Posts Tagged ‘dark fantasy’
Here are just a few paperbacks coming out in February that have my attention. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran
Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips, and secrets of the successful writing life.
Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. Read Jennifer Egan’s essay.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
Distraught over the sudden disappearance of his wife, Zack tries to drown his grief in Tijuana, then returns to the U.S. with a stolen stash of marijuana. Using this as an impetus to change his life, Zack sets off for New York with the weed and a vintage Nikon. Through the lens of the old camera, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America we rarely see. His journey unleashes a series of erratic, hilarious, and life-threatening events interspersed with flashbacks to his relationship with Stella and life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
A suspenseful, darkly funny love story, 18% Gray won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and received the praise of critics everywhere.
Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey
Merlin: the very name summons up images of the wizard of Camelot — magician, prophet, and counselor to Arthur. The legend is famous but the truth is less well known: Merlin was a real historical figure, a champion of the old way of the Druids, a British man who hailed not from England or Wales, as traditional wisdom would have it, but from Scotland.
Adam Ardrey, who stumbled upon some of the hidden sources of Merlin’s life while researching the history of a Scottish clan, offers compelling evidence that links a very real Merlin figure into the histories of other real and prominent sixth century figures. “Finding Merlin” uncovers new evidence and reexamines the old. The places where Merlin was born, lived, died, and was buried are identified, as are the people surrounding him — his nemesis, the fanatic Mungo, and his friend, the hero Arthur. In this impressively researched and accessibly written book, Merlin leaps from the pages of legend into history.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; Barbara Wright
Contributors: Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Jesse Ball, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, Frederic Tuten.
Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable.Here is new proof.”
A new edition of the famous modernist story told ninety-nine different ways — with newly translated exercises by Queneau and contributions by some of today’s most acclaimed stylists.
Hat tip to Sarah Gerard, writer and bookslinger, for bringing this one to my attention.
How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda
How to Not Write Bad uses this basic tenet — what Ben Yagoda calls “not-writing-badly” — to illustrate how we can all write better, clearer, and for a wider readership. Yagoda offers advice on crafting sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction, punctuation, and grammar and that display clarity, precision, and grace. He then moves on to the art of constructing whole paragraphs—focusing on cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, sentence transitions, and length.
In a fun, comprehensive guide, Yagoda lays out the simple steps that we all can take to make our writing more effective, more interesting—and just plain better. As “lolspeak” and texts take over our linguistic consciousness, Yagoda emphasizes the lost art of grammar and the well-constructed sentence. He provides clear grammatical rules to help students and writers everywhere write better; this is a book for anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Love stories, with a twist: the eagerly awaited follow-up to the great Russian writer’s New York Times bestselling scary fairy tales
By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.
Exodus by Lars Iyer
A wickedly funny and satisfyingly highbrow black comedy about the collapse of Western academic institutions under the weight of neoliberal economics and crushing, widespread idiocy.
Lars and W., the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes of Spurious and Dogma—called “Uproarious” by the New York Times Book Review—return and face a political, intellectual, and economic landscape in a state of total ruination.
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply—although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerilla philosophy movement—conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges—that will save the study of philosophy after the long, miserable decades of intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
Granta 122: Betrayal
Without love there can be no betrayal – love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. In this issue of Granta, Janine di Giovanni witnesses a nation, Syria, betraying its people; Karen Russell imagines a soldier inscribing the memory of a fellow soldier on his back; and Colin Robinson writes about ancient brotherly friction resurfacing in a game of paddleball. From the playgrounds of New York City to the alleyways of Damascus, here is the theatre of betrayal.
Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.
If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.
The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.
In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.
Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber
I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.
In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:
Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.
Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.
He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.
“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.
Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.
In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.
Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.
Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.
The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.
The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.
From chapter one:
The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.
The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.
It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.
I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.
This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.
A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.
“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.
I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.
There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.
“Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it?” So asks Michal Ajvaz in his short novel The Other City. Set in Prague, the story opens on a snowy night in a rare bookstore. A man finds a book bound in dark-purple velvet without a title or author’s name. On closer look, the alphabet appears to be “not of this world.” By the time he leaves the store, the book purchased and in his pocket, the night has grown dark.
Soon, this mysterious book with its indecipherable language leads the protagonist to an alternate world, appearing at night and its inhabitants mixing with his days. This new landscape features ordinary creatures out of place: weasels pulling television sets strapped to sleds and stingrays gliding through snow. There is even an established religion with its own mythology, temples, and martyr.
The Other City presents readers with a series of impossible events and loosely charted plot; a surrealistic adventure through a parallel world that probes at physics and stretches the mind. In the Czech tradition, Ajvaz creates a philosophical novel, deeply internal and contemplative. While it’s a smart, fun read, it is most certainly not for everyone. The Other City takes patience to settle into and tolerance for the highly experimental. For those who can suspend disbelief and let wandering tales take them where they command, they will be rewarded.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
In The Graveyard Book, with it’s sparse language and eight concise chapters, Neil Gaiman shines as a master storyteller. Although written for children, the story, winning the 2009 Newbery Medal winner, follows the Gothic fairy tale tradition, assuring it a satisfied adult audience.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family meets a brutal end when he is just a baby. Unnoticed by the murderer, he escapes from the house and finds his way to the nearby graveyard. There he’s raised by ghosts, given to the Owens’ as a son, to Silas as a charge, and renamed “Nobody,” or “Bod” for short.
In true Gaiman fashion, the usual ghost story is flipped on its head, with the ghosts as protectors and humans (mostly) as villains. The boy has “The Freedom of the Graveyard,” the ability to go places inaccessible by the average living person, and a few ghost-like attributes, such as fading and remaining unnoticed—not to mention the ability to see and communicate with the graveyard’s dead inhabitants.
Trite as it is to say, this book is a coming of age tale. For years, Bod is kept inside the grounds for safety, watched over by the numerous ghosts, all of whom know there will come a time when he’s no longer a boy and must go out into the world to live among the living. As Bod grows older, the years neatly chronicled in separate chapters, he becomes curious, asks more questions, and takes more risks.
The Graveyard Book is a heartwarming story for all ages. Read it and pass it along to the younger ones in your life.
China Miéville is one of the brainiest authors writing today. With a background in sociolinguistics, Miéville describes his latest book, Embassytown, as being about “language and subspace and lots of classic science fictional stuff.”
“For me,” he continues, “the book is not so much about actually existing linguistics necessarily so much as it is to do with a certain kind of more abstract . . . philosophy of language of symbols, and of semiotics, and indeed some of this crosses over into theological debates.”
But no need to worry about symbols and semiotics just yet because before there was Embassytown, there was Perdido Street Station.
Published in 2000, Perdido Street Station earned China a place within the science fiction writing community. He was nominated for the both the Nebula and Hugo Award, respectably losing out to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (because really, who can compete with that?). He is a two-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award: first for Perdido Street in 2001 and then again in 2010 for his novel The City & The City.
The first of his novels set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, specifically the large city-state of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is an experiment in alternate world cosmopolitanism. It’s a place where humans, mythical birds, and half-bugs mingle.
The story opens with the rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin waking up next to his khepri girlfriend, Lin, an artist who fled her provincial upbringing for city life. Those familiar with Egyptian mythology will know that the name Khepri comes from the god who had a scarab body for a face. In Miéville’s story, the female khepri have human bodies, tinted a shade of red, and, like their namesake, a scarab for a head. Unable to communicate vocally with humans, they’ve created a form of sign language using their “head legs”.
The multi-species community brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s with its tenuous interactions and irrational prejudices. The various races live amongst each other on different socioeconomic levels and interracial dating is taboo; if Isaac wants to retain his laboratory privileges provided to him by the university, he must keep his relationship with Lin a secret.
