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Books To Look For
The Perdition Score, by Richard Kadrey, Harper Voyager, 2016, $25.99.
But The Perdition Score—the latest entry in the series—showed up in my P.O. Box and I was curious as to what the character had been up to. Turns out things haven't changed so much for James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim. He still lives above the Maximum Overdrive video store that he co-owns with his frenemy Kasabian. He still drinks at the punk tiki bar Bamboo House of Dolls. He still has a hot demonic girlfriend named Candy. And he's still got plenty of attitude.
History and experience have added gravitas to the simple brawler he was at the beginning of the series, but he continues to be better at bulling through a situation than handling it with much finesse.
This time out, a dying angel gives Stark a vial filled with a mysterious black milky liquid that could be the solution to the ongoing war between angels who want to allow human souls into Heaven and the rebel angels who are willing to die to keep them out.
An aside here: the world of Sandman Slim doesn't strictly follow the Biblical view of Christian mythology. In Kadrey's books, God is actually five beings who have become separated from each other. One of them is still in Heaven, one's dead, one is now Lucifer. (Lucifer seems to be more of a title, since Stark was Lucifer for a time.) The other two are MIA.
There's also the supposition that God didn't so much create the universe as steal it from an older race of powerful beings who are now trying to find a way here from another dimension in order to destroy us all.
The good news is that it's easy to get completely and comfortably up to date within the context of The Perdition Score if you want to try the series with the latest book.
Anyway, when a friend of Stark's gets poisoned by the mysterious black liquid, Stark and Candy go back to Hell in hopes of finding a cure, and while they're at it, see if they can't find a way to break the stalemate in the angel war.
The Sandman Slim books are hardboiled and dark, but hardly unrelentingly so. That's mostly because of the sardonic wiseacre tone of Stark's first person point-of-view. Stark doesn't really have a filter, so he just says what most of us would only think.
It's a bit of a rock 'n' roll ride with lots of referencing of old punk and surf acts, classic and pulp movies, and the whole concept of the antihero taken to the extreme. If the above piques your interest, and you like your fiction noir with a hellish twist, this is probably the series for you.
The other good news is that any of the Sandman Slim books would make a good entry point should you decide to give the character a try, and The Perdition Score is no different, although I should warn you that this latest volume has a bit of a cliffhanger ending.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, $29.99
It's pretty much impossible to discuss Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without spoilers, so if you have yet to read this eighth installment in the Harry Potter series, you should probably skip to the next review. Ditto to those of you unfamiliar with the first seven books in the series, though if that's the case, this will likely be of little interest to you anyway and you should also skip ahead.
So now it's just those of us who've read the whole series, which is probably only half the world.
Were you hoping for a continuation? I wasn't. I hadn't even considered the option. But here we are with a new entry nevertheless—and it's canon, not fanfic—and I admit to being curious.
Now first off, it isn't a novel. It's a play, which means there are stage directions and dialog rather than the sort of narrative you'd expect from the other books. It takes place nineteen years after the end of 2007's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and focuses primarily on Albus Potter (the son of Harry and Ginny) and Scorpius Malfoy (the son of Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis throughout the series), detailing the friendship that grows between the two boys from when they meet on their first trip on the Hogwarts Express.
But besides all the new characters, many other familiar faces are back as well. Harry, Hermione, Ginny, Ron. Even Dumbledore, sort of.
Both boys are weighed down by the reputations of their fathers. Albus is the great hero's son. Scorpius's father Draco was a Death-Eater, but there are persistent rumors that his actual father was Voldemort.
At some point the pair decide to save Cedric Diggory, who Harry let die. They infiltrate the Ministry of Magic and steal a Time-Turner (basically a time machine device) and use it to go back to prevent Cedric from co-winning the Triwizard Tournament with Harry because it led directly to Cedric's death (all of which happened in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, published in 2000).
