Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review - Boy's Life

Boy's Life
by Robert R. McCammon
1992 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I feel like it's reprise week for me. First Thomas the Rhymer and now Boy's Life: they both have at their heart something that I hated in other novels I reviewed recently and yet they do it right. Boy's Life is a meandering thick novel that dances around it's plot wandering off into its own digressions and yet McCammon makes it work.

While accompanying his father on his milkman route a young boy sees a car roll off the road into a deep lake. His father tries to rescue the driver but finds that he has been brutally beaten and then handcuffed to the steering wheel. Over the course of the next year they try to figure out who the victim was and why it happened.

That might be the description of the plot that fits on the dust jacket but it's not what Boy's Life is about. What the book is really about is just what the title says: boy's life. They live in a small town in Mississippi during the early 60's and around every corner is some secret: an ancient river monster, a hundred year old voodoo queen, a gunslinger who saved Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, a spectral hot rodder, and the more mundane but deadlier threat of the Klu Klux Klan. The magic in Boy's Life rarely rises to the surface but it's there lurking behind everything.

Instead of a straightforward plot McCammon recounts a year where his protagonist finds everything. Each chapter is its own story and usually they only tangentally come together. It took me a bit of time to get into the relaxed groove of McCammon's narration and once I did the story came alive for me. It worked this time unlike other rambling novels because while things like a spectral hot rod might not have affected the main plot they were complete plots in themselves. Boy's Life might be thought of as one novel and twenty-five short stories welded together.

This wouldn't have worked nearly as well if McCammon didn't have a deft hand with his characters. With a cast that balloons as each new chapter of story is spun he never has a problem with the characters blending together; there's multiple flawed preachers, for example, that you would never be able to mistake for one another. The characters are never as simple as a two or three word archetype could make them appear; the bullies are very similar to other bullies with the same broken homelife and yet they carry a different kind of menace than bullies usually do. For having a cast as huge as McCammon does creating unique personalities for them is a great achievement.

All of this is helped along by a strong narrative voice from the first person perspective of the boy at the center of these adventures. McCammon puts it in the perspective of an adult writer looking back which avoids the problem of an eleven year old telling a story this well and at the same time it makes the wonders of his small town more personal.

The book's greatest strengths are its greatest flaws. It is slow and leasurely paced and filled with digressions into territory that other authors have thoroughly mapped. I wound up appreciating the ride however I know that some readers may not care for the book. There are many other books featuring quirky and magical small towns, many other books about life in the deep south during the early 1960's, and many other books that are childhood adventure memoirs. I think that McCammon's efforts in Boy's Life are exceptional which is why I recommend it. Boy's Life reminded me a lot of children's adventure stories of my youth only with a darker edge and the fantastic sneaking in; I suppose it's success will depend on how much that kind of nostalgia can draw you in.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer Passes Away

Philip Jose Farmer died earlier today at the age of 91. I might not have been fond of his Hugo winning works but he did leave a vast legacy. I have had his pulp pastiches on my reading list for some time, for example.

Something I had not realized is that the man who gave one of the most distinctive voices for science fiction's New Wave was nearly fifty when he started experimenting with his narrative. I had always taken his efforts in the late sixties as the work of a young man, full of fire and passion. I can only hope that I'm like that when I reach fifty.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review - Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer
by Ellen Kushner
Tied for 1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

You might get the impression reading through some of these reviews that I hate medieval settings. That isn't true: I hate pseudo-medieval settings, the ones where they mash in everything from a range of 700AD to 1600AD, populate it with twentieth century characters, and everything has to hold together by authorial fiat. Thomas the Rhymer is a good example of using a medieval setting well and it doesn't hurt that there's a very good story to it as well.

The novel Thomas the Rhymer is the story of Thomas the Rhymer shifted to a modern style rather than thirteenth century poetry. Thomas is a wandering bard and good natured rogue. On one his journeys he befriends a childless peasant couple and he returns to them time and time again between harping at various courts and running from cuckolded husbands. He falls in love with a girl there and is considering settling down when he encounters the Queen of Elfland. She entrances him and he spends seven unaging years with them before returning where he finds that he can only speak the truth.

