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Carolyn Cushman reviews Funke, Galenorn, Hines, McGuire, Sagara

Cornelia Funke, Reckless: The Golden Yarn (Breathing Books 978-0989165624, 448pp, $17.99, hc) December 2015.

Funke disagreed with her previous publish­ers, who wanted to publish this series as middle grade – when it’s more clearly young-adult. So now she’s self-publishing, which may be a mis­take. At least, the galley could have used better copy-editing to smooth out the translation. This third volume in the series has three of the Reck­less men in the MirrorWorld – John Reckless, the father of Jacob and Wilhelm, has been making a pseudonymous reputation for himself, selling our world’s military technology to the less sci­entifically advanced nations in the MirrorWorld. He erroneously believes his sons are dead, but Will is chasing the Dark Fairy, who is heading east into a fairy-tale version of Russia. Jacob is chasing Will, and stealing an artifact from the Tzar along the way – it’s all too complicated, with the viewpoint shifting between a variety of characters, but a lot of little encounters with various magical creatures and devices keeps things entertaining.

Yasmine Galenorn, Autumn Thorns (Jove 978-0-515-15624-9, 296pp, $7.99, pb) November 2015. Cover by Tony Mauro.

Galenorn, who already has quite a number of books in her Otherworld series, now changes gears for her new Whisper Hollow paranormal series. Kerris Fellwater left home at 18 because of her grandfather, a mean old bastard. She’s been making a living in Seattle as a barrista, with some moonlighting as a ghost hunter, when she gets notice that both grandparents who raised her have died in an accident. So she pulls up stakes and moves back to Whisper Hollow on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Kerris has some idea what she faces – the women in her family are all spirit shamans. She’ll have helpers – a lament singer, and a guardian shapeshifter wolf. But when she gets back to her old home, she discovers new things about her mother’s disap­pearance when she was three, her unknown father, her grandfather, and the power structure in this town. And her guardian wolf turns out to be hunky – made for her, by magic: it’s the para­normal romance part of the tale, which seemed more urban fantasy up to that point. It’s a pretty familiar plot, but Galenorn paces things well, for a good read.

Jim C. Hines, Revisionary (DAW 978-0-7564-0970-8, $26.00, 344pp, hc) February 2016. Cover by Gene Mollica.

Book four of the Magic ex Libris series finds Isaac Vainio dealing with the aftermath of reveal­ing magic to the world. He’s part of the New Mil­lennium project in Nevada, working as Director of Research and Development. Politics are maybe the biggest threat to various magical types, but there are also attacks on various species, such as werewolves, different vampire types, and sirens. The military wants to militarize magic, and more benign uses of magics are being held up by government restrictions. Magical cures can’t be used until approved by the NIH. Engineering, archaeology, and astronomy are also stymied. Isaac’s not going to put up with government ef­forts to take over, so he and his small group of friends start taking action themselves. There are still occasional touches of humor, but this outing is mostly a mix of action and talky bits as Isaac and friends try to figure out who’s behind what.

Seanan McGuire, Chaos Choreography (DAW 978-0-7564-0813-8, $7.99, 353pp, pb) March 2016. Cover by Aly Fell.

Verity Price is back in this fifth novel in the Incryptid series. Only she’s back to being Valerie Pryor, ballroom dancer. She went on the TV show Dance or Die years before, came in second, and decided it was time to focus on on her work with cryptids. Now the show is planning to run a special all-star season, with the top four contestants from each year, and Verity can’t pass up this chance to dance again. She’s not the only one with secrets in this contest – there’s a shark shapeshifter, a chupa­cabra, and a dragon princess involved. It looks like a fun season, until the bodies start turning up, with what looks like cult markings. But the show must go on; for the readers, it’s loads of fun, with the added entertainment of meeting another interesting member of Verity’s family.

Michelle Sagara, Cast in Honor (Mira 978-0-7763-1859-0, $15.99, 511pp, tp) December 2015.

The city of Elantra is threatened with destruction once again in this 11th book in the Chronicles of Elantra series. The city is still picking up the pieces after the previous attack of Shadows, but law officer Kaylin recovers at home in her new sentient house, Helen – and with the friends who have moved in with her. Then her first day back on the job brings her a case involving the deaths of three young men and their unusual neighbors across the street – one of them a Shadow who seems quite human. On top of all that, something’s goes wrong with Evanton’s garden of the elements and the whole city is threat­ened with destruction unless Kaylin can stop it in time. The scale’s not at grand as in the previous volume in the series, but it’s a fun thrill ride even so.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

“No One Stays Good in This World”: A Review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

by Gary Westfahl

Since debuting in 1938, Superman has confronted many imposing adversaries, including Lex Luthor – a formidable foe whether characterized as an obsessed bald scientist or scheming corporate tycoon; the alien computer Brainiac; Terra-Man, armed with an endless array of ingenious weapons; several Kryptonian supervillains who survived the destruction of their planet in the Phantom Zone; and the ancient Kryptonian monster Doomsday, who once succeeded in killing the Man of Steel. But now, in the twenty-first century, the venerable superhero is finally facing his most dangerous and destructive opponent …. Zack Snyder.

Did you think I was talking about Batman? But in the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Dark Knight merely becomes one of the innumerable individuals who have briefly threatened Superman by brandishing a piece of kryptonite, the only substance in the universe which can destroy him. In contrast, Snyder is equipped with Hollywood’s most valued superpower – the ability to generate huge profits – and as long as his Superman films continue to make money, he can do whatever he likes with the character, aided and abetted by longstanding partners in crime like writer David S. Goyer.

While considering Snyder and Goyer’s previous assault on Superman, Man of Steel (2013 – review here), I chiefly objected to their apparent resolve to transform this shy, benevolent hero into a killing machine, perfectly willing to slaughter the evil General Zod (and thousands of innocent bystanders) in pursuing his commitment to truth, justice, and the American way. Perhaps in response to others’ negative reactions, in this film they somewhat retreat from that position, yet in a manner that further diminishes the character: Henry Cavill’s Superman, it now transpires, is basically stupid. He thumb-fistedly keeps trying to do the right thing but never seems to realize that his good deeds can cause collateral damage. Further, he cannot recognize that, despite his occasional legal transgressions, Batman (Ben Affleck) is essentially a force for good; he further fails to understand that vanishing from sight after being at the scene of a disaster might inspire suspicions about his possible involvement (a point made by one of the celebrities who make cameo appearances as themselves, crusading prosecutor Nancy Grace); and he must rely on his bright girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to deduce that Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to blacken his reputation and manipulate him into a fatal confrontation.

