Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Book Reviews by James Maxey
December 2009

First a giveaway! In my last column, I reviewed John Brown's debut novel, Servant of a Dark God. John recently wrote to say he could provide me with three free copies to give away to my readers. So, if you'd like a free copy, just email me at nobodynovelwriter@yahoo.com with the heading "Dark God Drawing." I'll choose three names at random on January 1, and you can start the new year with a new book. (Alas, the drawing is open to US residents only.)

Speaking of giveaways, since I've been reviewing books for IGMS, it's pretty common for me to go to a science fiction convention and come away with a free book or two from authors published by a small press. I try to review small press offerings whenever I can, partly because I have a tendency to root for underdogs, but also because a lot of small press fiction is just more interesting than some of the offerings of the major publishers. I find that a lot of books on the fantasy and science fiction section in large bookstores tend to have a rather generic quality to them: You have a lot of books with space ships on the cover, a lot more books with sexy vampire hunters, and a fair number of books with dragons on the covers (including, I confess, my own novels). You could cut and paste the cover of a typical fantasy novel onto another book in the same genre and hardly anyone would be able to tell the difference. If you're looking for something truly different, small presses offer fertile grounds.

A good example is Lawrence Schoen's debut novel, Buffalito Destiny. A casual glance at the cover tells you that this isn't a mainstream offering, since it features a Chihuahua-sized buffalo sitting in a man's hand. The tiny bovine, it turns out, is actually an alien species, the eponymous buffalito. This alien species is gentle natured and makes for a good pet with the right care; a very useful pet, in fact, since buffalitos can eat anything, up to and including toxic, radioactive waste, and convert it efficiently into pure oxygen. How is this possible? Alas, often in this book you can substitute the word "alien" with "magic." It's not exactly hard SF. But, once the book sells you on the premise, the plot unfolds at breakneck speed as the narrator, the Amazing Conroy, a stage-hypnotist who smuggled the first buffalitos to earth and has made a fortune off of them, becomes the target of environmental terrorists who oppose his plans to use the tiny omnivores to clean up toxic waste sites in Mexico. Toss in some time warps, prophetic dreams of a talking hat, a bevy of alien races, and a cast of scoundrels and you have a wild and weird romp that, in its best moments, is reminiscent of Douglas Adams.

The greatest strength of the book is that the author is obviously in love with his characters. He wrote a book that he was passionate about, no doubt aware that it wasn't exactly mainstream fare. The book has a genuine urgency to it, as if Schoen is certain this story needs to be told, and only he can tell it. The biggest weakness of the book is that, in many sections, the jokey, easy-going manner of the narrator completely undercuts any tension the plot could have. Despite suffering an endless string of dangers, Conroy keeps quipping along, more amused by his misadventures than genuinely worried about them.

Overall, though, the book is a fast-paced, often funny romp that should be a rewarding read for those who don't demand elaborately detailed science in their science fiction and who are looking for something genuinely new.

Rage of the Behemoth, on the other hand, is a small press offering that takes an opposite approach. Rather than trying to present something new, editor Jason M. Waltz has gathered together twenty fantasy tales that pay homage to classic sword and sorcery tropes. The monsters here are BIG, from rocs with wing spans that can shadow an entire city to turtles so large nations are built upon their backs. Facing these giants are a cast of iconic fantasy heroes, from muscle-bound barbarians to balding, bookish wizards, to wily female thieves. The goal here isn't originality: It's execution. Rather than reinventing the genre, the authors here are spurring the tropes of epic heroic adventure into a full speed gallop to deliver pure, unapologetic entertainment.

There aren't any stories in this collection that are going to change your life, or deepen your understanding of the human condition. But, every single story in this book will get your pulse pounding as instantly likable heroes face off against monsters no human can reasonably hope to defeat. Often, escape is the best outcome that can be hoped for. Yet in other stories, heroes prevail against impossible odds, besting the behemoths with pure grit and plain old human ingenuity.

Twenty tales is too many to run through one by one, but I will single out a few of my favorites. Perhaps the most impressive tale is "Portrait of a Behemoth" by Richard K. Lyon and Andrew J. Offutt. It reads like a fully developed novel packed into the efficient span of fifteen pages. It manages to present a half dozen fully developed characters with their own goals and agendas and pit them against one another in a tale of political intrigue, wizardly warfare, and pirate schemes. Oh, and there's also a fire-breathing dragon-turtle thrown in to boot. Given that some epic fantasy tales can take fifteen books to fully unfold, this ambitious tale is a masterwork of tight, well-crafted story-telling.

The other story that I found especially noteworthy was "Passion of the Stormlord," by Robert A. Mancebo. Set aboard a ship at sea, it's the tale of Asad al Din, an Arabian sea captain, who encounters a ghost ship in the middle of the ocean where he's given a mysterious bottle by the sole survivor. The bottle, of course has a Djinn inside it, a lovely woman with the power to grant any wish. Unfortunately, she's also being pursued by her husband, a fellow Djinn who is a powerful sea spirit. One by one, the crew uses their wishes to survive as the Stormlord's wrath as they face typhoon winds and towering waves, not to mention undead armies of the drowned clawing onto the deck. In the end, only the captain has a wish remaining. Given that no one has yet been wise enough to ask for a wish that has not quickly turned to grief, can Asad al Din escape the fate of all those who've tried before to escape the vengeful sea?

"Passion of the Stormlord" is an excellent example of what makes this anthology worthwhile. It may be argued that the world didn't need another story about a genie in a bottle. After a thousand such stories, it would be very easy to think that the only hope of entertainment from such a premise would lie in parody. Instead, Mancebo approaches the tale with a sincere seriousness that makes the story fresh and rewarding.

Collections of original short fiction are increasingly rare from mainstream publishers. Short, epic fiction is such a self-contradicting concept that it's difficult to imagine an editor even pitching such an anthology. Luckily, Jason M. Waltz moved ahead with a project, perhaps motivated by the simple hunger to read a book that no one else had bothered to assemble. His efforts may not find a wide audience but I, for one, am glad to have discovered this magnificent collection.

Read more by James Maxey

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