1Q 2012 Small Press Book Reviews


Edited by Alma Alexander

Dark Quest Books

It says much that is good about both Alma Alexander and Dark Quest books that they were able to assemble such an impressive stable of writers for this anthology. This is an occasionally uneven but fascinating compilation of stories about various rivers, that runs from an enchanted spring to the great Sea.

First, a little about the organization of the anthology. I found the concept and table of contents  utterly charming and memorable: it’s a map of a river, with the stories as places along its banks. Not so charming was the TMI about each author and story at the end of each tale: this is something that a professional print antho rarely does, but seems to be prevalent in anthologies nowadays – perhaps as a result of the practice in online magazines. The typeface (at 100 percent) was also a little larger than a standard book, which did a subtle disservice to the quality of the stories by making it seem that the book was being padded by that and (this opinion only) the slightly larger than necessary illustrations. But I hasten to add that the one simple illustration found at the opening of each story was marvelous and highly appropriate. Whoever  interior artist “Puss ’n Boots” is, I enjoyed their contributions thoroughly.

Now, on to the stories.

“The Well Keeper and the Wolf” by Tiffany Trent was an appropriate and agreeable opening tale, with a well that was the start of all rivers, and also the wellspring of the river of stars. The tension of the unrequited love keeping the universe flowing was an unexpected and nice touch. “Rites” by Mary Victoria evoked the sun-baked hills of Cyprus, and a very young woman’s fascination with both her Cypriot grandmother’s old well and an ex-pat British painter. It’s a coming of age story, but I found the way the water claimed her new-found womanhood to be too fantastic to credit – and just a little horrific compared to the gentle tone of the rest of the tale.

One of the best stories in the anthology was “The Fall.” Here, our protagonist and narrator is a waterfall, and writer Irene Radford causes us to identify with this rushing torrent as it dances and sings over rocks and shoals – no mean feat. It loves the people that live near its banks, and you feel how its life is intertwined with their agonies and defeats. You should buy the book for this story alone.

Jay Lake’s “They are Forgotten Until They Come Again” was a serviceable offering that would have fit anywhere along this River’s banks. In this post-apocalyptic tale a baby is to be sacrificed to the river, and its mother—a sensual woman who will not marry and therefore infuriates tribal wives—shows up on a burning raft to save it. She uses her magic powers to not only save her child but kill the men who would slay him. The fact that she then (wearing only mud) lures a barely pubescent boy to the crumbled city to help her raise the child was slightly disturbing. And the magic used at the climactic scene was not well-foreshadowed: it felt like Deus Ex Machina.

“Scatalogical,” by Deb Taber, deals with scat. And logic. And a few well-deserved bad words. It’s probably the cleverest piece in the book. Why are the mud-frogs coming out of the river near the huge mound of carelessly discarded trash? What do their songs mean? And why are they so full of sh*t? It’s quite a contrast to the next story, “Floodlust,” which is a failed love quadrangle. A young woman must choose between a river god, an older man it is acceptable to marry, and a younger man she wants to marry. She ends up with none of them. Somehow, writer Jacey Bedford makes this improbable situation work, and work well.

Next up was “Five Bullets on the Banks of the Sadji” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli. It’s a mood piece, vaguely Oriental, and a drama of old against new, water magic against encroaching civilization, and one man’s fight against the long decline. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and you will, too. After that was the wonderful “My Grandfather’s River” by one of my favorite writers, Brenda Cooper, in which a young woman teases out a VR version of a vanished river ecosystem as a present for her grandfather’s hundredth birthday. Wow. (I had a Damn, why didn’t I get to publish this story? moment.)

“The River” by Joshua Palmatier is a tale of magic about an assassin who is charged with killing a woman who murdered her own children – or did she? It’s marvelous, but those who have not read the Throne of Amenkor trilogy will not understand who the woman at the end of the story is. I really enjoyed the next offering, “Lady of the Waters” by Seanan McGuire. How could I not love a ship with a female centaur captain and a female mer-lionfish first mate?  A sample: “The members of the Jackdaw’s crew who were engaged in consuming their breakfast didn’t turn. They had all had plenty of time to learn that when people made those particular noises, one or more of their crewmates was probably involved. They didn’t need to worry unless someone started screaming.” Oh yes. Tons of fun, this.

A young Czech pianist living in the Napoleonic-era meets Mozart and the girl emulates him. She is nearly drowned by river creatures she thought were a fairy tale concocted by adults, but finds the Vodnik horribly real. They haunt her. How she ends the haunting and deals with her guilt regarding a deal she made with the creatures is the meat of  “Vodnik Laughter” by Ada Milenkovic Brown. Then, in the next story, a young woman on a camping trip is more than she seems…waiting for her gills to manifest, waiting for The Change, trusting to the River when all else fails to guide her on her quest. The post apocalyptic “River-kissed” by Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a perfect synthesis of mermaid and Native American lore.

The final piece is “Beyond the Lighthouse,” by Nisi Shawl. This was my first encounter with Shawl’s writing and I was utterly entranced. In this fitting closure to a River anthology, Leelah—a 55-year-old woman of color who runs a restored university theater with complete artistic freedom—has a secret. She is able to, via a sort of dreaming, transform herself into a bird at night – a bird that can inhabit the past, scope out the secrets of the present, and see the unseen. The reader discovers that the various species of birds she has become have, like the story, layers of symbolism. The deepest symbolism, however, is the limits on her magical system: Leelah cannot fly as a night-bird past a sort of lighthouse she has erected at the river mouth. Reaching for new love, at her age, tempts her to soar over the ocean of dissolution. She takes our River to a satisfying conclusion at the very edge of a nighttime sea.