Albus and Scorpius manage to save Cedric, but—as any reader of time travel stories would suspect—that sets off a chain of reactions that threatens the entire wizard world and brings back the evil Lord Voldemort. The pair keeps using the Time-Turner to try to fix their first mistake, with each subsequent use only making things worse.
So half of the book deals with these time-traveling misadventures, the other with the poor father-son relationships plaguing Harry and Albus, as well as Draco and Scorpius.
There are a number of ways to look at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If you're a diehard Potter fan, you'll either be delighted to have the story of these characters continue, adding in the next generation, or you were completely satisfied with how the seventh book ended and don't want any more.
What will probably create more dissension is the fact that, as mentioned above, the book is a play. That's fair enough—as a souvenir of the actual production. But without seeing the actors breathe life into the dialogue, it all comes off a little flat on the page.
When I read a play, I expect the dialogue to shine, but the words we're given here are plainspoken, admirably carrying the story forward, but without much more than the most basic characterization.
The plot is often full of holes, obvious and even contrived (mostly the time-travel segments), while the relationships between the characters have all the believability and depth of those after-school TV movies that used to be so popular. You know the kind: Where Lessons Are Learned.
I'm pretty sure the actual production won't leave viewers with the same feelings. Actors can save dialog, and plot holes can be covered up with flashy effects—the same way that many action movies not only survive but thrive on the big screen. The viewer is carried away by the momentum and the experience and doesn't really have the time to think everything through while they're in the moment.
Reading is a slower process and depends on the reader creating a movie in their mind. The problems I refer to above become much more obvious when the pace of consumption is slowed down.
Still, kudos to all involved for trying something different. If they try it again, perhaps they could have it written less by committee (which is sort of what this felt like). Unfortunately, the next Harry Potter-related project is the film prequel to the series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and movies are notorious for being created by committees.
We'll just have to wait and see how that works out.
Angel Stakes: Bite Back 5, by Mark Henwick, Marque, 2016, $17.
I have to take back a few things I said in this column in late 2015 about Cool Hand, the fourth book in Henwick's Bite Back series. I likened Henwick's series to the TV series Lost, which I thought started out as very intriguing, but I grew disenchanted with the way it felt as though the writers were simply throwing things on the screen because they'd be suitably mysterious and/or surprising, What they ended up with was something less than its parts and an ending that just kind of petered out. Instead of delivering an ah-ha moment (like, say, Mr. Robot's first season did), it was more: Really? That's it?
I was afraid the same thing was happening with the Bite Back series. In the review of Cool Hand I mentioned that I'd really liked the first couple of books but then went on to write:
The storytelling—by which I mean the pace of the narrative, rather than the actual plot—remains top notch through the next two books (Wild Card and the novel under discussion here, Cool Hand). I still really like the characters, too, although the size of the cast is getting a little unwieldy. The plot is becoming unwieldy as well, and that's my biggest concern.
Small arcs resolve, but the overall storyline is just getting more and more swollen and complicated to the point where four books in, it feels as though the story is still only being set up.
Yes, there's lots of forward momentum and action but I'm beginning to get the sense that Henwick doesn't have an end game. Or if he does, he keeps thinking of new cool things to add to the mix which pushes the endgame further away. Instead of clarifying matters, it seems to be tottering on the brink of collapsing in on itself.
It all reminds me too much of Lost. Yes, I know that series books are the norm now, and that it can take a while to reach any sort of emotional payoff for all the time we've invested in reading it. But one likes to think that there will be a payoff and I'm no longer sure that's going to be the case. Instead, like Lost, I'm afraid it's just going to fizzle out.
I finished up the review saying that I'd wait for book five to come out before I made any final decision as to whether or not I'd continue with this series.
Well, book five is here and I went ahead and bought a copy, paying a lot of attention this time out to the nuances of Henwick's plotting. I wanted to see if unresolved things he'd put in earlier books were picked up and how they, and the new elements added in this book, worked to the unfolding of the overall story arc.
