Thursday, August 30, 2007

DAWN’S UNCERTAIN LIGHT
By Neal Barrett, Jr.
****NOTE: If you haven't read Through Darkest America yet, you may want ot skip this review as it does neccessarily reveal a plot point or two.****

The sequel to Through Darkest America completes the saga of Howie Ryder and his search for his lost sister. He is a bitter young man, savagely mutilated by an enemy. In the last novel Howie escaped the chaos of the war in the west between Lathan and the American government. However he discovered the truth about the soulless “stock”, the creatures that look and walk upright like humans, but do not talk and are considered to be meat.

Yes, I said meat. Howie lives in a future America devastated by nuclear war. Life goes on, farmers raise crops and families, warlords make war, and people eat stock. Only Howie has learned a thing or two about stock and he is determined to rescue his sister from a fate that is worse than death, but probably includes death anyway.

Barrett’s vision of the future is bleak. There isn’t even the comfort of total destruction, rather mankind has been stripped down to his essentials: hypocrisy, bloodlust, and murder for food. The reader may not find Dawn’s Uncertain Light to be as nightmarish as its predecessor. It is hard to top the repeated shocks Barrett administers in that particular work. Rather Dawn toys with the notion of Howie as a mythic figure who is unaware of his status. Just as Darkest America was a cannibalistic trail-drive western, Dawn is the vengeance trail of a legendary gunfighter, told in Barrett’s own unique style.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

THROUGH DARKEST AMERICA
By Neal Barrett, Jr.

It’s not very often that a fiction writer can make me cringe. Very little of what makes its way into print is even a tithe of the awfulness that is splashed across headlines and that is usually watered down to meet the demands of a public that has no tolerance for news that might be upsetting.

But Neal Barrett, Jr. pulled it off here. There are lots of apocalypse tales that make the Apocalypse seem like not such a bad place. Sure, all that radiation killed off the weaklings, but a new race of ├╝bermenschen will arise and liquidate those pesky mutants. What’s to worry about? Mr. Barrett has a few suggestions of what you should worry about.

At first glance Through Darkest America might seem to be one of those cozy Apocalypse tales. America functions at a lower level, but not much lower than our pre-industrial past. Rape, murder, and torture inflicted by soldiers, outlaws, and warlord militias are pretty common, but that’s true of 21st century DR Congo. There are some unusually disturbing details to this new world, but Barrett’s protagonist, Howie, is such an earnest and engaging lad that one can’t help but identify with his world view.

In many ways Through Darkest America is much like a Western. Howie avenges a savage attack on his family and lights out for the Territories. He encounters outlaws, Johnny Rebs, and dance hall girls with hearts of gold in this off-kilter version of Huckleberry Finn. But Barrett only lets his readers go so far on that path before bringing them around to a very nasty elephant in the corner.

This is science fiction with guts. Barrett doesn’t mind launching brutal attacks on our deepest taboos about food and sex. Definitely not for the squeamish, if you want a cozy Apocalypse, look elsewhere.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE
By James Hynes

Speaking as a six-year veteran state employee, I’d like to say that James Hynes novel, Kings of Infinite Space, is pretty much true. Not the part about overbearing co-workers, ill-paid temps, or difficult parking. I meant he part about blood sacrifices in the unexplored network of pre-human caves under our offices.

Oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell about that. Anyway, the story is about Paul Trilby, formerly a professor at a prestigious Midwestern university, now a temp-worker for the Texas Department of General Services, TxDOGS. The guy in the cube next to Paul is dying, his work is mind-numbingly pointless, and he’s haunted by the ghost of the cat he murdered. Paul lives alone and friendless at the Angry Loner Motel.

Fortunately Paul has got co-workers. There’s Olivia Haddock, former beauty queen turned soul-sucking bureaucrat, Callie the Mail girl with a budding interest in literature, and Colonel Travis Pentoon and his sinister lunch-time cabal. The people outside the office are even odder: Boy G the homeless guy with the mantra “Are we not men?” and Stanley Tulendij the dark angel of TxDOGS and sole-survivor of a fateful outing to the dread Lonesome Knob.

Kings of Infinite Space is part Office Space, part Lovecraft, part Worms of the Earth. There are hilarious sideswipes at the text-book industry, SUVs, and enough weird movie references to make Harry Knowles’ eyes bug out (see if you can find the bit from Ben Hur, it had me laughing pretty hard). The tale also plays with the rivalries between classes and sexes, in particular it gnaws on the notion that men can re-gain paradise if they just get the women back in line. I certainly don’t think that we are supposed to take Paul’s PC, holier-than-thou, gender-constructionism at face value. I did find myself laughing out loud quite frequently, which few comedic novels can make me do.