All of this relates to another way in which Snyder’s version of Superman is dishearteningly different from the character that readers and filmgoers have long admired: except for a brief, clumsily unpersuasive romantic moment near the beginning of the film, Cavill never seems to be happy. He never enjoys being Superman; he never expresses the delight in his extraordinary powers that classic Supermen like George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and Dean Cain so effortlessly conveyed. And the main reason for this is that this Superman just isn’t smart enough to figure out how to be Superman. Everyone in his life keeps telling him what he should be doing – Lois Lane, his mother (Diane Lane), even his dead father (Kevin Costner) in a vision – but all their good advice proves ineffectual, as their student keeps failing to learn the lessons they are repeating.

Given his diminished capacity, one might expect that Snyder and company would avoid the efforts, visible in the first film (and criticized by yours truly), to portray Superman as a Christ figure. In fact, they intensify them, as Cavill again poses as Jesus Christ on the cross; the film’s overbearing soundtrack regularly features voices suggesting heavenly choirs; Luthor repeatedly refers to him as a “god”; one television commentator describes him as a “savior”; his mother tells him that one role he might play for people is being their “angel”; and after he saves a girl in Juarez, Mexico, during a Day of the Dead celebration, people worshipfully surround him, extending their arms to touch their miraculous rescuer. The film’s most obvious gesture in likening Superman to Jesus Christ should not be explicitly revealed, but it may be reflected in, of all things, its release date. Many were surprised when producers decided to release this much-anticipated film in March, instead of the usual time when such films appear, summer or the holiday season; perhaps this suggested some concern that the film wasn’t strong enough to compete with other upcoming blockbusters. But someone may have decided that it would be especially fitting to have this particular film open on Good Friday, and conclude its opening weekend on Easter Sunday, considering what happened on the first Good Friday, and what happened on the first Easter Sunday. I will say no more.

As for the other characters who are traditionally elements of the Superman mythos: Adams’s Lois Lane is still a bright spot, but Laurence Fishburne as editor Perry White remains an underutilized resource, his only role here being to express understandable frustration with an obdurate reporter who pursues his own obsessions instead of completing his assignments. The credits insist that an actor named Michael Cassidy is playing Jimmy Olsen, but while I suspect he is the young man once observed in the Daily Planet office, this key character is effectively invisible, supplanted by the bland, underdeveloped Jennie (Rebecca Buller). But by far Snyder’s most risible violation of the canon is Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre Lex Luthor. Before watching this film, I would have insisted that no one could possibly do a worse job of playing Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman, who wounded three films with his egregious misinterpretation of the character. However, Eisenberg rises to the challenge, definitively establishing himself as The Worst Lex Luthor of All Time. One cannot blame the actor, though, since he manifestly was merely playing the part assigned to him by Goyer and Chris Terrio’s deeply flawed script. The problem is not simply that this Luthor is incongruously portrayed as an overgrown child, that he consistently seems utterly and unpleasantly insane, that none of his purported witticisms are actually funny, or that his motives for attacking Superman remain bafflingly unclear. No, the problem is that, unlike all the other Luthors, this one isn’t a genius, scientific or otherwise; he doesn’t even seem to possess a normal amount of intelligence. He temporarily succeeds in his efforts only because he is slightly smarter than his extremely dense adversaries, Superman and Batman. (Yes, as you’ve figured out, this film represents a classic example of what James Blish termed an “idiot plot” – a plot kept in motion solely because every character involved is an idiot.)

But I have not yet addressed how Snyder has distorted and debased the other iconic character entrusted to his care, Batman. Since Christopher Nolan, who directed three excellent Batman films, was involved with this film as an executive producer, one might imagine that the top-billed Dark Knight would be handled appropriately, and they cast an excellent actor, Ben Affleck, who clearly could have been a superb Batman had he been handed a different script. However, while it has recently been common to portray Batman as sometimes on the verge of insanity, permanently traumatized by witnessing his parents’ murder as a child, this film presents a Batman who has completely gone off the deep end, ready for the loony bin. I mean, he has starting carrying a branding iron to brand street criminals with a bat-symbol, which is pointlessly vindictive to say the least, and he allows an understandable concern about the negative effects of Superman’s behavior to evolve into a sick determination to literally assassinate the Man of Steel on the stated grounds that there is a “one percent chance” he might turn on humanity and destroy the Earth. (Hmmmm …. today, there is a “one percent chance” that several people – the national leaders controlling nuclear arsenals – might turn on humanity and destroy the Earth, but no sane person is proposing to assassinate them.) Furthermore, this attitude is not only crazy, but utterly incompatible with all previous portrayals of Batman; yes, the Dark Knight doesn’t like criminals, but he has never, never been dedicated to slaughtering them. In the scene where Batman is preparing to kill Superman with visible glee, then, we observe a hero being shifted 180 degrees from his original character.

Perhaps, though, the filmmakers might explain the apparent degradation of this once-noble characters by referencing another legendary story that can be connected to Batman’s saga. He is regularly described as the Dark Knight, and the film announces “the knight is here”; he literally dons a suit of armor (making him look more like Iron Man than Batman) to do battle with Superman; and in the opening scene that retells the story of his parents’ murder, we learn they were gunned down in 1981 after the family had just seen the movie Excalibur (1981) – one of many films that retells the story of the virtuous knights of Camelot, Arthur and Lancelot, who not incidentally end up warring against each other. And, if such admirable heroes could become foes, the argument would go, the same thing might happen to Superman and Batman.