(Before I go on, a brief aside: this is a complicated story with a lot of characters. Since I've already sketched out the elements in previous reviews, and because it would take so much wordage to get you up to date for this book, I'm going to direct you to the earlier reviews, the last of which is handily available here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2015/cdl1511.htm.)
I found to my surprise that there were not only many payoffs along the way, but definitely a promise of the big payoff when the series concludes. Contrary to my earlier impression while reviewing the previous book, it's obvious in Angel Stakes that Henwick knows exactly what he's doing.
Probably the biggest problem with a series such as this that doesn't have installments capable of standing on their own is that the time between reading the books as they're published allows details—even important ones—to slide away. I don't have total recall—not even close—which can make it a challenge to hold all the elements of a complicated plot in my head when there's a year or so between my reading each book.
But I've got a stronger sense of where Henwick is going now—helped perhaps by this being such a satisfying book. And I can readily recommend the series to you again. But please read them in order or you'll be hopelessly confused. The good thing is that everything about Henwick's writing—the characters, the prose, the plot arcs—is so welcoming to the reader that what might seem like a daunting proposition (it's so long now) is actually a pleasure.
So start with Sleight of Hand. Or if you just want to get a taste of what the series is all about, you could try Raw Deal, which is a prequel and complete on its own.
Uncollected Anthology Issue 9: Fortune Tales
A Future Song, by Stephanie Writt, Wayne Press, 2016, $2.99.
Fight or Flight, by Leslie Claire Walker, Secret Fire Press, 2016, $2.99.
Fortune's Cookie, by Rebecca M. Senese, RFAR Publishing, 2016, $2.99
Tramps & Thieves, by Annie Reed, Thunder Valley Press, 2016, $2.99
The Most Recent Madame Fortuna, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, WMG Publishing, 2016, $2.99.
Candles and Shadows, by Leah R. Cutter, Knotted Road Press, 2016, $2.99.
The idea behind this anthology series is a little different. Rather than having the stories collected all under one cover as has been traditional with anthologies, they've each been simultaneously published as separate ebooks that share a collective theme, which in the case of this ninth issue is fortunetelling.
I'm curious about the philosophy behind this way of publishing, mostly because I think of anthologies as being something that we're drawn to by a few big name authors but then get to discover other authors that we don't know and probably wouldn't have tried otherwise. I've discovered some favorite writers this way.
But I know. The stories are supposed to stand by themselves, regardless of who wrote them. And many readers are attracted to the themes that the anthologies often present rather than who wrote the stories.
Regardless of your opinion, what can't be denied is that something is working with this new method. The Uncollected Anthology series is now nine anthologies strong and a companion series called Fiction River has eighteen anthologies under its belt.
So let's have a look at the stories in Uncollected Anthology Issue 9: Fortune Tales.
There's not a lot of narrative story in Stephanie Writt's A Future Song, but I really liked the characters, twins Hadley and her younger brother Garrett. The former's a free spirit, the latter a new parent and teacher. The affection feels genuine, as does the way they can push each other's buttons, but the differences between them get taken to the limit when Hadley begins to "see" visions of the future in the songs of humpbacked whales while helping Garrett on a class outing to an aquarium.
For all the brevity of the story and the lightness of the plot, the story still left me feeling satisfied and touched.
Leslie Claire Walker's Fight or Flight doesn't seem to be about fortunetelling so much as time travel, but I suppose an argument can be made that brief trips to the future are a form of fortunetelling.
When Charlie gets punched hard enough, he leaves his depression-era world and ends up in a future one. It doesn't last long. When the story opens, his half-brother Doogie attacks him and this time they both travel into the future.
The story's quite short so I don't want to say much more. But I really liked Charlie's voice (Fight or Flight is told from his point of view) and the feisty Sunday Sloan he meets in the future. Everything about this story sparkles with invention and gritty truth.
