Category Archives: fairies

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

Nebula Nominees: Ironskin

Retellings of Gothic and/or Romantic classics in this here age of the happy ending are fraught with dangers. Plucky girls are given pluck and beauty, in defiance of people who are oh so jealous of them, and not much else; growling, terrible, inhuman assholes like Rochester and Heathcliff are neutered down to lapdogs like Edward Cullen; and the very worst of all: everything works out in the end. There should be fire and death and blood on the moors. Which is not to say that Jane Eyre, from which Ironskinwas heavily cribbed, doesn’t work out in some ways, just that the ways it works out aren’t facile natterings about Jane’s plainness. 

But, before I let my irritation get the best of me, let me back up. I read this because I’d idly picked it up off a library display last week, and just a few days later, learned it was one of the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Award. I have an equally idle thought of reading (or attempting to read) all of the five before May, but I know my track record when I assign myself homework, i.e. not good. 

Ironskinstarts credibly enough, with a war-damaged Jane Eyre Eliot starting her employ as governess for daughter of the growling and elusive Mr. Rochart. Helen Burns is transformed into Jane’s sister Helen, a sort of Holly Golightly ingenue type. Jane herself isn’t a battered, abused orphan, but a girl who was scarred late in the Great War, a WWI analog, but with the fey this time instead of Germans. Having written all that out, I’m impressed I didn’t dash this book down in the first pages, because put baldly, all of that sucks. (I mean, Jane had a brother Charlie? Bah.) 

All of this, of course, being the problem of being too closely hitched to the Jane Eyre plot, because the first half is decent if you ignore the intertext. I liked the just-after-the-war vibe, all that Lost Generation desperation. I’m maybe not as excited about Jane’s wounded face, impregnated with a leaking fey curse that must be covered with a mask; it felt too much like using an acquired disability as metaphor. Or, that’s not really fair, because Jane’s curse is dealt with okay in the first half. The curse is anger that leaks and affects those around her, and as someone whose main character flaw may be wrath, I appreciated how pissed Jane was, how she struggled with positioning her masks and calming the fires within. 

Jane’s charge is also fey-cursed, but uniquely so: whole-bodied, but with strange, unnatural gifts. Rochart is some kind of artist, always vanished into his tower, and altogether a watered down version of the Romantic psycho. All of the requisite myths are hat-tipped: Bluebeard, Tam Lin, Beauty & the Beast. At a certain point the plot diverges from Jane Eyre though, centering on some high society hijinks and the desire by silly women to be beautiful at all costs, costs that include being a Trojan horse for the fey. Even our plain Jane gets in on the superficiality, but desiring only to be “normal”, not beautiful, because she’s, you know, ennobled by suffering and all that. Rochart feels all bad about his part in the fey business, but it wasn’t really his fault because reasons. 

Jesus, is this what we’re taking from Jane Eyre today? That how women look & their facile desire to be beautiful is a threat to the entire human race? That Rochester was luggage in the thrall of fey beauty – boo hoo I know not what I did? Rochester was an asshole and Jane loved him, and even though both of these things were true, she walked away from him. She was a fiercely moral creature who suffered because of her morality, because love is a bitch goddess who can set your heart for assholes, and not because she was plain to look upon. Godamn does this ending piss me off. 

I think the thing that really gets me is that this whole mess had potential, and I do like how Connolly writes. This Jane’s mid-book revelations about how to manage her anger felt true to me, as did how she worked with her charge. Look, I know much of my anger is about my Jane Eyre, and my feelings of ownership over that text are probably unfair. (Though, of course, comparisons are invited by the obvious intertext; that’s the Faustian deal you make when you hitch your cart to the Romantic wagon.) But even stripping out my irritation with the use of my Jane, all this mask and beauty business was sloppy, badly considered stuff, with a lot of shitty implications if you think about it for, like, 15 seconds. Probably not getting my vote for the Nebula, not that I have one. 

