Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
January 2006

Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick
Pyr, 2005, $25.00

Mike Resnick is the author of some forty novels, editor of forty anthologies, and nearly two hundred short stories. He's a perennial favorite at the Hugo Awards, resulting in him winning four Hugos, and being nominated more than twenty times. Many of his novels and stories, like this one, have been set in his Birthright Universe, though no familiarity with the other novels set in this milieu are necessary to enjoy this vibrant and engaging space opera, which, though not as ambitious in scope, is perhaps Resnick's best work since the multi-award-winning Kirinyaga.

Commander Wilson Cole is concurrently an insubordinate firebrand and the fleet's most decorated officer. Twice demoted from the rank of Captain for disobeying orders he disagreed with, he's reassigned to the starship Theodore Roosevelt. The Teddy R, as the crew calls it, is stationed out on the Rim of the galaxy where nothing ever happens--in fact, there's so much nothing going on out there that when Cole is being ferried to the ship, the pilot quips " So you're going to sit out the war out here?"

The ship itself is no prize--it's the sort of ship that you might say only the rust was holding it together (if starships got rusty, that is). And Cole isn't the only defiant officer aboard the Teddy R--the ship serves as a sort of dumping ground for undesirable crew; everyone aboard seems to have done something to piss off the brass somehow, even its captain. Cole comes aboard as the new second officer, but his leadership style immediately clashes with the first officer's and captain's--Cole's a man of action; they're a man and woman of inaction. Though Cole gets himself into difficulty by being too much of a free thinker, he's a man whose actions tend to get results (and he's got the medals to prove it).

As is his nature, Cole finds his way into trouble on his very first shift in command of the bridge. When the Officer on Deck detects a Bortellite warship approaching the Republic planet Rapunzel, Cole and two officers leave the ship in a shuttlecraft and head toward the surface to determine what the Bortellites--who recently aligned with the enemy Teroni Federation--are up to. This unauthorized encounter earns Cole the wrath of his superiors…and his fourth Medal of Courage.

After this, Cole and crew get into several more scrapes, until the bureaucracy and Commander Podok's strictly by-the-book commanding style push Cole past his limits. While on assignment to guard Republic fuel depots, Podok interprets their orders very literally--to prevent Teroni Federation ships from accessing the fuel depots--and has the Teddy R fire on the planet, destroying the fuel…and killing three million Republic citizens. But when the Teroni ships head toward another planet--this one with five million residents--Cole, already outraged, can stand no more; he commandeers control of the ship and orders Commander Podok arrested. Cole saves the five million residents of New Argentina, but Podok accuses him of mutiny, and so a court-martial will determine his fate.

Being a huge fan of short fiction (and a demanding reader), I often find many novels feel bloated or overlong to me. So it's quite a rare thing for me to finish a book and wish it were longer, as was the case with Starship: Mutiny. Which is not to say that the book didn't feel complete--quite the contrary; the narrative comes to a satisfying and organic conclusion, but, just the same, I was left wanting more. Luckily, there are four more novels planned in this series. I just hope I won't have to wait too long for the next installment.

Space opera, like heroic or epic fantasy, tends to be looked down upon by some readers and critics due to the rather large number of bad books categorized under that label. Starship: Mutiny is a space opera, but it's one of the good ones--or one of the great ones, rather--and is on par with the best of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series or Charles Coleman Finlay's Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated story, "The Political Officer." And like the Bujold and Finlay, Resnick's Starship: Mutiny is true space opera--the science fiction elements are all in the background, and though it's peopled with plenty of strange aliens and cool SFnal concepts, they don't drive the story. What does drive it are the elaborately-drawn story and characters and the prose of a master craftsman. Resnick is simply a consummate storyteller, and he's in top form here.

Simply put: this is a space opera that hits all the right notes.

Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu
Love Spell, 2006, $6.99

I should start off this review by saying this right up front: I don't normally read romance novels. In fact, my only other time I can recall reading something from a romance author is Diana Gabaldon's entry in Robert Silverberg's Legends II anthology, the terrific "Lord John and the Succubus." Though the anthology included a romance author, the book was clearly marketed as fantasy; Shadow Touch, meanwhile, is clearly marketed as romance, and if you had any doubts about that, the name of the publisher (Love Spell), and the cover image should make it readily apparent. However, if someone were to repackage this book with a different cover and publish it under a different imprint, one would have no trouble selling it as fantasy (without altering the text), so fantasy fans who would otherwise shy away from romance should have no compunctions about picking up this one.

Elena Baxter is an unpaid hospital volunteer who works miracles in her spare time; no, she's not some saint or agent of God--but she can lay her hands on a sick, dying, or injured person and make them whole and well again.

Artur Loginov can sense echoes of past events; he can go to a crime scene and by touching the objects left behind, he can feel what the victims felt, see through the victims' eyes, and even see and feel what the killer did.

