Monthly Archives: April 2012

Long Looks at Short Fiction: The Last Rune by David A. Hardy

“The Last Rune”
David A. Hardy
Sorcerous Signals

Sorcerous Signals and its sister publication The Lorelei Signal are a pair of online publications I’d not encountered before.  I’m going to check them out after reading “The Last Rune” by David A. Hardy.

This one was a little different than the short fiction I’ve looked at in the last month or so.  Most of the stories this series has focused on lately have been fairly straightforward with relatively few named characters.  “The Last Rune” is by far the most complex.  While having a central viewpoint character, there are a number of named secondary characters and a multi-layered plot.  This is not a bad thing.  Quite the contrary, although it means you shouldn’t read it if you’re tired or sleepy; you need to pay attention.  But do read it.  It’s a good blend of fantasy and vikings.

The story starts out with an attack by vikings on the feast hall of King Hugleik of Upsalla.  Among those defending the hall is Ulf Bloodeye, the protagonist.  Set against him among the attackers is Starkad Stovikson.  These two have a history which is recounted in another story, “Vikar’s Doom” not available online. It is available in Mystic Signals 9, but I don’t have a copy yet or I would have reviewed it as well.

Where the story really picks up is in the aftermath of the battle.  It seems King Hugliek possesses a powerful rune.  Starkad takes off with it, and Ulf (who barely manages to survive the battle) tracks him down.  That’s a vast simplification, of course.  I’m not sure I can summarize everything without giving some stuff away.  Hardy kept me on my toes with this one, and I was never certain where he would go next.  There are some figures (human and animal) I presume to be from Norse myths, although I’m not certain.  My knowledge of Norse mythology isn’t as extensive as my knowledge of Greek and Roman. 

There’s plenty of combat and action in this one, and the pace is relentless.  One of the things I liked most about this story was the attention Hardy paid to detail.  The storyline was a well-woven tapestry where small things that didn’t seem to be such a big deal at the time, such as when one of the warriors has a private word with teh skald before the battle.  Turns out this little exchange, which the reader isn’t privy to, is a major plot point. 

“The Last Rune” was fun, and I’m looking forward to more adventures of Ulf Bloodeye. 

Update on Life

We went back to the doctor yesterday to go over test results.  Whatever this mass/cyst/something is, it doesn’t appear to be anything to panic about according to the doctor.  It could be anything from a benign cyst to the start of something serious, but at this point there’s no way to be sure without doing something invasive. There’s currently nothing to indicate the whateveritis is serious.  Kathy is still thinking about it, but she’s leaning heavily on waiting and doing another MRI in six months and see how things look then.  She’ll have to have the MRI anyway.  It’s possible that this thing is the result of the hormones she’s been on since her hysterectomy a year ago.  If that’s the case, then it could shrink or (hopefully) go away altogether.  The doctor has taken her off hormones, and if it shrinks, that will be a good indication the hormones caused this thing in the first place.

Anyway, we’re much more relaxed than we’ve been for the last few weeks.  I want to thank everyone for their prayers and support.  We’ve really appreciated them.

Life Happens…

…and sometimes “life” is spelled with an “S” if you get my meaning.  Fortunately, that’s not the case (yet), although I was preparing myself for it to be.

A few weeks ago, my wife Kathy went in for her annual mammogram, although she later told me she was thinking about skipping it this year.  Well, the mammogram, done at our PCP’s office, or rather the large clinic he works at, showed something that wasn’t there last year.  He referred her to a breast health specialist in town, an wonderful woman who is a breast cancer survivor herself.  This doctor did a followup mammogram on the breast in question (the right), saw the same thing, and ordered an MRI and a biopsy. 

We got the results back today.  The biopsy showed the new growth (something called calcification) to be benign.  But the MRI showed a small mass (about the size of the tip of my little finger) in the left breast which didn’t show up on the PCP’s mammogram.  It didn’t show up on the followup mammogram we did with the specialist this afternoon.  And let me tell you something.  The difference in quality of the two mammograms was amazing.  The specialist’s showed much more detail than the PCP’s.  Lesson: not all mammograms are created equal.  Make sure you’re getting the best quality you can.

