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Faren Miller reviews Jennifer Mason-Black

Devil and the Bluebird, Jennifer Mason-Black (Amulet 978-1-4197-2000-0, $17.95. 330pp, hc) Cover by Monica Ramos. May 2016.

A powerful debut novel, Jennifer Mason-Black’s Devil and the Bluebird begins with a teenager’s memories of what had been her mother’s guitar, as she stands at a dirt crossroad on a chilly, moonless night with the instrument strapped to her back, hoping to make a deal with something like a devil. When a barefoot woman in a red dress appears (‘‘a pair of red high heels dangling from one hand’’), she knows that Blue Riley’s family nickname is Bluebird and tells her, ‘‘There’s nothing private when you wait for me at midnight at the crossroads, little girl.’’ She likes that the girl ‘‘came prepared’’ – with the guitar – but this deal won’t trade a soul for otherworldly musical prowess (as legend gener­ally has it).

Music and the essence of souls are central to this novel in other ways: connected to love and loss, open to possibilities more elusive than dreams of prowess leading to fame and fortune. What drives Blue is a need to find her missing sister Cass. Long after their mother settled in a small Maine town to die of cancer (estranged from former bandmate/songwriting partner Tish and the life they shared), Cass left the home these sisters had made with their aunt, an ordinary woman who never really feels like family as much as Tish had. Cass’s phone calls on their dead mother’s birthday sustain Blue more than she realized, till they abruptly cease. At the crossroads she recalls ‘‘how they sang together, and it was like being inside and outside herself at the same time, like being the world.’’ Now that the last of that world seems gone, Blue will do anything she can to reclaim it.

The woman in red takes Blue’s voice, down to the least whisper, in exchange for an uncanny impulse to travel manifested in a pair of boots that urge her westward (growing more painful whenever she stops too long). Since this is mod­ern America, Devil and the Bluebird swiftly moves from a dusty country crossroad to thor­oughfares and highways where Blue hitchhikes – communicating with the people she meets by writing in a notebook. Since she doesn’t want to be tracked, it’s not an e-book, yet her notes read like texting: lots of abbreviations and emojis. The attitude toward expletives is just as nonchalant. As Blue regards it, ‘‘swearing… made everything okay faster. You said the words, and they were like rocks, then spears, then swords; then at some point they reached an atomic level and the fight was over.’’

Taking elements from Road Book and YA, this novel probes beneath the surface – finding as much uncertainty, passion, and soul-endangering choices in a band’s encounters with Reality TV (a subplot that grows crucial toward book’s end) as in old deals with the demonic. Blue’s sense for ‘‘wrongness’’ around her may have been roused at the crossroads, but on the road it becomes a basic survival skill – some devils are human. Her friendship with another teenage traveler forms the heart of the book: avoiding blatant issue-mongering yet touching on intimate matters of self and sexual identity that culture and family values can’t quell, or politics set altogether free.

During a strange hiatus, Blue stumbles into a temporal ‘‘eddy’’ (still anchored in our mortal world) where she gets answers to questions she hadn’t known enough to ask. While some involve family, others spur her to find her own way into music, through the songs she’s finally trying to write. This could be her world. She feels its presence when she learns she saw a ghost at a barn dance: ‘‘Instruments, voices… Musicians play in the midst of ghosts every day.’’ Though she confirms his identity by tracking down a photo on the Internet, seeing that image makes her realize the game is still afoot. Soon she’ll be moving on, beyond the echoes.

Jennifer Mason-Black knows how to find won­der in the messy stuff of our world: a bus grave­yard, a diner, a TV game where players stray from their scripted songs. It may not conjure many spirits, yet music is the true magic here.

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 Brian Lee Durfee

The Forgetting Moon, by Brian Lee Durfee (Simon & Schuster/Saga Press 978-1-4814-6522-9, $25.99, 800pp, hardcover) 30 August 2016

I remain ashamedly unversed in modern epic or heroic fantasy, despite growing up on Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, Eddison and the rest of the early canon. My dreadful ignorance is not due to any lack of interest, but merely lack of time. The mode involves capacious tomes that come in sets, and unless one catches any certain series at its kickoff, getting up to speed quickly becomes more and more daunting with each new entry.

Nonetheless, I have recently enjoyed work along these general lines by Robert Redick, Daniel Abraham, K. J. Parker, Patrick Rothfuss, and Ken Liu. And of course, I am up-to-date on George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps the dominant template these days for its successors. (Note that I did not say I am up-to-date on Game of Thrones, a show I will herewith also confess I have never seen. When much of my media-viewing time is spent on acquainting myself with, say, every film Ida Lupino ever made, then hours to be devoted to current miniseries are nonexistent.)

Consequently I think I have some small idea of what fresh things can be done in this genre these days by top-notch talent—as well as how to recognize the shared lineaments of a rousing adventure tale of any stripe—and so I can affirm that the debut novel by Brian Lee Durfee, The Forgetting Moon, while not necessarily breaking new ground, provides plenty of well-crafted spectacle, thrills, suspense, blood, thunder and general sense of wonder. (I call it his debut novel, for although the dust-jacket copy mentions a previous horror novel, the internet reveals no trace of such a book, at least under his own name.)

With any book of this type, a literal “subcreation,” we always need and expect a solid foundation of world-building without the kind of deadly and pedantic information overload rightly derided by M. John Harrison. Durfee’s book hits the mark. First, he creates some fascinating topography conducive to great plotting. Five isles, each self-governing as a whole, yet with a variety of polities within, lie next to each other. So the scale is relatively compact, allowing easy interactions among the peoples. The backstory along historical, political, economic, religious and cultural lines is deftly sketched in by nicely placed referents with any coarse infodumps. Everything seems to cohere realistically, with no imbalances. And the societies differ from each other in satisfying and believable ways.

Additionally, there is the matter of the distinct races. Besides the humans, there are dwarves, the fey-like Vallè, and the hideous oghuls. Now, these categories are hardly brand-new in the genre, but as I said about this book in general, Durfee’s light and clever hand freshens whatever it touches.

