This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

12-18-03: A Prime Tyrant

Michael Cisco's New Novel from Prime Books

Cover art by Harry O. Morris.

Paradoxically, the joy of getting some books is hard to convey in writing. Yesterday, my copy of Michael Cisco's 'The Tyrant' arrived from Prime. It's almost too beautiful to be believed. Readers know that I've been a fan of Harry Morris since I first saw the Morris/Potter illustrations in the iconic Scream/Press edition of 'Books of Blood I-III'. It holds a prize place on my shelves. Morris followed this up with his work for John Shirley's collection for Scream/Press, 'Heatseeker'.

Sean Wallace of Prime Books has his hands in a lot of very important and interesting publishing ventures. Prime's slate thus far this year has included Jeff VanderMeer's 'The Day Dali Died', KJ Bishop's amazing work of fantasy 'The Etched City' and now, the capper, Michael Cisco's 'The Tyrant'. OK, so you've got the Harry Morris cover; but what's beyond it?

Readers who haven't connected with Cisco can find his work in issues of Leviathan, and if they're lucky, they can score a copy of his first novel, 'The Divinity Student' from Buzz City Press. They might have a few copies laying about; you can email them at and ask. You might get lucky. Michael Cisco works in a similar space to that of acclaimed and award-winning author Thomas Ligotti. His work is intense, dense and very surreal. I suppose you might call it fantasy, but only because fantasy is such a wide umbrella. Imagine the unwritten Kafka novel for the un-filmed Cronenburg movie and you might get close. 'The Tyrant' is about fifteen-year-old Ella, crippled by polio, who's taking a graduate course in biology and shows a flair for working with ectoplasm. Dr. Belhoria takes her under his wing, and they enter the phantasmagoric realm of Death, where the Doctor becomes The Tyrant and they embark on a series of visionary campaigns. OK, enough jacket-flapping.

Cisco writes dense, almost impenetrable prose that's reminiscent of Clarke Ashton Smith, were Smith required to use his writing to describe autopsies and death scenes. If you took about 2,000 human cadavers, sliced them into good-sized pieces, put them in a large room, mixed them well, then attempted to swim through them, you'd get an idea of what's in store. Then use those pieces to build a city and people that city with the downtrodden, the unemployed, the homeless and the hopeless. Stroll through it, press the flesh, then record your nightmares afterwards. That's the kind of writing you get out of Cisco. Cisco creates characters you can unfortunately identify with. His work is masterful and utterly unique, and possibly nothing like what I've described. Perhaps my description is but a nightmare of his work; or his work is the nightmare carried like a contagion after reading my description. Interested yet? If you are, then I assure you, that nothing is going to adequately prepare you for Cisco's work. If you aren't interested; if you're scared or put off by this sort of thing, then by all means, miss some of the best writing you can find. Or try to. When next you have a nightmare, something really unpleasant and biological, just be aware that the voice you're hearing has written a couple of books.

12-17-03: Come What May, Heirs of Earth, Your Cheese is MINE!

Julian May Conquers Again

The general and his spear-catching brigade.

Even though many might be inclined to think that the thrust of this website and column is science fiction, there are lots of revered authors of whom I have no knowledge simply becaue I never manage to fit their books in a schedule over-filled with books I know I'll enjoy. Julian May is in the forefront of this group. 'The Many-Colored Land' and its follow-ups are widely regarded as a masterwork and one of the best all-time novels of science fiction. It came out during that era when science fiction was anathema to me, and it's never made it into my reading queue, mostly by virtue of the fact that time is finite while books are not. You might have thought it was the other way around. That's not the case.

But I miss lots of stuff that's I know is quite good, just because time does not permit me to read every good book in the universe. 'Conqueror's Moon' has at first, second and third glance the look and feel of classic, complex fantasy, and may be quite outstanding, if you like classic complex fantasy. It's got the medieval warriors, an eagle in the sky, and a large city hovering in the distance on the cover. You know before you even open the book that it's the first in a series, 'The Boreal Moon Tale'. May's fans apparently have something to look forward to.

The story transpires on High Blenholme Island, in the Boreal Ocean. Doesn't ring a bell to me. Four kingdoms have watched their fortunes decline for varying reasons -- behind which, presumably, lies the real reason. Disparate characters from the four lands must band together to save what they love and create something better. Summarized, it sounds almost like a board game.

But to be fair, I just gave it the Page One Test, and I've got to admit the writing itself, the prose, is very good. The first-person narrative voice seems direct and unforced, even when talking about sigils and wards. I could easily imagine losing myself in a series like this, were I to be so inclined. For a huge segment of the reading populace, this is presumably the equivalent of what a good monster novel is to me, comfort reading of the first order, fine American Cheese. Alas, a quick scan for monsters revealed none. Scans of later pages revealed machinations and court intrigue, and conversations about monsters. With everything else that's out there, I'm quite likely to give this a pass, but if you're a Julian May fan, it's time to visit the bookstore and support a bunch of authors you're unlikely to read by purchasing an author you love to read.

Blowed-Up Earth

Space P52's buzz the Death Starfish.

When you get two guys writing novels, apparently, you can put them out twice as fast. 'Heirs of Earth' by Sean Williams and Shane Dix is the third in a series that's been slowly getting more and more interesting to me. Every single damn one of these books -- and this is the third in a series, which, by the sound of it is going to be more than trilogy -- sounds better and better. You get yourself here an Earth blowed-up because humanity didn't know how to use the toys given to it by Alien benefactors known as the Spinners.

