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01-09-09: 'Crazy Love' and Leslie What : What is Love?

Love is not fun. It's not easy, and it's rarely kind. Like most things, in order for it to be worth your valuable time, you have to put a lot of invaluable effort into and even then, the whole shebang can go tits-up in a heartbeat, leaving you with nothing better to do than sit around and read, with the idea that if you’re thoroughly enough immersed in your book, you'll not have the wherewithal to remember how gods-damned miserable you've made yourself and — worse — how hard you worked to achieve that condition. Run-on sentences be damned. Love is definitely worth reading about when Leslie What is doing the writing.

I know I'm all over the map, scattered and crazy. So here I am in January writing about
Leslie What's 'Crazy Love' (Wordcraft of Oregon ; July 2008 ; $13.95) which came out six months ago because it got shuffled into a pile under a pile on table in a room. Good books may not be as rare as some would think, but it's wise to keep your hands on those that even seem to have a chance of being good, because, if you're lucky, they'll turn out to be as good as 'Crazy Love'.

"'That's the way it is in the love industry. Seller's market. Deal with it. Next!'" Anyone who would even think to mention the word "love" in reference to anything other than a book, or movie, or food should probably buy that slogan emblazoned on a T-Shirt. Make sure you pay royalties to Leslie What, for it comes from her story "Picture A World Where All Men Are Named Harry," a frightening and funny fable. It's what you might get if you sat Kafka down in front of The Dating Game. Leslie What is a real discovery, the kind of short story writer who knows the medium well. She can hook you with just a few words and after that, you're on your own in the emotionally vivid worlds she creates. And for all the pain she wrests from her characters and thrusts in your face, for all the vivid anger and wrenching anguish she puts the reader through, there's a sort of clarity here that's positively cathartic. All this in the firm grasp of a smart imagination.

Here's what's really interesting about this collection, at least to this reader. Yes, the stories are all quite accomplished and clever. "Finger Talk," which begins the book, is a savage vision of a relationship in which only one party is truly engaged. If you've ever loved someone — and I mean I'll-give-you-my-life-loved — who just didn't get it, then this story will make you know you’re not alone. Don't read it in their presence, especially if there are sharp utensils in the vicinity. So, yes, the stories are intense and affecting, from the Nebula award-winning "The Cost of Doing Business" to "My Hermit," a loving visit with the Chair of Hermit Studies at the University of Oregon.

So, sure, all good, but the interest lies in that speculative fiction, which likes to think itself so good at speculating, has managed to sort of ignore love as a subject of speculation. Oh sure, lots of speculative fiction has love in it, and romance and whatever, but few writers have had the guts and the intelligence to do what you'll find in 'Crazy Love' — riff on the emotion itself. It's a scary, wonderful, maddening thing, really. We all want genuine emotions in our lives, in our worlds. But, how much, really, how deeply, really, do we want to feel?

01-08-09: : Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman Exhume 'The Bones of the Dragon' : Big News and Big Biz

I don’t even care if they stop the world. I'll just jump off and take my chances in 'Bones of the Dragon' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; January 6, 2009 ; $24.95), and I'm guessing that I'll not be alone. Weis and Hickman are Big Names alone and together, a new series launched by is by definition, Big News. And Big Biz as well, because the hope is clearly that in these dismal times, fantasy will sell like hotcakes on a cold winter's day. So we duly report before departing for finer climates.

While they share the word "dragon", the new "Dragonships" series and the "Dragonlance" series are not set in the same world. Our world has grown considerably more complicated and worse, and so too, have the worlds created by Weis and Hickman. The Vindrasi, once a people given to pre-emptive wars and excessive spending, as well as winged dragonships, gemstones and dragons, are now reduced to living off the land. Alas, the land has not been kind of late. But wait — there's more. (Thankfully.)

This is one of those worlds where gods meddle in the affairs of humans. Sounds good on paper, proves to be a bit more entertaining than those caught in the crossfire would prefer. New gods arrive, old ones are put in their place and pretty much everyone loses. Sounds like a complicated war with lots of excuses being bandied about, doesn't it? Yep. There's a brash hero (Skylan) and a quest. Need to know any more?