This ability is useful to Artur in his role as an agent for the internationally renowned Dirk & Steele detective agency. But the agency is much more than it seems--the detective agency is really only a public front; what they really do is seek out and help those like Artur and Elena, people with special…powers. But while Dirk & Steele seeks only to help, there are other agencies who would seek out these special folk in order to imprison and exploit them. One such agency, known as the Consortium, is a powerful group of the gifted, led by the malevolent Beatrix Weave, whose manipulations are more than psychological--she has the ability to actually psychically exert control over another person's actions.

Elena and Artur are abducted by Consortium agents and are imprisoned in an asylum-like facility. For Elena, her captivity is of course terrifying, but it is also a revelation: she never knew there were other people like her in the world, people with special gifts. Although Artur knew of other paranormally-gifted people thanks to his work with Dirk & Steele, he never expected to find a facility with so many others of his kind imprisoned within it.

A chance encounter within the asylum brings Elena and Artur into contact, and during this brief meeting, Artur's ability allows the two to form an instantaneous strong emotional connection. This, along with help from some of the other inmates, facilitates their escape. But once they break free, they still have a long journey ahead of them, for they soon discover that Consortium agents are on their trail, and eventually realize that the only way they'll truly be free is if they take down the Consortium once and for all.

To be honest, I'm not sure what I expected of this book. I guess I had some conceptions about what a romance novel would contain, that turned out to be misconceptions. I was under the impression that all romance novels are overloaded with long, drawn-out sex scenes, but that wasn't the case with Shadow Touch. Yes, there is sex, but it does not occur so often as to overwhelm the story; Liu instead focuses on the actual romance between Artur and Elena, and depicts well all the confusing and thrilling emotions that run through the characters' heads as their budding relationship blooms into something more. This is of course heightened by the Artur's empathic gift, allowing Liu some narrative room to explore her characters' emotional connection in a way not available to mainstream romance novelists. Meanwhile, the paranormal thriller plotline effectively keeps the story moving, and Liu's prose is proficient and clear, all of which combines to make the book a quick and satisfying read.

The gifted people in Shadow Touch bear more than a little resemblance to the mutants of the Marvel Comics universe (indeed, the marketing information included with the book says that the book features "an X-Men-like group with special gifts"), but Liu grounds her story more firmly in the real world, keeping the narrative from veering into superhero territory, and successfully reinvigorates this very familiar concept by putting her own unique stamp on it. But it's the characters that really seal the deal--and they're what'll have readers coming back for more.

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2 edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith
Tachyon Publications, 2005, $14.95

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender, named after the writer Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the Tiptree pseudonym. It was founded at the feminist SF convention, WisCon, in 1991 by authors Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy. Past winners include Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, M. John Harrison, and John Kessel. This book, as the title implies, collects some of the award-winning stories. This volume includes the most recent winners and short-listed stories, along with notable selections from years past, and essays on gender.

The anthology stars off with an introduction by Debbie Notkin, which explains how the award came to be, and why an award like this is important. She says that "the main point of the Tiptree Award is not to provide answers--but rather to raise questions," and the stories in this book certainly do that. Notkin also says that readers often argue over whether or not a particular story really is about gender, but that's a good thing, because it gets people talking and thinking about what gender is. I found myself doing that, and I expect any other speculative fiction fan would too.

Following the introduction is "Talking Too Much: About James Tiptree, Jr.," an excerpt from Julie Phillips's forthcoming biography of Tiptree, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. If this excerpt is any indication, the biography is going to be superb; "Talking Too Much" functions well as a self-contained essay, and serves as a nice introduction to who Sheldon was.

Sheldon was a prolific correspondent, and not only did those who knew her only from her fiction not know her gender, but neither did her correspondents. With that in mind, it seems only appropriate that the anthology should contain one of Sheldon's letters: this one to a psychologist friend, in which she explains why she writes.

All this serves as setup for the strongest part of the book: the stories. The first group of stories, which includes "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter, "The Gift" by L. Timmel Duchamp, excerpts from Camouflage by Joe Haldeman, and excerpts from Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo, is really the highlight of the book, each of which are absorbing and evocative.

Camouflage and Troll: A Love Story, co-winners of the 2004 award, stand out as the two best selections in the book. The header notes to Camouflage indicate that the sections included here are the first four chapters and two from further along; considering these non-linear chapters were cobbled together, the excerpt works remarkably well as a piece of fiction. Troll is similarly engrossing, though while Camouflage clearly delves into questions of gender, the excerpts from Troll don't get into it much, so one must assume that the rest of the book explores it further. In any case, after reading these two excerpts, both of these books are sure to end up on your reading list.

