Continuing on from Tuesday’s blog entry, three more reviews and the third part of a feature on the work of Australian writers and editors that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-
AUSTRALIA, MON HORREUR (continued)
THE BONE CHIME SONG AND OTHER STORIES (FableCroft Publishing paperback, 203pp, AU$19.95) contains thirteen stories by Joanne Anderton, another writer who deftly blurs the lines between horror, fantasy and science fiction, though as with Marillier horror isn’t the main dish brought to table.
Title story ‘The Bone Chime Song’ is a fantasy but with shades of horror, as a woman who works with bones is asked by her former lover to help solve some murders, with a fine undercurrent of emotion, the sense of a past between this man and woman, complementing the surface feeling of weirdness as we step through a world in which Necromancers enforce the law and blood sacrifice is part of the judicial system. ‘Mah Song’ is set in a world which is ruled by satellite computers who require human components to keep functioning, with a theocratic society organised in a way to supply them with this cannon fodder, until an ailing young man breaks all the rules in an attempt to be cured of what is killing him, and at the heart of the story, providing a human element in counterpoint to the overall sense of wonder, is the relationship between a sister and her brother, who is chosen to be the Mah Song. It’s a tale rich in detail and circumstantial invention, one where the reader at times can guess more than the characters.
There’s definitely a horror vibe going on in ‘Shadow of Drought’, something noted by protagonist Lou, as her friends are picked off one by one by mysterious black statues, the tension steadily growing as the plot unfolds, with the suggestion that the townspeople are complicit in their deaths, sacrificing their young for the sake of rain and crops, the story a powerful evocation of despair and playing knowingly on the tropes of the genre it so blithely references. Creatures fashioned out of bone by an artist come to life in ‘Sanaa’s Army’, helping their creator destroy a monster that preys on street children, the story obliquely told and revelling in the aura of sympathetic magic. There’s a Lovecraftian feel to ‘From the Dry Heart to The Sea’, as Damla who runs the ferry bears witness to the transformation of Town and its people, the story touching on themes of the outsider and intolerance, of trying to bend nature to our will or conforming to it.
Surreal and filled with grotesque imagery, ‘Always a Price’ features a cat that can use its claws to dig out illness in human beings, extracting cancerous tumours, the story deeply unsettling, like Lynch’s Eraserhead on speed. ‘Death Masque’ is another surreal fantasy, set in a strange reality where Henry seeks to wear a death mask in sympathy with his deceased son, the story a parable on the ways in which we deal with grief, but with the strangeness perhaps laid on a little too thick, so that it distracts from any emotional thrust of the narrative arc. In the dying world of ‘Flowers in the Shadow of the Garden’, great floating gardens circle the earth and people like Asfar harvest their bounty, but the city-states wish to possess these wonders for themselves, resulting in conflict until a mutual threat causes them to work together. This is a rich story, full of wonderful details, a sense of history and a world that is unravelling, but with a romantic subplot and also a lesson in co-operation as a way forward.
A Hunter and his apprentice follow the ‘Trail of Dead’ in pursuit of what they believe to be a necromancer, but something far more dangerous awaits them, the story shifting perspective and turning events on their head for an ending that merges action with a keen sense of loss. In ‘Fence Lines’ a family seek safety in a post-apocalyptic world by working on a sugar plantation, but there is a strange bargain made, a price that has to be met, with hints of sacrifice and transformation, a slowly burgeoning mood of unreality settling over the text as the narrative unfolds. Last story ‘Tied to the Waste’* has a tinker/witch who can restore dead things to life, but she is in thrall to her talent and appears to allow it to use her rather than the other way round, the story bittersweet and a bit too oblique for my liking. It left me wondering what the point of it all was.
Time for a novel I think, and so enter stage left THE BROKEN ONES (Anchor Books paperback, 368pp, $15.95) by Stephen M. Irwin, which is set in a time “not many years from now” and has one of the most audacious concepts I can recall seeing in some time.
The world changed on Gray Wednesday. The earth’s magnetic poles reversed themselves, causing chaos and an economic meltdown to make the banker induced flip of 2008 look like spare change lost down the back of a sofa. On a personal level, every person in the world now sees a ghost, somebody they knew in life and who was important to them, a change that is welcome and a comfort to some, but for many a source of torment, resulting in global madness and suicides on an unprecedented scale. Detective Oscar Mariani is part of the Nine-Ten Unit, charged with determining if crimes were in fact motivated by the urgings of the ghost, or simply human evil. His own ghost is a young boy, but he has no idea of the child’s connection to him. The game changes when Mariani gets involved in the murder of a young woman, a case that he is pressured to hand over to the regular police, and the trail leads him to an occult cabal, people who are ready to do anything to forward their agenda and for whom an honest police officer is simply a minor inconvenience.