Anyway, we go in for a followup visit on Thursday morning to discuss options after the doctor has had a chance to examine the sonogram we also did late this afternoon.  We’ll probably do another biopsy.  The doctor is fairly certain this is benign, but she doesn’t want to take chances.  Neither do we.  If they do find something, I may start blogging erratically until we get things cleared up.  I’ll post a notice if that happens.

Blackbirds Coming Home to Roost

Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot Books
3 May 2012
320pp B-format paperback
£7.99 UK

24 April 2012
320pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN

24 April 2012

This is a novel that will most likely appeal to fans of Joe R. Lansdale.  It’s a high octane ride through the dark recesses of humanity, a smashing blend of noir and the supernatural that combines the best of classic crime novels with downright genuine creepiness.

I absolutely loved it.  With one small exception.

That exception being the level of profanity, which is extremely high.  There comes a point above which I will put a book down if the profanity level reaches it simply because I’m trying to tune out the language to the point I can’t focus on the story.  This book passed that point, and not only did I keep reading, but I turned the pages as fast as I could.  I’m making an issue of this because I want you to understand how good the writing was to make me keep reading.  I can name on one hand the number of writers I will knowingly read who works contain that level of profanity.  Chuck Wendig is now numbered among them (as is the aforementioned Mr. Lansdale).

Part of the appeal is the voice Wendig uses to tell his story.  More on that in a bit.  In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, here’s a brief summary.  Miriam Black has a special ability, the ability to see how and when a person will die.  All it takes is a brief touch of skin on skin, a brushed elbow, a tap on the shoulder.  And it happens.  Completely involuntary.  As you can probably imagine, Miriam likes to wear layers.  Seeing all the ways people die can get to you after a while.  Miriam, like a blackbird, is a scavenger.  She uses her knowledge to be present when people die alone so she can go through their pockets for loose change.  And loose bills.  And loose credit cards.  And anything else that might be useful.

One night Miriam meets Louis, a long haul trucker who gives her a ride and gets her out of a tight situation.  When she shakes his hand, she learns that he’ll die a violent, painful death at the hands of someone else in one month.  And that she’ll be there to witness it.  So she tries to run.  In doing so, she meets Ashley.  What Miriam doesn’t know is that Ashley is a con man who knows there’s something unusual about Miriam, although he doesn’t know exactly what.  He just knows that he can use her in a scam, one which will eventually involve Louis, and so he’s been following her.  What Ashley doesn’t know is that there are people following him.

Bad people.  Very, very bad people.

The thing that made this book so refreshing to read was the voice Wendig used to tell it.  It’s by turns sardonic, funny, bleak, compelling.  And, yes, as I’ve already stated, profane.  It was only a few pages before I was caught up in the narrative, and then it was like literary crack.  I couldn’t get away from it.  Before it’s over, Miriam will have to face some things about herself, none of them pleasant, most of them consequences of the choices she’s made through the years.  All the chickens coming home to roost, although in this case they’re blackbirds.

And the humor.  I loved the humor.  It was gallows humor at its finest, subtle and dark and a perfect fit, from the chapter titles to the dialogue to the point of view.  The humor was needed as a counterpoint to all the times Miriam touched someone, or had someone touch her, and saw how they died.  There are a number of ways to die, most of them unpleasant.  Maybe it says something about me and my state of mental health, but I found this one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.

While this one may not be for everyone, it’s one of my favorites for the year.  Read the excerpt below and see what I mean. The book hits stores here in the states the day after tomorrow.

The sequel, Mockingbird, is due out at the end of August.  It’s going to be a long summer.


Long Looks at Short Fiction: Pekra by Tom Doolan

Tom Doolan
Kindle format, 0.99

If I didn’t already know that he was, I would guess by reading this that Tom Doolan is the father of a teenage girl.  He seems to capture the viewpoint quite well.  At least I think he does, never having been a teenage girl myself.