Still, unlike Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Hollywood films – particularly Hollywood films with announced sequels featuring their protagonists – must have happy endings, with all heroes alive and well, which means that something must happen to make Batman realize that Superman is really a good guy, so they can fulfill their destiny and become allies. That reversal proves to be amazingly abrupt – literally five minutes after he almost kills Superman, Batman describes himself to Superman’s mother as the hero’s “friend” – and as best one can determine, incredibly, the change occurs when Batman learns that the name of Superman’s mother is Martha – which is also the name of his mother. And hey, the dim-witted Dark Knight presumably reasoned, anybody whose mother’s name is Martha has to be wonderful, right? (Thus, if Lex Luthor had really been bright, he would have told Batman that his mother’s name was Martha, and the two would have ended up as best buddies.)

The film’s other character from the Batman mythos, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), is more likable, inasmuch as he mildly objects to Batman’s increasingly questionable behavior; but while Alfred regularly assists Batman in various ways, Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer apparently forgot that the character is always, first and foremost, a butler. This Alfred, though, is never observed doing what butlers should be doing, picking up his master’s clothes and bringing him a cup of tea. Noting the absence of Batman’s other traditional partner, Commissioner Gordon, and a plot involving two of Superman’s villains and none of Batman’s villains (though the Joker is referenced when Batman states that Gotham City has “a bad history of freaks dressed like clowns”), it becomes apparent that, while Batman’s name comes first in the title, this is essentially Superman’s film, taking place in Superman’s world, a direct sequel to Man of Steel that conveniently ignores the conclusion of the last Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012 – review here).

There is another way in which Superman dominates this film: while it is noted that Batman has spent “twenty years” catching criminals, nobody in the film pays any attention to him, and Perry White announces that he will not waste any space in his newspaper covering the Dark Knight’s activities. Yet everyone is obsessively focused on Superman, including a number of actual celebrities who appear in the film as themselves, talking about Superman, including the aforementioned Nancy Grace, physicist Neal deGrasse Tyson, filmmaker Vikram Gandhi, commentator Andrew Sullivan, and broadcast journalists Kent Shocknek, Charlie Rose, Soledad O’Brien, and Anderson Cooper; and when fictional senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) invites Superman to a hearing, a real senator – Patrick Leahy of Vermont – shows up, playing “Senator Purrington.” All of this star power directed at Superman contributes to the sense that he, not Batman, is the film’s most noteworthy hero, and it also illustrates the rising status of superheroes in popular culture; because, if someone had made a Batman v Superman movie in the 1960s, I am confident that Walter Cronkite and Senator Everett Dirksen would never have agreed to appear in it.

Whenever he confronts criticisms of his alterations to the canon, Snyder brushes them aside, on the grounds that they only represent the antiquated conservatism of diehard fans irrationally resistant to change. Classic characters, he might say, need to adjust to contemporary conditions, need to be rethought and reinvigorated from a fresh perspective, and there is certainly some truth in that. (Perhaps Snyder intended to convey that point when Perry White explains that he will not cover Batman because “It’s not 1938” – the year when the Superman character first appeared.) Yet all enduring heroes also have core characteristics that must be respected, and that isn’t occurring in this film; for when you portray Superman as a clumsy moron, and Batman as a homicidal psychopath, you are not merely reinterpreting these characters, but you are eliminating the very reasons why they became popular in the first place.

Still, as if to counter complaints that he has been insufficiently respectful of Superman’s and Batman’s history, Snyder carefully concludes this film with a long list of “Special Thanks” to several of the editors, writers, and artists responsible for their comic book adventures, including Jim Aparo, John Byrne, Gerry Conway, Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, Frank Miller, Jerry Ordway, George Pérez, Curt Swan, Len Wein, Mort Weisinger, and Marv Wolfman. But this is an empty gesture; to show genuine respect for the people who long chronicled the adventures of Superman and Batman, filmmakers should make a film based on one of their stories, instead of (as they always do) making up their own stories. (This demonstrates, in a way, the astounding arrogance of Hollywood: the DC and Marvel superheroes have starred in thousands of comic book adventures, some of them extending to hundreds of pages and providing more than enough of the epic scope that contemporary filmmakers crave; but screenwriters always assume that they are smart enough to simply take those characters and come up with their own, better stories, even though the results, more often than not, are so clumsy and contrived – like this film’s plot – that they would never be deemed good enough for a comic book.)

It should be obvious by now that I disliked this film’s approach to Superman and Batman and generally did not enjoy watching it; yet, after two hours of routine violence and tedious exposition, there comes a time when this misbegotten film suddenly sputters to life and becomes a satisfying viewing experience – and that is when a third hero, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), finally appears. This is not a surprise, because the previews featured the scene where she, Superman, and Batman stood together for the first time; this is unquestionably the emotional highlight of the film, a moment that fans of the DC universe have dreamed about for decades, and a scene that should have been part of a film that was better than this one. And why is it so exhilarating to see her? Because, for the first time in the film, we are presented with a hero that we can actually like, a hero that we know, from her earlier appearances as Diana Prince, is both savvy and sympathetic. When she starts battling against the film’s final and fiercest foe, we are actively rooting for her, hoping that she succeeds, while we are far less concerned about the possible success of the perpetually confused Superman or the dangerously demented Batman; and Gadot seems absolutely perfect for the part. Few filmgoers, I suspect, will walk out of the theatre eagerly anticipating another film featuring Cavill’s Superman or Affleck’s Batman; but if they are like me, they will very much want to see more of Gadot’s Wonder Woman.

As for the other future members of the Justice League that we knew would be appearing, the film’s story did provide a perfect opportunity for Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to show up and contribute to the cause, yet the necessary aquatic rescue was instead performed by Superman, and Aquaman, like the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), appears only fleetingly in a film clip observed by Wonder Woman. And while Ryan Reynolds’s version of Green Lantern (2011) was hardly a triumph (review here), many will be saddened by the decision to exclude this founding member of the Justice League from this film and future films. Still, fans can anticipate seeing all the other heroes in announced future Justice League films and their own films – assuming that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is sufficiently profitable as to ensure their production. (I have my doubts, but there’s no accounting for taste.)

