Steampunk-Alternate History-Magical Fantasy and Talking Crows!
1908-Russia: A scrappy intelligence officer from war torn North America hires herself out as a mercenary in the service of Catherine the Great. Both women are “Queens,” descendants of the Gods possessing certain powers. Eryma communes with crows, and her birds provide reconnaissance and protection. Though bashed, battered and covered in tread marks, she plans to help recover a crash-landed asteroid in exchange for eternal youth. But both Catherine’s court and Eryma’s plans are suffused with intrigue.
A complex series of events ensues laced with historical distortions, magic, monsters, blood, gore, and a steam punk feel. The plot unfolds gradually, and Eryma’s intentions and history are delivered in bits and pieces, leaving room for reveals and plot twists. And the novel excels in characterization, including Eryma who’s battered but tough and resolute with a goofy sense of humor.
“Other women may have had beauty, class and romance; I had wit, experience, and explosives. The latter, in my experience, solves more problems than romance does.”
Grim, hard-living, violent, and lusty Dame July provides a frenemy-romance, and several acts of savagery. And Eryma’s crow community includes both a corvid genius and a comedian.
“So, if I am dead, which religion was correct?” I mused aloud.
“Yog-Slaggoth,” Lois stuck her head through the drapes “The Elder tentacled on is coming to dine on us later. Please be properly shaved, greased, and seasoned by five.”
If you’re after diversity, banter, wordplay, action, and strong female characters, A Queen Among Crows is your book. However, please observe the CLIFF HANGER WARNING sign and don’t tumble off at the end of the novel. Stand alone readers may be disappointed. On the bright side, several additional volumes of this series are already out and available.
Hotel Bars and a number of other stimuli triggered my consciousness to consider how life’s three stages intersect with literature. According to Daisy, the three stages of life should be titled:
Childhood, sexual, and the difficult to name one, postsexual.
As you’ve probably noticed, humans are obsessed by life’s sexual stage during which the focus is finding a partner in order to procreate then rearing and supporting children. Naturally many readers new to this stage flock to steamy “emerging adult” titles, erotica, and romance. Those in the child-rearing portion of this stage might crave the romance or thrills they’ve missed whilst changing diapers or being passed over for promotion, and reach for escapist titles; thrillers, fantasy, mysteries, and romance, because; let’s face it, adult life is difficult.
Second-stage literature encompasses the bulk of titles because second-stagers are obsessed with sex and spend money. And many still seek outwardly to define themselves, features that draw market savvy authors like flies to honey.
Eighty-five percent of content focuses on characters in the thirteen to thirty range.
However the postsexual generation also reads. Sure, some of them are satisfied by the same titles as younger readers. But some of the older set have lost interest in certain aspects of life’s earlier stages. Some have reached the conclusion that romance and heroics don’t hold life’s answers.
Right after finishing Hotel Bars, I came across Midlife Witch Unexpected in a independent authors group promotion. Midlife Witch exemplifies “paranormal women’s fiction,” a literary genre which places a forty-plus heroine in a plot combining elements of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and/or mystery. Intrigued, I did a bit of research into the genre.
Have to say, I was amused by the women depicted on some of these novel’s covers, many appearing twenty-years shy of forty. The genre seems to focus on “magic, romance, and starting over.” In short, a child-free woman over forty divorces, moves to a new location, discovers special powers, saves the town or solves the case, and finds a hunky dude. At a glance, the underlying messages seem to be resilience, coping with change, and remaining powerful, attractive, and visible as an older woman.
I’m reminded of a side-of-the road billboard featuring a group of very fit almost naked older people captioned “Can you see us now?” The billboard seemed to be part of a campaign raising awareness of older adults. As an introvert, my response to the billboard was “why would you want to be seen?” And I wonder, how many third stagers care about being seen by the general population. How many still chase, public acclaim or being attractive to a younger hunky dude? What percentage? Aren’t many happy to be left to their gardening, bowls club, bicycling, and game streaming? But paranormal women’s fiction is popular, so the notion of using supernatural powers to dive back into second-stage must appeal to many readers.
Aren’t any forty-somethings and fifty-plusses writing stories about the meaning of life? Or does everyone remain captivated by the love theme?
So I queried on my sci-fi/fantasy group for novels featuring older female protagonists who are okay with themselves. Who don’t feel deficient or tossed aside. Who aren’t seeking a replacement man, replacement family, replacement career to create meaning for themselves in middle age and beyond. I’ll let you know what I uncover.
Maybe part of the issue is that stage three is an extraneous blip of existence, featuring people past prime reproductive age, with minimal evolutionary purpose. Maybe there is no meaning for this group.