The book opens with a killer setpiece: a mysterious warrior figure named Shawcroft rescues a three-year-old boy from quasi-supernatural assassins—on the edge of a crumbling glacier, no less. Then we cut to that same lad, named Nail and now aged seventeen, living a humble, even oppressed life in a small fishing village, Gallows Haven. Shawcroft remains by his side, his only “family” and only link to his mysterious past. Several chapters illustrate for us Nail’s personality and temperament and character with some exciting action-filled moments. Then we abruptly leave him to jump to other personages in the vast canvas.

The main factions we are going to observe are the royal Bronachell family in Amadon, the innocent victims in this war. Two sisters—older Jondralyn and younger Tala—serves as our POV figures, and they are both inordinately intriguing: smart, feisty and complicated.

The other camp is that of the aggressors, the invaders from Sør Sevier. What a nasty lot they are, led by the Angel Prince, Aeros, and his sadistic female Knight Archaic, Enna Spades, a woman who makes Elizabeth Báthory look like Pollyanna. In their camp is a more nuanced fellow of some honor, Gault Aulbrek. Mentioning his conflicted role brings me to an observation about Durfee’s troupe. He has a wide spectrum of all types, from the purely evil, like Spades, to the purely good, like Nail. And of course, the folks who are at the interface between good and evil are often the most interesting.

Now, needless to say in a volume of almost 800 pages, there is a lot going on, from battlefield heroics, to duels, to brawls in taverns, to traversals of hidden palace passages, to courtly backstabbing. Durfee stages each incident compactly, with no waste or overstuffing. And the succession of incidents carries the various subplots along at a fair clip. And the main impulse behind this novel—and the whole series to come—is sufficiently majestic to bear the burden of so much storyline.

The main religion of all the isles is the worship of Laijon, whose church has a hierarchy and bureaucracy reminiscent of our own Roman Catholic enterprise at its prime. But within the Church is an esoteric order, the Brethren of Mia, and they know a secret. An apocalyptic event is coming which may be forestalled only by uncovering the long-lost weapons of the Five Warrior Angels and using them in battle. Moreover, the talismans can be hefted only by the five current avatars of the old lineages. And guess who is one of the Five?

Alternating between the countryside trials of Nail and his comrades and the cityside machinations of the Bronachells, Durfee keeps our interests always at a peak. The language he employs during all of this is not archaic, nor overly slangy, but rather a believable speech of another era and place, whose descriptive passages occasionally veer from sturdy visualizations into poetry and gravitas. Rough and scatalogical dialogue also has its appropriate moments.

Now, I should mention one aspect of the book as a kind of consumer caveat. I know enough about contemporary epic fantasy to be aware of the “grimdark” trend. Durfee definitely hoists that flag high. And in a fashion that is not initially obvious. For the first 200 pages or so, the book is not particularly grimdark. But with the invasion of Gallows Haven, the blood commences to flow like red wine at an art gallery opening. Interpersonal relationships assume a kind of Darwinian savagery. And there is really no assurance that any character you have identified with will survive.

It makes for some enthralling reading, to be sure—but perhaps not for those who would rather spend the day dreaming in Rivendell.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Kij Johnson

The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson ( 978-0-7653-9141-4, $14.99, 176pp, tp; -8651-9,$2.99, eb) August 2016.

Apparently, it’s time to deal with The Lovecraft Problem – and not just with the question of whether the World Fantasy Award ought to be represented with a weapons-grade Gahan Wil­son cudgel that looks vaguely like an oversized Monopoly token. Last year saw Daryl Gregory repurposing Lovecraftiana for YA in Harrison Squared, and already this year we’ve seen Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, both of which set out to undermine Lovecraft’s notorious racism by effectively using his own eldritch inventions against him. Now here comes the ever-inventive Kij Johnson with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which among other things addresses the almost complete absence of women in HPL’s tales – and in particular The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, whose plot it inverts in inge­nious ways without abandoning the various hor­rors, subterranean caverns, elder gods, and other paraphernalia that continue to make Lovecraft appealing, even to many readers who are well aware that in his worldview they would almost certainly be among the missing or the despised. It’s that appeal which is the real Problem – the realization that, for all his cultural offenses and baroquely hypertrophic prose, he was pretty ef­fective at what he did, and much modern horror fiction remains in his shadow.

I was not, like Johnson says she was, among those who were particularly enamored of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which always seemed to me to be Lovecraft revisiting Dunsany with some of the same blunt literalness with which Mel Gibson revisited the Gospels, but it’s possible, along with the other Randolph Carter tales, that it’s as close as he came to genuine quest-fantasy. Johnson appreciated it enough to retain many of Lovecraft’s inventions, including those creepy caverns and those various monsters that sound like discontinued breakfast cereals – Zoogs, Gugs, Ghasts, etc. But his Ulthar here becomes a women’s college struggling to survive in a vaguely medieval University (sub­jects include Ancient Sarnathian and Chymical Studies) already skeptical of women’s education. The immediate crisis is that one of the students, Clarie Jurat, has run off with her boyfriend. Since her father is a trustee of the University, and since such a lapse of decorum might threaten the very existence of the women’s college, math professor Vellitt Boe sets out to track her down – but that task becomes more complicated when she learns they have absconded to ‘‘the waking world.’’

Apart from featuring a professional woman as a protagonist – and using the frame to explore the myriad struggles of an academic woman’s life – this is the first and perhaps most ingenious of Johnson’s reversals. Whereas Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter had to enter the world of dreams to complete his quest, Vellitt Boe has to find her way out of the dreamworld – the Six Kingdoms – that is her home. Accompanied by an uninvited but persistent black cat, she sets out through a pastoral landscape of farms and villages, but this soon gives way to scary forests and wastelands inhabited by the aforementioned zoogs and gugs and ghouls. But before she can obtain a key to the Upper Gate, she has to divert her quest to the distant Ilek-Vad, where she seeks the assistance of her old friend Randolph Carter, who has become king there and whose attitudes don’t seem to have evolved much beyond Lovecraft’s own portrayal (he explains to her that ‘‘women don’t dream large dreams,’’ which is why Vellitt has never met a waking world woman). He provides her with an escort, but it’s Vellitt’s own harrowing underworld journey that finally gives the novella a convincing heroic dimension, along with a sharply insightful account of Vellitt’s own self-exploration and a solid dose of that odd mix of visceral horror and mythic vision that was the source of Lovecraft’s power. Does Vellitt Boe make it to the waking world and save her college by persuading Clarie to return home? With Johnson, such questions are never quite that simple, but the story’s brilliant de­nouement may be its most subversive aspect of all.