But humanity is apparently having a Bad Millenium, and once the Spinners check out, leaving behind their Gifts for Finks, the bad-guy Starfish move in. They're genocidal as regards humanity. The handful of humans who remain are fighting for their lives. They're going to take one small ship and try to penetrate to the heart of the Death Stark, no wait, the heart of the Starfish fleet. Now are these Starfish fish that have developed star travel or starfish that have developed star travel? Not clear to me.

But this does look all too much like my style of cheese. You get lots of monsters, or at least lots of spaceships full of offstage monsters, and lots of blowed-up things. I tried the first page test, but it came to a grinding halt as the first few pages of the book are summaries of the first two books in this series. Were I to be a reader of the series, I would be likely to be thankful. But the other books came out relatively recently, so it seems unlikely that anyone would have forgotten already. Unless the books are on the forgettable side, in which case, thanks for the memories.

12-15-03: Corbett's NYT Notable Novel, Shirley Expands Hell on Earth, Simon & Pelecanos Walk 'The Wire'

Corbett's 'Done for a Dime' selected as an NYT Notable Novel

Corbett's next award-winning novel.

For reasons both utterly obvious and rather beyond me, the NYT holds the publishing world in a grip tight enough to be illegal in some states. That being true, it is nice to see them recognize some authors that I enjoy. But enjoyment is only the beginning of the spectrum for David Corbett's work. We all enjoy great reading but there's an additional charge you get when you can sense classics in the making. Corbett first novel, 'The Devil's Redhead' was up for all sorts of awards -- an influence which we'll be discussing later this week -- and his second novel, 'Done for a Dime' was chosen for a New York Times Notable Book of the year commendation.

Here's what the NYT had to say:

" DONE FOR A DIME. By David Corbett. (Ballantine) The death of an old jazz musician, the axman for legends like Bobby Blue Bland and King Curtis, sounds the blue note of this dazzling novel, narrated in the blunt and vigorous idiom of California noir but full of compassion for marginal people whose rights are trampled upon by power brokers."

" Blunt and vigorous," says Corbett himself. "That's me all over."

It's really great to see the behemoth get all cozy as regards genre fiction. Clearly, they read Chabon's introduction to mumblemumble"Thrilling Tales"mumblemumble? (Sorry, I can't read all the small type on the spine from here.) It's now OK to like genre fiction. It's all better. Not all literature is required to focus on the contemplatory moment of personal revelation. In fact, and this is shocking -- you might even find such a moment in genre fiction! But I'm glad to see that the NYT is full of compassion for marginal genres whose rights have been trampled on by power brokers. Really!

Since there's a chance you may not have bought this book yet, let me suggest you take a moment to listen to David Corbett's interview, in MP3 or RealAudio format. He is so smart and so interesting, I suspect that most readers will be ordering his books online before they've finished listening to the interview. As the book vendors say, one to watch.

Shirley Expands Hell on Earth

Del Rey's expanded version of John Shirley's 'Demons'.
One of the most powerful pieces of horror I read recently was the Cemetery Dance Short novel 'Demons' by John Shirley. Shirley's scenario was so outrageous, so over the top, so monsterifically filled with scenes of blood-boiling terror, I surely thought that he would be unable to come up with an explanation for that scenario. I was fully prepared to simply enjoy one scene of horror after another. But in the short length of this novel, not only did Shirley come up with what time and again proved to be scene after scene of highly imaginative awfulness, he also came up with the logical explanation for what was going on. Having prepared myself for a small letdown, I was taken aback that Shirley could provide the perfect underpinnings for his wonderfully grim world.

So we can be thankful that Del Rey has brought out 'Demons', which includes the slightly-revised full text of CD's limited hardcover (though not the wonderful illustrations) and a 230-plus page sequel set nine years after the first part. This is the kind of holiday treat we all need, a vision of hell-on-earth that actually competes with reality. This is the kind of book that I consider comfort reading, a day or two of slack-jawed drooling on the couch. Maybe I can catch this flu that's going around.

Simon & Pelecanos Walk 'The Wire'

Make sure this gets in your collection.

Friday night, I watched my first episode of an HBO series called 'The Wire'. While I'm not usually one to recommend such material, 'The Wire' has a literary heritage that makes of particular interest to my readers. The series is executive produced by David Simon, whose book 'Homicide' became the basis for a (to my mind) botched TV series. Be that as it may, the book itself is without doubt a classic work of true crime writing, and should be required reading for all mystery readers and writers. David Corbett mentioned it prominently in his interview, and I'll be providing a review of the book later today.

First published in 1991, it won an Edgar award. A very good condition first edition will set you back anywhere between $28 and $85. There's a mass market paperback available as well. Here's the setup: in 1988, David Simon spent a year as a "fly on the wall" of Baltimore's homicide unit. He manages to rope his experience into 600 page book that reads like a novel. There's no doubt that this is an essential books for those who ready mystery fiction, and also for those (like author Douglas Coupland -- check out his interview in MP3 or RealAudio format), who are addicted to "the Law & Order channel." It will make a perfect holiday gift for someone who wants to spend the new year on the killing streets.

HBO's 'The Wire' features writing by writers.
But wait -- there's more! The episode of 'The Wire' I saw was written by George Pelecanos. I'll be tucking into the series of Pelecanos novels that Terry D'Auray covered in her comprehensive column. If you have any hesitations as to whether you should buy Pelecanos' work, read the first page of 'Right As Rain'. I found it to be electric, a direct prose wire into the reading brain. Pelecanos has written a few episodes, Simon has written most of them and a couple of names I don't recognize are credited with the remaining episodes. The show I saw was notable in the restraint demonstrated. There were no faux-dramatics that littler the so-called mean streets we usually see on the small screen. Either way, if you're a fan of Pelecanos, or Simon, here's an hour worth watching -- though your time is frankly better spent reading the written work of either author.