July 2012 Small Press Book Reviews

The Chosen

by Jay Hartlove

(Damnation Books)

Okay, this I was not expecting. Chosen by Jay Hartlove is sort of black-Jason-Bourne-meets-Egyptian-Voodoo mashup. It chronicles an ancient rivalry between the chief magician of the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus and his replacement when Pharaoh’s  magician was shown to be a traitor for helping Moses and his people escape. At first the plot weaves back and forth involving the ancient rivalry between the traitorous magician and his apprentice, and some modern people inadvertently caught up in their ancient struggle. Demons (or are they angels?) and Egyptian magic become involved, and Voodoo rituals – and the CIA.

Hartlove holds this all together with some rather compelling characters, and some of the most evil “end justifies the means” bag guys I’ve ever encountered in a book. Charles is a Haitian-American with a checkered past that fills him with guilt, and Sanantha is a Haitian-American with a PhD who helps him struggle with that guilt. They run afoul of the reincarnated, warring magicians and the attempt to bring back Egypt’s pantheon with the help of Voodoo, voodoo that has its ultimate roots in the worship of deities of ancient Egypt.

Despite the launching of a nuclear warhead on South Florida, and drugged torture including surgically-creating a quadriplegic to extract information from him as he dies, this is not a horror story. It’s an adventure story that just happens to leave a trail of bodies, and a very different adventure story at that. Scenes flash from Africa to Washington, DC to Haiti to the spirit realm: all with equal clarity and for good reasons. Lies within lies, identities within identities, and plots within plots all come to a satisfying conclusion and while not everyone gets what’s coming to him or her, everyone is changed. Add a star if you’re tired of the same old thing in your fantasy reading.



A Time Never Lived

Teri-Lynne DeFino

(Hadley Rille Books)

Imagine the grandfather from The Princess Bride trying to talk is grandson into listening to him read a story. “It has everything! Pirates! Revenge! Miracles!” Well, there are no pirates here, no revenge. Instead,  substitute me saying, “It has everything! Dragons! Gods! Miracles…”

Yes, A Time Never Lived has everything a good epic fantasy should have. It’s a long read, all three hundred fifty-four pages of it, but this is most assuredly not extruded fantasy product.  DeFino’s world is credible, well-built, and well thought out. It has the wonderful and all-too-rare qualities of several ecosystems, multiple cultures and languages, and a coherent series of shared myths across-cultures that makes the backstory have real depth.

I cared about her characters, too. In fact, they nearly breathed on the page. Victorio’s longing for his father and his Finding gift, Quin’s shattered heritage and his conflicted love, Azah’s unrequited care and Myrie and Sully’s secrets all felt real and their pain became my pain, their joys lifted my soul.

And then, there were the dragons. Myth and legend, lost and found, tossed aside by time and yet choosing their own fate – DeFino’s dragons were real beings, and their choices and history were unique in all my fantasy reading.

This one’s an original. Don’t miss it.

Subversion: Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales of Challenging the Norm

edited by Bart R. Lieb

(Crossed Genres Publications)

This is a themed short story anthology. Reviews of each story follow, and then a review of the collection as a whole.

In “A Thousand Wings of Luck” author Jessica Reisman  sends us to a world where there is a religion based on luck, and the harbingers of luck are not rabbits’ feet or four-leafed clovers. They’re moths. Are the beliefs about the Luck Moths mere superstition or is there something to it? A young college student tries her luck against the moths in a spirit of scientific investigation and gets more than she bargained for. Wonders ensue.

I was excited to review this book since it contained a short story by former Abyss & Apex flash editor Camille Alexa, and she did not disappoint. In her tale, “And All Its Truths,”  subversion comes to a far-flung planetary colony where helper robots have evolved into tyrannical despots, demanding robotic perfection of imperfect humans, and punishing inefficiency with incarceration until death. It’s a story of numerical sequences and prime numbers, humanity lost and humanity found, and very different from the slipstream with which Alexa made her name in the genre. Perhaps it’s a greater achievement that Alexa made the POV character, who is a lifeless shell,  into something much more than an unsympathetic narrator.

In the aptly-named “Pushaway,” Melissa S. Green  tells the story of Esti Gusev, a girl who, “belonged with the other people who wouldn’t be stopped.” What had tried to stop her—in what seemed like a previous life that would not let her go—was a childhood of abuse in a religious colony. Mars’ government had known about the abuse and let it go on for so long she was almost permanently crippled. Esti clings writings of the woman who inspired a rebellion against corporate abuses on the asteroid belts to claw her way back to wholeness.