The Immersion Book of Steampunk

Edited by Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala

Immersion Press

I love steampunk, but so rarely find one that will fit my magazine’s needs. So it was a pleasure to shuck off my editorial hat and just dive in and enjoy  this collection of “everything steampunk could be.” Most of it went down well. It even contained a great story I’d had to reject as not quite right for A&A – I am so very glad that this tale by James Targett found a worthy home. “The Machines of the Nehphilim”  is a great steampunk spy thriller – with aliens.

But first in the collection was a dirigible/pirate romp: “Follow That Cathedral!” by Gareth Owens. Giant trains! Female pirates! Weird, streampunky tech and Russia under the tsars! I daydreamed of what a wonderful movie this would make, full of the  pageantry of impossible, over-the-top devices and outlandish costumes. And despite it being a stylistic success (much of steampunk can be, in my opinion, the style) it even had a decent plot.

In a very different vein, we have “The Siege of Dr. Vikare Blisset” by Jacques Barcia. It’s structurally interesting, set as a series of police interview transcripts, police files, and news items. Basically, a fellow or group of fellows are liberating the blueprints for a home-made tech future via a movement called No-Patent. They have the help of Dr. Nikola Tesla, who has provided tech for them to move in and out of time, or slow time down and speed it up. The blueprints are disseminated via various agencies which, while non-internet, have the same effect as if they were posted online. Perhaps information should be free, but it here seemed to be free at the expense of the poor harried policemen, who let the infamous Dr. Blisset get away, again.

I was not as enamored of the next offering. “The Clockworks of Hanyang” by Gord Sellar is set in what is perhaps an alternative Korea, in a world where steampunk robots have the laws of robotics plus a little wisdom from Confucius  in their circuits. I had a great deal of trouble making the stretch to human-looking, human-sized robots that pass a Turing test made with steampunk tech (Moore’s Law, anyone?) so that was already toying with my suspended disbelief when I found out that almost all of the major characters were robots, and some did not even know it. Add to this the climactic attempt at sympathy for robotic terrorists and…no thank you.

On the other hand, my internal mystery buff liked “Cinema U” by G. D. Falksen. It was a simple detective story, well executed. Here, to my relief, the steampunk tech—in this case early phonographs and motion picture equipment—stayed in believable places and was used in logical ways.

I suppose I ought to call “Kulterkampf “by Anatoly Belilovsky a piece of whimsy. What if Wagnerian music pieces were actual weapons? And what if instead of a military campaign, a concert tour? And what if the Italians resist by drawing on their musical heritage? A very enjoyable story.

Next up were steampunk robots again. But in Toby Frost’s “Rogue Mail” their size was not a distraction as the robots were letter carriers, the size of trucks, and it was treated as rather an old-fashioned British satire, where the mails simply must be delivered in time – but on a galactic scale.  I especially liked the Warbot who looked like a walking coal-fired train.

“Look, crew,” Smith announced, “It’s a warbot!”

     The warbot’s head swung round with a creak. Above a jaw like a miniature cow-catcher, two tiny, hard eyes peered down at them. “Do you mind?” the warbot growled. “I’m emptying my coalbox.”

     “Oh,” said Smith, putting a hand over Rhianna’s eyes. It wasn’t the sort of thing ladies should see. “Well, carry on. We’ll look the other way.”

I was tempted to say, “Jim – this man’s a Klingon!” at the Great Reveal: the very fact that this story does not take itself seriously at all is what saved it and elevated it.

I had mixed feelings about “Electrium” by Elizabeth Counihan . For one thing, the choice of narrator—a rather stupid and lowly inn boy—should have made a lot of the dialog between the mysterious stranger and the doctor seem unintelligible, and the scenes involving the innkeeper and the magistrate were drawn out too long. There was no explanation of the foreigner’s powers, either by magic, the science of that day or this. It would have made more sense if the fellow had come from Atlantis.

Lavie Tidhar. He’s an A&A author and I’m a big fan. So when I saw that he had written “Leaves of Glass,” I wondered . . .was it a play on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass?” But of course, and Walt Whitman was in Paris meeting with Houdini. Houdini had a mechanism that would allow a traveler to experience a deeper world, a world that only the poets that had used it could even try to describe. Would Walt like to try the machine? This, I thought to myself, was going to be interesting. And it was: in an acid trip, Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas sort of way.

Next up was “Memories in Bronze, Feathers, and Blood” by another A&A author –  Aliette de Bodard. It’s another Azteca tale, of mechanized birds and magic. I think the editors had to stretch the steampunk theme a bit to make this fit, but I forgive them. It was marvelous.

Oh, good grief: “Empire of Glass” by Tanith Lee was a Cinderella retelling, with mechanical blood hounds after the shoe. (It’s just me: I hate fairy tale retellings.) But “Steam Horse” by Chris Butler was somewhat better, although still in a fairy tale sort of way: an iron and steam mole and an iron and steel horse figure into this one.

Last but not least we have “Professor Fluvius’s Palace of Many Waters” by Paul Di Filippo. The period’s fascination with all things classical is evident via a group of naiads employed at a very 1870-s health resort. The “palace of many waters” in the title is a bath house, grander than the ones in ancient Rome. Who awoke the naiads, what his plans are, and how the “girls” react when they discover his plans makes for fascinating reading and a nice ending to the collection.

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