But people who’ve lost meaning are usually unhappy, and studies show life happiness peaks around age sixty. Presumably, everything is less fraught; the kids are gone, the pets are dead, the job is over. Hobbies are still doable. Friends are still healthy and alive. Perhaps oldsters appreciate these experiences more keenly because they’re less embroiled in drama, and they know time is short. Maybe if you’re lucky, drama comes earlier in life. And maybe contentment’s lack of drama accounts for the dearth of third-stage literature.
Of course not everyone ages well. Some people go very dark and looney, wreak great havoc, and make great fodder for novels. Consider Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a mystery featuring a deeply eccentric older woman.
And the activities of contented older people, whether they’re meditating, contributing to the community, writing novels, crafting, or caring for grandchildren “reverberate until the end of time, in some small way.” And may be of literary interest. Just consider Miss Marple.
After Daisy drops her teenage son off at boarding school, she’s officially an empty nester. What should she do with the last phase of her life, the phase past child rearing, mate seeking, and striving?
These questions are pretty first world, and Daisy is a highly fortunate first world-type. She played her cards right in the dot.com era and has no economic concerns. So seated comfortably at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, highly cerebral, alone but not lonely Daisy contemplates life.
In the beyond stage, though, a person doesn’t really need anyone else. At that point, all you really need to do is die, and everyone dies alone.
Daisy decides to seek meaning through experience, and the experience she chooses is bar-tending. Sure, bar-tending is social, and she’ll meet all sorts of interesting people, but Daisy is also an alcoholic, highly functional, but an alcoholic none the less. And interestingly, as she dissects her personal meaning of life, she’s entirely untroubled by her alcoholism. Much and varied alcohol is convivially consumed in the course of this tale without ill effect to the point that this book might not suit a reader in recovery.
Through bar-tending, she encounters several characters who aid her search, and the novel includes a subplot revolving around scientist Bianca. The subplot doesn’t add much interest, but the character adds philosophic and scientific street cred to some of the conversations.
But Daisy must defines her meaning of life alone, and the result is interesting, especially for readers traversing middle age and points beyond.
Hugh Hammond of The Hammond Conjecture is an everyman, who thinks with every organ other than his brain. And unfortunately, the fate of Europe lies in his hands.
He wakes in an isolation ward with no recollection of his past. Encouraged to dredge up memories by writing, the confused man diligently types away. But the emerging memories recount an impossible history: WWII ended by 1941, Europe stultifies under Nazi rule, and Britain continues to appease.
While he languishes in home for incurables and relives his spy years, the mystery of how Hammond bounced from 1970 to 1980 is slowly revealed…
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Hammond’s decade-old memories of his spy career are beyond embarrassing. He’s an Austin Powers, saddled with an early 1970s attitude toward woman and the raging ego of a young man, but possessing low self-esteem and a talent for making the wrong choice. Every. Single. Time. Not dissimilar to my character, Martin. Fortunately for the reader, many of Hammond’s choices and much of the dialogue are quietly hilarious.
And the alternate Europe in which the spy-action occurs is complex, believable and depicted in detail. The author does an excellent job of describing the ramifications of an early treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, clear even to a reader with no detailed knowledge of WWII.
This novel will interest alternate fiction and time travel readers, as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The ending is left open, suggesting a sequel is on its way. And I appreciated the professional-level editing and formatting.
Branches, an alternative universe novel rings frightfully true, a precision hit on a raw nerve.
Still reeling from the loss of his mother, a man dives into the social media black hole surrounding an unnamed right wing president. Several of my Facebook acquaintances went this route. And at times, I worried for their mental health. Several of the negative reviews of this novel complain about the character’s political angst. But his obsession is warranted. In his alternate timeline, the worst has happened and the US has descended into storm-trouper, police-state, racial-cleansing fascism.
Then, a shadowy company extends a bizarre offer, allowing him to shift timelines. Can he find peace in the multiverse?
What follows is a series of alternate nows and near-pasts; so more alternate universe than alternate history. And the author handles these subtle and not so subtle shifts cleverly. The plot never lost me, and I found the prose entertainingly of the moment. Most of the character’s heavy-lifting is psychological, but the novel includes plenty of action.
Certain readers, including avid Trump supporters, social conservatives, and racists, will struggle with this novel. Those readers might want to lay aside their prejudices or give this book a miss.
But I highly recommend this book to those of you that can lay aside politics and the other factors that divide society. Because this book is not actually about those issues. It’s about a more insidious problem in our society. It’s about becoming lost in adulthood and missing one’s own life. The last five years, packed with hatred and anxiety, have given many excuses to lose themselves. I hope this novel gives some the insight to get back on track.
This indie published first novel appears professionally edited and formatted. And the prose is high quality.
In P.N. Shafa’s near future dystopia Descendants of Power, the 1% flee to Mars, leaving behind a ravaged climate and starving post-apocalyptic survivors.
