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What We’re Reading: Three Parts Dead

2016 December 15
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

13539191Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (Tor, 2012)

Max Gladstone’s debut novel Three Parts Dead doesn’t have a fantastic title. It sounds pulpy to the max (and this is coming from a great lover of pulp) with a dash of vagueness tossed in for good measure. It’s the kind of line someone on CSI: Arbitrary Metro Place might say while pulling down sunglasses. “I’d say this bartender is three parts—*tilts sunglasses*—dead.” And yet, the title is important. Gladstone wrote a nice post over at Tor describing why this and his other novels from the Craft sequence are named the way they are. And it turns a slightly cheeseball title into something charming and fun. Right? Right.

Three Parts Dead is more than anything else fun. I have final papers to grade and a new daughter missing several beats in her circadian rhythm and my own damn book to write and I just wanted something that would pull me in, make me excited to pick it back up, and reward me for investing in the story. And Gladstone’s debut novel does all of that and more.

The story is Tara Abernathy’s, a Craftswoman (a sort of magico-juridical necromancer person) who is thrown out of school, nearly killed, and then given a job working for a high-powered law firm. The case? Investigating the circumstances surrounding a god’s death and resurrecting Him if possible.

But this is also Abelard’s story, a young priest in the church of Kos the Everburning, the recently-dead god whose case (and resurrection) to Whom Tara is assigned.

And it’s also Cat’s story, a woman working as a peace officer (of a sort) and also in search of a high that will distract her from her life. Incidentally, her boss is the goddess Justice, who is a resurrected version of an old god named Seril. It’s complicated. Clearly.

Gladstone uses an omniscient third-person narrator to huge success in this novel, moving from character to character, following the story instead of perceptions of the story. The best moments in this book are when the same action is happening to/in front of/near many of the characters and the perspective moves effortlessly between them, keeping up the pace while adding in additional narrative stimulus. The climax of the story, which I won’t ruin and would probably take some serious time to explain anyway, is like this: strangely multi-perspectival and unified all at once. It’s great.

Three Parts Dead also has this great metaphor of the courtroom and legal troubles as fantastical and magical; it undergirds much of the action and plot in the story, and this way of jazzing up jurisprudence is hugely exciting and fun. About halfway through the novel, Tara and the opposing council present their opening arguments, but the whole thing takes the form of a magical contest held over the imagined (but very real) body of the dead god Kos. It does what fantasy is best at: taking a theoretical conflict and making it literal as a way of better exploring its nature. We see what legal battles are really about here: power, trickery, preparation, and will. It makes for a strangely exciting story about law.

If there are moment where Gladstone stumbles in this book, they are closely linked with how imaginatively his world has been built. Characters will sometimes turn to one another to explain things they both know (or should know) as a way to convey exposition or worldbuilding, and because the plot is tied up in the intricacies of a fantastical law system, Gladstone has to slam on the brakes at times to let us know what’s really going on, what’s really at stake, and what that person really said.

But those moments are few and easily forgotten in the greater genius of the novel. I can’t wait to dive in to the others.

What fun page turners have you been reading recently?

What We’re Reading: Summerlong

2016 September 29
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading


Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Publications, September 2016)

Peter S. Beagle is a treasure of the fantasy field. His novel The Last Unicorn will forever be a seminal fantasy text, and he deserves an award—more awards, actually, since he already has so many—for suffering through what sounds like the worst manager situation ever. Summerlong is his first book in more than a decade, and the anticipation surrounding it was deservedly high. And while the book has moments of Beagle’s old magic—moments that capture and ensorcel, prose more melodic than music and images carved out before your very eyes, perfect and powerful—I confess to finishing this book with more than little disappointment, frustration, and despair.

In Summerlong, we follow Abe and Joanna (a couple for more than 20 years but unmarried) as they meet Lioness Lazos, an enigmatic woman who comes to live in Abe’s garage. But things begin to go a little strange the more Lioness hangs around, and soon her mythic past begins to catch up with her—a mysterious mother and a dangerous husband. Lioness pulls Abe and Joanna (and every minor character, too) into her strange orbit, disrupting their lives, at once bringing magic and chaos to them.