As if to explain why its heroes so often seem to be acting unheroically, the film states at one point that “No One Stays Good in This World” – and perhaps, as popular characters are rebooted again and again and again, there is a natural tendency for them to become less good, in both their moral values and their films’ quality. Yet the film also advances the idea that it is a “feeling of powerlessness” that “turns good men cruel.” And the film does suggest that, despite their immense prowess, its superheroes are indeed become less and less powerful: Batman suggests at one point that his war against crime is essentially futile – “criminals are like weeds; pull one up, another grows in its place”; Senator Finch wishes to impose some sort of governmental control on Superman’s actions; and despite their best efforts, these heroes are never able to prevent vast urban areas from being devastated by the menace du jour. Even as popular culture increasingly valorizes superheroes, then, those heroes may be becoming grouchy and violent because the residents of a complex world are less and less able to believe in the efficacy of superheroes – except, perhaps, as a way to bolster the profits of Hollywood filmmakers.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone, soon to be available from Wildside Press.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Carlos Hernandez

The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, Carlos Hernandez (Rosarium 978-1-4956-0793-4, $15.95, 268pp, tp) January 2016.

Note to small presses: sometimes introduc­tions and blubs do make a difference. When Carlos Hernandez’s debut collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria showed up in the mail, the title struck me as almost fatally whimsical, even though it’s actu­ally the title of one of the better stories here – but then I noticed a blurb from Christopher Barzak and an introduction by Jeffrey Ford, and it turns out that Ford is exactly right in his introduction when he says, ‘‘the book perfectly delivers on that title as if only that title could do it justice.’’ None of the dozen stories focus primarily on cultural assimilation, but the issue underlies the problems of many of the Cuban-American fami­lies portrayed here. One recurring character, a newspaper reporter named Gabrielle Reál, faces sexist as well as Latin American stereotypes, and her adventures give a few of the selections a tall-tale flavor reminiscent of Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart. In one story (‘‘The In­ternational Studbook of the Giant Panda’’), she gets involved in an experiment to increase the panda population by promoting panda-fucking by remotely controlling a female panda Avatar-style; in another (‘‘Fantaisie Impromptu #4 in C# Minor’’) she encounters a piano inhabited by the soul of the dead virtuoso who built it; in yet another (‘‘The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory’’) she helps track down poachers seeking the horns of unicorns who have appar­ently wandered into our universe from a parallel one because of black holes created by the Large Hadron Collider.

As the latter story makes clear, Hernandez’s physics tends to be of the gonzo-metaphorical variety, and the parallel universe theme shows up again in ‘‘Entanglements’’, in which a physicist helps an amputee war veteran come to terms with his new identity by encountering iterations of himself from parallel universes in which he’s uninjured (though the real entanglement of the title is that the veteran’s wife is the physicist’s lover). In ‘‘American Moat’’, which seems almost prescient given this year’s presidential primaries, a group of anti-immigrant nutcases set out to shoot Mexicans crossing the border, when they meet a pair of real aliens from the multiverse, who demonstrate their power by turning a pickup truck into Margaret Thatcher. When the visitors offer to end poverty, disease, and war in the manner of Clarke’s Overlords, Thatcher persuades the yokels to reject the offer as ‘‘an invasion, pure and simple.’’ Scenes like that, which demonstrate Hernandez’s consider­ably entertaining wit, are scattered throughout, such as when the brilliant physicist narrator of the title story recalls his childhood career as a magician (featuring Roadkill the Magic Dead Cat) before setting out to seriously learn Santeria magic and later quantum physics. Some of Her­nandez’s stories – only a few of which seem to have been published before this volume – seem a bit off-the-shelf in concept, such as the ghost-pianist story or ‘‘Bone of my Bone’’, with its horn-growing protagonist offering nothing more than Keith Mano or Joe Hill have already done, but when he brings his various themes together, as in ‘‘The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quan­tum Santeria’’, he’s offering us a perspective not quite like anyone else’s, and which at its best is a hilarious delight to read.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews James Gunn

Transgalactic, by James Gunn (Tor 978-0765380920, $26.99, 224pp, hardcover March 2016

When I reviewed the predecessor to this book, Transcendental, in this very venue, I said: “It is wise, exciting, clever, surprising, hip and au courant (or perhaps timeless is a better word). Its technical craftsmanship is subtle and awe-inspiring.” It is now over two years later, and the sprightly ninety-year-old Jack-the-lad who composed it, James Gunn, is therefore ninety-two years old. He bids fair to equal or surpass his pal Jack Williamson, who remained productive up to age ninety-eight. Let’s see if Transgalactic (which happens to share its title, and perhaps a little of its flavor, with a recent van Vogt omnibus) lives up to the book that launched the series.

You might recall that in the exciting first novel, our protagonists, Riley and Asha, experienced an exotic Chaucerian odyssey across the galaxy in their quest to discover the Transcendental Machine, the essential artifact left behind millions of years ago by the Forerunner civilization that preceded the current Galactic Federation of myriad sapient species. Having achieved their grail, and passing through the stargate function of the Machine, Riley and Asha were sent inadvertently to separate destinations, and incidentally upgraded into more-than-human status, as the Machine disintegrated them and rebuilt them with subtle tailoring at the exit portals.

So we discover Riley waking up after transmission inside a giant ancient monument on a primitive planet where the intelligent beings are mini-dinosaurs. And Asha steps forth from a fountain housing her ancient stargate onto a world full of Eloi-like humanoids. In alternating chapters, each adventurer masters the culture of the host worlds, finds transportation into space, and returns to the main sphere of activity of the Federation, hoping to reconnect somehow with their mates. In the process, they each adopt a native companion. Asha has Solomon, and Riley has Rory. Gunn deviates momentarily from his seesawing narrative viewpoints of Riley and Asha to give us an intriguing chapter apiece in which we see things through the eyes of Solomon and Rory.

This early part of the book evokes a kind of Philip Jose Farmer World of Tiers High Adventure ambiance, as well as recalling, to me anyhow, one special sense-of-wonder book that struck me very forcefully in my youth: Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict, whose Forerunner theme aligns with Gunn’s.