But on Mars, the colonists continue with business as usual, i.e. predatory capitalism, the usual “how much can I get for myself” mentality. And turns out, that ethos doesn’t work well in an incredibly fragile situation like living in an oxygen bubble and eating off a slim range of genetically modified foodstuffs. Go figure. Continue reading Descendants of Power, The One Percent on Mars
Pros: Fantastic world building. Interesting Dominican Republican setting complete with sea anemones and pirates. Rich prose. Excellent portrayals of unpleasant people in desperate circumstances.
Cons: Interesting and well-crafted but unlikeable characters who don’t grow. Disappointing ending.
Time travel by sea anemone powered by Olokun, the great spirit who knows what lies on the ocean floor: what’s not to like about a novel based on this premise? And initially, I was quite excited to read Tentacleby Rita Indiana. Because young Achilde is more than a transsexual maid living in a plague ridden Dominican Republic surrounded by a sludge-brown sea. He’s the chosen one, heir to oceanic power, the only one able to harness the power of a sea anemone electroencephalogram and travel back in time to save his homeland.
But what Achilde really wants is a sex-change operation, not a problem in of itself, but part of the problem with this novel; the principal characters are too busy chasing self-interest (drugs, desire, public acclaim) to take right action. And they don’t grow during the novel. I’d even categorise the other main character, failed artist Argenis, as a passive-aggressive narcissist, brilliantly portrayed, but being inside his mind while he self-destructs becomes a chore. Sure, both these characters haven’t had the best lives, even so, a touch more selflessness while they skate back and forth in time. would have been appreciated. Admittedly, the author convincingly conveys her character’s humanity but the type of humanity that will drive us to extinction. And I’m still hoping we’ll redeem ourselves.
The book ends very abruptly and on a multilevel betrayal. Hoping Olokun would whip a tentacle from the ocean and drag the protagonist to a watery grave, I flipped the page, only to encountered an advertisement. Disoriented, I thought, “how strange, the publisher inserting an advertisement into a book mid-chapter.” But sadly, our time tripping protagonist wouldn’t be reconsidering his choices. I would be reading an advertisement.
The ad, however, was of interest. Tentacle’s publisher, And Other Stories, sells subscriptions to offset the cost of releasing innovative literature. And while Tentacle may not tick all my literary boxes, I’d love to read more wildly creative literature from all over the world. If you agree, check out the And Other Stories website. Hopefully, this group will navigate COVID and continue to produce mind-blowing weirdness like time travel by sea anemone.
Bottom line:Wake Up And Dream is a terrific alternate history read. Fascinating, haunting, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.
The career of has-been actor, Clark Gable, didn’t make the jump from the talkies to the “feelies.” Now he’s a two bit private eye specializing in matrimonial cases, sniffing pillow cases and peering under beds. But a fresh case drags Clark back into acting and to the dark side of the technology underlying the feelies, the mysterious Bechmeir Field.
The average citizen craves to escape the Great Depression in the dream of the feelies. But Clark’s skin crawls whenever he’s in the cinema. And the technology may have other uses in politics and advertising capable of drifting the United States closer toward fascism and collusion with Nazis. Can Clark Gable, unlicensed private eye, solve the case, save his own life, and prevent a socio-political disaster?
Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up And Dream is alternate history at its finest. The twisting plot combines hard-boiled private eye tropes, an imaginative, speculative technology, Hollywood angst, history, and social commentary. The stellar writing expertly captures the beauty and grit of Depression era Los Angeles.
In my last review, I criticized “celebrity cameos” in alternate history as disruptive and self-indulgent. But while players from Hollywood’s Golden Age appear in Wake Up And Dream, the celebrity characters are integral to the plot or provide plot-relevant information, so the scenes in which they’re featured don’t read as forced. And since the era is so remote, their fame is remote. Sometimes very remote, so a reader might not even recognize a celebrity. For instance, I’d never heard of Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the famous Hollywood sign.
People, when they first came here from back east to make movies, they said it was because of the quality of the light. But what they didn’t talk about was the quality of the darkness. I mean, whatever’s lurking underneath…
Experts claim that time travel into the past defies the universal laws of physics. But there’s no reason to allow pesky reality to interfere with good fiction.
So fictional travel back in time occurs rather frequently. And whether transported by a machine, magic objects, reincarnation or dream, characters find themselves back in time. Some times, the travel results in a ground hog day-like scenario, an awakening back to the early days of the character’s life. And this sort of backward time travel makes a great story because almost everybody can relate to the question: What if I had only…?