“Pekra” is Tom’s latest piece of short fiction.  Like the previous”Blackskull’s Captive“, reviewed here, this is an orc story, only this time it’s not set in space.  It’s also significantly shorter, making it the perfect thing to read while taking a quick lunch break.

This is also a little different than most orc stories.  It’s a love story of sorts.  Pekra is a young orc whose parents are on her case because her sister has found a mate and is with child.  Why can’t she do the same?  So she does, or at least tries to.  In orc society the females choose the mates.  If two females fight over a male, the male is stuck with the winner, like it or not.  As you might expect, Pekra is challenged when she tries to choose her mate (chosen in part because her choice will annoy her parents).  The result is a cat fight, orc style. 

This was a short tale, but thoroughly enjoyable.  Both Pekra and her choice of mate are well characterized, and the fight scene is a blast.  (Not literally, the two orcs don’t have any explosives.)  As Tom said in his announcement on his blog, this one would have been hard to market.  I’m glad he published it himself.  It focused on an aspect of orc society that isn’t usually shown, the mating ritual.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these characters in a longer tale.  Check it out. 

RIP, K. D. Wentworth (1951-2012)

Kathy Wentworth

Damn, damn, and double damn.  I just found out that author K. D. Wentworth passed away from pneumonia yesterday after a battle with cervical cancer.  She was a longtime friend, and she will be missed. 

Kathy got her start in writing by winning the Writers of the Future contest in 1988.  She later became one of the judges for the contest.  More details of her professional life are available at Locus Online

I first met K. D. Wentworth in Tulsa at the second Conestoga in 1998, where she was on the Con Committee..  We saw each other each summer until the convention moved to April in 2009 (I wasn’t able to attend) as well as at other conventions, most notably Armadillocon and ConDFW.  The last time I saw her was at Armadillocon in summer 2009.  She joined a group of us for dinner on Friday night. 

Kathy was a friendly, outgoing person and one of the most generous and kind people in the field.  The greatest kindness she did me was on the way home from the World Fantasy Convention in 2000.  The convention was in Corpus Christi that year, which meant it was close enough for me to attend.  I flew down from Dallas.  Since it was the first large convention I’d been able to attend, I took three suitcases, one tucked inside another, with just enough clothing and personal items to make it through the weekend. 

On the way back, all three suitcases were packed with books.  I was flying Southwest airlines, which at that time had a limit of two carry-on items per person.  All the flights out of Corpus were with Southwest, and all of them went through Houston.  Kathy and I were on the same flight.  I was trying to decide which suitcase to check when Kathy offered to carry one of the suitcases on for me since she only had one carry-on bag.  I accepted.

Kathy and the rest of her party from Tulsa changed planes in Houston while I continued on to Dallas.  Both legs of the flight were packed.  You can imagine the dirty looks I received when I deboarded the plane with three bulging suitcases.  That’s the sort of generous person Kathy was.  I also have a signed manuscript of an unpublished short story set in her Black/on/Black universe she gave me at a convention.

She was a great writer, being a three time finalist for the Nebula.  I’ve not read all of her novels, but I’ve read most of them, and I’ve enjoyed all of them immensely.  In my opinion she was one of the more under appreciated writers of the last two decades.  She wrote across multiple subgenres of science fiction and fantasy.  In addition to novels, she wrote numerous short stories, the most recent short work being “Alien Land” in the January/February issue of F&SF.  If you’ve not read her work, do.  She was good and she had her own unique voice.

Relaxing with the Fireside

Fireside Magazine
electronic, $3.99 single issue, $8/yr subscription

No, that isn’t a typo in the title of this post.  That really is the word “with” rather than “by”.  I’m not talking about a literal fireside, but a figurative one.  In this case the first issue of Fireside Magazine, which went on sale just a few days ago as I write this. 