Asha makes her way to the hub of the Federation, the secret solar system where the government is centralized. Riley, not knowing those coordinates, ends up on the pleasure planet of Dante. Their separate adventures—which include ferreting out clues about the rot at the core of the Federation—continue until both end up on the ancestral world of Earth, where ultimate revelations reach a tipping point. This last portion remind me a bit of a similar milieu in Earthblood, by Laumer and Brown.

But I mentioned van Vogt earlier, and surely the ultimate homage for Gunn is The World of Null-A, featuring the battle of superman Gilbert Gosseyn against the autocratic Machine. In this case, the bad “machine” is not the good Transcendental gadget but the artifically intelligent “Pedia” that secretly holds the reins to the Federation.

Unlike the somewhat infallible and egocentric Gosseyn, however, Asha and Riley realize the limitations of their new selves. “Transcendence was not the panacea she and Riley had imagined. It was not enough to think clearly and behave rationally. These were the basic requirements for a decent society, but they were not enough…for a saner, more rational existence.” And that brave new world, after all, is the ultimate goal of the pair. “[To] save the galaxy from itself, to fulfill the promise born into the first living creatures, not only to survive but to prevail. To improve. To be the best they could be. To do that the galaxy needed a more nourishing system of governance, of art, of literature, of discourse.”

To say that this attitude is antithetical to the current crop of miserabilist, defeatist, cynical, dystopian SF is to state the nakedly obvious. Gunn is bucking the current publishing tide, yet there is nothing forced or labored or disingenuous about this book. He sells the hope. It reads as a sincere credo from someone who has seen a lot, lived a lot, meditated a lot, and wants to share that wisdom in an artistic manner.

The novel ends on a highly satisfying note, but leaves the horizon open for further narratives, on which we can hope Gunn is already working.

One final thing to note about this book. Its Clutian Real Year—the subtextual era of relevance which its surface future is really depicting—is this very moment, the 2016 craziness reflected in our politics and jagged culture. How can we tell? What moment does this sound like to you?

“The Federation had devolved into a tangled web of bureaucratic bungles, dead ends, and corruption… [The] bureaucracy had been taken over by autocrats and oligarchs and other hidden and less obvious forces to subvert and control the direction of the Federation itself, for purposes that were not yet clear. Other than the enjoyment of the ultimate human pleasure, power itself.”

This could have come from the stump speech of almost any of the current Presidential candidates. And Gunn wrote it as long as two years ago, possibly.

That’s an SF master doing his job!

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Adrienne Martini reviews Blythe Woolston

MARTians, Blythe Woolston (Candlewick Press 978-0-7636-7756-5, $16.99 220pp, hc) October 2015.

In Blythe Woolston’s MARTians, teenager Zoë lives in the future exurbs of some Southwestern town. She has a year or two to figure out which of the giant retail outlets she wants to join when she graduates: AllMART or Q-Mart. In the meantime, she’ll continue her studies, which include Sexual Responsibility, Communication, Math, Corporate History, and Consumer Citizenship. Her teacher, Mrs. Brody, has a taser just in case the students aren’t willing to listen to the pre-recorded lectures.

Then the Governor announces that, as a cost-cutting measure, they’ll all be graduating early. Then her AnnaMom announces she’ll be taking a road trip to find work and leaving Zoë behind. And, suddenly, stuff just got really real in Woolston’s exquisitely rendered version of an America that has lost most of its humanity.

Like Bradbury, whose work Woolston honors both in the title and as a running theme, this au­thor has a knack for finding just the right details to flesh-out a world without bogging down the action in reams of description. Take, for example, this nugget: ‘‘I won’t have a vote to sell until my eighteenth birthday, and that’s 619 days away.’’ Not only do you learn Zoë’s age but you also learn reams about the world that surrounds her. MARTians is a marvel of linguistic economy.

In addition to Bradbury, Woolston’s work also feels like an homage to Libba Bray’s brand of manic black humor that shot through her titles Going Bovine and Beauty Queens. Like those imagined worlds, Zoë’s setting feels equally true and sur­real and sad and funny. Despite the liveliness of Woolston’s words and the unsinkableness of Zoë’s character, MARTians captures what loneliness feels like in a remarkable way that, as its target audience might say, brings all the feels.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews R.A. Lafferty

The Man Underneath: The Collected Short Fiction, Volume Three, by R.A. Lafferty (Centipede Press 978-1613471647, $45, 368pp, hardcover)

In 2011, Michael Swanwick, in a blog post, was one of the first to report on the then-distressful state of the literary legacy left behind by R. A. Lafferty. In short, all of Lafferty’s work was unavailable. But the good news was that Lafferty’s estate was moving forward to remedy the lamentable situation by selling all rights to his works en masse to the Locus Science Fiction Foundation, parent entity of all things Locusian. Neil Gaiman also played an important role in this process.

Fans of the ineffable Lafferty (a fine interview between Lafferty and Tom Jackson was reproduced online a year ago) immediately rejoiced, dreaming of a day when not only all of the stories and novels that saw print during his lifetime would reemerge for sale, but also all of the hard-to-find small-press books (many produced by the invaluable Chris Drumm) would get sorted, and then, finally, whatever was left in manuscript at Lafferty’s death that deserved printing would arrive. According to Lafferty expert Jonathan Strahan, this latter trove includes over a dozen novels, with alluring titles such as In The Akrokeraunian Mountains and Iron Tongue of Midnight, as well as about eighty short stories and a handful of essays. And all of this stuff would appear in editions calculated to capture the largest number of new and old readers.

Well, five years later, we have to acknowledge a mixed progress, quite admirable but bounded nonetheless by economic realities and the cult appeal of Lafferty himself. And so, indeed, all of the short stories, Lafferty’s primary métier, are getting reprinted. But they are not appearing in economical formats designed to attract newbies. Of the novels, both extant and unknown, we hear not a word. Still, what has been achieved is nothing to sniff at, and I, for one, am extremely grateful.

Centipede Press is the noble enterprise handling the Complete Stories. They have just issued Volume 3, which is our topic for today. The upside of their output is that each volume is lovingly produced, a luxury item that is a tribute to the artistry of the small press. (Designer Jacob McMurray plays no small part here.) The downside is that each book is limited to 300 copies, and is naturally more pricey than a corresponding hardcover from the Big Five. If purchased from Centipede’s site, a Lafferty book costs $45.00—if it hasn’t sold out. Via other sellers, you’ll pay from $60.00 to $100.00. Lord knows what the collectible price will soon be!