Here's what I'll say. This book is written in the post-Miéville era, and even Fantasy Standard Bearers are putting grittier details and finer characterizations into their work. The days of fluffy fantasy may not yet be gone, but most of them are marketed as much as romance novels as they are fantasies. This ain't that. Oh, sure, there's a modicum of love happening, but the focus here is on creating a world as complicated and conflicted as our own, only way different. In a sense, while we piss and moan about foreclosures, credit and senseless killing, we can at least be thankful that the Gods so many of us worship are disinclined to manifest themselves and meddle.

You know, it's almost as if fantasy has changed its stance. These places are nice to read about not because they're better than our worlds, not because they're dream worlds, but because they're like ours but without hot showers and lattés. They make our world look sorta good, while simultaneously being a great place to set a ripping yarn. It's a round circle trip from hell to hell. And as much fun as it is to read and immerse yourself in Weis' and Hickman's world, it is, when all is said and done, it is a world upon which you can close the book.

01-07-09: : Kouhei Kadono Examines 'The Case of the Dragon Slayer' : A Jiken Mystery

"In a world where —" I hope you're hearing the voice of Don LaFontaine here. Chances are that's the case. Well, in this case, that is, 'The Case of the Dragon Slayer,' the world is not all that unfamiliar. You gots your dragons, your warriors and your intrepid trio of heroes. What's a bit different is the fact that they're not on a quest for an object, but rather an answer; who killed the dragon? Now I know you’re tempted to think that the Butler sold his soul to an immortal deity just to have the chance to snuff out a dragon's life and I won’t say you're wrong ... but as in all mysteries the fun is in getting there. Otherwise, mysteries would be two pages long. One could imagine a "Mystery" section of the newspaper, where you'd see the "who's" of all the whodunits.

In this case, the getting there involves Captain Reize Riskassé, Major Heathrow Kristoff and Edwarth Thizwerks ("Ed") Markwhistle, who arrive in Romiazalth to deal with a dragon — but they find him dead. This is a problem, but not in the usual fantasy sense. This is a mystery, and finding out whodnit will involve a lot of travel and even more luck. After all, where they're going it's not just corrupt politicians they'll have to deal with. You've trees that can cast gravity spells, fercrissakes. That's got to be just as hard to handle as surly nightclub bouncer; though you may have some of those as well.

Kadono has created three entertaining characters and a nicely textured world that combines some classic fantasy tropes into a sort-of more modern setting. And there's certainly a more modern sensibility about to the tale. The mystery aspects and the fantasy aspects are cleverly combined to complicate the mystery but still play within the rules of the genre. The mystery genre, that is, in case you’re keeping track. Because part of the fun is the way Kadono strays outside the fantasy genre. There's definitely a manga / animé sensibility at work here, a certain in-your-face attitude that makes the story entertainingly off-kilter. Unfortunately, the translation seems a little clunky. It's almost as if someone were getting IM'd about the age group while doing the translation. Often it works in the hard-boiled idiom, but just as often, it seems stilted. But the toe-tapping pace will probably cause a few reader's inner editors to shut down, so they can just enjoy the story.

This book was originally released in Japan in the year 2000, and there are at least four more in the series. Del Rey has put together a pretty nice package with decent art — nice manga-style illustrations. Give 'The Case of the Dragon Slayer' a chance and you'll see it certainly breathes new life into the young-adult, fantasy, animé, manga mystery genre. Wait, isn’t there a romance version?

01-06-09: : Walter Jon Williams Says 'This Is Not A Game' : A Networked Novel

It's not surprising, I suppose, that one of cyberpunk's earliest authors should take up the topic of computer gaming. In fact, so far as I'm concerned, it's good news. Expect a raft of thriller-diller writers to follow in the wake of Walter Jon Williams' 'This Is Not A Game,' but don’t expect them to bring the informed sense of tension and humor that you'll find in Williams' work.