While the relationship between Lin and Isaac provides an interesting lens through which to view life in Bas-Lag, it’s the arrival of Yagharek, a garuda, the mythical bird mentioned above, that provides the catalyst. Yagharek comes to Isaac looking for help. As punishment for a transgression against his people, his wings had been sawed off, leaving him deformed and flightless. He asks Isaac to make him a new set—not just for show but for function as well.
While researching flying animals and insects, Isaac obtains a caterpillar on the black market. He allows it to grow, feeds it the only thing it will eat—a powerful drug flooding the streets of New Crobuzon—and takes no heed as the mysterious bug spins its cocoon. What hatches is a slake-moth, a deadly insect that exists multi-dimensionally and has no known predator.
Breaking free from its inadequate cage, the moth rescues four of its brethren from high-security captivity. Institutionalized corruption and unlikely alliances surface as the various organizations with varied interests in the moths go on the hunt.
Perdido Street Station’s strength is its rich detail. Powerful descriptions of the city and those of the often grotesque creatures living within its borders, envelope the reader in a world existing outside of anything previously imagined. It’s not a quick read, nor is it easy, but that is Miéville’s niche: the savored read. China Miéville’s sophisticated writing style puts him at the forefront of science fiction today and has given Perdido Street Station an enduring place within the canon.
Buy Perdido Street Station, or find one at your local store, at IndieBound
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (audio)
Geek’s Guide Interview transcribed at Lightspeed Magazine (text)
Guardian Interview: The Books that Made Me (audio)
Book Lust with Nancy Pearl (video)
3:AM Magazine Interview (text)
Excerpt of Perdido Street Station at NPR
Profile in The New York Times (for 2010 release of Kraken)
::[Other books by China Miéville]::
King Rat (2000)
“Obviously music was a big influence on King Rat. It was written during the high point of Drum n’ Bass. That was what I was listening to at that point. King Rat is above all a London novel but coming close behind it is also a music novel. The other two novels haven’t been quite like that. I write to music but music doesn’t saturate the book in the same way. To that extent King Rat was relatively anomalous. When a new music comes along that moves me in the same way that drum n’ bass did then I’m sure it’ll find it’s way into the writing.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]
“Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul Garamond’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.” [via IndieBound]
The Scar (2002)
The second novel set in the Bas-Lag world, is a maritime story set off the coast of where New Crobuzon is and it’s basically a pirate story. It’s about a big floating pirate city made of ships lashed together. People get caught by pirates and it goes from there. Again, it comes from my childhood reading and the trick with modern pulp and with anything good is to be respectful and true to the roots and to do something in that tradition and do it as well as you can. I don’t like post-modern nudges and winks. I’m not big on irony. So it’s not like I’m ironically winking at a fantasy tradition of pirates. This is a pirate book. Hopefully it’s also an interesting creative novel and one you can read on other levels but it is also a pirate book.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]
“Aboard a vast seafaring vessel, a band of prisoners and slaves, their bodies remade into grotesque biological oddities, is being transported to the fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. But the journey is not theirs alone. They are joined by a handful of travelers, each with a reason for fleeing the city. Among them is Bellis Coldwine, a renowned linguist whose services as an interpreter grant her passage—and escape from horrific punishment. For she is linked to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant renegade scientist who has unwittingly unleashed a nightmare upon New Crobuzon.” [via IndieBound]
Iron Council (2005)
“It is a time of wars and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming city to the brink. A mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places.