This is a new illustrated nongenre fiction magazine I told you about a couple of months ago. And by nongenre, I don’t mean a literary magazine.  Instead, the stories aren’t restricted to a particular type of genre.  Editor Brian White is looking for good stories, regardless of genre.

I think he succeeded.  Let’s take a closer look at what the issue contains, shall we?

There are four short stories and one comic story sandwiched in the middle.  The comic story (“Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas” by Adam P. Knave, D. J. Kirkbride, Michael Lee Harris, and Frank Cvetkovic) was the only thing that didn’t work for me.  The illustrations were fine, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to buy into the story, probably because it’s hard to cram a lot of story into a few pages.  The concept of a comic included in each issue, though, is a good one that should be continued.

Ken Liu‘s “To the Moon” is the cover story.  It’s a tale of a lawyer who has to defend a man seeking asylum in the states.  It’s probably the heaviest story in the issue, dealing with the legal system and the reasons we do and don’t allow immigrants into the country.  I’d classify this one as realism and magic realism because of the way Liu structures it.  It’s ultimately unsettling, which I mean as a compliment.  Liu challenged me to think and question my assumptions.

Next was “Emerald Lakes” by Chuck Wendig.  It features his character Atlanta Burns and is a prequel to Shotgun Gravy.  It’s a nice little piece of noir in which Atlanta metes out justice in a mental ward.  I enjoyed it enough to put Shotgun Gravy on my list.

The third story, and my favorite, was a science fiction story by Christie Yant, “Temperance”.  It’s a time travel story with a flawed protagonist.  It could easily become the inaugural story in a series, and I hope it does.  I’d like to know what happens next.

Tobias S. Buckell has the final offering in the issue, “Press Enter to Exectue”.  I got the sense Tobias’ spam filter has been active lately.  It’s about a hit man hired to go after spammers.  This one twists to the end and kept me on my toes.  The only quibble I have with it is a factual point.  One of the characters says that death row inmates in Texas are electrocuted.  Actually, we’ve had lethal injection for years and retired the electric chair some time ago.

Overall, this was a great first issue, and I’m glad I supported it on Kickstarter.  Brian White and his team have set themselves a high standard to match for coming issues.  If they can, and I have no doubt they will, then I expect to see stories from this magazine on the award ballots before too long.  The fact that stories from all genres will be printed has the potential to make this a major market with fierce competition among submissions.

That’s if White and his team can get enough support through sales to keep the magazine going.  Writers and artists cost money, you know.  Here’s where you can help.  Single issues are $3.99, and a one year subscription is $8 (for 4 issues).  Check this magazine out.  If you like what you see, tell a friend.  I’d like this one to stick around for a while.

Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls
Anne Lyle
Angry Robot Books
432pp B-format paperback, £8.99
448pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN

I had intended to have this book read and reviewed two or three weeks ago, on or about the release date, but life has been happening at my house, and I’m a little behind.  My apologies to Ms. Lyle and Angry Robot for the delay.  I know Angry Robot likes to have reviews for review copies posted within two weeks of the book’s release, and I’m a little beyond that.

Anyway, I was eagerly awaiting this one, and my expectations were higher than usual due to all the positive advance buzz surrounding it.  And while I enjoyed the book, as is often the case in these types of situations, I was somewhat disappointed.

Only somewhat, mind you.  I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, a brief overview of what the book is about.  A number of years ago, we’re not told exactly when that I noticed, explorers to the New World discovered a race of beings called Skraylings.  They look something like elves, and they’ve just sent their first ambassador to England, where Elizabeth I sits on the throne.  None of the other countries such as France and Spain have Skraying ambassadors.  This being historical fantasy of the alternate history sort, Elizabeth has a husband and two sons who don’t exist in our history.  In honor of the ambassador’s arrival, a competition between three rival theater groups has been decreed, with the ambassador serving as the judge. 

Malverny Catlyn is a down on his luck swordsman who is about 26, has no means of support, and a twin brother locked up in Bedlam. That last bit turns out to be important.  Out of nowhere, he gets the job as the ambassador’s personal bodyguard.  By specific request of the ambassador.  Whom Mal has never met.  Clearly something is going on.