Beagle is at his best in this book when he’s placing his characters and story in the world. The narrative takes place on and around Puget Sound, and Beagle manages to make that drizzly, grey (though, once Lioness shows up, not so grey) world feel totally real. Here he is, doing his thing:

The island’s highest ridges were a ragged, foggy tonsure where only owls and eagles nested, and where a few overgrown dirt paths still opened out into wide lawns and stone houses: last survivors of Gardner’s great lumber days, now inhabited by fourth-generation website designers and financial planners.

Summerlong features a nostalgia and romanticization for a simpler past that is unswerving and unironic. Abe and Joanna always go to the same diner, always sit in the same booth, have a familiar patter constantly running between them. He plays the harmonica and she wants to go kayaking, but alone and in a whale-skin kayak (she settles for something a little more modern, but still). He brews beer and gets romantically and stereotypically lost in the 14th century while working on his book, and she shoots baskets and goes to the market. There’s a sort of very genuine, very romantic nostalgia here, unapologetic and earnest—Abe and Joanna don’t take themselves too seriously, always joking and laughing about getting old and being crotchety, but there’s another way in which they take themselves totally seriously. This genuine crush on the old and forgotten ways of the world—harmonicas and self-brewed beer, diners where everyone knows your name—oscillates between totally charming and way too much.   

Endings, we all learn, must be surprising and yet inevitable. Summerlong, sadly, features an ending the attentive reader will have seen coming from the early pages of the book—not because the narrative has set us on a course of impending inevitability but because Beagle deals with two narrative engines here: one the unassailable, inflexible myth of Persephone (here personified as Lioness), and the other the frustratingly stock romance between a quippy, old-but-still-good-looking academic and a near-retirement flight attendant anxious from page one to dump the academic and reconnect with her daughter. Yes, of course the academic discovers his deep and profound musical ability with the harmonica, and yes of course the couple stays together for awhile out of sheer convenience, and yes of course it ends when he sleeps with a much younger woman (the sex scene being described, of course, as one of domination and liberty). The story doesn’t earn this ending so much as it screams it at the reader from the very first pages, and the frustration I felt in finishing the book had everything to do with seeing a story that might have been wonderful smothered beneath the weight of a barely-covered myth retelling and a cliched real world narrative.

But here’s the real problem: after the inevitable and unsurprising climax of the book (the first of two, I suppose, though the only real one), which pulls apart the only relationship Beagle has invested any real time into throughout the novel, we’re left with characters who feel out of sorts and relationships that at once need to be meaningful and important but simply can’t be—they’ve been ignored or lightly treated for the previous 150 pages. Joanna has what could be a momentous and important kayaking trip with her daughter Lily, but their troubled relationship was painted with only the broadest of brushes, and so comments from Lily like, “I’m not Outdoorsy Girl, I’m sorry. Let’s just go home, and you can be ashamed of me all you like, I won’t say a word,” come across as flat and clunky, emotionally manipulative or narratively unearned. These on-the-nose statements assure me of the realities of this relationship but they also serve to highlight how little I believe in those realities. If this relationship is earned, if it’s been built over the course of 200 pages, then a statement like that isn’t necessary; I already know. Instead, we’re left with a denouement filled with this kind of emotional telling, and the process of reading it is an often discombobulating one.

Often frustrating and disappointing, Summerlong nevertheless attempts to reinvigorate a favorite theme of Beagle’s: what happens to everyday life when it meets the magical, the unexplainable? How do we live after such experiences? Although Beagle’s newest novel falters at times in its answers to those questions, I remain glad that one of fantasy’s greats is back and publishing novels again.

What new books from favorite authors have you been reading lately, dear reader?