In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope.” [IndieBound]
Un Dun Lun (2007)
“[W]ith “Un Lun Dun” — a sooty, street-smart hybrid of “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Phantom Tollbooth” — Miéville’s talents have been brought into focus under the restrictions of the form. “Un Lun Dun” is not only sleek of line and endlessly (but not needlessly) inventive, it also offers a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs.” [via Salon]
The City & The City (2009)
“The City and the City is very different. It takes place in our familiar world, a post-Soviet locale which draws on string theory for its ideas and conventional experience for its story. Apart from one exceptional detail, this book could be a clever mystery story told from the point of view of a Balkan policeman struggling to cope with the problems of a society burdened by traditions and attitudes from its recent authoritarian past. Featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke Greene’s The Third Man and Vienna’s zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.” [via Michael Moorcock review]
“Kraken’s whirlpool of a plot zeros in on Billy Harrow, a young scientist at London’s Natural History Museum who recently embalmed the institution’s latest acquisition, a giant squid. When the squid vanishes, Billy gets sucked into a teeming, paranormal London underworld—reminiscent in some ways of Miéville’s bestselling young-adult novel,Un Lun Dun—that’s crisscrossed by magic constables; foppish Nazis; a pair of monstrous, father-and-child assassins; animal mediums on strike; an origamist who uses math to fold solid matter; and a cult of squid-worshippers whose apocalypse is on the fast track now that their deity is missing. Due to his contact with the creature, the cult considers Billy a prophet, and before long, he’s caught in a larger battle involving clashing eschatologies, reality written in squid ink, and even the personified sea itself.” [via the A.V. Club]
“Embassytown is a riveting trip through a monster-haunted subspace called the immer, and down into a tiny human ghetto called Embassytown on a planet called Areika, whose alien inhabitants cannot understand any language but their own. . . . If you are fascinated by stories of genuinely alien cultures, you need to read Embassytown (it comes out in May). And if you’re a fan of China Miéville, author of The City & The City andKraken, you’re in for a treat: This is his first pure science fiction novel.” [via i09]
“There were always tears of joy; a man so beautifully married to machine was something that people needed to see after a war like they had been through. The technology in those days was weapons and radio signals; people needed to remember the art of the machine.”
Since the age of 9, Genevieve Valentine has been a fan of Circus du Soleil. What drew her in was the seemingly impossible artistry and athleticism of the performers. As an author of short fantasy stories, it wasn’t too far a leap to see the fantastical elements in this real-life traveling troupe. When asked by Prime Books founder and publisher, Chris Wallace, if she had any dark-fantasy ideas she wanted to flesh out, Genevieve went to her list and found Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, the story of a supernatural circus set in a post apocalyptic world.
Valentine’s Circus Tresaulti is one of the few travelling entities left in the war-torn world of walled cities, receded governments, and bombed out buildings. The group is composed of body-modified performers fitted out and led by their ringleader—a woman known only as Boss.
Through complex story structure, one that plays with point of view and time, the reader is given slivers of information from alternating perspectives. The details come in pieces, forcing one to hold them together in their mind until they can be taken as a whole. As the story moves forward, the circus begins to fall apart. Traumas of the past and current internal battles envelope the group—their relationships rife with competition and emotional inconsistencies.
The story of Alec, the beloved aerial performer last to possess a set of beautiful wings made of pipe and bone, who plunged, willingly, to his death, haunts those who knew him and who were there to witness his end. The reason for Alec’s self-destruction is shrouded in mystery and can only be surmised by a select few. The repetitive remembering of his fall is a warning, a foreshadowing, of what might come to whoever wears them next. The two newcomers, Bird and Steno, covet those wings, now stored in Boss’s workshop, not knowing the power they wield.
Genevieve creates an interesting contrast to the destruction of the circus as she moves the story backwards in time. In these interweaving vignettes she retells each performer’s beginnings, showing how the community was built out of the wreckage of war.
We’re introduced to Ayer, the strongman whose skeleton is externally reinforced with metal junk, and his assistant, Jonah, who was brought, near-death, to the circus and saved with clockwork lungs; Panadrome, a conductor of an opera in his previous life, a victim of a bombing, is now a self-contained one man band; and the aerialists, hollowed out, their bones replaced with copper pipes, are made light and easy to reconstruct if ever they fall. After the performers are modified, all are given new names, as if starting anew, leaving their old lives behind.
Throughout the story, in addition to the tension brewing inside, the circus faces an outside threat from a shadowy figure known as the government man. He hopes to co-opt Boss’s body-modifying talents to build an indestructible mechanical army. All comes to a head when Boss is taken to an undisclosed location and the troupe is split into two ideological camps—those who think they should flee the city before the others are captured and those who want to wait for her return.