While fully in line with other specialty titles, this cost and limited print run is not going to attract new readers. Instead, it’s drawing in old-time fanatics like myself. Not necessarily a sad or bad outcome, but I am tempted to compare this venture to the amassing and marketing of The Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon by North Atlantic Books, which sold in hardcover for less; seemed, from what I could see, to have larger print runs; and also migrated to paperback and ebook formats eventually, at least for early volumes.

But perhaps I am comparing pomegranates to kumquats. In any case, cheaper editions might yet loom in the future. So let’s turn our attention to what we have now.

I devoured all the Lafferty I could get as a teenager, many decades ago, and imprinted deeply on it. In later years, I have not had a chance to revisit the canon, except for a story here and there (including my two favorites, of course: “Nine Hundred Grandmothers,” included in this volume, and “Slow Tuesday Night.”). So this current offering that features a generous nineteen stories was to me like diving into some forgotten ancestral lake.

But before talking about a subset of those tales, let me mention the “Introduction” by Bud Webster and the “Afterword” by John Pelan. The former is a reprint of one of Webster’s “Past Masters” columns, and as such is a rich and thoughtful examination of Lafferty’s whole career, not just an exegesis on these nineteen selections. Bud Webster, as some might have heard, passed away recently, and reading this piece, one acknowledges sadly just what a loss that passing was for the whole field. Pelan’s shorter and more specific account of how he assembled the collection (stories date from 1960 to 1986) contains the valuable insight that even old-timers will find newnesses when reapproaching these tales.

Prior to trying to capture what makes Lafferty’s style and plotting and characterization so special, I’ll just toss out a few of the conceits he deploys, which were equally unique.

The title story features a magician who conjures up his own doppelganger and eventually must wage a battle for primacy with the other man. “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies” features a counterfactual “dead media” platform and the artworks it engendered, all thickly detailed. The search for the ABSM—Abominable Snow Man—oddly enough takes the reader to the parched, haunted landscape of “Boomer Flats.” “The Hellaceous Rocket of Harry O’Donovan” is a political screed about the grooming of candidates that could have been written today about the contests of 2016. Likewise, “Thou Whited Wall” reads now like a prescient parable of social media, with its twelve loud-mouthed wall scribblers. “The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen” reprises Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God,” but with a race of fleas. Lafferty might have had van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” in mind in “Snuffles,” the story of a murderous bear-boy-alien-demiurge, but chose to add cosmic and theological layerings. And “The Last Astronomer” postulates “the collapse of the classic Hubbleian astronomy” in a manner that would do Greg Bear proud.

But no matter what oddball novum Lafferty trotted out of his capacious brain bag, oftentimes peppered with additional throwaway croggling fillips, the tropes and action were swaddled in the same royal jelly style. (How’s that for a mock-Lafferty sentence?) I would derive his main influence from the arch and ironic linguistic posturings of S. J. Perelman, admixed with Mike-Fink-Paul-Bunyan American tall tales. Then you would have to factor in some borrowings from Bradbury when most lyrical. Peers who might have influenced or at least resonated with Lafferty would include Donald Barthelme, Avram Davidson, David Bunch, and even Cordwainer Smith for that sense of mythic recountings. As for Lafferty’s descendants, in part or in whole, I’d call to the stand Andy Duncan, Howard Waldrop, Barrington J. Bayley, and Gene Wolfe.

Lafferty’s characters, of course, could not be drawn naturalistically to consort with such a wild-eyed style, and so are fabulaic and otherworldly, often reappearing from story to story as a kind of Commedia dell’arte troupe. Nonetheless, they carry emotional and spiritual burdens quite well and impactfully. As for Lafferty’s plotting, it merely seems arbitrary and stream-of-consciousness. He knew how to chart rising tension and suspense and deliver a sharp climax as well as any thriller writer.

Add up all these traits, and you get tales that are at once postmodern and ancient; funny and tragic; capricious and predestined; broad yet subtle. They would seem to accurately convey the nonpareil mind and heart and weltanschauung of the writer himself, who in all likelihood would have agreed with Oscar Wilde when the playwright said, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Faren Miller reviews John Wray

The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 978-0-374-28113-7, $27.00, 496pp, hc) February 2016.

It’s probably not coincidence (or synchronicity) that John Wray’s substantial, genre-busting novel The Lost Time Accidents shares a notion with Marcel Proust’s even more massive Remembrance of Things Past, whose French title Á La Recherche Du Temps Perdu could also be rendered into English as ‘‘In Search of Lost Time’’.

Amid the orbits of lives – the varying stages and perceptions of one’s own, of others encountered in the welter of experience, and fundamental family ties – a quest to trace origins and recover old sensations (or reinvent them) takes place within a still point at the center of a subjective storm. At the beginning and ending of The Lost Time Accidents, narrator ‘‘Waldy’’ Tolliver invokes this bizarre site in a repeated passage: ‘‘Time moves freely around me, gurgling like a whirlpool, fluxing like a quantum field, spinning like a galaxy around its focal hub – at the hub, however, everything is quiet.’’ That’s not altogether different from Proust’s notion of ‘‘the infinitely unrolling past which I had been unconsciously carrying within me’’: time ‘‘incarnate,’’ accessible ‘‘by descending more deeply within myself.’’

Collectively, the family that began in Moravia (now Czechoslovakia) under the name of ‘‘Toula’’ near the end of the Habsburg Empire – becoming ‘‘Tolliver’’ when Waldy’s grandfather emigrated to America – can’t be described in the ‘‘undercooked, flavorless porridge of facts’’ that ruined his first attempt at writing their history. Now that he’s trapped (along with an armchair, a card table, pen and paper, and a few relevant books) in the endless moment near the center of the whirlpool, he resolves to try again: addressing his new efforts to ‘‘Mrs. Haven’’ (an ex-lover who went back to her husband), and declaring, ‘‘To bring the past alive for you, I’m going to have to approach it as a sort of waking dream, or as one of those checkout counter whodunits you keep stacked by your bed.’’