I loved Irwin’s first novel The Darkening, and this baby is even better. The idea behind it, the setting in which the dead have returned, is vividly evoked, and a dazzling conceit. Irwin carefully works out all the ramifications of his backdrop and the responses that need to be made, so that his plot seems entirely plausible as police procedure. In Mariani we have the bluff honest cop of so much crime genre fiction, a man with a sense of integrity and refusal to compromise that costs him dear, in his past a failed marriage owing to the pressures of police work. He acts as he does, because only by staying true to himself can he function and hold his head up high. The other police characters are equally rounded, from the young and ambitious Neve de Rossa who sees her career as stalled thanks to her attachment to the Nine-Tens, through to the enigmatic Haig (an Australian Dudley Stone, regarding whom the jury is still out at the end of the book), Mariani’s supervising officer Moechtar, who appears to be sympathetic but with his hands tied, and his former partner Jon, a man whose star is on the rise. Then there are the two women at the heart of the story, the wealthy and powerful Ms Chaume, who seems fascinated by Mariani and wishes to bend him to her will, and streetwise Zoe, who doesn’t trust Mariani at first, but is persuaded to love him and place her own life in jeopardy. These are only some of the characters, with others that are just as fully drawn and memorable even though only peripheral to the action, such as serial killer Naville and Chaume’s factotum the ruthless Karl.
The plot is convoluted and engrossing, taking in serial killers and ritual sacrifice, with Mariani putting it all together piecemeal, each step along the way leading surely to the next and further vistas opening up before him. The supernatural scenes, with Mariani attacked by a demon and escaping to the other dimensional home of Erishkal are handled with a subtlety of approach and low key manner that makes them entirely convincing, while the presence of the young boy’s ghost strikes another note of mystery, one that is as unsettling as staring into his dead eyes.
The Broken Ones is a novel that is rich in detail and ideas, beautifully written and with a wealth of marvellous set pieces. I loved every page of it and can’t wait to see what Irwin produces next.
And so we face the final curtain, with MIDNIGHT AND MOONSHINE (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 319pp, £11.99), a collection of thirteen linked short stories or a mosaic novel (you decide) by the writing team of Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter. The common link here is the figure of Mymnir, the white raven who flees Ragnarok and tries to attain equality with the gods through her burgeoning power in the real world of Midgard, albeit one that is largely set in mythical times.
Opening story ‘Seeds’ tells of Mymnir’s escape in a long ship, her journey to an island kingdom, the failed pursuit of the black raven her brother, and how she seeded there the beginning of her empire, and woven in between all the magic of what is taking place is a picture of a black and vengeful deity, one who abuses her power. A tale of courtly intrigue in which two lovers attempt to thwart the Queen, ‘Burning Seaweed for Salt’ is remarkable for the keenly felt emotions, the detailed portrait of tyranny and the grotesque effects that litter the text.
In ‘The Morning is Wiser than the Evening’ the hapless hunter Magnus stays as a guest of the giant Surtr at his castle in the forest, but is turned against his host by the woman Blue Dove, the story like a fabulist blend of Bluebeard’s legend and Body Heat, all given a Nordic twist. ‘The Third Who Went With Us’ has Mymnir haunted by memories of the past, abandoning her island home and going in search of her brother Huginn, the story event packed and with a mythic quality that brings to mind other legends and belief systems. We learn more of the events in Surtr’s story in ‘To that Man, My Bitter Counsel’, told from the perspective of Ingrid, his former wife and now the mistress of Magnus, as he prepares to take Mymnir’s throne in her absence, the drama unfolding with all the casual brutality of a Greek tragedy.
‘Midnight’ moves the action forward in time and across to the New World, as French aristocrat Sophie disguises herself as a boy and goes in search of her lover Madeleine and legends of unearthly creatures, but what she finds is far more minatory in a tale that is convoluted, using letters and diary entries as well as direct description to forward the action. The shaman Delphine Laveau has to cope with the menace of Huginn, settled at the heart of a swamp in ‘Of the Demon and the Drum’ and negatively impacting on the surrounding reality, her guile serving far more than magic to compel the giant raven’s downfall, in a story that is rich in detail and with the ineffable feel of magic woven into the world, the voodoo deities showing kinship with their Norse brethren.
‘Bella Beaufort Goes to War’* brings us a later generation of the Laveau family, with two young women learning the magic arts and developing an unhealthy rivalry for the love of a feckless man, the tale rich in emotion and with magic warped to evil use in a beautifully written story, one in which the supernatural is just part and parcel of everyday life. The narrative carries forward into ‘Prohibition Blues’, with Bella’s children Maeve and Tallulah running afoul of her old nemesis Eugenia Laveau when they try to trade with the Faerie folk, the backdrop of gangsters and guns playing in counterpoint to the battle of magical forces, culminating in a lakeside standoff. Finally we have ‘Seven Sleepers’, with a mad Mymnir reviving the gods and believing she is to be their equal. The estranged Maeve and Tallulah must put aside their differences and join forces with other humans and faerie folk to avert Ragnarok, the story sizzling with action and a barrage of special effects that convince you the gods really have returned to this world, only for a final, damning line to show their lack of effect.
Hannett and Slatter have each written superb stories in their own right, but working in tandem they have reached new heights. Midnight and Moonshine is a brilliant book, a work rich in ideas and written in beautiful, evocative prose, with a sense of magic (and horror) as inextricably entwined with human existence. It’s a book that I think will reward repeat readings as you stumble across yet more links and allusions, and appreciation grows for what these authors have accomplished.