And now for the part I was warned by a former Purchaser-IV not to tell anyone about. It appears that the author in fact found the true story crammed into the pages of a GSA Employee’s Manual. As foretold in the Book of Eibon and the prophetic Agency Strategic Plan FY2002-2005, there will come a great…

What is that scratching noise from beneath the house? The floor is falling away! Dear Lord! Those pale faces and clawed hands! ARE WE NOT MEN! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Monday, August 13, 2007

IMARO 2: THE QUEST FOR CUSH
By Charles Saunders


The second volume of Imaro’s adventures picks up where the first left off. If you aren’t familiar with Imaro, here’s his story thus far. It takes place in Nyumbani, a fantasy version of Africa. Imaro is from the Ilyassi, a fierce warrior tribe of the plains. But he is an outcast because his father was an unknown man from another tribe. Hounded by evil sorcerers who serve demonic entities, Imaro becomes an exile and a leader of bandits. The Quest for Cush begins in medias res, with Imaro in hot pursuit of the outlaw who has stolen his beloved Tanisha.

Along the way Imaro makes a friend in Pomphis the Bambuti. Pomphis is a Pygmy who has lived in the cities of Nyumbani and is more or less a walking encyclopedia of Nyumbani lore. Imaro, Tanisha, and Pomphis must make their way to Cush. There Imaro hopes to learn who his father is, what has happened to his mother, and just what his destiny is. Imaro does have a destiny, he must oppose the Mashataan. These are demons who once conquered Nyumbani but were expelled. They are plotting a comeback and know that somehow Imaro stands in their way.

The plot of a hero with a destiny is a pretty standard one. What gives the Imaro stories a special touch is Saunders’ rather unsentimental take on the whole thing. Imaro is not a knight in shining armor, he’s a hard-as-nails outlaw with a grudge against evil wizards. Pomphis and Tanisha serve to soften Imaro, but not much. Nor is Nyumbani a romanticized version of an Africa inhabited solely by wise elders and respectful children. It’s a land with cruel customs, learned scholars, sleazy traders, brutal thugs, compassionate healers, and dire magic. In short, it’s a well-rounded place, not just a two-dimensional backdrop for sword-fights.

Saunders also has a barbed wit. The opening story is a dead-on parody of traditional “lost-race” stories that will make you smile and wince at the same time. The tale of how the Mashataans used the people of Atlan, and how the people of Atlan used the Nyumbanis is razor-sharp Sword & Sorcery myth straight from the real world.

The Quest for Cush is a very worthy successor to the first volume. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, August 09, 2007

IMARO
By Charles Saunders

I used to think of Sword & Sorcery as the province of the Big Three: Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. After reading Imaro I may have to make that the Big Four.

Back in the 1970s Charles Saunders was a devoted fan of science fiction and fantasy, especially the swashbuckling adventures of Tarzan, Conan, and other larger-than-life heroes. However, he was very frustrated by the lack of black heroes. SF and Fantasy were lily white and Saunders was a black man who felt rather isolated in fandom. The pulp-era in particular abounded in casual racism. So Saunders set out to do something about it. He created his own hero: Imaro.

The Imaro stories took off and eventually DAW Books agreed to a series of Imaro paperbacks. Owing to missteps by DAW and long intervals between the books, they failed commercially but have remained a devoted following among Sword & Sorcery cognoscenti. Reviving the stories became problematic after certain events in Africa rendered some critical plot points uncomfortably close to a headline. Eventually, after encouragement by the well-known Australian fan Ben Szumskyj, Saunders replaced the troublesome tales with new works and Night Shade Books brought Imaro into the 21st century.

The result is not merely an Afrocentric Conan. Imaro has a backstory that is essential to his growth as a character. As a boy his mother is exiled and he never knows his father. He is barely tolerated by his tribe. Although he excels in his prowess as a warrior, it is never good enough. When he finally reaches manhood, he is framed as a coward and forced to flee his own people. In the end Imaro only finds acceptance among the outlaws of the borderlands.

In other hands this might be Black Caesar, but Imaro is persecuted by a mysterious cabal of evil wizards who want him destroyed for mysterious reasons. Saunders is a fantasy writer and his tales should appeal to all Sword & Sorcery fans. The Imaro tales are as firmly rooted in African legend and history as Tolkein’s work is in European myth. It makes for a distinctive setting that many readers will not have seen before. I strongly recommend Imaro and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series from Night Shade.

-Dave Hardy


IMARO!!???

I just read a blog entry over at Black Gate to the effect that Night Sahde books will not be continuing the Imaro series. Look at: http://bg-editor.livejournal.com/

I don't know the source of that bit of intelligence, but it is disheartening to say the least! I read the Night Shade editions a few months back and was very impressed with Saunders' Sword & Sorcery tales that teetered between cynical despair and outright optimism. I hope that Night Shade does not cancel the series. The best way to convince them of that error is to buy the books!

Now that the good folks at PC Guru have recovered the data off my terminally crashed hard drive, you can expect to see my reviews of Imaro 1 & 2 shortly.

-Dave Hardy