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

Review: Iced by Karen Marie Moning

I’ll give you the take-home before I write this review, because I might get bored and wander off: Dani O’Malley is the Scrappy Doo of the Feververse. Which makes her the Dawn Summers, Jar Jar Binks, or Wesley Crusher of this franchise, if you lack familiarity with the buzzkill that is Scrappy Doo. 

I wanted to give my read of Icedby Karen Marie Moning the most auspicious reading environment possible, so I waited until I was good and sick with a cold that has surely done something terrible and permanent to my lungs to start reading. I hated the crap out of the opening of Darkfeverwhen I read it in full health, and it was only after being softened up by illness that I was able to stop hating Moning’s writing tics and Mac’s voice long enough to get into the story. Darkfeverended up being a solid read for me, definitely not the best thing I’d ever read or anything, but interesting enough to hook me into reading book two. 

Which is when I went completely insane with TEH FEVER and spent some of the most enjoyable lost Sundays of my reading life freaking out about Mac and Barrons and the increasing stakes and deepening darkness of the Fever world. Moning’s got some stones in that series, pitching a full scale armageddon into the third (I think) book, raining death and destruction down on our little attack Barbie, building a complicated mythos, and kicking ass while chewing bubblegum.

Girl-pulp has never especially been my thing, but the Fever books had my number. I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything like MacKayla Lane – had I known her in high school, I would have written evil shit about her in my journal while sitting friendless in the library – but older me certainly appreciated her difficult transformations from helpless bobble-head to someone who managed to be both girlish and powerful. Plus, the Fever books managed to tackle issues of sexuality and trauma in a way I think girl-pulp is essentially attuned to, but usually cocks up because of wish fulfillment or chicken shitting out or something. 

Point being, I knew Dani from the Fever books. I knew how much she bugged the ever-loving fuck out of me. And I knew my shabby track record with book ones of series by Ms. Moning. (I see I have failed to mention that I tried to read the first of her Highlander books and fell asleep with the effort; reheated Outlanderwithout the historical research being the elevator pitch.) I knew I would do better to read this in an uncritical and infected frame of mind, which I duly did. Alas, friends, I think I would have had to have been a lot sicker to have enjoyed this book. Sicker being the operative word. 

Dani O’Malley is living in a post-fae-mageddon Dublin, a parentless street-kid fourteen who is simultaneously pretending to worldliness and younger than her years. Her voice is greatly toned down from her sections in the Fever books, which is fecking good news, because there is absolutely no way I could have taken 400+ pages of that. But it brings me to my first real problem: why in the sam hell do we have a protagonist in a romance series who is fourteen years old

I did a quick check, because I’m anal that way, and I see a notable number of people have shelved this on their “young-adult” or “ya” shelves on Goodreads. Setting aside the fact that the author herself has stated this book is for grown-ups – authorial intent only goes so far with me, and for the thousands of teens that are going to read this book anyway, classifications be damned – for many folk, age of the protagonist is the defining characteristic of young adult literature. And Dani is this obnoxious spaz, literally hyperactive with her ability to move at superhuman speeds: the unkillable, unstoppable force of adolescence. All of her damaged narrator stuff could totally work as a young adult narrative, what with the whole coming to terms with both childhood and childlike cruelty and abuse angle, blahblah blah. 

But for me, it’s not so much the age of the protagonist as the sensibility of the writing, and I firmly believe that that sensibility is pretty well fucked in this book. It’s a pretty standard device of the romance novel to have the protagonist not understand her own desirability, running conversations where dude looks at her with eyes darkened with desire, and she cluelessly wonders, do I have something on my face? (Sookie fucking Stackhouse is the reigning champ of this, despite her alleged psychic powers.) That happens one billion times in this novel, sometimes from point of view sections from dude composing odes to the rigid cock Dani gives him. I’m sorry, what? Come again? No, wait, don’t, because that’s totally fucking gross. Fourteen years old.

