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Dark Alchemy, by Laura Bickle, Harper Voyager Impulse, 2015, $6.99
Gabe lifted the empty sleeve of his right arm. A raven separated from the mass of birds and flew to him. It slipped up his sleeve, meshing with flesh in a flutter of darkness.
Gabe flexed his right hand, whole and unmarked. His skin felt cold from where the evening chill had begun to seep into the bird's feathers, dew now glistening on his skin.
This is only one fabulously original scene in a book filled with mystery and astonishing imagery. It drew me right into Laura Bickle's dark world of ancient alchemies and her own take on Americana folklore and myth, and stayed with me for my whole journey through the novel's pages.
Gabe isn't the point-of-view character—or at least not the main one. She's a geologist named Petra Dee, fleeing to Yellowstone Park for a new job because it's far from the ocean, and her last gig on an oilrig ended in disaster. The Yellowstone region is also the last documented place her father had been before he disappeared.
Petra is driven to her new home—a trailer—near Mike Hollander, a Park Ranger who is annoyingly protective. She's soon befriended by an oddly tame coyote she names Sig and a Native woman named Maria whose uncle Frankie is prone to visions. She also discovers that the nearby town of Temperance was founded by an alchemist. When she meets Gabe and his men, she's drawn to the riddle of what they are. Unfortunately, she also runs afoul of the local meth-heads, and then gets on the wrong side of Gabe's boss, Sal Rutherford, who runs things in the area.
And things have only begun to get complicated.
I loved this alchemical take on fantasy that Bickle has brought to a North American rural setting. There are hints and mysteries of the ancient practice everywhere, from Petra's surname (think John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I), to a mysterious object she finds buried near her trailer; from the origin of Gabe and his men to the man known as the Alchemist who has a meth lab in his basement; from her father's disappearance to Uncle Frankie's moments of clarity that seem crazier than his drunk talking.
Mix in some Native lore, great characterizations, a gift for bringing a setting to life, and a plot that eschews any hint of the tiredness of too much contemporary fantasy, and Dark Alchemy's a winner on all fronts for this reader. The promo material likens the book to Stephen King's Gunslinger series and Breaking Bad, but I don't see it. Bickle writes with an individual clarity and style, leaving the reader to appreciate a dark sense of wonder that's all her own.
Velveteen vs. The Junior Super-Patriots, by Seanan McGuire, ISFIC Press, 2012, $8.99.
Velveteen vs. The Multiverse, by Seanan McGuire, ISFIC Press, 2014, $8.99.
The last time I read superhero stories in prose form was back in the eighties. This was when the first few books in the Wild Cards series, edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, came out. I remember thinking the idea of reading this kind of story in a prose version, rather than as an illustrated comic book, seemed a little odd. But Martin and Snodgrass brought together a virtual who's who of some of my favorite authors from that time, including Howard Waldrop, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milán and Edward Bryant.
And I was sold.
I only read the first half-dozen or so collections and remember thoroughly enjoying them. But then I didn't so much lose interest as got distracted by other books and never went back.
Over the years since that time I've noticed various prose adaptations of established comic book titles but none of them seemed to offer anything better than what the illustrated versions already provide. And frankly, I prefer the idea of original stories to adaptations.
Fast forward to the present day: I've come across more and more authors trying their hand at this particular prose subgenre and thought I really should give one of them a try. I chose Seanan McGuire's Velveteen books because ever since reading Sparrow Hill Road and Indexing (both reviewed in recent columns), I've been wanting to catch up on more of her work.
The quick verdict is that they're a lot of fun.
Our main character is Velma Martinez who, after she displays the ability to bring toys to life to do her bidding, is sold by her parents to The Super Patriots, Inc., a company that tries to monitor and market every superhero on the planet. McGuire describes the series thusly:
[It's] an open-ended series about a superhero universe where cosmic powers not only came with great responsibility, they came with great legislation, merchandising, and focus group oversight. Many young heroes were effectively "adopted" by a corporate entity known as The Super Patriots, Inc., which promised to teach them how to best control their amazing gifts.
