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I've been reading... - The Lyorn's Den

Wed Sep. 13th, 2006

10:49 am - I've been reading...

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... and I'll try to avoid spoilers.

Shadows over Baker Street (Anthology, 2003)

This is an anthology of short stories by various authors on the theme of "Sherlock Holmes meets Call of Cthulhu". All but two of the stories are set in Victorian times (so, correct time frame for Sherlock Holmes, but not for the original Lovecraft stories) and are, with few exceptions, "Case files", i.e., there's crime or a mystery and it has to be solved. Contributors include Neil Gaiman, Poppy Z. Brite, Caitlin Kiernan, Barbara Hambly, Elizabeth Bear, and a lot of others whose names I do not remember at the moment.

The book opens with a bang, Neil Gaiman's 2005 Hugo-winning "A Study in Emerald". (No direct link, as it is a 5 MB pdf-File.) It's a "behind the mirror" kind of story, which starts out familiar and becomes anything but, although you recognise all the patterns.

Other stories that left an impression:

Elizabeth Bear's "Tiger! Tiger!", featuring Irene Adler, a hunting party, a tiger and a really-not-tiger. Great atmosphere, and it takes a long time to find out what they are up against, and why.

Steve Perry's "The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger" is a two-character piece that pokes fun at Holmesian deduction. I didn't like it much as a story, but it was clever enough to remember.

"A Case of Royal Blood" by Steven-Elliot Altman is a very fine mystery in the Dutch Royal family. The narrator is not Watson, but H.G. Wells, whose writing I do not know well enough to decide if the story succeeds as a pastiche, but it succeeds as a mystery.

In James Lowder's "The Weeping Masks", Watson tells of his experiences in Afghanistan. I found that the scariest story of the book, mostly because we are made to care about a secondary character who may well not survive.

A sympathetic secondary character also contributes a lot to the suspense of "Art In The Blood" by Brian Stableford. In this story, Sherlock's brother Mycroft is the person with the clue, and Sherlock does the legwork.

Hambly's "The Adventure of the Antiquarian's Niece" keeps the balance between case file and supernatural horror well. Watson, despite being the narrator, kind of gets the short stick on this one. Unfortunately, in the book this story is preceded by Poppy Z. Brite's and David Fergusson's "The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone", which uses a similar magic effect but left me rather cold.

"The Mystery of the Hanged Man's Puzzle" by Paul Finch is pure pulp, in the best sense. A case file with a lot of legwork, goons with futuristic weapons appearing from seemingly nowhere, mad witnesses, mad scientists, monsters, and damsels in distress.

I'm paging through the book and find that "The Horror of the Many Faces" by Tim Lebbon is one of those stories which should have been quite good, yet I didn't care for it much. Great idea, but Watson is angsting too much for my taste, and the solution is unsatisfactory.

Michael Reave's "The Adventure of the Arab's Manuscript" is not bad, but not well served by its place in the middle of the book -- after reading the stories before it, this one is quite predictable. It might be better if read for itself.

"A Case of Insomnia" by John P. Vourlis takes a little time to get into gear, but all in all the story of a monster haunting a village as soon as the lights are out was a good, if not spectacular, read.

The final story is Simon Clark's "Nightmare in Wax", which uses in interesting storytelling technique, has some strong imagery which is probably taken directly from Lovecraft, and an ending that fits quite well.

Total, eighteen stories, of which I remember thirteen a week after reading, and liked about ten, consider three of them good ("Tiger!", "Royal Blood", "Hanged Man's Puzzle") and one excellent ("Study in Emerald"). Not too bad for an anthology. The focus is, of course, extremely narrow, so the later stories have a harder time being interesting.

Thanks to cyrna for lending me the book!

Teckla, by Steven Brust, 1987

I have been hunting this book for ages, until finally, a few weeks ago, Snow's sister managed to get hold of it in a second-hand-store half a world away and sent it to me. So I read it for the third time (the first two having borrowed it from The Captain), and I'm still in two minds about it and probably will always be.

Vlad's world is crumbling, although he won't notice how badly until the next book in the series, "Phoenix". Cawti, who he fell for head-over-heels in "Yendi" and married on the spot, becomes estranged from him. Vlad still loves her, but he doesn't really know her, and, in fact, never has, as a re-reading of "Jhereg" (first in the series, second in the timeline when "Teckla" was published) shows. So much for "Love At First Sight", as limyaael remarked in one of her rants. Cawti has joined up with a bunch of revolutionaries, who have completely reasonable ideas which are completely absurd given the basic metaphysical rules of the world they live in. Vlad, knowing more about the workings of the world and lacking any shred of political awareness, despises the revolutionaries for getting Cawti involved in their shenanigans, for being powerless, for being fools and for making his life even more complicated than it usually is.

And that's the problem I'm having with "Teckla": As Vlad is telling the story in his voice, most of the other characters are annoying, because they annoy him. And as first person is a limited voice, he misses out on much of what is going on, notices too little, too late, and doesn't leave the reader with anything resembling a picture, only a bunch of flashes.

In "Orca", a similar problem is solved by having Kiera the Thief as a secondary narrator who fills in what would otherwise be blanks. In "Teckla", Cawti's voice could have got the story into a better shape, but it's only Vlad's voice throughout, and one reads a tattered story full of not-very-sympathetic characters.

What makes the book nevertheless interesting is what is happening to Vlad, and his world, while he doesn't get it. Like "Issola", "Teckla", IMO, sketches and develops background ("Issola" for world, "Teckla" for character), but suffers from the limitations of POV.

And I'm very happy that I finally managed to get my hands on this book!

The Poison Master, by Liz Williams, 2003

Charles Stross has described this book as "Perdido Street Station meets druggy Victorians in space meets barely-comprehensible aliens and a side-order of cabbalism and political paranoia", which sounded interesting enough that I wanted to read it.

As per Clarke's Third Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), it's impossible to say whether the book is fantasy or science fiction. People travel from one world to another via space ship, planet-based wormhole, or are led by the helpful spirit of a drug, and I won't even try to categorise the book.

In Elizabethan times, Dr. John Dee is dreaming of travelling to other worlds, and is summoning angels with mathematical equations. Many hundred years later on a world called "Latent Emanations", young Alivet is an apothecary and alchemist -- a skilled profession, but not a very respected one. The world is ruled by the enigmatic "Lords of Night", a rule enforced by the usual bunch of human priests and aristocrats who like being high on the totem pole. When one of Alivet's high-class customers drops dead, Alivet has to run and is picked up by a Mysterious Stranger, who introduces himself as Ari Ghairen, a professional poisoner from another world. He has a contract on the Lords of Night and needs Alivet's help to fulfil it. Alivet ends up locked in his laboratory on his planet, with a week to brew the perfect poison, a pretty clear idea that everyone around wants to use her and some want to kill her, and no idea whom she can trust.

The book is dense, tightly packed with amazing and beautiful images, strangeness, intrigue and world building in the most unexpected moments. I tried to read the book as a mystery and failed: if there are any hints to figure out the intrigues before Alivet does, I didn't get them. Reading it as fantasy and just let the story take me where it would worked best. The worlds and people feel incredibly real in their strangeness, marshes and fens and jackal-headed peaceful aliens, sky-high towers in an icy wind, gardens, foods made of darkness, drugs with quirky personalities and amazing insights. Every time I tried to read faster to get to the bottom of the intrigue I started missing shiny little details, so I read slowly and enjoyed every page.