It's a story of archetypes and broad strokes. Even if you're not really familiar with the story of True Thomas or the novel you can easily guess where it goes. What matters in Thomas the Rhymer is that the old story is told very well.

Take the characters, for example. Kushner gives each of the major human characters a lengthy section of the novel from their viewpoint. That's four very distinct voices that a reader could never mistake for each other in the book. And even though I could boil them down to one or two word descriptions these characters are not completely bound by their archetypes. Thomas, for example, has to grow into his role as he spends time in Elfland but even before that he's given edges and dimensions that prevent him from being another generic fun loving rogue.

You could even argue that character change and growth is a theme of the novel with the human characters placed against the timeless fairies who can never be any different. Humanity learns, adapts and deals with the consequences of their actions while fairies laugh and play and never do more. Using those contrasts is part of what sets Thomas the Rhymer apart from weaker novels.

If you happen to write a novel about a bard then you need to write well and Kushner does not disappoint here. She avoids the trap of overwriting and florid prose that tends to accompany such characters and just does things well. It helps that she spreads her viewpoint out and doesn't even use Thomas until the second section of the book (his lengthy trip to Fairie). I hate to use the term lyrical to describe the prose since it tends to get used in conjunction with people who thought they were writing poetry rather than a novel but really there is no other word for the qualities of this book.

Because I loved the characters and writing in Thomas the Rhymer the fact that it was an old story didn't matter. If the characters in a book are engrossing then placing them in a situation where the reader can just watch them react can be sufficient. This is a very good novel based solely on how well written it is and I strongly recommend it to anyone who doesn't need sword fights in their medieval fantasy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Review - "A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn's Eye", "Stone", and "giANTs"

Here we go with another two years of Nebula winners that didn't win the Hugo the same year. You'll note that both short story winners represented here are by Edward Bryan. Unfortunately I didn't care for either of the stories though for one of them I'll acknowledge that I'm not the right audience for it.

"A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn's Eye"
by Charles L. Grant
1978 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

In the not too distant future acting as a profession has nearly vanished. The only regular jobs are for those willing to fill some basic parts in reacting to spectacles sent straight into adolescents' brains in order make them mature faster. Theater does still exist but it has tried to keep pace with the thought productions and so becomes more elaborate. An actor who has swallowed his pride to take work on the mental stage reacted badly to some of those theatrical shows and savagely beat their producers. He then needs to decide what to do with himself.

While reading this story I was reminded a lot of "The Darfstellar"; they share themes of changing media, actors who are angry about those changes, and a certain ludditism in thinking that the old ways are the better ways. It annoyed me while reading the story but Grant won me over by telling these well worn themes very well. The actor was a vivid character and in the end I found the whole thing effective. Not brilliant but definitely effective.

by Edward Bryan
1978 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

A technician at a concert where there is a mental feedback between the performer and the audience recounts his love for the star and their relationship. I think you can fill in the blanks for the rest of the story from there.

And since it is a pretty standard story it depends on the strength of the characters to carry it. Unfortunately I just didn't care what happened to them. Bryan does try to give them a bit more definition than disaffected starlet and her adoring fan/lover, I just couldn't connect to them. Bryan also attempted a distinctive narative style at the beginning of the story that is dropped for a more straightforward narative by the end and I think that "Stone" simply wasn't long enough or consistant enough for this to work. The overall effect was that I was left not really caring about anything in the story.

by Edward Bryan
1979 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

There's a scientist who has reoccurring dreams about the movie Them! a mysterious government project, and the threat of deadly killer insects. Unfortunately there isn't really a story either. What you can find in "giANTs" is a concept and a whole lot of exposition about that concept. It's played as the interaction between a lonely old scientist and an agressive reporter. Bryan attempts to establish a character arc between them that never manages to come together for me.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the "punchline". While reading the story I was wondering if Bryan was just handwaving a basic physical law that any schoolboy knows. Ignoring it would have been fine for me. Unfortately the punchline in the story is that the law isn't ignored and its the whole point which makes the reporter just look very foolish and most of the conversation pointless.

I started with high hopes for "giANTs" and was severely let down. I can't recommend this one.