In Ken Grimwood’s novel, Replay, Jeff Winston wakes from a soured marriage, a mediocre career, and fatal heart attack to find himself in his eighteen-year-old body. Grimwood beautifully describes the confusion, melancholy and excitement a life reboot would evoke. And Jeff Winston’s tactics, as he faces the future with knowledge of what that future holds, feel realistic. After all, there’s a certain predictability to the answer to the question: how would a person live if they had a second chance? So the reader is along for the ride as Jeff loses himself in avarice, power, hedonism, saving the world, and love. Continue reading Replay by Ken Grimwood, a Review.
The Example of Hyperion, Blackfish City and Children of Time
In science fiction, the author must describe the special features of the story’s world to the reader. At worst, the information is laid out in a long didactic paragraph, the dreaded “info dump.” And sometimes, an info dump includes details not relevant to the story: the alien societies sewage system or philosophy of early childhood education, for instance. The info dump often sounds like a mini-history lesson.
“The world of Adelia had always been a place of strife. Over the centuries, a multitude of kings had vied for ultimate control. Now the rivers ran dry and vast deserts spewed dust into the heavens…5 pages later…But today, Crystoline must fetch the water.”
And who’s giving the history lesson? The author, of course. A large block of information not connected to a character or the plot inserts the author between the reader and the story, slowing the story down.
So how does an author successfully convey an imaginary world? Hopefully not in direct dialogue. A character wouldn’t blab on about recent events any more than you’d go on about the origin of COVID19 while standing in the grocery store check out. They live in the fictional world. Everything occurring is their normal, usually not worthy of comment. Attempts to insert information into dialogue at worst might sound like:
“As you know captain, when the revolutionaries jumped the line and destroyed Ilagra, Thagros eliminated our transponders.”
Usually, authors try to weave background information subtly into the character’s dialog, observations or thought.
“Crystoline rolled the water barrel to the spring, desert sand catching in her throat and triggering that irritating dry cough. She wiped a gritty sleeve across her mouth. A drink would do nicely, not that it’d taste right. Not after the contamination. Damn kings and their greed.”
But some science fiction celebrates the info dump, taking large chunks of bone dry information and converting it into a special feature of the story. And sometimes this strategy works incredibly well, usually when the information being conveyed is so interesting that it keeps the reader’s attention.
Take for example Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos. This book mirrors the Canterbury tales: a collection of aspirants travels to a shrine, and during their travels, each pilgrim tells their tale.
Each tale is basically a massive info dump; however, each story is so interesting that the reader “listens” with rapt attention to each traveller. (Although I’m still annoyed the book ended right at the climax, and the climax was drawn out over a much padded second book.)
Then consider Blackfish City, a novel I reviewed some months back. The action occurs on a post-disaster floating city with an interesting history and culture beautifully presented through episodes of a mysterious broadcast entitled,”City without a Map”. Excerpt from this poetic and subversive text are sprinkled throughout the book; the ultimate source remains mysterious until late in the story. The device wore somewhat thin as the book progressed, but overall it served well to explain Blackfish City’s unique features and describe its inhabitants while adding ambience.
Children of Timeby Adrian Tchaikovsky also uses bulky info dumps with success. Didactic chapters detail the history of a spider civilisation, following the spiders from pre-sentience through to a spider space age. (Really how can you go wrong with spiders in space?)
The spider sequences are highly “told.”
Her attention is fixed on another spider at home in its web.
The subject spider is planning to hunt down the spider in the web, but note the passive construction, the spider’s behaviour reported as if by an observing scientist. A “shown” version, as experienced by a spider might read like:
“The other spider hung succulent and juicy, seemingly oblivious in its web.”
But do we know a spider can detect succulence? How do we know a spider can create a mental image of another insect’s mind? This shown spider reads very much like a human with our more or less shared theory of mind and body language. A nervous human can be shown pacing and chewing their nails without the author needing to state, “she was nervous.” However, nervous spiders might tap on their webs or rub their legs together. How’s a human supposed to recognise a nervous spider without being told, “the spider was nervous?” Unless the spider is anthropomorphised, stating the spider’s emotional state is required.
So I can’t fault the author of Children of Time for choosing a didactic style. And Children of Time toggles between chapters detailing the spider’s world, and more conventionally written chapters featuring humans trying to survive a desperate space odyssey. I particularly enjoyed the human protagonist, an introverted scholarly old man, an atypical choice for a space adventure. The human chapters relieve the reports from the spider world. Also as the spiders evolve, and as the reader gains familiarity with the arachnid world, the spider chapters become increasingly immediate.
I have a fair bit of tolerance for the creative info dump; although some readers will claim “boring, nothing happens, brutal slog or repetitive.” For those readers, I recommend The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, an old-fashioned adventure story I reviewed some months ago. Raidships takes place in a vibrant imaginary world, but the world unfolds during a fast-paced plot.
“A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves.” From Children of Time by Adrian Tschaikovsky