It’s not that I don’t think 14 year olds don’t have sexualities. I kissed my first boy at 14, and listened to friends report much more, um, adult interactions at that age. It’s not that I even think that sex or cussing don’t have a place in young adult literature. But I do not like this 14 year old romance heroine in this world of pedophile sex clubs – she keeps thinking back on a club at Chester’s that she zoomed through where the working girls were all dressed in little girl costumes while the customers had their explicit way – a romance heroine who is chained up, stripped to her underpants which are described in detail; a romance heroine who at one point wakes up in a bed with a naked dead woman who was literally fucked to death; a romance heroine who, in an almost laughably cliche section, almost succumbs to hypothermia and must be gotten nude with not one but two dudes whose erections are described as they warm her back to life. This is not young adult content. This is adult content, and I find it alarming in the extreme that 1) I am to identify with Dani as a romance proxy and 2) I’m to find any of this sexy at all. 

I’m not going to entertain arguments that Dani is somehow older than her years because she’s had a traumatic childhood. Her sections are solidly first person, and my impression of her internal age is even younger than 14: the invincibility, the obsession with candy, her childish conceptualization of her relationships (hers with Dancer being the most ridiculous, imao). So an abused child can make herself dinner; that doesn’t mean she’s an adult. That means she’s surviving, and just barely. I’ve even seen apologia that posit that because in “traditional” cultures, women would be married with children at 14, this makes all the penis-rubbing on Dani okay. This makes my head explode with rage. This is an adult book for modern adult readers and that we should find all this sexualization of a character who by her own fucking admission doesn’t get what’s going on around her acceptable is fucking sick. Just, fuck, I hate that I’m even talking about this at all. 

Whether this book is young adult or not, it grosses me out that I’m thinking more about the state of the erect penises around Dani than I am about the very real fucking emotional trauma of her childhood and existence. She was kept in a cage as a child, for chrissakes, and it sicks me right out that I’m obviously supposed to be speculating more about which of the three – count them, three – dudes might finally slip her some dick than I am about how obviously fucked up she is as a person, as a child, and as a nascent woman. God. As either young adult or adult literature, that’s a major fail. And given how well Moning handled Mac’s grief for her sister, despite Barrons walking around like sex-on-a-stick for ages, it feels like a bigger fail. 

Now, that I’ve worked myself up to a froth, back to Scrappy Doo. I think I might have handled all of these pedobear stylins better if there were a story here I gave a shit about, something with emotional weight and teeth. Much as I love Scooby Doo, the reluctant dog detective angle here in Icedis both half-assed and boring: Dani’s trying to figure out how and why parts of Dublin are getting flash-frozen and then exploding. Nothing much happens with this for hundreds of pages, short of Dani coming up against some penises and trying to find candy bars. Mac bugged the shit out of me in Darkfever, but her quest for her sister’s killer felt like something emotionally real, while here it just felt like Dani yelling lemmee at ‘em, I’ll splat ‘em, but without direction, as this long, obnoxious avoidance of real traumas. 

Given the last scene (which is far too spoiler to detail), maybe that’s what Moning is going for – a narrative calculated to show the avoidance mechanisms of trauma – but, if that is true, she’s done a helluva job pissing me off and screwing around before she gets to that in the next book. I’m not saying that ending was a cliffhanger – certainly not the kind of cliffhanger I grudgingly expect from KMM – but it does have the televisual omigod that has you sitting with your thumb up your ass until next week’s episode. (Or, you know, not with the thumb.) I resented the shit out of the cliffhangers in the Fever books because I gave a damn, but here I’m solidly in fuck it, who cares territory. I’m not reading that next book short of miraculous reviews from people I trust, and even if it is miraculous, Icedis disastrous enough for me to warn away everyone but the most avid Fever fan or lover of Scrappy Doo. And to the latter: what is wrong with you? 

And, as a final bitch-move, my alternate cover: 

a pedobear peeking out from broken glass with the Iced: a Dani O'Malley novel written over it

Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison. 

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself. 

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff. 

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained. 

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good. 

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires. 

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures. 

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind? 

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat. 

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover. 