Little George, the main narrator of the story and Boss’s apprentice who’s been with the troupe since the age of 5, reluctantly takes the reigns, finds his footing, and goes from mere helper to leader in a matter of hours. It’s a mini coming-of-age tale surrounded by a larger story of survival.
The driving force of Mechanique is the intrigue. You’re never given the full story, only brief glimpses, as if looking at a landscape through squinted eyes. The unknown creates a sense of unease and with it a sense of urgency; but Mechanique, although easily devoured, is a book whose every word is meant to be digested.
In his review, Jeff VanderMeer said Mechanique “represent[s] the future of fantastical fiction.” One can hope.
Buy Mechanique at IndieBound
Visit Genevieve’s website where she blogs regularly
Visit the official Circus Tresaulti site
Follow Genevieve on Twitter @GLValentine
Listen to her interview on io9’s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy
The parsing of genres into subgenres and then into sub-subgenres has its champions and its critics. Many who oppose it feel it’s a disingenuous marketing gimmick created by the publishing industry to sell more books. Those who encourage breaking down science fiction, fantasy, and horror into further subsections feel it’s easier to discuss the books they like and to find other authors like the ones they’ve just read.
This won’t be the last I mention categorizing books, and I won’t go as in-depth here as I will in the future, however, a brief acknowledgment was is in order before mentioning a recent SF Signal round table discussion that took place on their podcast.
The topic, one I’d been eagerly awaiting, was “Dark Fantasy”. It’s a term I use often to describe a story that is mainly fantastical in nature but has a creepy element to it.
The panel of well-read experts was largely in agreement with the definition: Karen Burnham, editor of Locus magazine’s Roundtable Blog, said that horror is not the main thrust; Paul Weimer, blogger and SF Signal contributor, said that fantasy is the key and the horror is merely lurking; and similarly, John Stevens, writer and bookseller, said that with dark fantasy, the horror elements are there to intensify the fantastical. All agreed that the term was ambiguous and subjective, which is apparent from their selection of books they accredit with the moniker. If you want to know what they suggested, you’ll just have to listen.
Have you read any dark fantasy lately? How would you define it? Who are some of your favorite dark fantasy authors? Favorite books?
On the Shelf for Halloween
Here’s a mixture of dark fantasy and horror titles to get you in the mood for Halloween.
The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm (1812)
This was interesting: The first volumes were much criticized because, although they were called “Children’s Tales”, they were not regarded as suitable for children, both for the scholarly information included and the subject matter. Many changes through the editions – such as turning the wicked mother of the first edition in Snow White and Hansel and Gretel to a stepmother, were probably made with an eye to such suitability. They removed sexual references—such as Rapunzel’s innocently asking why her dress was getting tight around her belly, and thus naïvely revealing her pregnancy and the prince’s visits to her stepmother—but, in many respects, violence, particularly when punishing villains, was increased. [Wikipedia]
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823)
To those who have not read the book, the name Frankenstein is often associated with the monster rather than its creator. The mistake is perhaps not altogether erroneous, for as many critics point out the creature and his maker are doubles of one another, or doppelgängers. Their relationship is similar to that between the head and the heart, or the intellect and the emotion. The conception of the divided self–the idea that the civilized man or woman contains within a monstrous, destructive force–emerges as the creature echoes both Frankenstein’s and narrator Robert Walton’s loneliness: all three wish for a friend or companion. Frankenstein and his monster alternately pursue and flee from one another. Like fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, they represent polar opposites which are not reconciled, and which destroy each other at the end. For example, the creature enacts the repressed desires of its maker, alleviating Victor Frankenstein’s fear of sexuality by murdering his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza, on their wedding night. Identities merge, as Frankenstein frequently takes responsibility for the creature’s action: for instance, after the deaths of the children William and Justine, both of which were caused by the creature, Frankenstein admits they were “the first hapless victims to [his] unhallowed arts.” [Brandeis]
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
By this time I had finished my supper, and by my host’s desire had drawn up a chair by the fire and begun to smoke a cigar which he offered me, at the same time excusing himself that he did not smoke. I had now an opportunity of observing him, and found him of a very marked physiognomy.