From this perspective, individuals in a lineage haunted and perplexed by the nature of time serve as something like avatars for the mingled weirdness and monstrosity of the 20th century. Great-grandfather, an amateur scientist with a lab in his Moravian pickle factory, seems to have grasped the concept of relativity just before his peculiar death in 1903. Waldy’s great uncle and namesake Waldemar explored darker occult notions in a Nazi death camp, while his grandfather fled to America with a feisty Jewish wife, and went on to study temporal flux as physics. Dad wrote lurid pulp Sci-Fi and founded the Church of Synchronicity (amid allusions to more serious SF that keep even these scenes from descending to sheer caricature).

Like Proust, Waldy pursues the past till time seems to flow backwards, but another century – of thought and feeling, life and death in a rapidly changing world – helps shape how he describes it:

Rivers flowed uphill and trees shrank to seedlings and the overheated earth began to cool…. Eggs returned to their chickens, bombs returned to their bombers, and effects flew home like bullets to their causes.

Crazy as it may seem, The Lost Time Accidents obliges us to acknowlege: this is our world as well.-

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Adrienne Martini reviews Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton 978-14736-1979-1, £18.99, 416pp, hc) August 2015. (HarperVoyager 978-0062444134, $15.99, 464pp, tp) July 2016.

The first 30 pages of Becky Chambers’ Kick­starter-backed novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet are catnip for space opera fans, especially those with a bent toward TV shows that portray a spacecraft’s crew as a chosen fam­ily, like Firefly or Farscape. It’s like settling into a nice warm bath on a cold wet day, sort of like a cozy mystery, but with aliens and wormholes. Then you start to realize that as much as you love these characters and the exquisitely developed universe they inhabit, nothing much happens. Sure, each crew member has a secret, but that’s backstory, rather than plot, even though Cham­bers devotes a lot of time to telling us about them. Eventually, there are hints that something might happen soon – Ashby, the human leader of the crew, is warned that an interesting job might be coming his way – and then more pages pass… and more… and more before the job starts. And still the ship and its inhabitants meander around some more, as nooks and crannies of this created space are wandered through under sometimes flimsy and generally unclear reasons – until the last 40 pages or so when the plot and action finally get their act together.

So why keep reading to those last 40 pages? Because the characters and worldbuilding are worth it. Chambers has created a world that both rips off and improves upon so many of the great space operas of the past. The scenery feels famil­iar and new. The characters are a distinct mix, from the alien cook/medic Dr. Chef to the human fish-out-of-water Rosemary Harper, who serves as the reader’s entry into this invented world. The hyper (and Abby Sciuto-esque) mechanic Kizzy keeps the dialog zippy, while programmer Jenks provides the heart. The interplay has substance and covers for some of Chambers’ lack of story.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet would have benefitted from an editor who could have helped the writer prune all of the offshoots that, while interesting (and likely to make great stories on their own), suck a lot of the narrative force from this tale. There’s an amazing series of books waiting to be found in Chambers’ rich mind and her invented space deserves to be revisited, despite this book’s drawbacks.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Matt Ruff

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff (Harper 978-0-06-229206-3, $26.99, 384pp, hardcover) February 2016

Consider the name of one of the African-American main characters in Matt Ruff’s heartfelt, passionate, polemical, scary and clever new novel, Lovecraft Country: Atticus Turner. Most literate folks, I believe, will immediately think of Atticus Finch, famous white lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird. A little cogitation upon “Turner” quickly summons up Nat Turner, rebellious slave and subject of a (still-famous?) novel by William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Combine the two namesake men, and you get a hybrid being: half-white, half-black; half-concerned with the rule of law, half-transgressive; half-Establishment, half-outsider. In a sense, those two names, yoked together, stimulatingly blend so many contradictions, they embody the disjointed contradictory essence of the USA itself. A useful symbolism indeed for a book that seeks to plumb the depths of our country’s ethical character with regards to racial matters.

The first section of this novel—and it’s a book cast almost as interrelated short stories, yet with an all-subsuming arc—bears the same title as the whole. We meet Atticus, a Korean-War vet just trying to live his mundane life in 1950s Jim Crow America. Returning to his Chicago roots at the epistolary behest of his disaffected father, Atticus discovers that his dad, Montrose, has been kidnaped and taken away to the mysterious burg of Ardham (not Arkham), Massachusetts, at the behest of a sinister group calling themselves the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn, headed by a sorceror named Caleb Braithwhite. With his uncle, George Berry, publisher of the The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and a childhood pal, Letitia Dandridge, Atticus sets out on a cross-country odyssey to rescue his father. What he discovers about America, himself, and the Order is most unsettling—and dangerous.

Part two of the book is titled “Dreams of the Which House” (not “Witch House”) and our POV switches to Letitia, who comes into an inheritance and desires to buy a home in Chicago for herself and sister Ruby. Alas, the Winthrop House proves to contain occult entities that resist her ownership. And discovery of the dead Winthrop’s ties to the Order ramp up the complexities of the current-day plot.

“Abdullah’s Book” finds brothers Montrose and George suborned by a visiting Caleb Braithwhite into retrieving a hidden supernatural tome, in a kind of Night at the Museum caper. George’s wife, Hippolyta, takes center-stage in “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” where her expedition to another world invokes cosmic horror galore. Caleb Braithwhite again appears on the scene to stir the pot by offering Ruby Dandridge the chance to live out an alternate existence, in “Jekyll in Hyde Park.” Again at Caleb’s demands in “The Narrow House,” Montrose and Atticus make a field trip to retrieve more magic books from the heir to the Winthrop clan. “Horace and the Devil Doll” centers around the son of George and Hippolyta, a clever, comic-book-worshipping teenager. (He previously provided a homemade comic that served his Mom as an interstellar map.) And the entire cast is assembled in “The Mark of Cain,” to settle up accounts with Braithwhite and company, with an “Epilogue” to wrap up loose ends.