(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Secrets, Monsters, And Magic Mirrors: Middle School Comics with Bite

I found  Secrets, Monsters, and Magic Mirrorsat the Indy Comics Expo here in Minneapolis, considered at a table staffed by very nice folk before I returned an hour later, this book appealing enough to stick in my memory and have me return with the requisite cash. I’m hovering between three stars and four, the way you do. Not that anyone cares, but I have a lot of problems rating stuff aimed at children, because my enjoyment and theirs are often…not at odds…but not convergent either. 

There’s not a lot here that’s truly surprising, The retellings are pared down and hew closely to the originals. This collection is pretty Hans Christian Andersen-heavy, with three out of the five stories coming from his literary fairy tales – The Snow Queen, The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina. Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel round out the collection. I know I’ve made this distinction before, but it’s worth noting: Andersen’s stories are not folk tales like Rapunzel; they are the literate cousin, forged in a single pen, in a single mind. They may afterwards slip their origins and run wild, the way stories do, but there is a single creation point, not the indistinct utterances of nurses and parents through many ages and countries. I’m not sure that matters in assessing these tellings, but I just had to say it. 

So. To the individual stories. 

Rapunzel by Stephanie Peters. I like this version, though it was shyer than I prefer in certain aspects of the tale. Rapunzel is true Märchen, a folk tale with many versions, and there are several ways the witch finds out about the prince’s nightly assignations with Rapunzel. One is that she exclaims to the witch – you are so much heavier than the prince! The other is that she complains that her dress has gotten tight on her belly, which alerts the witch she is pregnant. This went with the first, which is a choice that makes sense, given how young this is aimed, etc. The art is perfect: dusty black and whites cut with bright colors only for effect: the rapunzel, her hair, the hair of her daughter. Everyone had the pin-prick black eyes of a Dave McKean illustration, and I liked the creepifaction. Rapunzel is a sad story in some ways – it starts with lost parents, and never finds them again, except in the most oblique way. This did that justice, though the prince’s lederhosen were slightly distracting. 

Thumbelina by Martin Powell. Coming hard on the heels of Rapunzel, I could see the narrative similarity between the two, but Thumbelina is a weird ass story. It starts with the same baby fever as Rapunzel, Thumbelina’s mom begging the local witch for a child, and then getting one as small as a thumb. Thumbelina ends up on adventures that keep threatening her sexually, which freaks me out a bit, but, let’s face it, Andersen was a weird dude. The art was goofy and fun, and I liked it, and it took the sting out of some upsetting situations. 

Snow White by Martin Powell. I hated the art so much on this one, I could barely appreciate the twist Powell took on the story, one that I thought was cool. Everyone looks like freaking Bratz dolls, however, and that is hard to forgive. Anyway, Snow White’s prince has been enchanted to be the mirror, and his escape from enchantment, and his involvement in the familial psychodrama beyond the usual showing up and kissing aspects were pretty cool. Seriously ugly illustrations though. Blech. 

Beauty and the Beast by Michael Dahl. This one was in the middle, as my son would say. The story felt truncated, and the illustrations reminded me of Second Life avatars, but not really in a bad way. But, like Rapunzel, this story is so often retold, and so varied, that this streamlined version wasn’t a bad addition to the narrative river. (Even though Beauty & The Beast is one of the salon-born literary tales, like Anderson’s work.)  Plus the Beast reminded me of Domo Kun, which I find adorable. 

The Princess and the Pea by Stephanie Peters. This story will never be one of my favorites, but this did the best it could. I’m just never going to love a story of royal exceptionalism, bound up with the concept of the “true princess”. Just, barf. But I liked the Edwardian anime sense of the art, and the comic rapid-dating of the middle section, which is something.

I know I have complained before about not being able to find good comics for the middle-grade set – the library seems to have craploads of Scooby Doo, Jughead, and Scrooge McDuck (why?) and not much else. This collection hits a sweet spot for the kiddies, and my daughter bugged me all day Sunday until I read the whole thing to her, one story at a time. Comics are cool for the pre- or just-literate; they bridge a gap usually filled by tv. So, I’m going with a solid recommendation, ‘specially for kids, just because this was so perfectly pitched for my daughter. Us grown-ups likely won’t be amazed, but amazement has ages like anything else.