The book also contains remarkable work by Jonathan Lethem, Carol Emshwiller, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jaye Lawrence; there are thought-provoking essays by Nalo Hopkinson and Gwyneth Jones. There's also a story by Eileen Gunn & Leslie What that I didn't particularly care for, but your mileage may vary; there are certainly plenty who disagree with me on that one--it's currently on the preliminary Nebula Award ballot.

Always interesting, habitually provocative, and occasionally stunning, each of these stories serve as first-rate speculation whether you're interested in gender issues or not; and if you weren't before, you might just be after reading this anthology.

Don't Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis
HarperCollins, 2005, $26.95, Hardcover

Don't Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis
Read by John Lee and Lorna Raver
Random House Audio, 2005, $29.95, 6 hours, Audio CD (Abridged)
Audible.com, 2005, $20.97, 6 hours, Digital Audio (Abridged)
Also available unabridged from Random House Audio

Don't Know Much About World Myths by Kenneth C. Davis
Read by Jason Harris and John Bedford Lloyd
Random House Audio, 2005, $30.00, 4 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)
Audible.com, 2005, $21.00, 4 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)
Also available in hardcover and paperback from HarperTrophy

Kenneth C. Davis, dubbed "The King of Knowing" by Amazon.com, certainly does seem to know about a lot of different stuff. These two books on mythology are his latest foray into showing off his encyclopedic knowledge.

You still won't know much about mythology after reading any of these, but you'll very likely know more. If you're not already a mythology geek, the books serve as a good primer that will likely set you off in search of more information about the various myths that capture your interest; if you already are a mythology geek, the books are like a good refresher course, allowing you to remember some of those myths you may have forgotten--and the audio editions will, at least, will allow you to learn how to correctly pronounce the names of all those other-cultural myths you've been mispronouncing for years. The hardcover edition, meanwhile, includes an extensive bibliography that will assist any budding or longtime myth-o-phile in learning more about his/her topic of choice.

Mythology is the complete, grown ups version, while World Myths is the much shorter kid's version. I listened to both audiobooks because I was unable to determine from the cover copy if World Myths only covered the same ground as Mythology, or if it covered other subjects. As it turns out, everything covered in World Myths is covered in Mythology, though while the language is mostly the same there are some noticeable differences. However, World Myths does include two myths exclusive to the audio edition.

For instance, in the complex myth of Osiris, Osiris dies, is reborn, then dies again, only to have the vengeful Seth take his body and tear it into fourteen pieces, scattering them throughout the land. Osiris's wife-sister, Isis tries to gather up all the pieces of Osiris to put him back together, but she only finds thirteen; she is unable to find his phallus. Because of this, when Osiris is reborn again, he is given reign over the land of the dead, since, he is infertile. In Mythology, this is explained fully; in World Myths, Davis leaves out the bit about the phallus, which is somewhat understandable considering the age group the book is intended for, but seems wrong as it is an essential part of the myth. Similar "childrenification" occurs when discussing the many lovers of Zeus (or in many cases, the human rape-victims of Zeus); in World Myths, these are referred to as "Zeus's other wives." Not exactly the same thing, is it?

World Myths' audio narration is preferable to that of Mythology's; both do a passable job overall, though Mythology's primary narrator, Lee, is a bit overdramatic at times, and his accent does get in the way a bit of learning that proper pronunciation I mentioned earlier (unless you're British, I suppose). Reviewing this now, a few weeks after having listened to the program, I can't say I remember any contributions from Raver, so any part she plays in the production is mostly irrelevant; whether you enjoy the audio or not will depend on your liking of Lee's performance.

Harris and Lloyd work well together on World Myths. Harris, the primary narrator, has a voice that is ideal for this sort of overview, and is perfect to engage kids' interest, but works equally well for adults; it's a soft, mid-tenor, with an infectious quality to it that conveys a sort of curiosity, making him a joy to listen to. Lloyd, meanwhile, has a more deeply resonant bass voice that is a sharp contrast to Harris, and is effective in his supporting role. World Myths also features a third (uncredited) auxiliary narrator--a woman with a child-like voice who asks the occasional question (which is answered by Harris). Her, I could have done without; her voice is a bit too whiney and cutesy for me, but perhaps would work better for children.

Both audiobooks include an introduction written and read by Davis. This is fine for World Myths, which then segues into Harris's pleasant narration, but with Mythology, I was disappointed to hear Davis stop and Lee begin. While Lee does an acceptable job, Davis's voice was the more intriguing of the two, and given the choice between a competent author narrating his own work, and a less-than-brilliant professional narrator, I'd always rather hear the author read himself.

Having sampled these three editions, if I had to choose one, I'd go with the hardcover of Mythology. Though all three have their good points and would be well-worth the investment of time and money, Mythology is the most complete of the three, is easier to digest, and has more value as a reference book afterward.


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