Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
August 2009

Zadayi Red by Caleb Fox

I can't remember the last time I was drawn into a book quite as deeply as I was drawn into Zadayi Red. The novel opens with the story of Sunoya, a young medicine woman who is haunted by visions of the most holy relic of her people, a cape of eagle feathers, torn and desecrated. She undertakes a vision quest to discover the truth behind her dreams, visiting the spirit world to see the thunderbird for guidance. The cape, it seems, is being endangered by the actions of the Galayi (the name for the prehistoric Cherokee culture that provide the setting of the novel). The most sacred law is that no Galayi may kill another, and the Galayi are breaking this law, and this is destroying the cape.

Sunoya is a fascinating character. She was born with a webbed left hand, the mark of a medicine woman. But, she was also born with a webbed right hand -- a curse that should have led to her being strangled in her crib, if her mother and aunt hadn't cut the webbing and hidden the truth from the tribe. Sunoya struggles under the burden of her destiny; was she born blessed or cursed? Will her actions save the Galayi, or destroy them?

It's a measure of debut author Caleb Fox's talent that the second time I picked up the book, I was surprised by his name. The day before I'd read the first sixty or so pages of Zadayi Red, absorbed by Sunoya's story, and Sunoya was such a convincing female character that I had come to think that the author must be female.

Unfortunately, only the first third of the book is focused on Sunoya. Sunoya winds up the virgin "mother" of a boy named Dahzi. Dahzi was born with a webbed left hand; Sunoya knows he is a gift from the gods who will one day restore the cape of eagle feathers. However, while Sunoya struggles through the book with the question of whether she is a gift or a curse, the author never lets us forget that Dahzi is the child of prophecy, the savior of the Galayi. He tries to humanize Dahzi by giving him the lusts and fears and jealousy of a normal man, but it somehow all comes off as false. In the spirit world, Dahzi must confront his fears, and winds up facing down a pack of dogs and a pair of log-sized snakes. It was mentioned in passing earlier in the story that Dahzi is afraid of dogs, although there are other scenes where he's in the company of dogs without blinking an eye. If he had a fear of snakes before reaching the spirit world, I must have skimmed over it. His flaws feel tacked on as obstacles for him to overcome rather than as integral parts of his being.

Dahzi's worst sin as a character is that, as the savior foretold by prophecy, he never encounters any circumstances in his various quests where the dangers confronting him ever feel convincing. When he's hurt or lost, he always gets rescued. Shamans, spirit animals, and little people are all watching out for him. He catches too many lucky breaks, and there is never any possibility that he might fail, or that the prophecy might somehow be false. Sunoya makes sacrifices throughout the opening scenes; her choices are difficult. Dahzi makes no sacrifices, and doesn't make many choices.

Fortunately, Dahzi isn't the only character in the book. The supporting cast around him is filled with quirky, fascinating characters that really flesh out the prehistoric Cherokee culture, making it come alive. As Dahzi meets these various minor characters, I remained engaged as Fox explores the various Galayi traditions surrounding food, war, the spirit world, bathroom habits, and sex. In his author notes, Fox says the culture in the book is part research, part imagination. The fact that it all felt so seamless and authentic is testament to his skill as a world-builder. Hopefully, Zadayi Red is just the first of many books we'll see from Caleb Fox.

Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey

I'm a fan of tightly themed anthologies, preferring those with a single subject to more wide-ranging collections united merely by genre. Still, I had to wonder when I picked up Future Bristol if I'd finally met a collection with such a narrow theme that it might not work. The book is a collection of science fiction stories set in Bristol, England. All the authors have some connection to the city; editor Colin Harvey says they have written these stories in "celebration of the city that we moan about but also love."

Having never been to Bristol, or even England, I found myself worried whether or not the stories would hold my attention. I shouldn't have been concerned. This proved to be a fine collection, with one good story after another. Not knowing much about Bristol, I had difficulty judging how "Bristolly" each story truly was. Some did a good job of bringing the city to life, while others felt driven by character and plot with the city only a tacked on backdrop.