What We’re Reading: The Vanishing Kind

2016 July 21
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

FSFThe Vanishing Kind by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionJuly/Aug 2016)

The Vanishing Kind, Lavie Tidhar’s noir novella recently featured in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is the story of Gunther Sloam, a third-rate filmmaker from Berlin, who is searching post-WW2 London for a past love named Ulla Blau. The frame character through whose voice we get the story is Tom Everly of the Gestapo (at least, that’s who he says he is), and Tom (and/or his men) follow Sloam on the filmmakers London investigations. In this world, the Germans won the war (though there are small mentions of continued but futile resistance happening in America) and London is a city in need of rebuilding. It’s streets are filled with refuse, it’s buildings are in shambles from the war, and it’s people lead lives in the dark—trading illicit goods, working as prostitutes, hiding their identities. This is the London Sloam walks through, and no one here is as they seem: a rare book dealer is both a Jewish man living another identity and a drug circulator using the rare books as a front. A dwarf, wealthier than seemingly anyone else in London, meets Sloam in an abandoned church and reveals that he’s been paying for the German occupation, because “even Nazis need money.”

And yet the strangeness of “The Vanishing Kind” is not in the double lives and secret machinations of its characters—it is in semi-surreal movie logic that runs through this piece like a set of train tracks, guiding the narrative and reader alike. We are introduced to Sloam as a filmmaker, and many of his thoughts are through the lens of film (London is shows as a “city projected like the flickering images of a black and white film”), but the story itself—the characters, the odd coincidences, the villain’s speech and the hero’s resilience, the tidiness of the narrative, the sense that everyone here knows everyone else and the hero is slowly and inevitably nearing the final reveal—all of this is done with a tongue-in-cheek, meta-recognition of its own tropiness (Tidhar has never been shy about Phillip K. Dick’s influence on his work). Sloam should never survive even a few pages of this story, and yet he does, and his response each time is to wonder without purchase or understanding why in the world no one has shot him yet. He’s a man who has been forced to make pulpy films currently living in one of his own, and the illogical logic of these stories pushes him along from inevitable realization to inescapable meeting with little care for his awareness or comprehension. Here, for instance, is Tom Everly, the narrator, describing Sloam:

Of course the obstinate German did not take my advice. I had accused him of being a romantic and I wasn’t wrong. Gunther, for all his battle experience in the Wehrmacht, still insisted, deep down, to think of himself as a character in one of his own cowboy pictures. All he could think about was Ulla Blau’s ruined, once-beautiful face staring back at him from the mortuary slab. I think he believed himself untouchable. Most Germans did, after the war.

In this way, the novella leans on its author’s ethos to pull a reader along—knowing that Tidhar does these types of pastiche, send-up, derivation-with-a-meta-twist stories so, so well is enough to convince a reader during the early stages of the story that what seem to be heavy-handed, overly melodramatic moments in the text (or moments of serious and seriously questionable plot convenience) are in fact intentional—they are Tidhar’s attempts to build the pulp framework in which he is trying to find a story with unironic and genuine heart. And in this he succeeds. The plot ends with Sloam finding Ulla Blau, secret identities uncovered, and, of course, more death. The one who was behind the whole thing all along (spoiler: it was Ulla, obviously) is revealed, and while this seems to be the end of the story, it really isn’t. Anyone who has read a pulp mystery (or even seen a police procedural) will see the reveal that Ulla must be behind the deaths that plague the story, but Tidhar is careful to not stop the story there. Instead, what follows after this reveal is a surprisingly profound connection made between the “how these stories usually start,” “how they usually end,” and the power in understanding your story, understanding your role, and finding agency within those constructions/constrictions. To be honest, I wasn’t ever truly sold on the story until the last page or so, but those few pages managed to give me a new way to understand and appreciate everything else in the novella. It’s a surprising story, one that, like the London Sloam finds himself in, brings you in under false pretenses and only reveals the truth when it’s too late.

What surprising stories have you been reading recently?


What We’re Reading: The Receptionist and Other Tales

2016 May 19
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading
The ReceptionistThe Receptionist and Other Tales by Lesley Wheeler (Aqueduct Press, 2012)

Ursula Le Guin offers praise for what she calls Lesley Wheeler’s “brief novel of misbehavior in academia” by considering the book’s reclamation of narrative poetry and fantastic fiction. And that nicely sets the stage for some of what Wheeler is trying to accomplish in The Receptionist and Other Tales. The book is broken up into two parts: The Receptionist is a series of poems following Edna, a receptionist in the English department at the local university. Perhaps because of the fantasy books she reads to her two children, or perhaps because of her own (and the audience’s own) love of those classic speculative stories, Edna sees herself constantly as a hero fighting or running from evil in all forms, the most persistent being the dark, dangerous Dean, called the “wolf in wool” and known for his sexual harassment of faculty. Along with the Dean, we have the University Counsel, described beautifully in a section titled “Hill-Top Ambush:

University Counsel loomed there, a pair

of lawyers, Blackberrys shining brighter than

the hide on their wings. This is the part where


the Riders attack you from their avian

steeds. The damned Voice tolled again in Edna’s

ear, and she looked up in surprise. A skin


of clouds was forming over faint stars,

a crescent moon. They want to steal your voice,

it warned. Not my amulet? Edna was


exasperated. Not my spell-book? Your choice.

Aesthetically, this section is beautifully put together: the rough terza rima gives the poem momentum and cohesion, and the images of these University Counsel, at once slick lawyers slinging Blackberrys and evil warriors glinting sharply astride their evil avian steeds, fill the scheme with rich substance. For me, moments like these are dangerous in that they play close, close, close to the line between rich characterization and overly easy stereotype. The Receptionist is, in part, a tale of academia, but it seems to have a curious and unsure relationship with its audience, and so there are moments where Wheeler relies on the low-hanging fruit of stereotypical academic life: a poet struggling to publish work no one wants to read, a dutiful medievalist working hard, a dramatic drama professor “billowing in.” And of course, the lawyers like hungry scavengers, shiny and dangerous. There is value in these representations: accessibility, trope reversal, play. But there is danger, too, of course, and I’m left wondering if that line is not, at times, crossed.

This section, too, showcases one of the really curious and cool things about The Receptionist: The Voice. Edna regularly communicates with a voice that at times seems to be in her head or on her shoulder, part sub-conscious and part demon/angel whispering in her ear. The Voice has a keen interest in Edna seeing her life, the struggles and little victories, as part of a grand narrative, as Frodo—the small, meek hero—overcoming great obstacles and triumphing despite it all. The Voice prods Edna into these models because for her, the quiet receptionist who sees all but has seemingly little power to do anything, these stories offer a framework for just action, for the honorable path. The inclusion of fantasy as a genre (and all the implications of that: form, content, characterization) suddenly makes sense with The Voice: the fantastic is at once a necessary model of thought and impetus for action, but it is also in need of critique and consideration.

In the midst of all the serious considerations in The Receptionist (sexual harassment, dangerous and gendered power dynamics in academia), Wheeler manages to have a ton of fun, and this is perhaps the best reason to recommend the book. The sense of play, whether linguistic, aesthetic, or generic, is always present, and reading this poetic narrative is at its core an act of joy. There are conceptual and critical wrinkles that pop up from time to time in the text, but the run-away train of Wheeler’s ecstatic play is always there to smooth them over, to keep the pages turning, to keep Edna moving on toward her fateful and powerful end.

The last chunk of the book is full of the Other Tales: a hodgepodge mix of fantastical poetry concerning tales we all know an love: Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan, and, of course, Zombie Thanksgiving. My favorite, though, is a poem written from the White Witch’s perspective (she of Narnia fame), in which she tells us,

I once was cold and ran with wolves, I confess,

but now I desire a legacy. Torture

is a fading art. My golden foe confuses

you. Learn that he is the misanthropic

metaphor, not I. Study my biopic.

After the interconnected intensity of The Receptionist, Wheeler’s Other Tales are a delightful dessert course: light, playful, and the perfect ending to a fun, challenging book.

What playful books have you been reading lately?