His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. [BBC]
Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe from 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe
The vengeful Montresor repays the supposed insults of his enemy, Fortunato. Luring Fortunato into the crypts of his home with the promise of Amontillado sherry, Montresor entombs Fortunato in a wall while the carnival rages above them. [Sparknotes]
The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake (1946 – 59)
Classic epic fantasy:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow. [Titus Groan. Book 1]
Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its subgenre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ tales belong, is tinier still. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world. [Laura Miller, Introduction to the Haunting of Hill House]
Hellboy by Mike Mignola and John Byrne (Character’s first appearance: 1993)
Hellboy is one of the most celebrated comics series in recent years. The ultimate artists’ artist and a great storyteller whose work is in turns haunting, hilarious, and spellbinding, Mike Mignola has won numerous awards in the comics industry and beyond. When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar. [Indiebound] Check out some Hellboy Art
The Blade Itself by Joe Ambercrombie (2007)
Dark fantasy meets sharp-edged war story in the standalone tale of a single great battle for control of the North, set in the world of The First Law. Taking place over three days, it follows the misadventures of six varied people on both sides of the conflict and at all levels of command, their stories played out against an epic backdrop of intrigue, ambition, betrayal and, of course, a lot of edged weapons used in anger. [Joe Ambercrombie]
The Years Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2011 edited by Paula Guran (2011)
With short stories from Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolf, George R.R. Martin, Tim Powers, and more.
Welcome to the dark. It comes in more colors than you may have imagined. Quiet blue shadows, a glimpse of ghostly white, a once-dim corner deepening to stygian black, the sudden scarlet stain in the basement, the flash of flesh turning to fur, crumbling ash-gray memories, deep jungle greens, mottled-glaucous full moons, the brown of fresh-turned earth, a cutting slash of silver, the tempting glint of gold, bruising purple, alien orange, urban neons, the iridescent shimmer of colors the human eye cannot always see…Find them all in the words of these masterful storytellers. The best dark fantasy and horror from 2010: more than 550 pages of dark tales from some of today’s best-known writers of the fantastique as well new talents. Chosen from a variety of sources, these stories may help you see the many colors of the dark. [Prime Books]
What are you reading this Halloween?
Aliette de Bodard, a 2009 finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, wraps up her Obsidian and Blood trilogy this November with Master of the House of Darts. The series is a “cross between a historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters.”
In all three installments, de Bodard masters the atmospherics needed to pull readers into this dark and magical world. The protagonist, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead in charge of the Sacred Precinct, a position that can be thought of as a mix between priest and coroner, is a sympathetic character with personality flaws that transcend time and culture. Time and again he finds himself unwillingly dragged into impossible investigations and forced to confront both internal struggles and external demons.
Vivid imagery, flowing prose, and natural dialogue are at the heart of de Bodard’s writing. One of the most original storytellers out there, Aliette merges her love of mythology and her desire to bring more non-Western influences to the science fiction and fantasy realm.
Aliette and I talked about the days of the Aztec Empire, the trouble with mainstream narratives, and how to pitch a book idea on the fly.
The Obsidian and Blood series takes place during the time of the Aztec Empire. This civilization was wiped out in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers and what’s known about them is largely taken from archaeological digs. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that part of your motivation in writing this series was to repair the damage done to their legacy. I hope I’m being accurate, feel free to correct me. What was most important to you when you sat down to recreate this world?
What was most important to me was to present the world in a fair way: as you mention, a lot of the narratives we have around the Mexica/Aztecs are Spanish ones, and the surface ones are deeply biased. I’ve mentioned it in other inteviews, but I was always struck by how often narratives reach for the Mexica when they need a bloodthirsty, evil culture. And it seems… wrong. I have issues with caricatures; and I don’t believe every single aspect of a culture can be irredeemably evil. Plus, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the conquistadors were hardly saints or trustworthy witnesses, and when I set out to tell stories set in the heyday of the Mexica Empire, what I wanted was to avoid falling into the same clichéd depiction of the culture. I’m no Nahuatl, but I did try my best to research the culture and bring to light its achievements.