I decided that this capacity to bring the city to life was an important element to judge in the stories. I tended to appreciate the stories that had it a bit more than the stories that didn't. Still, I also believe in judging a story holistically, with the important question being whether I'd enjoy it beyond the context of the anthology. With this in mind, I'm going to examine each story by both its overall appeal, and its "Bristolness."

"Isambard's Kingdom" by Liz Williams

A tale of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a famed British engineer, who must build a bridge both in the real world Bristol, and in the spirit-realm. I thought this story was a smart choice to lead off the anthology, as it succeeds completely as a masterfully told story, and did an excellent job at making Bristol seem like a real place to me.

"The Guerilla Infrastructure HOWTO" by John Hawkes-Reed

The first of many nanotech tales, this story does a terrific job with the narrator's voice; the slangy, quirky language brings the city to life by making me believe this must be the way that the locals sound. So, high marks for evoking Bristol in my mind. Alas, I thought the story was a bit less successful in selling me on the plausibility of the technology driven plot. If I understand the story right, the base material the eco-protagonists are using to build an alternative mass transit is wood. There's a reason we don't build railroads with wooden rails.

"After the Change" by Stephanie Burgis

The tale of superheroic angels who rise to save the city of Bristol in its hour of darkness. A fun tale that worked in its own right, but it seemed like it could have been set in any big city.

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Christina Lake

A very ambitious tale of corporate scheming, future drugs, virtual reality and genetic naughtiness. Perhaps too ambitious; I confess I spent a good deal of the story confused by all the elements getting tossed at me. There are jumps between the narrator's future and the past future of her mother that means the author is sometimes using future future tech as a way of explaining past future tech, if that makes sense. On the plus side, the story feels like it genuinely belongs in its Bristol setting.

"Pirates of the Cumberland Basin" by Joanne Hall

A well told tale of human trafficking in a future where the relics of a fallen Bristol are plundered by high tech pirates, with a healthy dose of police work thrown in to drive the plot. I thought the story was expertly executed, and also made good use of the Bristol setting.

"Trespassers" by Nick Walters

I have to confess, I'm a sucker for pulpy SF, so I loved this weird and daring story featuring space vixens and humans kept in alien zoos. I don't know how well it evoked Bristol as a whole, but it did a good job of making the urban exploration of an old train station come alive for me.

"Thermoclines" by Colin Harvey

I'm always nervous when editors include their own stories in an anthology, but Colin Harvey actually turns in one of the strongest tales in the book. Set in a post-human world of bird men, Harvey makes the future culture of his story come alive by focusing on the most human element in his post-human world: his young narrator's desire for a girl visiting from a distant tribe. Curiously, though, this story is one of the weakest in evoking a sense of the city of Bristol for me. It was so far in the future, it could have been set anywhere.

"What Would Nicolas Cage Have Done?" by Gareth L. Powell

The story opens with a somewhat touristy description of walking around Bristol, but the meat of the tale comes later when out of control nanotech wipes out all life on earth. This turns out to be the true launching point of the tale; the story could have started anywhere. The strongest part of the story is the budding love story between the narrator and a girl he meets in a bookstore. I found the dialogue to be very natural and plausible; often dialogue in short stories is simply there to push the plot forward. Here, the dialogue has nothing to do with the gee-whiz tech that will erupt a few pages later. As a result, it felt very real to me. It seemed like the way people actually flirt, and makes the story feel like an actual window onto life.

"The Sun in the Bone House" by Jim Mortimore

Another highly ambitious tale that jumps around through various eras of Bristol's past, mixed in with plot drivers from Bristol's future, until the whole thing closes up in one giant time loop. We see everything from people living in bronze age huts to people mining the solar system to build interplanetary structures. It was an interesting experiment in past and future history, but as the story jumped around, I had difficulty feeling any attachment to the various characters I met. It felt like a novel's worth of plot and events jammed into a short story. It did bring to life past Bristol, though wasn't as good at evoking future Bristol.

Overall, I thought seven out of nine of the stories were quite good, and the remaining two had their moments. Not a bad success ratio for an anthology.

Read more by James Maxey


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