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Balzac's War (from the novel Veniss Underground)
Jeff VanderMeer
Tor, 303 pages

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sean Wright

Balzac's War Sometimes a story hits you with some knockout punches -- you see them coming but you just can't duck quick enough. Balzac's War is one of those kinds of reads and yet... Jeff VanderMeer's novella entices you within striking distance, lures and lulls you into a weird, hypnotic trance-like state, then wham! Not only don't you see that punch coming, but it's definitely below the belt!

Balzac loves Jamie, and she loves him. They're on the run from the crèche, on the run from Balzac's elder brother, Jeffer, making their way to the ruined city of Balthakazar, deep in the desert wastelands. Amongst the ruins, creatures lurk -- "anonymous gray lizards waged war with coppery metal scorpions that pursued with mechanical implacability, their electric stingers singing static to the wind. Con Ferman had shown them one cracked open: beneath the metal exterior lay the red meat of flesh and blood."

Such dynamic and poetic imagery is laced throughout the novella, a mix of beautiful prose and metaphor, wild inventive imagination, and big emotional pulleys. You get winched, hauled and hung on high many a time with the twists and turns. The plot is ingenious, and most certainly not based on any tired old formula that I know of. One is never sure what will happen next in this story -- a great skill for any writer.

At the end of part one, we see Jamie and Balzac huddled over the dead flesh dog, with Jeffer staring down at them from "the lip of the amphitheatre," and you think: trouble! But hold on a minute. VanderMeer has switched POV for the second part of the story, now located in Jeffer's head, some 10 years into the future and 48 nights into the war for Balthakazar. Jeffer is the leader of a depleted unit of soldiers which contains the badly injured Con Fegman, the menacing albino, Mindle, and Jeffer's beloved brother, Balzac -- exhausted but still deeply in love with Jamie.

Here it comes. Wham! A Jamie who is now a flesh dog, a flesh dog that attacks the unit holed up in a booby-trapped building, a flesh dog that they wound, and who Balzac ultimately has to kill.

Balzac and Jamie's conversation is frustratingly brilliant, with Balzac's flashbacks of their growing love, his thoughts and emotions opened for all to see -- a painful but powerful device. And Jamie barely whispers her love, an impossible love now, one which her husband is about to end with the gun in his trembling hand. Pathos or what?

Then wham! Change of POV. We are back with Jeffer, staring down at the stairwell, at Balzac's dead body, a hole in his back, but a face fixed with a smile. Horror and sadness, as VanderMeer describes it in the closing page -- horror and sadness indeed. Throughout Balzac's War, VanderMeer never compels exposition into scenes. Everything that should be clarified is clarified, but only where such clarification works. He leaves plenty of mystery for the reader to be captivated and fascinated by his character inventions, and provides enough explanation for satisfaction by story's end.

There are more subtle twists and turns, more subtle touches that are beautiful to read, to ponder. So go out and buy a copy of Secret Life or Veniss Underground, which contain the novella. Balzac's War is very good, a must read for any lover of weird, surreal, fantastic fiction. I know VanderMeer is spoken of in god-like tones by some in the sci-fi, horror, fantasy community, a genius, a first class writer of the fantastic, and I can understand why readers and writers alike may feel this, but for me Balzac's War has catapulted VanderMeer into something truly important, truly monumental, truly magnificent: VanderMeer is a living literary flesh dog who contains within his imagination a visionary heart, one which he lets free, to fly, to soar, looking down from on high at a vast panorama of possibilities, a borderless vision that I for one shall be exploring more.

Copyright © 2006 Sean Wright

Sean Wright is three-time British Fantasy Award finalist, editor and publisher at Crowswing Books, and an outspoken voice at Lotus Lyceum, a multi-user open community of fantastic fiction. He's the author of books set in the mythic mindscape world called Jaarfindor. His vibrant blog is a port of call for many sff readers, writers and editors at

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