Now, the obvious demands upon Ruff in such a book are manifold and huge. Primarily, he has to recontextualize Lovecraftian horror along new dimensions—racial prejudice, the lived experiences of American blacks—without utterly destroying HPL’s premises, frissons, and themes. There would be no point in borrowing HPL’s oeuvre if you only wished to accentuate its ridiculousness and absurdities. Lovecraft Country is not some ham-handed book-length satire or parody. This goal Ruff meets admirably. He honors all the tropes and special effects and ambiance of the Mythos in new ways that discard the superficial trappings of the 1920s and HPL’s crotchets for the more relevant clothing and attitudes of the 1950s.

Second, Ruff has to mimetically portray the mundane realities of life for African-Americans of the period, while crafting a vivid and accurate historical novel. This task also he meets with ingenuity, empathy and verve. The emotional and intellectual honesty and authenticity of the lives of his troupe of black characters feels solid and believable, unsparing of both the joys and pains of the period, without verging into simplistic good-and-evil categorizations. Even Caleb Braithwhite earns our sympathies. And about the only anachronism I would adduce is the existence of a stand-alone, dedicated comic-book store in Chicago during this era. Just not a reality, as the Wikipedia entry on the Direct Market reminds us. “Before the direct market [established in the 1970s], most comic books were distributed through newsstands, pharmacies, and candy stores….This practice lasted from the 1930s through the 1960s.”

As he did in his previous novel, The Mirage, which centered on the Moslem world, Ruff thoroughly inhabits a different culture than his own, honoring it and exploring it with the new eyes and respectful heart of any true questing traveler in strange climes. Books like this one prove that the sympathetic imagination of a fine writer is the ultimate toolkit to parse the many different milieus into which human experience can be divided, breaking down all barriers erected by circumstance across our shared heritage.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Laird Barron reviews Gary A. Braunbeck

Halfway Down the Stairs, Gary Braunbeck (Journalstone 978-1942712459, $38.95, 576pp, hc) December 2015.

Without question Halfway Down the Stairs is a long overdue omnibus of horror stalwart Gary Braunbeck’s short fiction. It’s a massive tome weighing in at nearly 600 pages and it collects the vast majority of the author’s output over the past couple of decades. Winner of multiple Bram Stoker Awards and student of the best 1970s and ’80s horror traditions, Braunbeck hybridizes the supernatural themes and narrative slickness of Stephen King and marries them to Jack Ketchum’s soulful tales of human frailty. His purview is the shadow kingdom of human existence – abuse, addiction, and violence in its infinite variety. Redemption exists out there somewhere in the darkness, a fragile flame in the gloom.

There is no way to thoroughly examine a book of this scope. The best I can hope for is to illuminate a handful of fragments of the whole. Halfway Down the Stairs is broken into three sections, divvying up around 40 stories that span Braunbeck’s career. Part One frontloads the collection with lighter (relatively speaking), thematically disjointed material, much of it bite-sized in regard to page count. ‘‘Crybaby Bridge #25’’ introduces the rural legend of ‘‘crybaby bridges’’ where motorists park and listen for the eponymous crying babies. There are 24 known bridges, but this story is concerned with the 25th and its connection to a man consumed by grief and guilt. ‘‘Attack of the Giant Deformed Mutant Cannibalistic Gnashing Slobberers from Planet Cygnus X-2.73: A Love Story’’ is a campy mouthful (pardon the pun) and indicative of the scattershot approach that typifies the opening section. Among the longest selections from the first third of the collection is ‘‘Cyrano’’, a bizarre and hallucinatory tale of time out of joint. Braun­beck shifts from workmanlike prose to deliver chilling descriptions such as this:

His flame-charred flesh slithered from bone, drooping like the sleeves of a dark cloak, when suddenly he beheld near him a hunched and shivering figure wearing only a dressing-gown, slippers, and nightcap. He pointed at the figure and perceived with a start that he was, indeed, wearing a great black cloak whose hood concealed his hid­eous countenance. No cursed flesh covered his skeletal hand.

In Part Two, each piece is introduced by a fellow author ranging from Chet Williams to Ramsey Campbell. Here we are treated to several novelettes to complement the briefer selections. ‘‘Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway’’ speaks of the afterlife. A Bram Stoker Award winner, it ranks among Braunbeck’s more popular stories and justifiably so. ‘‘Just Out of Reach’’ is set in his long-running Cedar Hills setting, although possessed of a more science-fictional bent than might be expected. It is directly followed by ‘‘El Poso Del Mundo’’, a noirish tale of deception and violent reversals very much a product of the underbelly of our world and our time.

Part Three contains what Braunbeck considers his more popular stories. Two of the best set the pace: ‘‘Rami Temporales’’ is a disturbing story of abuse and the perils of having ‘‘one of those faces,’’ while ‘‘The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women’’ and its recurring allusions to T.S. Eliot’s ‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’’ pulls us back to Cedar Hill, where we bear wit­ness to the conflict between the ephemeral nature of memory and the blood and grit of daily life in a doomed town.

By no means gratuitous, Braunbeck’s depic­tion of violence and suffering are not for the faint of heart. The finest horror authors mitigate, and paradoxically enhance, the horrific by investigat­ing real human motives and real human emotion. Braunbeck works noir and crime at will. He’s a blue collar guy and his style is tough, albeit with the melancholic core of a poet. Contradiction is the secret to his success. Humans are fragile, tricky, indestructible superbeings that melt in the face of adversity, yet persist beyond all reasonable reckoning when you give them up noble, and kind to a fault. Predictable and totally inscrutable. Braunbeck understands what makes us tick. Previously I remarked that Tananarive Due, another fine author of the dark fantastic, is at her best when she explores the depths of the heart, and her strength is her humaneness. Humanity and humanness are also the signature of Braunbeck. There’s more hard bark on his hide, though, and an old school aesthetic that intimates a storyteller who weaves in darkness must be cruel to be kind.

Tim Waggoner sums it up in his preface to ‘‘El Poso Del Mundo’’:

… horror that matters – isn’t about machete-wielding maniacs, but rather the pain that eats like cold acid at the center of the hu­man heart.

Nothing truer could be said of Gary Braun­beck’s contribution to the horror canon.

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