Review: Crow Shine by Alan Baxter

CrowshineAlan Baxter’s anthology Crow Shine has recently been nominated for an Aurealis award for best collection, and when you read it it’s easy to see why. It’s a bloody good read, start to finish.

There are nineteen stories  from the dark end of the speculative fiction genre, mostly horror, but with a smattering of weird and urban and dark fantasy. Character, time period, geographical setting, and supernatural element are richly varied, so no mid-anthology ennui here. Indeed, the collection starts well and only gets better as it proceeds.

For my money, the closest thing to a weak story is Punishment of the Sun, which, while engaging, I felt lacked clarity in its underlying events. But it’s still a pretty high low, and its surrounded by gems.

Tiny Lives is such a pristine and moving example of shorter short fiction that I read it several times to see what I could learn from it about writing. The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner is a brilliant eldritch pirate story, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a highlight. Darkest Shade of Grey is like a lost episode of Kolchak: the Night Stalker, but with extra added humanity. A Strong Urge to Fly is pure Tales of the Unexpected, with some beautiful, atmospheric prose in the descriptions of the town of Beston-on-Sea. The Old Magic is a moving story of longevity and power. Among these highs, the final story, The Darkness in Clara, in which a woman struggles to make sense of her partner’s death, still manages to stand out as exceptional. Again, moving and humane, with a point to be made about how we harm each other and ourselves.

A great collection, highly recommended.

Review – A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

atasteofhoneyKai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was nominated for the Nebula award, and his Tor.com novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps picked up the 2016 Crawford award. You’d expect his newest novella from Tor.com to be pretty marvellous, and it is.

At first glance, A Taste of Honey is a fantasy story in which a young nobleman of Olurum finds first love with a Dalucan soldier, and pursues that love despite religions proscriptions against homosexuality and the violent disapproval of his family. Once the gods put in a brief appearance, and turn out to be transhumans rather than divinities, the genre shifts slightly to science fiction. And the story unfolds into a beautifully told examination of how our choices shape our lives.

The intense and risky love affair between Aqib and the foreign soldier Lucrio is skillfully handled. Tension arises from the Dalucan’s inability to fully understand the need for secrecy (coming, as he does, from a freer society) and from Aqib’s feverish, giddy surrender to first love leading him to take risks that he otherwise mightn’t. As the narrative shifts in time between younger and older Aqib, other kinds of love enter his life, and new perspectives on the romance emerge.

Wilson’s prose is lovely. His worldbuilding is relatively simple, but a novella doesn’t require the vast, sprawling world that a modern fantasy mega-tome might, and what is there is appealing. For me, the gods were a highlight—human but wonderfully strange and a little perilous in their casual power. The subplot concerning Aqib’s wife, the Blessed Femysade, makes plain how even the slightest touch of very great power can disrupt a life simply by opening up new choices.

The ending is surprising and satisfying, and you can’t ask much more than that. Highly recommended.

Review: “The Massacre of Mankind” by Stephen Baxter

massacre-of-mankindThe iconic tripods rampaging across the cover tell you fairly succinctly that The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds. I’m normally indifferent to new authors revisiting old wells (pardon the pun). Moreover, The War of the Worlds is among the first science fiction novels I read and it so thoroughly blew my mind that I re-read it until my copy disintegrated. I expected to be disappointed by The Massacre of Mankind and I doubt that I’d have bought without Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover. As it turned out, I enjoyed Baxter’s sequel.

Briefly, the novel reports the events of the second Martian invasion of Earth thirteen years after the first. The narrator of Wells’s novel is reduced to a minor character named Oliver Jenkins, while the narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is his sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone. When the Martians return, they have adapted their biology and technology based on their first experience with Earth and this time they have their sights set on the whole planet.

Baxter does an incredible job of building the post-Martian world as an alternate 1920s inflected by humanity’s first encounter with aliens and their efforts to adapt abandoned Martian technology. There are fun cultural details such as Charlie Chaplin’s being famous for his portrayal of a character based on Wells’s Artilleryman. And there are grim historical alterations such as World War I becoming Germany’s long solo war against Russia using Martian technology acquired from their increasingly militaristic allies, the British.

If the novel has a flaw, it would have to be pacing. The early part of the book moves quite slowly as it sets everything up. An exacerbating issue throughout the novel is its nature as journalistic memoir written after the fact by Miss Elphinstone so that even impactful scenes from which she’s absent are delivered as dry reportage.

But once the Martians put in appearance, the book becomes gripping. They’re portrayed as cunning and well-prepared conquerers and some of the set piece scenes of Martian attacks on cities around the world are marvellous—particularly, for me, Constantinople and Melbourne.

I suspect the ending will divide people, but I found it acceptable. In some respects, the ending isn’t the point. The point was to revisit for the twenty-first century Well’s critique of Imperialism—that just because you believe there’s a ladder of creation it doesn’t mean you’re standing on the top rung—and he does that skillfully.

In short, well worth a read.