Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review - "The Concrete Jungle", "The Faery Handbag", and "Travels with My Cats"

Jim Burns
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

The painting I selected is the cover to Nancy Kress's Crucible. Interestingly enough the year after he won Burns did covers for the reissues of many award winning novels and a few of my favorite books that hadn't won awards.

It's also an interesting set of anthologies that I pulled the 2005 winners from. "The Concrete Jungle" was taken from a recently released pairing with it's novel predecessor The Atrocity Archives. Since that book has been on my "Must Read" list for a while I didn't mind picking up a copy of it. "The Faery Handbag" I read in The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm which features illustrations for each story from Charles Vess. Finally "Travels With My Cats" was read in the single author anthology New Dreams for Old.

"The Concrete Jungle"
by Charles Stross
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This sequel The Atrocity Archive left me with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's an interesting mash-up of espionage fiction and dark fantasy; the kind of fantasy where horrible things are done for even more terrible purposes. They play off each other very well and I'm looking forward to digging into The Atrocity Archive for more of that. On the other hand the conclusion story depends on odd leaps of logic and knowledge of British managerial styles which left me out.

There is a British espionage group that deals with all the things that go bump in the night. They're so wrapped up in secrecy, both institutional and magically enforced, that they cannot come out and tell each other anything; only hint at it so that the other person comes to understand. One of their agents specializing in information technology is sent out on an emergency call of the highest priority because an extra stone cow has appeared in an art installation off of a major highway.

To go further than that would be to damage the pacing of the good parts of the story. And for the first three-quarters it is very good. Subtle revelations pile on top of each other and Stross manages to hint at unrevealed dark secrets better than most (the trick of conveying the concept but not the details is one that escapes many writers who try to be mysterious). It falls apart when suddenly the main character has an epiphany regarding the nature of the event that I couldn't follow and wraps it all up with some business terminology that I've never encountered and isn't explained in the story.

That adds up to "The Concrete Jungle" coming across to me as an interesting effort but not quite there. I liked the concept and the characters enough to be willing to stick with it for another story but I can't really recommend this one.

"The Faery Handbag"
by Kelly Link
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I'm going to be grossly unfair to Kelly Link so I will say this right at the start: there's nothing really wrong with "The Faery Handbag". It is a perfectly serviciable story cut from the modern mold of fairy tale magic occuring in the modern world and it bringing relatives together. The problem for me is that this is a theme that has been beaten into the ground in the past ten years.

A young woman has a mysterious aunt from Europe who tells stories about living in the distant past and having a bag that contains a magical world where one night can last a generation. While laughed off my most people in the family our protagonist comes to be believe the story.

If you like that kind of thing you'll probably enjoy "The Faery Handbag". On the other hand I just found it to be a bland retelling of a story I've heard a dozen times before. I think it is because Link is relying on the mysterious magical handbag to provide color for the tale and I've reached a point where such things fall into the background.

"Travels With My Cats"
by Michael Resnick
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A young boy buys a travel book titled Travels With My Cats for a few pennies from a garage sale and finds himself falling in love with the story. Thirty years on he's a loser living alone with his books, stuck in a dead end job, and doing nothing with his life. Upon rereading his childhood favorite he falls in love with the descriptions of distant lands again. He then finds himself visited by the spirit of the author and they discuss their lives.

The story itself is fairly interesting but once again I felt let down by the ending. To dance around the details I felt that Resnick was going for optomistic romanticism while I viewed it through a lens of cynicism. However I have had that issue with Resnick in the past where I'm left uncertain at the end where there was a disconnect between how he as the author was intending things and how I as the reader was viewing them. Upon reflection perhaps he intended both points of view to be valid.

Which I guess makes that a recommendation for reading "Travels With My Cats". If I change my mind while I'm organizing my thoughts then it is at the very least a thoughtful story worth the effort of reading.