Some of those junior heroes wanted out.
Velma is one of them. As soon as she turned eighteen and it was time for her to sign her own contract with the corporation, she opted to walk away.
When the book opens, she's trying to make her way north through California to Oregon, one of the only states that isn't under the thumb of The Super Patriots, Inc. It's slow going because all she has is a crappy car that keeps breaking down and no money, since the only jobs she can get are minimum wage. She can't use her powers because doing so will put her back on the corporation's radar, and if that happens, one way or another they'll get her back, either as a willing participant in one of their superhero teams, or they'll brand her as a supervillain and lock her away.
So Velma keeps a low profile and inches her way north. But she's also got a good heart, and when she runs into innocent people in bad situations that only her powers can fix she has to help.
Velveteen vs. The Junior Super-Patriots mostly reads like a series of connected short stories with a couple of arcs. The first follows her flight to Oregon. The second has a lot of flashbacks in which we learn more about who she once was and why she doesn't want to be part of the corporation.
The more I read McGuire, the more I like her. She fits the tone of her prose to whatever style she's writing, which in this case is a mix of humor, action, and drama, with a healthy lampooning of big entertainment corporations, publicity and marketing departments, and reality shows.
But for all the humor, I found myself really caring about Velma. Carrie Vaughn—no stranger to this subgenre herself—provides a good reason why that happened as she describes one of what she calls the Secrets of Writing About Superheroes: "It's not about the powers, it's about the people. Give me a great character."
McGuire does just that. And not just with Velma/Velveteen. The support cast (where they aren't supposed to be stereotypes set up to be mocked) is fully developed as well. If you don't care about these people as you're reading their stories, you're probably a supervillain.
And now a spoiler alert:
Velveteen vs. The Junior Super-Patriots ends with our heroine safely in Oregon. When Velveteen vs. The Multiverse opens, she's now settled into her role as Portland's resident superhero. She's happy enough to leave things as they are, but The Super Patriots Inc. won't stay out of her life. They keep pushing at her until she realizes she has to make a stand, especially when she realizes what it is that they're doing to the children who come under their "care," an invasion of their inner selves that carries on into adulthood.
I have to admit that the whole evil corporation plot device has become a bit of a tiresome trope for this reader. And it would have annoyed me in these books as well, except for the fact that having the corporation be in the business of superheroes (as opposed to, say, oil or pharmaceuticals) gave it just enough of a fresh facelift to allow me to put aside my cynicism and embrace the concept.
Do Velma and her friends prevail? You'll have to read the book to find out.
What I can tell you is that if you have any familiarity with the superhero genre, you're going to love what McGuire does with it here. The caveat is that this praise is coming from someone who has been reading comics since he was a kid. If you never read them, or don't think you care for them, I can't tell what your reaction will be. That said, I'd still urge you to give them a try.
To the true believers out there: highly recommended.
The Awesome, by Eva Darrows, Ravenstone, 2015, $9.99.
Allow me a tiny digression: Going to a bar and meeting your friends isn't epic. A great cup of coffee isn't awesome. I know there's not a darn thing I can do about how language changes and how the meanings of words get co-opted to mean something else, but I can't help but feel mildly irritated when I hear this kind of thing.
Gilgamesh is an epic.
Meeting a god would be awesome.
That said, Eva Darrows's new novel is pretty awesome, and not just because she says so in the title. The hyperbole is fitting in this case because it suits the voice of the narrator, seventeen-year-old Maggie Cunningham, who, I should add, has a highly charged relationship with her mother, Janice.
Janice is a monster hunter and Maggie is her journeyman apprentice. Maggie can't move on to become a full monster hunter because she's still a virgin. In Darrows's world, the smell of virgin blood puts vampires in a feeding frenzy—which adds more danger than necessary to an already dangerous job.