Coby is a Dutch refugee who is working for one of the theater companies, disguised as a boy.  She’s about seventeen.  Her path crosses with Mal’s when she’s recruited to spy on Mal.  Mal, meanwhile, has been recruited by the Queen’s own spymaster to spy on the Skraylings.

There’s quite a bit of intrigue as well as a conspiracy.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind the conspiracy.  To me it seemed obvious.

I’ve never been fond of the trope wherein people, usually women, disguise themselves as someone of the opposite gender, usually men.  I find the comic relief aspects of such a situation to wear thin pretty quickly, even when Shakespeare himself is the one writing the story.  Your mileage may vary.  (In the interest of fairness, I do acknowledge that men dressing as women was common in the theater in those days, and so some of that sort of thing is to be expected in novel where theaters are a central part of the plot.)  And if not played for laughs, it’s been my observation that too often the author uses the situation to lecture the reader on women’s rights.  One way to throw me out of a story quickly is to have a character in a previous historical time period think, talk, and/or act with late twentieth/early twenty-first century sensibilities and standards.  Ms. Lyle, to her credit resists this temptation.  At least for the most part.  There were a couple of places where that wasn’t the case, the most grievous being when Coby was thinking about how women would never go back to wearing skirts if they were ever allowed to wear pants.  Again, this is one of those things where your mileage may vary.

The thing that most disappointed me, however, was what I considered the lack of swordplay for a book promoted as a swashbuckler.  There was some, don’t get me wrong, just not enough for my liking, and what there was was brief and over quickly.  Contrast that with Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick, where the sword fights went on for pages and you never noticed because you were so engrossed in them.  Instead, the emphasis was on the romance, again not unexpected in a novel set in Elizabethan times.  It was just that I couldn’t buy into the romance, not the main one between Coby and Mal, or any of the others.  Maybe because in the back of my mind I was thinking How Would Shakespeare Have Written This?, a comparison that no author can win. 

On the positive side, though, Ms. Lyle has done her research and done it well.  Mal Catlyn was actually a historical figure, although nothing like the character here, as Ms. Lyle explains in an afterward.  What impressed me, and impressed me quite favorably, was how well the period came to life.  All the grit and oppression, the poverty and the class system, all were on display.  The world felt lived in, something that is very hard to pull off, even for writers with many more novels to their credit than Ms Lyle.  (This is her debut novel.)

The writing is also high quality.  There were several points in the story, primarily early in the story, where I might have put the book down and not returned to it had it not been for Ms. Lyle’s prose.  While it was obvious to me who was behind the conspiracy that targets Mal and the theater group Coby belongs to, the role Mal’s twin played in the story kept me guessing until the end.  In fact, it was the ending that sold the book for me.  All immediate plot threads were tied up, but some longer term ones have interesting implications.

The last few pages seemed to be setting up the next novel in the series, in which it appears Mal will go to France.  Of course, he’ll be a spy.  I’m interested in seeing what Ms. Lyle will do there, especially if she can bring France to life like she did England.

I realize my remarks have been more negative than positive, but this wasn’t a bad book.  It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting and not entirely to my taste.  There is very much an audience for it.  I’m just not quite it, although I won’t give up on the series yet.  If you think you might like it, check it out.  There’s an excerpt below.

Addendum to Review of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

I was reading the review of the current issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly on the Swords and Sorcery blog and realized I hadn’t scrolled down the contents page far enough when I read HFQ this past week.  I missed the final poem altogether.  That poem was “Legend” by Colleen Anderson.  I found the poem to be somewhat depressing.  That’s a good thing in this context.  The poem was a moving look at a legend’s passing, and I Ms. Anderson did a good job of capturing the feeling of loss that would accompany such a thing.

My apologies to Ms. Anderson, the editorial team at HFQ, and my readers for the oversight.