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 Women of Futures Past

Women of Futures Past, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Baen 978-1476781617, $16.00, 288pp, trade paperback) 6 September 2016

Kris Rusch is a busy and successful author. For her to doff her comfortable novelist’s cap and don the old green-celluloid editorial eyeshade that she wore so capably during her years editing, first, Pulphouse, and then F&SF, she must have an important mission in mind. And indeed she does. With this fine new anthology she is seeking to perform a number of important tasks simultaneously. She lays out her agenda in a long, articulate, impassioned introduction that would be worth the price of the book all on its own.

First, she is out to correct a demonstrably false narrative which states that for most of their existence the genres of science fiction and fantasy boasted very few female authors—and, at that, a weakling bunch who were mostly neglected, reviled and put-upon—prior to some miraculous, unprecedented flowering of women’s SF/F during the twenty-first century. Second, she is out to remedy the undeniable deficit that does demonstrably exist: that these prolific and capable women writers, having achieved print and popularity, were underrepresented in the reprint anthologies that built the canon. And third, she wants to show that limiting the scope and themes of what women SF writers can tackle, confining them in some kind of domestic corral, is both counterproductive and narrow-minded.

So, building on the work of two scholars who have dealt with these topics—Eric Leif Davin and Justine Larbalestier—as well as employing her own immense familiarity with the field, while also giving due acknowledgement to milestone works by earlier editors like Pamela Sargent, Rusch lays out chapter and verse of how women writers thrived in the field and significantly advanced it prior to the year 2000, and yet were denied due recognition, while also being stereotyped as to range and abilities.

Such historical nescience and/or revisionism is detrimental both to our true consensus understanding of the field, and hurtful to the memories and reputations of the individual authors involved. Any dismantling of such a shoddy superstructure of misconceptions will reveal the solid foundations beneath, and that’s precisely what Rusch’s selection of fine stories achieves.

We open with Zenna Henderson’s “The Indelible Kind,” one of her tales of “the People.” I read this myself in its first zine appearance in 1968, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Not many tales can do that. Henderson’s non-sappy humanism blends quotidian matters with cosmic ones in a perfect ratio.

Anne McCaffrey’s “The Smallest Dragonboy” is set in her Pern universe and reminds me—this is a real compliment—of Rankin and Bass’s Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Certain roots of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series are apparent.

“Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress retains the power that won the author a Nebula for this. The almost vignette-like precision of this tale of alien-human interaction harks back to some of Michael Bishop’s pioneering work in this area.

Pat Cadigan delivers surreal and nighted cyberpunk bravura in “Angel,” where the confused, hurting, yet plucky voice of the narrator is so important. Then comes C. J. Cherryh with “Cassandra,” which strikes me as a kind of lost Harlan Ellison script for a consummate Outer Limits episode.

Maybe it’s my own prejudice and reading history, but I can’t really deem C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” as a forgotten masterpiece. Masterpiece, yes, but it’s always been utterly central and honored in my gestalt of SF. But whether it’s forgotten or revered, it belongs here. Please note Lavie Tidhar’s homage to the tale if you read his Central Station.

In “The Last Days of Shandakor,” Leigh Brackett blends Robert E. Howard primalness with the faerie exoticism of Lord Dunsany in a tale about a dying race and city on “Old Mars.” Her refusal to contrive a happy ending for her protagonist or the inhabitants of Shandakor, while demonstrating that life still goes on despite tragedies, is typical of her depth of sensibility.

In “All Cats Are Gray,” Andre Norton weaves a swift-moving interstellar adventure with an unconventionally “drab” heroine at its center. The happy ending somehow reminds me of Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man.

Lois McMaster Bujold derives a quiet kind of drama from the duties of a recovery team tasked with retrieving dead bodies in “Aftermaths.” Meanwhile, James Tiptree, Jr. morbidly accumulates those same dead bodies in her grimly Greenpeace-ian classic, “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur” is a stirring counterfactual first-person narrative about an unheralded all-woman polar expedition during the early part of the twentieth century. The difficulties are not diminished, nor are the victories and camaraderie slighted. I find one quote from the tale almost emblematic of this whole collection, revealing perhaps any special female slant on the field: “The backside of heroism is often rather sad; women and servants know that. They know also that the heroism may be no less real for that. But achievement is smaller than men think. What is large is the sky, the earth, the sea, the soul.”

We round out the book with Connie Willis and her award-winning “Fire Watch,” about a time-traveler serving a stint during the Blitz of London. Has anyone ever remarked before that this series by Willis is, among many other things, a droll critique of academia, wherein grad students can be justifiably killed?

This book needs to be slotted onto your shelves amongst all the other seminal anthologies that seek to limn the greatness of our field. Its judiciously and intelligently selected table of contents both entertains and instructs. Rusch has done important, masterful work here, and redressed a huge esthetic and moral imbalance.

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 Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor 978-0-7653-7825-5, $24.99, 300pp, hc) August 2016. Cover by Chris McGrath.

Mary Robinette Kowal had her own ways of find­ing gritty truths in the course of her five ‘‘Glam­ourist Histories’’, where the forces of history, and the waywardness of life (and character) shatter the gloss that can make standard Regency Romantic Fantasy seem bland. When she turns to a mixture of spycraft and spiritualism in Ghost Talkers, this apparent standalone is even more brutally direct about the horrific death tolls of Britain’s Great War (World War One), showing its ghosts as they see themselves in their last moments. The first line is stark enough: ‘‘The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died.’’ The medium in charge of this Spirit Circle touches his soul directly and feels this: ‘‘He is leaning against a wall, trying not to look at where his legs used to be…. He blinks, trying to focus, but the world is starting to go grey around the edges.’’