So Maggie goes to a party with her friend Julie where she plans to lose her virginity to Julie's cousin Ian. They mess around in his bedroom but it doesn't work out because Ian is too drunk to do the full deed. While he turns out to be a really nice guy, Maggie's problem remains unresolved, so her mother decides to take her to the local blood bank to see if some heavy petting was enough to break the "curse" of Maggie's virginity.
They park nearby, waiting for a vampire to come along, hoping to gauge its reaction from the safety of the car. This turns out to be a really bad plan because the first vampire to come by is a fledgling without a lot of control. She's not only frenzied by Maggie's proximity—enough so that she takes out the window to grab the teen—she won't back down, even with an arrow in her. In the end, Janice has to kill her.
This wouldn't normally be a problem since the killing is justified and Janice is a registered hunter with the Department of Paranormal Relations.
(A quick aside here: One of the many things I liked about this book is that Darrows didn't feel it necessary to launch into a whole "how the world came to be like this." It just is and readers find out about it on a need-to-know basis. With so much urban fantasy floating around these days, nobody needs one more origin story explaining the paranormal excursion into the world as we know it.)
The vampire's death is a problem because she is part of a peace agreement that her sire had negotiated with a neighboring vampire clan, and justifiable or not, that other clan is going to want Janice's head.
After that, things get complicated.
The thing I loved about this book—Maggie's take-no-prisoners style of telling her story—is what might put some folks off. There's a lot of cursing and just plain crude talk. Enough that I can see some readers being upset. And if you'd plunked this book down in—oh, let's say—the seventies, YA readers at the time would have been horrified at the language and graphic situations.
So consider yourself warned.
With all that said, for my part, Maggie's voice carried the book for me. The storytelling is great, the plot unwinds with surprises, but mostly it was the brash, uncensored youthful voice that made everything feel so fresh.
Highly recommended, with the above caveat.
The Salem Strategy, by F.R. Mahler, Amazon Digital Services, 2014, $.99.
Gethsemane Gardens, by F.R. Mahler, Amazon Digital Services, 2015, $.99.
I love a bit of clever marketing, so when I found that F.R. Mahler publishes her short stories under the banner "The Horror in a Hurry Series," I just had to smile. And try the first two that are available as I write this.
Luckily—because clever marketing still requires a decent product—these two stories are excellent examples of contemporary British horror/urban fantasy.
In The Salem Strategy, Richard Jasper, a clandestine government agent, contacts a witch named Megan Blythe to train some special ops soldiers on a mission to take down a foreign dictator whose country is a conduit for the slave trade into Britain. Megan's not exactly what Jasper's looking for, though he doesn't realize it. He's certain that Megan's abilities—such as hiding in plain sight and a mild precognitive talent—can be weaponized.
Against her better judgment, Megan agrees to help him.
If this was an urban fantasy (or at least the way we have come to expect them to be these days), Megan would show up to the training session in skin-tight clothes with a sword on her back, knives in her boots and killer hand-to-hand combat moves. But she's not that kind of witch. She does have abilities, and in fact knows of magics that can cause great destruction, but the problem, as she explains to Jasper, is whatever you throw at your enemy comes right back at you, only increased three-fold.
And just as Megan isn't that kind of urban fantasy heroine, this isn't that kind of a story, either. Its pacing is quiet and thoughtful, its action and horrific elements muted until a conclusion that you really won't find in most urban fantasy stories.
Gethsemane Gardens has a much darker tone. In it, a group of students have barricaded themselves in their apartment building, which is scheduled for demolition. By law, the landlord's supposed to find them a new place to live before he can take the building down. Instead he's cutting corners and trying to just kick them out so that he doesn't lose any more money. The trouble is, the building stands on haunted ground.
Although a few scenes take place outside the building, for the most part the characters—and with them, we—are stuck inside the rooms, halls and basement of an increasingly claustrophobic apartment complex. In some ways Gethsemane Gardens unfolds like a slasher flick, as many of the characters meet terrible ends. But Mahler doesn't dwell on the graphic elements too much, and her characters are fully rounded rather than types.
