Henry H. Neff, The Tapestry (2007-2014)

A few months ago I was looking, quite consciously, for good Harry Potter clones, or school-of-magic series in general. I’m brave enough to admit I loved The Magicians by Grossman (season two of the tv series is still good, by the way!), dubbed Potter for adults, but this time I’m back to children-oriented books. Or… middle grim-grade? I once showed Coraline to my then-three-year-old niece (sort-of by accident, long story, sorry Madzia, the most important thing is there was no lasting psychological damage 😉 ), but I won’t be reading her this one any time soon.

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Max McDaniels lives a quiet life in the suburbs of Chicago, until the day he stumbles upon a mysterious Celtic tapestry. Many strange people are interested in Max and his tapestry. His discovery leads him to Rowan Academy, a secret school where great things await him.

Does not sound very original? And it isn’t, at first. Then it gets less derivative, and quite good. The five book long saga gives us likeable protagonists and develops their stories coherently up to a very satisfying ending. Seriously, there are many imperfections, and sometimes it felt rather dull, it definitely could be a book shorter in my opinion, but the ending itself made it worth my time. Melancholic, happy, but hard-earned. Even a bit tolkienesque, toutes proportions gardées.

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Another Tolkien link

Tolkien is too big, and too well-known for a simple review. For me, he is the god of the genre, chief of the pantheon, and I don’t accept dissent here. What irks me the most, is any criticism of LotR as not being realistic. It’s not Stendhal, people… But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

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Tolkien mythos is way more than Hobbit and The Trilogy, published before his death in 1973. They were finished and polished (almost) to their creator’s satisfaction, but there was so much more. And Christopher Tolkien might not be a giant of his father’s calibre, not even Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped to prepare The Silmarillion for publication, is, but we would be poorer if they didn’t prepare and publish it. And the rest of it, it’s actually quite interesting when we get all the unfinished and lost stories. Children of Húrin might have been a step too far, but even of that I’m not sure. It’s not Tolkien at his best, it’s only partially J.R.R. Tolkien at all, but it might be a nice supplementary reading for someone who’d shy away from The Silmarillion.

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The new Red Sonja (2013-?)

Red Sonja. Female version of Conan the Barbarian, in a way lingerie football* is a female version of American football.

*There really is such a thing, and apparently quite popular in the US. Isn’t it a perfect summary of what is worst in today’s pop-culture? The worst trends in advertising and entertainment combining sport and sex to appeal to the lowest instincts of mass audience. And there is talk of empowerment and providing role models for little girls, of course… and fining players for not revealing enough skin.

This digression is not completely out of topic, because Red Sonja seems to be part of the same problem. Pulp had its strong points and can still be fun to read, but it also targeted male teenage audience with soft erotica in days when it had to be disguised and the regular porn was not easily available. Scantily clad women on the covers, damsels in distress rewarding dashing heroes with their graces, and sometimes sword-wielding females like Sonja, inspired but slightly different fantasies of authors and readers. Still, no actual women were hurt and left without medical help in the process, so maybe these were better times…

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Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

Arrival might be the most interesting movie I missed in 2016. From the guy behind new Blade Runner, and, (even more important!) new Dune. Heh, new Dune… I’m not ashamed to admit I love Lynch’s version, but I’m ready for a new one.

Back to Arrival…a science fiction with Amy Adams playing a linguist trying to decipher alien language. Without any threat of invasion, this is no Ender’s Game, the goal is just to understand a fundamentally different culture. Well, the goal of our protagonist, government would prefer to gain some useful technology. The problem is, this alien culture is build upon fundamentally different understanding of time. It’s not a line for them and so they understand the world in a way far removed from our experience. Their language (languages in fact, as their writing is a language in its own right) reflects that.

The science of language is done with great care for details, and while the movie – and at this point I know it only from reviews and trailers – adds many entertaining details, to build a feature film from 64-page short story – it’s still a piece of hard s/f.

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But enough about the movie, short story collection is what this post is about. And its very interesting author.

With just fourteen short stories and a novella, the author behind the recent film “Arrival” has gained a rapturous following within the genre and beyond.