British troops have been conditioned to report back to the medium (intensely aware of them even while ‘‘anchored’’ by mundanes, plus one back-up spiritualist). Though circle members work covertly – posing as genteel ladies running ‘‘hos­pitality huts’’ not all that far from the trenches of France – it’s a demanding form of spycraft in its own right. Ginger, the medium and viewpoint character throughout the book, knows the danger:

Even alternating control, their three-hour shifts were soul-numbing. The sheer number of deaths over the past two weeks had forced all the mediums to go to double shifts, and Ginger was not at all sure how long they could continue that pace. Already one girl had lost her grip on her body. They were keeping her physical form comfortable, in hopes that her soul would find its way back, but it seemed unlikely.

Conditions worsen further, with what may be the first indications that Germany knows about the Corps and is searching for the means to counter or destroy it: a night attack on an encampment where soldiers are sleeping, and the deaths of two officers by what seems to be murder.

When murder victims don’t know who or what killed them, they linger. Two spirits have some connection to the greatest mystery of all: the full nature of the German threat. An intelligence operative who seems to have been killed for what he learned can’t hang on to enough of it to pass on (in either sense of those words). He comes to haunt Ginger, trying to steer her down the path he took to that lost knowledge, even as his essence threatens to slip away – furiously determined to be more than a fading wisp.

His continuing presence leads her to a Front that throngs with post-traumatic stress. For a Sensi­tive, it’s horror: ‘‘memories crowded in with every thundering concussion’’ and ‘‘brimstone-scented air burned with reminders of death.’’ Though the medium’s awareness of emotions in the form of multi-colored auras (vivid throughout the book) might seem to give Ginger an advantage over the ghost beside her, this lets her ‘‘see the emotion, but not understand the reason behind it.’’ While her fondness for stories of Watson and Holmes can’t really help her here, her driving need to understand does yield results – enough to save some lives, but not to stop a war.

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

Rich Horton reviews Short Fiction, September 2016

F&SF 7-8/16
Asimov’s 9/16
Clarkesworld 6/16, 7/16
Lightspeed 8/16
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 7/21/16
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 7/16
Swords v. Cthulhu, Jesse Bullington & Molly Tanzer, eds. (Stone Skin Press) August 2016.

Lavie Tidhar offers perhaps the best novella of the year in the July/August F&SF. ‘‘The Vanishing Kind’’ is set in London in the 1950s, but in an alternate London where the Nazis won WWII, and are in control in England. The narrative strategy is perfect: the tale is told by a shady figure in the British Nazi government whose department keeps an eye on the protagonist, Gunther Sloam, a German screenwriter, who has come to London looking for Ulla, an actress who used to be his lover. He finds her trail hard and depressing to follow: she seems to be implicated in prostitution and drug-dealing, and along the way Gunther finds himself suspected of murder, and dealing with lowlifes, criminals, and even Jews, who are supposed to have been eradicated. The twists mount, and his quest leads him to a very dark place…. This is beautifully executed, capturing the noir style in pitch-perfect fashion, telling an exciting story while revealing pointed details of occupied British life, and resolving with the perfect cynical note.

In the August Asimov’s, James Alan Gardner’s ‘‘The Mutants Men Don’t See’’ posits a particular means of genesis for superheroes: those who have the Spark gene suddenly develop powers if stressed enough during adolescence – something to do with wildly fluctuating hor­mones. Of course, not everyone has the gene, and teenagers being teenagers, those that want to become superheroes sometimes take terrible risks hoping to scare themselves into Sparking – and those without the gene often just die. Ellie has a teenaged son, and she is terribly afraid he’ll try something stupid in hopes of Sparking, so she tries to protect him…. It’s often a funny story, but also a wise one, with an ending that is easy to see coming, but satisfyingly so.

‘‘President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut’’, by Sandra McDonald, is a moving story set in a future ravaged by climate change. Pera lives with her mother and younger brother on a boat – an old amphibious ‘‘duck.’’ Their current job is taking an old man to a spot in the ocean: he claims that it’s the location of the old Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy, where an alien artifact Kennedy found on the Moon has been hidden. He wants to recover it and the alien secrets it holds, but there are problems: two different ‘‘worst daughters,’’ for example, and a storm, and, to be sure, very plausible doubts about the old man’s wild stories about JFK’s astronaut career, not to mention his affair with Marilyn Manson, etc. Whatever the truth behind all that, the story works in evoking the wonder and the lost dreams of space travel.

The June Clarkesworld opens with a fine story by Margaret Ronald, ‘‘And Then, One Day, the Air Was Full of Voices’’, told by a researcher at an academic conference devoted to understanding the broadcasts from a star in Corona Borealis. It seems the broadcasts have ended, because the alien civilization has collapsed. The story sug­gests that the human response has been despair on the one hand, and loss of interest on the other hand – I admit I wasn’t quite sold on the extreme nature of the working out of both responses. But the more central part of the story movingly reflects on the key point of communication with aliens: ‘‘we are not alone’’ – and it suggests that we remember that indeed, we are not alone.

Sam J. Miller’s ‘‘Things With Beards’’ riffs on a rather scarier story about a form of alien contact, a story that has been successfully riffed on before, both in movies and an excellent recent Peter Watts tale. The title tells you which story, right? And hints at what Miller is doing, quite ambitiously, as his protagonist, a somewhat closeted gay man in the early ’80s, on returning from the Antarctic at the onset of the AIDS crisis, engages with a protest movement against police violence, and wonders what is happening to him when he forgets hours at a time. It’s interesting to see Miller using the metaphor of a shape-changing alien monster so bravely. It’s a worthwhile story to read, though in the end, I thought, not quite successful.

I should mention one other story, ‘‘The Snow of Jinyang’’ by Zhang Ran, if partly just for its loopiness. This appears at first to be a steampunk story set in China in the 10th century, complete with mechanically transmitted Internet and steam automobiles and lots of somewhat silly puns using present-day technical terms in something like a 10th-century context. It turns out to be another genre – Lest Darkness Fall, pretty much – with a more cynical edge, as a young man, an Internet gadfly, gets embroiled in events surrounding the siege of Jinyang and the mysterious Prince who is using marvelous inventions to prolong it – perhaps too long! This isn’t a great story, but it’s entertaining, different, and, as I said, rather loopy.

Clarkesworld’s July issue isn’t as good, with a set of decent but not great stories, the best of which is probably Chinese writer A Que’s ‘‘Against the Stream’’, about a man who begins to travel backwards in time, reliving his life in reverse, helping him understand what went wrong with his marriage, and offering him the hope of fixing it all if he can only reverse his condition. The conclusion is honest, but a bit pat.

In the August Lightspeed, I enjoyed Jeremiah Tolbert’s ‘‘Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus’’, set in a somewhat climate-altered near-future Kansas City. The narrator is an ac­countant who once dreamed of being a chef, but now sublimates his ambitions to sampling food trucks. He runs into a guy he’d met at a cooking class long before, and ends up with an invitation to the Food Truck Circus, a not-quite-legal gathering where some truly wild food is offered (like modi­fied tapeworms, that taste good and also consume some of the extra calories you’re ingesting). The plot is a bit slight, mainly concerning the ways the Circus discourages spies, and the resolution, if sensible, comes off a bit flat, but the story is amusing and the food ideas are fun.

Adam-Troy Castro’s ‘‘The Assassin’s Secret’’ is amusing as well, a slightly over the top tale of the world’s greatest assassin, who can kill with a stroke of his pen. Castro has a fair amount of fun describing his way of life, and his ways of death, but the center of the story is how the assassin deals with those who come asking for his services, and in particular the one secret he holds.

One of the reprints is worth mentioning as well: ‘‘The War of Heroes’’ by Kameron Hurley, which first appeared on her Patreon page this year. Yousra is a woman on a planet ravaged by invading ‘‘Heroes,’’ who ends up on something of a quest, eventually learning something of the Heroes’ mo­tivation, and being offered a terrible choice. The story is effectively very weird – true SF but truly strange – and it has a deeply felt moral core.

In Beneath Ceaseless Skies for July 21, I liked a predictably exotic and violent and imaginative story from Benjanun Sriduangkaew, ‘‘Under She Who Devours Suns’’. Melishem returns to her birth-city, Tessellated Talyut, looking for her rival and friend, Sikata, only to find that she has died defending the city. So Melishem resurrects her – an ambiguous benefit – and tries to restore her memory and skills, for reasons that remain a bit obscure. The story is outwardly about the two women as warriors, and the telling focuses as well on pure strangeness, but at its true heart it is about friendship and love and duty.

The new issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet features a fine, quiet sort of horror story, ‘‘Recursion’’ by Michelle Podsiedlik. A woman is visiting the mountain town where her brother had lived, for his funeral after his death in a fire. She unburdens herself to a man in the hotel bar, telling of her brother and his interest in this town and in particular its history, which began with an asylum… and things get more disquieting, even creepy, as her brother’s history and obsessions become clearer.

I’m not really that into Lovecraftian horror but Swords v. Cthulhu seemed to offer a bit more ac­tion, maybe a bit less cosmic despair, than usual, so I looked into it. It’s fair to say there’s still some cosmic despair on offer, but plenty of action, and a fair bit of fun. I particularly liked a couple of stories. Jeremiah Tolbert’s ‘‘The Dreamers of Alamoi’’, in which the madman Garen the Un­dreaming, who never sleeps and has a soul in shards as a result, is engaged by a brother and sister to go to Alamoi, where everyone who gets too close is mentally ensnared to work on a massive edifice, is good fun. The best thing about this, though, is Garen’s character. Caleb Wilson’s ‘‘Bow Down Before the Snail King!’’ is a strong, strange story, in which a certain courtier named Loron has heard of a treasure ‘‘hidden in the south.’’ The king assigns a small group led by Charop the Strategist, with the help of Ichneumon the Weird, to lead Loron to the treasure. Loron has his own plans – but so too does the Snail King! Again, it’s the main characters, the rather dour Charop and the truly weird Ichneumon, that make the story: I particularly liked the magic system portrayed, and the consequences of misusing it.

Recommended Stories

‘‘The Mutants Men Don’t See’’, James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s 8/16)

‘‘The War of Heroes’’, Kameron Hurley (Lightspeed 8/16; Patreon)

‘‘President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut’’, Sandra McDonald (Asimov’s 8/16)

‘‘Things with Beards’’, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 6/16)

‘‘Recursion’’, Michelle Podsiedlik (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 7/16)

‘‘And Then, One Day, the Air Was Full of Voices’’, Margaret Ronald (Clarkesworld 6/16)

‘‘Under She Who Devours Suns’’, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 7/21/16)

‘‘The Vanishing Kind’’, Lavie Tidhar (F&SF 7-8/16)

‘‘The Dreamers of Alamoi’’, Jeremiah Tolbert (Swords v. Cthulhu)

‘‘Bow Down Before the Snail King!’’, Caleb Wilson (Swords v. Cthulhu)

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville (Del Rey 978-0-345-54399-8, $25.00, 208pp, hc) August 2016.

You’d think that Surrealism and genre fan­tasy would have developed a more cordial relationship during the century or so that both have been distinct forms, but that hasn’t ex­actly been the case. The handful of novels usually associated with the Surrealist movement – Bret­on’s Nadja, de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Coates’s The Eater of Darkness – have barely made the radar of most fantasy readers, and a few (like the Coates) have nearly disappeared altogether. And when SF or fantasy writers have ventured into the territory of the movement itself, as with Lisa Goldstein’s underappreciated The Dream Years, the approach has largely been historical, featur­ing the artists as characters rather than trying to adapt their admittedly rather chaotic methods (although Nalo Hopkinson comes close in her surrealist YA novel The Chaos). One reason may be that the dreamlike imagery doesn’t lend itself very well to things like plots, and another might be that the sort of pop Freudianism that so often accompanied that wonderful imagery seems a bit archaic and naive by more recent standards. As modern fantasy becomes more politically complex, though, there’s one aspect of Surreal­ism that seems as relevant as ever – namely its resolutely anti-bourgeois revolutionary aspect, which Goldstein did touch upon in linking the 1920s Surrealists with the Paris student upris­ings of 1968.

These thoughts are occasioned by China Miéville’s new novella The Last Days of New Paris, which makes brilliant use of both the political and imagistic aspects of Surrealism – he even has creatures from Surrealist paintings and collages stomping around the Paris of 1950, while featuring a whole panoply of historical Sur­realists in an alternate timeline which switches between the Vichy France of 1941 and a 1950 in which the Nazi occupation is still going on. Miéville, whose own imagery has perhaps made more effective use of surreal effects than that of any other contemporary writer, seems fully in his element here – in an old Locus interview, he claimed that ‘‘the high point of fantasy is the Surrealists – which is a tradition I’ve read obses­sively, and am a huge fan of, and see myself as a product of the ‘pulp wing’ of the Surrealists.’’ His tale certainly fits that description – an odd but effective combination of meticulous historical research and the sort of bizarre fireworks that many readers (rather missing the point) found absent in his earlier This Census-Taker. Like that novella, The Last Days of New Paris has a revolutionary political subtext, but it’s much less of a subtext here.

Miéville frames his dual tale with a Borges-like Afterword in which he claims to have learned of these events from a mysterious stranger in London, but even this ends with a waggish image of a man watching him in a restaurant, but ‘‘an apple blocked my view of the man’s face’’ – a pretty direct allusion to one of Magritte’s most famous paintings. The story itself begins with a much less familiar Surrealist drawing, Leonora Carrington’s ‘‘The Amateur of Velocipedes’’, with a female figure apparently extruded from the front of a bicycle, come to life as it storms a barricade under Nazi fire. This is witnessed by Thibaut, a member of the Surrealist resistance who becomes our point of view figure in the 1950 narrative. The central mystery of this part of the story is set up when the woman riding the veloci­pede, dying from the Nazi gunshots, hands him a playing card and scrawls the words FALL ROT on the pavement stones. We learn of an ‘‘S-Blast’’ nine years earlier, after which Paris is haunted by ‘‘manifs,’’ real-life manifestations of Surrealist images (including one of the collages called the Exquisite Corpse and Max Ernst’s painting The Elephant Celebes) – although the Nazis are at­tempting to counter this by summoning demons of their own, including absurd figures from actual Nazi kitsch ‘‘art.’’

Then the narrative shifts back to 1941, and the events leading up to the S-Blast. Here the first figure we meet is Varian Fry, who, like nearly all the characters in this part of the narrative, is an actual historical figure, whose Emergency Rescue Committee helped thousands, largely intellectuals and artists (including some key Surrealists), escape Nazi-occupied France into Spain and Portugal. (An odd personal note here: I knew a woman who worked with Fry and who helped Walter Benjamin escape, and she once told me of Fry’s chronic guilt over his committee’s focus on cultural figures rather than ordinary citizens – a guilt which Miéville describes in almost exactly the same terms, whether from careful research or novelistic insight.) Fry is ap­proached by another figure whose real-life story sounds like something that might well have been invented by Miéville or Pynchon (who also gets a couple of nods in the novella): Jack Parsons, an American rocket engineer (he helped found JPL) who, bizarrely, was associated with both Aleister Crowley and later L. Ron Hubbard. Almost as unlikely – though just as real – was the Chicago socialite Mary Jayne Gould, living in Paris at the time of the occupation, who also joined Fry’s cause. Parsons’s involvement with the Surrealists eventually leads to the construction of a mysteri­ous box which, we are led to understand, results in the cataclysmic S-Blast which presumably leads to the radically re-ordered reality of the ‘‘new Paris.’’ Along the way, we meet a wide variety of Surrealists, some with little more than walk-on roles, but Miéville is particularly attentive to the less-celebrated women artists who were crucial to the movement, such as Car­rington, Ithell Colquhoun, Toyen, and Grace Pailthorpe. There are moments when one gets the sense that The Last Days of New Paris tries to pack in all the detailed study of Surrealism that Miéville has been saving up for years, but its vision of, as one photographer character puts it, ‘‘a city where art hunts,’’ is as vivid a portrayal of the disruptive and revolutionary nature of art as I’ve seen in quite a while.

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John Langan reviews Christopher Buehlman

The Suicide Motor Club, Christopher Buehl­man (Berkley 978-1101988732, $26.00, 368pp, hc) June 2016.

The Suicide Motor Club, the new novel from Christopher Buehlman, is a lean, mean, souped-up, eight cylinder, four-speed race car of a book. It begins at high speed, with Judith Lamb, the protagonist, in a car with her husband and five-year-old son. The year is 1967, and the Lamb family is driving east through New Mexico, on their way home from a wild west-themed vaca­tion. Without warning, the family is flanked by a fast, black car, one of whose passengers reaches between the moving vehicles to snatch their son from the back seat. As Judith fights a losing battle to hold onto her son, she sees that the men and woman in the car beside her are deathly pale, their mouths bristling with sharp teeth. Once her son is in the black car, it pulls away, leaving a second car which has approached from behind to nudge the Lambs’s car into a rolling wreck. The accident mortally injures Judith’s husband, and though she escapes serious hurt herself, she is left widowed and bereft of her son, no trace of whom can be found. Eventually, she decides to seek solace by taking holy orders at a convent in Ohio.

Judith’s story at a temporary pause, the narra­tive now shifts point of view to a series of women and men who have their own brief, fatal encoun­ters with the men and woman who destroyed Judith’s family. As her vision of them suggested, they are vampires. These are the monsters of tradi­tion: predatory, malevolent, difficult to kill. They travel the highways and byways of the country by night, never stopping in one place for too long, lest they drawn attention to themselves. Most of the people the vampires meet immediately suc­cumb to their glamour, allowing the creatures to separate their intended victims from any friends or family, and also to plant in the memories of those left behind a different version of events, one from which the vampires are absent. To further cover their tracks, the vampires stage their murders to resemble suicides, which, combined with the fast cars that are their preferred mode of travel, gives the book its title.

All of this Judith learns not long after she has entered the convent, when she is visited by a man who identifies himself as a member of a group called the Bereaved. He has sought her out to tell her that her family was taken from her by vampires and to ask her for her help in destroying them. She agrees on the spot, and in short order has departed the convent with the man, on her way to join a small group of men who have dedicated themselves to the defeat of the creatures who killed their own loved ones.

From here, the narrative hurtles headlong towards the confrontation between Judith and her fellows in the Bereaved and the Suicide Mo­tor Club. Writing a prose that is simultaneously stripped down and lyrical, Buehlman guides the story towards a thrilling, fiery climax. In many ways, this novel is built to the model of the sum­mer blockbuster: a plot based in a conflict between good and evil, shifts among multiple points of view, characters who exhibit above-average competency in their respective (and necessary) skills, dramatic and decisive action. But Buehl­man invests this familiar structure with depth and resonance, creating compelling characters whose fates matter to the reader. This is the case with Jude, but also with Luther Nixon, the leader of the vampires, who is given a trio of monologues that take him beyond cardboard cutout to a vil­lain of some texture and complexity. In addition, Buehlman uses the novel’s late-sixties setting as more than window dressing (not to mention a convenient way to avoid the narrative challenges posed by the age of cellphones and the Internet). His vampires insert themselves into the cultural discourses of the time, using them as camouflage for their intentions. Not to mention the fact that his choice of Luther Nixon’s last name is hardly innocent.

There’s a consonance between this novel and Buehlman’s previous book, the excellent The Lesser Dead. Both books concern vampires who are imagined in pretty much the same way; in­deed, there’s a brief reference to the earlier novel in this one. (Interestingly, both novels present vampires who are members of the lower class.) They’re a welcome rejoinder to the assorted Dogme 95-style prohibitions against the use of such traditional horror figures. Indeed, the only substantial complaint about The Suicide Motor Club that can be made is that it ends on a cliff-hanger, the first of what appears to be at least a two-book series. No matter: there is plenty here to enjoy in the meantime.

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Russell Letson reviews Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks, Charles Stross (Ace 978-0-425281-192, $27.00, 385pp, hc) June 2016. Cover by Larry Rostant.

This month’s theme might be horror and the horrific, with the subtheme ‘‘Why am I reading horror when I usually don’t much care for it?’’ Of course, none of the books under consideration here are entirely or even ‘‘really’’ horror, no matter how extensively and elaborately concerned with horrific events, hauntings, or monstrous characters they might be. But this is a matter that has been nagging at me for a long time and it’s an itch I feel the need to scratch.

What, I keep wondering, lurks behind the horrors that drive these books? What do they deliver beyond mere thrills or sensations? Is there, in fact, ever a ‘‘mere thriller’’ without some underlying anxiety or primal dread – of falling, maiming, powerlessness, entrapment, the dark – the primal fears behind carnival rides and haunted houses? Why devise imagi­nary, often supernatural horrors when the history books are filled with actual events and practices every bit as bowel-liquefying and nightmare-inducing as anything on the fiction shelves?

And why, for godsake, would I read the made-up stuff? When I was researching late-19th-to-early-20th-century supernatural-scary material in grad school, it became clear that what did not make metaphysical claims (lit­eral or allegorical) was actually confronting psychological issues – that is, some species of symbolically encoded anxiety or fear or pathol­ogy. There’s no reason not to apply that to the likes of Charles Stross or Neal Asher. What’s really lurking down in the basements of their stories? What do the Laundry’s eldritch terrors stand for? What do the Prador or runamok artificial intelligences say about the world we see on the news?

But to business: Charles Stross’s Laundry series belongs to a long line of attempts to rationalize or otherwise repackage and do­mesticate the supernatural (whether horrific or merely strange-and-fantastical), going back to Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, and other occult detectives (paleo-Ghostbusters), through John Campbell’s Unknown, right up to the current Marvel comics/movies superhero universe(s). The offspring of these cousin marriages in the fantastic-fiction family include all man­ner of sexy vampires, steampunk zombies, elven cops, secret warlock societies, magical boarding schools, fallen-angel detectives, and every other possible hybrid creature capable of sustaining some intersectional genre identity.

The Nightmare Stacks is a direct sequel to The Rhesus Chart, which added vampires to the Laundry universe’s roster of spooky threats – bureaucratically redesignated (since vampires officially and emphatically Do Not Exist, and because, well, bureaucracy) as individuals suffering from PHANG (Photo­golic Hemophagic Atypical Neuroectodermal Gangrene) syndrome. Following the extensive unpleasantness that climaxed The Rhesus Chart, investment-banking-quant-turned-bloodsucker Alex Schwartz has been drafted into the Laundry’s ranks, and before he can complete his training he finds himself at the center of the next supernatural incursion to roll through England’s green & pleasant: an invasion of magic-wielding, imperialist elves from another dimension. Actually, multiple viewpoints contribute to the fiction that the book is Alex’s final report on this episode, compiled by him from various sources: his own Laundry-mandated diary, a close-third-person view from the invading-forces side, and various reconstructions by an omniscient narrator with a voice that often sounds more like Stross’s than Alex’s.

Previous Laundry stories have mixed their horror ingredients with homages to classic intrigue-thriller writers, exemplars, and modes (John le Carré, Anthony Price, superhero com­ics and movies), and this one eventually takes a turn toward the techno-thriller, all military acronyms and equipment specifications and model numbers, along with the command structures of human and elven armies. But there’s another convention-set operating here. Alex’s life outside the Laundry operates in a very rom-com/Britcom-ish mode, featuring the protagonist-as-nebbish. Alex was isolated, socially awkward, and romantically inexperi­enced even before his PHANGish condition made everything complicated and impossible to explain to outsiders. (Really impossible, given the blood oaths and geases governing his employment.) When he does finally Meet Cute with an attractive and interested young woman, the object of his romantic ambitions has her own problems, what with her day job as soul-stealing spy from a dimension where dating is as foreign an idea as free will or not murdering rival family members.

This side of the book is crowned by a family Sunday dinner from hell (ordinary domestic secular-materialist variety): Alex with his becostumed and oddly mannered girlfriend-equivalent, his younger sister with her new light-o’-love, Dad well down the gin & tonic rabbit-hole, and Mother too shellshocked by her kids’ dates to properly monitor the roast or defrost the frozen veg. They’re so rattled and disoriented that the pointy-eared fairy-spy/girlfriend who is calling herself ‘‘Cassie’’ can get away with telling the truth about her appearance:

‘‘I’m a princess-assassin of the Unseelie Court!… Not human, not even slightly hu­man. So of course I’m weird and I make horrible social blunders when I try to pass for human! Faux pas is my middle name and I don’t understand human mores at all!… I am sorry for your discombobulation! We’re going to a fancy-dress party later,’’ she confides.

It may or may not help when she adds that ‘‘Alex stole a Nazi half-track motorcycle from a mad scientist he knows through work!’’ Alex (and perhaps the reader) is almost relieved when this rolling social disaster is interrupted by the beginning of the book’s climactic con­frontation with Cassie’s terrifying dad and stepmom and their army of death-dealing, blood-drinking sorcerers and fire-breathing air force. (The last detail is not a spoiler – the cover illustration gives it away, along with the role of the Nazi half-track.)

That confrontation is an all-out military campaign, a blitzkrieg attack carried out by a desperate but confident and deadly competent horde that expects to sweep across a magically underdefended land occupied by peasants and unprepared magi. And they’re almost right, which means that while the Laundry scrambles to find the resources and personnel to respond, the invaders cut a swath of eyeball-melting, head-exploding carnage right across the heart of England’s north country, described in enough detail to remind the reader what the armature of this series remains.

Stross’s manic, very verbal, and generally very funny re-encoding of the conventions of supernatural horror feels like an attempt to hold Something at arm’s length – to domesticate, rationalize, encyst, or cushion the raw material of terror and fear; to embed it in a seriocomic adventure in which our viewpoint character and a few others survive the carnage. (Though, to be fair, that viewpoint does not entirely turn away from the nasty fates of named-and-seen characters. Even nameless horrors can be wit­nessed and detailed.) Stross’s long-unpublished first novel, Scratch Monkey, gives a more direct look at that Something, and I can’t think of a better way of saying what I wrote back then, so I’ll just plagiarize myself: ‘‘It’s a dark, painful story made bearable by the intensity of Stross’s intelligence and the strength of his writing, as though understanding and clear vision and wordcraft could compensate for the pain of seeing what is seen.’’ The comedy and the outcome keep this from being as dire and bleak a book, but it is haunted by some of the same demons.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Michael Swanwick

Not So Much, Said the Cat, by Michael Swanwick (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-228-9, $15.95, 285pp, trade paperback) August 2016

Mostly unremarked, this year signifies the thirty-sixth anniversary of Michael Swanwick’s first story sale, in Robert Silverberg’s anthology New Dimensions 11. The astonishing array of high-quality tales he has graced the world with since then would constitute a sufficiency for most writers. But the damn thing is, nearly forty years into his career he is still working at the top of his game. Not many authors can say that.

With a new novel in the works—The Iron Dragon’s Mother—and an ongoing series of stories at—the “Mongolian Wizard” saga—Swanwick has still found time to compile a new collection for us, consisting of some seventeen stories that first saw the light of day between 2008 and 2014.

His entertaining and touching autobiographical introduction fittingly looks backwards at this embryonic stage of his existence, and reflects on the start of his professional writing life and a few intermediate quantum leaps of skill. Then he mentions an attitude he had toward the genre, when he was first getting acquainted with all its stellar practitioners: “I read science fiction as if it had all been written by a single genius possessed of an impossible variety of styles and interests.” This is the key to the stories that follow (and to the fact that Swanwick, debuting during the fabled cyberpunk-humanist rivalry, could never be categorized definitively as one or the other). Swanwick is still striving to embody every good thing SF does, all its modes and styles, themes and tropes, in his one lifetime. This makes for a highly pleasing variety in his tales.

Here are the briefest of thoughts and observations on the outstanding table of contents.

“The Man in Grey” is a riff on the famous solipsistic notion of existence as found in previous outings by Heinlein, Leiber and Dick. But Swanwick uses the trope to examine issues of free will as well.

The notion that the future might in some ways come to resemble older periods of myth has been around at least since the New Wave (calling Delany, Moorcock and Zelazny!) and probably in some earlier post-apocalypse tales as well. Swanwick utilizes this fairy-tale future ambiance to good effect in “The Dala Horse,” which finds our heroine on a dangerous pilgrimage beset by trolls.

A trace of Brian Aldiss’s A.I. informs “The Scarecrow’s Boy,” wherein a robot and a young refugee interact. Say the words “alien autopsy” and I’m hooked. So “Passage of Earth” entertained me well. Perhaps the slightest tale here, though not without merit, is “3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar,” about the last night of civilization.

Every writer at one time or another has to follow in Dante’s footsteps and venture into literal Hell. Tim Powers did so recently, and Swanwick’s voyage to the netherworld, “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown,” ranks up with that entry, as we watch loyal daughter Su-yin attempt to rescue her unworthy father. A tragic love affair interlinked with a scientific paradigm shift fills the compact pages of “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” nearly to bursting.

A historical setting and Swanwick’s love of James Branch Cabell informs the amusing “Goblin Lake.” The opening sentence of “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” is quite memorable: “Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound.” From there, we encounter a sentient spacesuit and other wonders.

“For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” takes all the fraught terrors and beauty of Irish history and ports them 200 years into the future. In all likelihood, “Libertarian Russia” is my favorite tale here, rivalling Bruce Sterling at his own realpolitik, hip, culture-jamming best. And I need only mention the names Surplus and Darger as stars of “Tawny Petticoats” to alert you to the manifold joys of a fresh entry in that series.

Employing a nicely innovative format of all-dialogue, “Steadfast Castle” gambols about freshly with the trope of the sentient house, seen everywhere from Ray Bradbury to The Simpsons. Borgesian counterfactuality is the mode of “Pushkin the American,” while slippage across dimensions is the MacGuffin of one man’s melancholia in “An Empty House with Many Doors.” Swanwick pulls off a particularly good homage to Gene Wolfe in “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin.” And finally, an early German work of prose gets conflated with a modern existential drama in “The House of Dreams.”

All in all, as variegated and smart and ecstatic a ride as you can get from SF these days.

Ultimately, I think what strikes me most forcefully about Swanwick’s fiction, aside from his fresh yet historically resonant conceits, is its elegance and economy. Per the definition of the perfect short story, not a word is extraneous or wasted, not one element of plot inessential. The maximum effects are achieved with the minimum of prose.

And that is an esthetic bullseye which can accommodate an infinite number of subjects and themes, and which an artist can aim for over and over again, during all of his or her career, upping his lifetime score even with a few misses here and there.

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.

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