Earlier I described these stories as British horror. What I meant is that they work because of their mood, pacing and the grace of Mahler's language. American horror often seems to take its tone from the mystery novel, from noir, or the straight talking of the hardboiled detective genre, while British horror—even at its most graphic—seems to have grown out of the traditional ghost story.
Regardless, Mahler's voice is a fine addition to the field for this reader, and I'm looking forward to reading her novel The Last Changeling when I'm not in a hurry.
Werewolf Cop, by Andrew Klavan, Pegasus Books, 2015, $25.95.
Don't be put off by the cheesy title. I know Werewolf Cop sounds like one more urban fantasy, filled with witches, vampires, and werewolves, oh my. Conversely, if you're a fan of the noir feel of a detective story with a dollop of the supernatural, this might not be what you think it is either.
Yes, there's a police detective, and yes, he becomes a werewolf, but the tone is that of a horror novel crossed with the detective genre—more something you'd expect from John Connelly, say, than Patricia Briggs.
Zach Adams is that detective. Nicknamed Cowboy, Zach and his partner Martin "Broadway" Goulart are members of Task Force Zero, an elite federal task force created by Homeland Security that has the official name of Extraordinary Crimes. Its principal mission is to track down Dominic Abend, a European gangster who has his sights set on taking over the American criminal underworld.
A particularly brutal murder in New York City is the first break the detectives have had since they began their pursuit of Abend. It's obvious from the crime scene that Abend was present—the first confirmation that he's now on American soil—and had tortured his victims. It's also obvious that he didn't get whatever he was looking for.
The break in the case comes at a bad time for Adams. His superiors are accusing his partner of corruption and want his help in proving it. Adams refuses to turn on his partner, but you know how it is. Once somebody whispers in your ear, it's hard to forget, and he finds himself second-guessing Goulart's every move and decision.
Adding to this stress, Adams is being blackmailed by a woman with whom he had a one-night stand. Adams is a family man, and his faith is strong, so he's been wrestling with guilt ever since Margo Heatherton seduced him. It doesn't matter that Margo targeted him. He still takes full responsibility for his one moment of weakness.
These are heavy things to deal with, never mind the supernatural element. The possibility of losing his wife and family because of a stupid mistake. Distrusting his partner, the one person he needs to count on to survive his job. Knowing just how despicable Abend is, how much damage he can do, but being unable to stop him because the man is like a ghost.
Add the werewolf on top of all of that and you're face to face with a breaking point.
Maybe I should be saying spoiler alert at this point, but really, cheesy though the title is, Werewolf Cop is truth in advertising and going in we all know it's going to happen. The man's going to become a beast.
It takes a while for that moment to arrive, when the moon rises and the curse takes over, but unlike many werewolf novels I've read, nothing in this novel feels like foreplay to the inevitable because there's already so much going on in Adams's life. We're so absorbed in all of his other problems that we almost forget what's going to happen to him until the beast eventually does take over and kills an innocent.
This is really the meat of the book: how Adams pushes forward to do what's right, even when he knows that eventually it means his own destruction. He's a good man, and a good cop, and although he's failed one innocent, he's determined not to let that happen again.
Except now it's the second night of the curse and the moon's rising again.
It appears from the material that accompanied the book that Werewolf Cop is being marketed as urban fantasy, but I don't find that to be the case. Most urban fantasy seems a little lite in how it blends genres. Instead of digging deep, it tends to throw up elements just for their coolness factor. Klavan's novel takes a different approach. It reads like the real deal, utilizing powerful elements from different kinds of storytelling because they're needed and using them to create something that we haven't really seen before.
I particularly liked Adams's strong faith, how it was used to deepen the character's dilemma without being preachy and how it gave him the willpower to stand up against the impossible odds of the situation in which he finds himself.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide