knows, and yet he still questions whether he’s doing the right thing. The questioning and the willingness to do what’s right despite the danger it puts him in makes Desmond Coke our point of view into the history and the ensuing action. He finds some, if not all, of the answers he’s seeking as things progress. And while he’s the main point of view character, he’s not the character who pulls the majority of the reader’s attention.

 

That character would be the quiet, if not always controlled, Lij Tafari. Lij’s innocence is the counterpoint to Coke’s not-quite cynicism. Coke understands the way the political world affects where he can travel with Lij; Lij has no understanding of, or interest in, how the world works outside of his immediate interactions with it. Coke’s (and later, Cayt’s) handling of Lij hinges on their understanding of where this innocence comes from. While the word itself is never used, it is clear from his dialogue and his actions that Lij is autistic. Lij’s autism is as much a story point as Coke’s depression or Cayt’s cunning or the parental protectiveness of supporting characters Inteus and Kajika: that is to say, it’s important when it’s important, and not belabored when it’s not. It’s so easy for authors to portray autism as a character deficit, to have other characters talk down to the autistic character or treat them as less than human, or to treat it as a series of disconnected tics. Broaddus spectacularly fails to fall into any of these traps: his portrayal of Lij and of how Coke and others interact with him, perfectly matches the functional autistic kids, and parents of same, that I know.

 

Ultimately, “Buffalo Soldier” is about stories: the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we draw on to survive and move on. Early on, the stories are all in bits of dialogue: Coke bending the truth of his and Lij’s identity in order to survive crossing Tejas, for instance. Near the half-way point, we are dropped wholesale into the tales and legends the characters tell Lij to keep him moving or to keep him calm. Here, Broaddus’ skill as a teller of tales-within-stories really shines: the rhythm and level of detail changes with each teller.

 

This novella could be a done-in-one: all of the major plot and sub-plots are resolved (some bloodily so, but then again, there’s no shortage of violence throughout). But I’m really hoping we’ve not seen the end of Desmond Coke, Lij Tafari, their friends and their enemies. There’s so much more to explore.

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