In Rebecca M. Senese's Fortune's Cookie, Nola has a summer job working at Chen's Fabulous Chinese Take-Out. One day a customer complains that their fortune cookie is empty and Nola discovers that's the case with the entire supply. So she and her boss come up with a plan: he'll bake homemade cookies and Nola will write fortunes for them.
I like how it all plays out, but the real story here is Nola learning to stand up to her parents' plan for her future and becoming her own person. Senese pulls this off without getting sappy, and the whole of the story is the better for that.
Tramps & Thieves by Annie Reed introduces us to an unnamed fortuneteller who has a little shop. Her parents were carnie folk but she likes being somewhat more settled. Where customers are concerned, all she wants is to get her fee and a little respect.
When Owen Grady and his friends come into her shop, it's obvious they have no respect. They're out for a night on the town and harassing the fortuneteller plays right into their idea of having a good time. Unfortunately for them, the fortuneteller is the real deal and they get far more than they bargained for.
I really liked this story—mostly for the backstory of the fortuneteller growing up, her parents, the carnie life. But then I'm a sucker for that kind of a narrative.
Which makes Kristine Kathryn Rusch's The Most Recent Madame Fortuna a perfect follow-up, because we get not only a story set in a carnival with lots of little background bits about the carnie life, but it's also written by Rusch, who has long been a favorite writer of mine.
Our narrator here is Carol, who runs the carnival and so has to deal with the problem that arises with her most recent fortunetelling hire (apparently the turnover rate for this job is high).
Rusch hits all the right notes here, delivering character, a strong narrative voice, and a solid story. It's one of my favorites in the anthology.
Last up we have Leah Cutter's Candles and Shadows, in which the Pearl of Pearl's Magic Shop finds herself getting deeper into the workings of magic and foretelling than she has the skills to handle. There are some good turnarounds in this story, and the narrative voice, while told from a third person point-of-view, is compelling and immediate.
All in all, it's a strong anthology, but I'll admit to having a few reservations about the delivery system. Having to order each story individually is a bit of a pain—not insurmountable, but you have to work at it a little.
Another issue is the $2.99 per story price tag. It doesn't seem like much, but if you add it up, it comes to $17.94 for 206 pages of story, which isn't really a bargain.
To be honest, if I was coming to this cold, I would probably have just bought the Rusch story because I know I'll get my money's worth and passed on the—to me—unknowns. But then I would have missed out on some other great stories.
The delivery system here isn't optimum but I do appreciate the thinking outside the box in terms of getting material out there, and I suppose with the proper promotion—and perhaps a tweaking of how you actually buy the stories—it could work better in the future. At the very least there should be an option to buy all the stories at once, but since they're all coming from different publishers I'm not sure of the best way to do it so that the authors are still fairly compensated and the readers aren't overpaying.
Because frankly, at a time when you can try a novel by an unknown writer for ninety-nine cents, the $2.99 price tag per story seems just a tad high. I liken it to singles and albums in the music biz. Ninety-nine cents is a fair price for a single. I think the same should hold for a short story.
The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Saga Press, 2016, $29.99.
The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Saga Press, 2016, $29.99.
I just have room here to mention that Saga Press has published a pair of Ursula K. Le Guin collections that are well worth your attention. The Unreal and the Real was originally published in two volumes by the astute Small Beer Press, whereas The Found and the Lost appears to be original to Saga Press.
Everybody has their own favorites, I'm sure, but if Le Guin had only written "Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight" (which you can find in The Found and the Lost), I'd consider her a favorite writer. But of course there is so much more to delight in with her work, which transcends genre and literary categories and is written in styles that veer between luminous and down-to-earth—sometimes in the same story.
Throw in a few of her novels (such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, the Earthsea books) along with these two collections and you have the cornerstone of a great sf/fantasy collection.
The two collections are handsome and affordable productions (with the ebooks coming in at a bargain $7.99 per title) so you really have no excuse not to add them to your library.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P. O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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