Daniel José Older’s “Phantom Overload” is an escapade involving the NYCOD: the New York Council of the Dead. Carlos DeLacruz is a soulcatcher for the Council, and since he is Hispanic the Council orders him to help a Hispanic district outside of their sway. District 17 in Brooklyn has a problem with their dead: they won’t leave. And Carlos has a problem with the Council: they want to strong-arm their way into outlying districts to increase their power. The story is very New York, and touches on the subtleties of whites thinking all Hispanics are the same culture with a Sam Spade meets  Born in East LA vibe. Oh, and the problem with the ghosts? They’re illegals.

I was really touched by “Cold Against the Bone” by  Kelly Jennings. In it the son of a well-off house, whose father was so cold and distant his mother left them, makes friends with the only other kids in his compound: children of contract laborers. The Republic of Sovereign Worlds has allowed contract labor to degenerate into slavery. Despite the children studying past, failed rebellions against the slavery to launch a successful one, the death of one of the two contract children doing child labor in a silver mine causes the other one to launch an unsuccessful rebellion, and she is executed. The nobleman’s son dedicates his life to avenging the deaths of his contract “brother and sister” by freeing their people. Both lovely and chilling.

It’s hard to categorize “The Red Dybbuk” by Barbara Krasnoff. Perhaps it’s a ghost story, perhaps it’s a story of possession, perhaps it’s an intergenerational story of the cycle of us not wanting to be like our parents. It’s a very Jewish tale, with its roots in the progressive movement at the start of labor unions. The generations of  Marylin’s family teeter between safety and activism until Marylin intervenes.

“Pushing Paper in Hartleigh” by Natania Barron: a former soldier, now pushing paper for a queen who hates magic, gets involved in more than one kind of magic and saves the kingdom. I’m not going to say what kinds of magic, but. . . . you know how in the fourth Star Trek movie they “bust” Admiral Kirk back to captain because he is better at that job? The ending is sort of like that. Nice.

“Parent Hack” by Kay T. Holt shows two too-smart-for-their-own-good foster kids paying for a hack on their guardian robots. Streets smart. Cute. But not subversive; just rebellious.

Next is my favorite story in the anthology. Imagine a female Miles Vorkasigan as a public relations wonk dealing with revolutionaries. I do NOT want to spoil this for you, but “The Hero Industry” by Jean Johnson  is revolutionary indeed and easily the best story in the book. I grinned nearly throughout it, and toward the end I even laughed out loud. You can be sure I will be watching for anything else by Jean  Johnson – and so should you.

I absolutely loved “Flicka” by Cat Rambo. I am a fan of Cat’s and this one delivered. Imagine an isolated country community in which hippies and white supremacists live together in a sort of détente. In a near future,  a town like that gets some new residents who are gene-modded to be part horse. How the community handles that (some well, some terribly) is shown through the eyes of a teenage boy. I loved that final chess piece – didn’t see it coming. I will forgive this story it’s straining of the anthology theme on that alone.

Sadly, I could not buy the central premise of “Seed” Shanna Germain, where a house of ill repute was full of women who found eating erotic and sex rather humdrum. Eating was NEVER done in public by their people. Their men paid to eat alone with them in their private kitchenettes as if for sex; a rapist would force-feed them. What we would consider normal men paid in food for sex so they were encouraged to visit. All the beautifully constructed conflict  stemmed from this given, and although the ending fit with the theme of the anthology I simply could not wrap my head around it. Fascinating reading, though.

“Scrapheap Angel” by  RJ Astruc & Deirdre M. Murphy was just strange. I have to admit that a story set in a call center in India was a nice idea, and that the intent was to inspire, but…it came across as mundane, not subversive at all.

I’m not big on cross/double-cross/triple cross, so “The Dragon’s Bargain” by C.A. Young left me rather cold.  But “A Tiny Grayness in the Dark”  by  Wendy N. Wagner was interesting: a child raised in hell had her parents, who had no choice about tormenting her as “homework” every night sees that they chose a ‘torment’ that could free her. Nicely done.

Rather than a glorious revolution or subversive trick, “Received Without Content” by Timothy T. Murphy makes a needed statement about the gullibility of teens and unintended consequences. Revolutions do fail, and revolutionary zeal can be twisted to a puppet master’s whims. This is a nice cautionary tale.

The last story was a disappointment. The earth was healed. Humanity was off earth and coming back after global warming had killed those who remained on-planet, cleaning up after humanity and removing all traces we had ever been there. Although I loved the premise of Caleb Jordan Schulz ‘s “To Sleep With Pachamama,”  a technical plot hole threw me irrevocably out of  the story. Given the mission of those who were cleansing the earth of human stain,  I cannot imagine an off-earth advanced civilization with no scanners to find and miscreants who wanted to run away, stay there, and pollute the earth with more people and their artifacts.

All-in-all this is an eclectic collection of stories with flashes of brilliance, but the theme of subversion was occasionally stretched too far. Still, it was a lot of fun.


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