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International Women’s Day

I’m not necessarily a big fan of international days of any kind, but this is a nice occasion for some wishing and a link or two.

By now, almost everybody heard about Elizabeth Warren, a US senator (D) silenced by majority leader Mitch McConnell:

Well, these were pretty impressive words that had opposite effect to what their author intended.

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Damn. It will probably be carved on her tombstone. And used as a rallying cry in her presidential campaign in 2020. Meanwhile, it’s a very nice phrase used by the smarter part of American public, and McConnell probably still doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, even as it gets thrown in his face during Town Hall meetings.

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When genre meets history and theory of warfare – a few links.

A short text, just to share some great links. Not random links, mind you. There is a recurring theme in my posts, and that is historical realism. And there is something many of the books reviewed here share – war as a topic.

People I admire enough to recommend their creations today, approach the crossroads of genre fiction and history/theory of warfare from two different angles. The first one is more serious, and fairly common. History buffs judging the realism of various novels or movies are using tools like YouTube to spread the good word. Some of them are really good, and entertaining. The other one… here represented by one blog I lately read religiously, is even more entertaining, gives the appearance of fanfiction, but for an attentive reader provides a great learning opportunity.

So lets start with The Angry Staff Officer, a blog by a genuine active duty officer (US Army) with a penchant for history. And genre fiction. He wrote a series of Star Wars posts, but does not limit himself to science fiction. He retells our beloved stories as Stormtrooper’s officer’s reports, or describes the action of Wind in the Willows as an example of small unit warfare as seen by US Army doctrine. Sweet. It’s a joy for people like me, who know a little about it, but for newcomers it’s also a very educational. I wonder, how many of us thought about the logistic and maintenance problems of space warfare?  Very cool stuff.

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Paul Cornell, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? (2016)

This is a quick follow-up review to my post on the two first books of Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police. In the comments I’ve suggested it starts well and I’m happy to add it continues so. For me – the best part of the series so far and a reason to read the next one. Beware of minor spoilers, but nothing major. If anything, knowing that would make me feel better while reading volume one, now I know the author knows where he’s going.

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The ghost of Sherlock dies quickly, and the identity of his killer is only one of the riddles for our team to solve. They are also chasing the Big Bad of the series, and the truth about the disappearance of their predecessors. Plenty to do for a small team of police officers with varying specialities and sanity levels.

Is this still a horror story? Well, there are violent deaths, and graphic depictions of Cornell’s vision of Hell, but it’s just a sort of grimdark Urban Fantasy, nothing to scar even relatively sensitive readers.

And it definitely feels like a proper UF saga now, with a main story I’m really interested – and emotionally invested – in, to a degree. The supernatural world is a bit more fleshed out, characters grow, story progresses, even some good things happen. There’s a change 😉 Usually I make up my mind faster, here it took me three books, but Shadow Police finally joined the ranks of series I’m definitely going to follow.

Still, not all is great. Worldbuilding, very important for every genre universe, is uneven. I like to London, but I don’t fully buy the main principles of magic here. The way economy works in the supernatural underworld, with sacrifices as a rather inconsistent measure of worth, could not, I believe, sustain even a relatively small community. The way magic is exclusive to the cities, and only some of them – goes against tradition, and tradition that makes a lot of sense. City magic could be unique, but to claim that mysteries of the world originated with big settlements… I’m not convinced. Aaronovitch might be getting worse at plotting his books, but his worldbuilding is way better. And the way magic works, and how relatively easy it is to come upon, I don’t think it’s realistic to assume it would be ignored by the mainstream to such a degree.

Ok, but the strong points of this novel go beyond developing the series in an interesting direction. by itself it’s very cool. Cornell uses Sherlock-mania and many different versions of fiction’s greatest detective, with subtle jabs at a few of his modern incarnations.It’s definitely the best case our protagonists encountered so far!

If you’re hungry for Urban Fantasy darker than Dresden Files – and its less successful clones – that is a nice thing to try. You might like it 🙂

Score: 7/10