'This Is Not A Game' is based on the premise of its title, that is, that gaming is no longer a game, but big business. And where Big Business makes big money, you can be certain that someone will be trying to short a few circuits and funnel that money to a destination of their choosing. And there is so much money to be made via gaming in so many arenas you know that sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for it with their life. In this case, Dagmar Shaw is a producer for an ARG gaming company who finds that the pots of money to be made come complete with pots of danger; actual, as opposed to virtual danger.

Sure, it's not a rocket-science premise, but what Williams brings to the table is a sophisticated sense of plotting informed by both knowledge of the gaming community and the science fiction from whence the games themselves derive their plots. 'This Is Not A Game' is as exciting as any game, but much more involving. Williams knows the people who make up this community and he nails them with sparse, lively prose that uses some signifiers that we're not used to seeing in novels; for example, underlines clearly pointing to hyperlinks we can't read. It's a really gripping way to keep you moving forward in the world of the characters, where a motto like, "Read the schedule / Know the schedule / Love the schedule," can scroll off into infinity on the screen in front of you.

'This Is Not A Game' is in fact a novel, in some ways, a novel of denial. Each Chapter is titled "This Is Not [blank]" with the blanks filled in by just about everything the reader might imagine and a more than a few surprises. But if you've ever been up all night trying to put together a product plan, then you're used to denial, to knowing that the game you’re playing can have very serious economic consequences. Not the least of which is that someday, some enterprising science fiction writer might think to turn your job into a novel where the consequences of being late could be fatal.

01-05-09: : Newly Available and Worth Your Time : Rounding Up

The original, limited UK issue of Gordon Dahlquist's first novel, 'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters' was a thing of beauty to behold — a collection of trade paperbacks done up in full-on Victorian style. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the US hardcover edition either. But for all the joys of the various original format releases, the real appeal of Dahlquist's novel was the writing and story. It's a full-on steampunkish Victorian fantasy, set in an imagined version of what might have once been our world; to say more would be to give away secrets that are best left discovered by the reader. Clocking in at nearly 800 pages with a leisurely pace, it's clearly not a book for everyone. It is nicely written and splendidly imagined. But as the interest in retro-tech magic realism novels increases, it certainly might find a wider audience now than it did upon its first release.

To that end, Random House has hit on a pretty unusual but not unheard-of strategy — sending the book out as two volumes, and not simultaneously.
'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters Volume One' (Bantam / Random House ; December 30 2008 ; $12.00) brings you the first 480 pages, while The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters Volume Two' (Bantam / Random House ; December 30 2008 ; $12.00) comes in at 415 pages; yes, the paperbacks actually up the page count, which is no-doubt why Random House decided on a split release. Fact of the matter is, you end up paying almost as much for the TPBs as you might have for the hardcover, which can be had now used for a song. (Though you can pay more if you like, or try to scare up the Subterranean Press HC as well.) But the TPBs do look a lot less imposing.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've a nice compact TPB version of Charlie Huston's
'The Shotgun Rule' (Ballantine / Random House ; January 13, 2009 ; $14). Here's a book you might very well
have missed — and shouldn't. It's hilariously entertaining and powerfully written, two positive qualities one doesn't often find in the same book. 'The Shotgun Rule' is a nasty little suburban noir in which drugs, teenagers and their supposedly adult parents mix it up in a nightmarishly realistic landscape. There's a pretty wide swathe of readers who will find it uncomfortably close to home, and it is indeed the sort of book you really want to read in a strip-mall taqueria, just so you can splatter the pages with droplets of pastor grease. For the cost of a couple of burritos, you can have a book that will last far longer than those burritos and will serve as a perfect excuse to eat them.

And finally, I trust readers will remember when I flipped for
'The Caterer' "by" Jeff Lint, actually yet another part of the ongoing Lint-life creation by madman Steve Ayelett. He self-published 'The Caterer' via Lulu. Now enterprising comics publisher Floating World Comics has released their new and less-shiny (thankfully so!) version printed on real, cheap, authentic and tacky comic-book paper for a mere $4.95. Here's a link to their website. Buy this comic book, read it and break your brain. You'll be glad you did. I trust you'll note that unusually, for this column, you can buy up the works and still have change back from your fifty. Given the minute-per-penny ratio, books are your best entertainment bargain. Get out there and buy — then read — a book!

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