What achievements did you unearth during your research?
Once you get past the stumbling block of human sacrifices, you realise that the Mexica civilisation was a very advanced one in many respects–that they had fantastic astronomy and medicine, that their women had vast amounts of rights compared to most medieval civilisations, and that their justice system was harsh, but much fairer than its English or French equivalent, putting the onus of responsibility on noblemen (who could afford to respect the prohibitions) rather than on commoners (who couldn’t).
And what about the notion that we only have archaeological digs to go on?
Archaeological digs aren’t the only source. We have at least three major sources for the Mexica civilisation: the remaining Nahuatl people in Mexico, though they did not fare well under Spanish rule; the accounts of the Spaniards such as the Codex Florentine, who attempt to account for the civilisation they destroyed, but which are–naturally–hardly free of bias; and finally, the archaeological digs themselves, though those are made difficult because the Spanish were thorough in destroying anything Mexica they could find, and also because Tenochtitlan itself is under Mexico City, not the most propitious of places to dig.
“Nothing in this building is to be taken lightly, my dear, nothing at all.”
I’d like to say outright that it takes a chapter or two to settle into the The World House. I give forewarning because after acclimating to the pace and structure of the story, the reader is rewarded tenfold. In this dark fantasy, Guy Adams creates an impossible mystery within an alternate dimension set outside the usual notions of space, time, and logic.
The book begins with the reality-based lives of multiple characters, many unconnected and rooted in different continents and time periods. Miles, a modern-day Brit, owes gambling debts to a man who collects in cash or broken bones; Penelope, living in 1920s America, finds that her fiance has a dark side; Tom, also an American, is a hack musician who spends his waking hours inebriated and pining after Elise, a stripper who frequents the same bar when she’s done with work; Pablo is a hired thief in Spain during their Civil War of the 1930s; and Sophie, described as “special-needs,” appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum and for that reason not much is known about her origins. What they all have in common is a chance encounter with an ancient box and a stressful moment. In an instant, the artifact unlatches and pulls them inside the surreal world of an old, Victorian house.
Alan, a middle-aged history professor from modern-day Florida, however, is an exception to those unexpectedly transported. An unexplained bout of amnesia has wiped out any memory of his earlier years. Preoccupation with lost time leads Alan to an obsess over the legend of a mysterious box. Determined to find this object known to steal people away, rarely returning them, he spends much of his time researching its whereabouts and placing ads offering a price to anyone who might have it in their possession.
One day he’s contacted and given instructions for a meetup. Expecting a hoax or a false alarm, as has been the case with past encounters, he’s surprised to see the real thing in front of him. After paying a generous sum, he’s drawn through and finds himself in a jungle—later revealed to be a greenhouse. Immediately, he comes across Sophie, newly transplanted, unsure of where she is and how she got there. Alan takes it upon himself to protect her, which turns out to be a heroic endeavor since there’s a Lord of the Flies type situation happening amongst the jungle-residents they meet.
The interweaving stories of these characters, spilt into three groups as they travel the house, are complex and disorienting yet surprisingly coherent. Their adventures provide vivid images of a horrific location: a playroom with a live game of Chutes and Ladders, a library with dog-sized bookworms, a bathroom where a royal navy sails through treacherous waters, and rooms connected by hidden portals. Alternating between the separate groups in quick succession, each of their predicaments equally intriguing, Adams builds tension through compelling cliffhangers. The effect is effortless page-turning.
As the story unfolds—unforced, organic, and without banalities—the experience is mind-bending and to give anything away would be a criminal act. When you come up on the last few pages of The World House make sure you have the sequel, Restoration, on hand. You won’t want this story to end.
Guy Adams’ page at Angry Robot