Of the 16 short stories in this collection, 3 are Hugo Award winners, 3 more are Hugo Award nominees, 12 are Locus Awards nominees with 1 winner, and 1 Nebula nominee. This is a show of strength, this collection, and a good cross-sectional sampling of the worlds that Michael Swanwick has created. You know, I love Swanwick’s writing. He’s one of my favourite writers. And everything I read of him just reinforces that opinion. His writing has the perfect mix of high imagination, flowing, complex prose, wry sense of humor and an intuition about what would make a story fresh and interesting so that it pushes the envelopes of the fantasy and SF genres.
I would like to talk about three small groups of stories in this collection that also relate to other novels Swanwick has written. This will give you an idea of the type of content in the stories, and may lead you to try out his other books.
Three stories concern the funny adventures of the duo Darger and Surplus. These two are debonair con artists, and try to bamboozle their victims in a post-apocalyptic, post-utopian world that is a mix of crazy biotechnology and a world that has regressed to a pre-WW1 social system. Surplus is a dog (Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, but call him Sir Plus, or surplus), a dog that walks upright, like from a storybook, well dressed and a gentleman. He’s from the kingdom of west Vermont but arrives in England, only to meet a shifty-eyed rogue named Darger and they cook up a plan to steal jewels from the Buckingham Labyrinth, home of the English queen Gloriana, whose 36 brains are in a hypercube configuration to make up for the lack of computers since AI demons turned the Internet into a netherhell. All the while they’re being chased by Lord Coherence-Hamilton and they leave a right mess behind them.
These stories are a masterclass in complex world-building without using any info-dumps, instead relying solely on dialogue and scenery to explain this far-future world. Over the past years, Swanwick wrote a couple more Darger and Surplus capers, and they are all now collected in the 2020 publication The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus. I hope to read it one day; it’s probably great.
This sounds all a bit cutesy and juvenile but Swanwick’s writing often has an edge to it and is not wary of putting sex and violence into his stories, including the Darger and Surplus ones. And it is precisely in this space that Swanwick likes to move; in the contrast between the of kind of fantasy elements that are normally used in juvenile fiction and fairy tales, and rough adult themes. The following stories will make this even clearer.
Three stories are set in industrialised Faerie. A dark and cruel place, because magic is scary. These stories are more like crime fiction, but with the unsettling addition of magic. One is about a fey who frees a fox-woman who then becomes his partner in crime; a story full of twists and turns and set in locations like a train, a bar and a landfill. ‘A Small Room in Koboldtown’ is closer to a parody of Chinatown and ‘The Bordello In Faerie’ is about a man getting addicted to elf sex, like a metaphor for porn addiction. Two of these stories Swanwick incorporated into his full novel The Dragons of Babel(2008). Yeah his novels are pretty much Frankenstein-creations of short stories.
Also, and this makes Swanwick alright in my book, he loves dinosaurs. Dinosaurs bring out his gentler side. It seems tradition by now that every Swanwick short story collection must have at least a couple of dinosaur stories. ‘Triceratops Summer’ and ‘A Great Day For Brontosaurs’ is today’s selection. These stories concern a laboratory in Vermont opening portals to the Jurassic or Cretaceous and sometimes things come through to our age, like a herd of Triceratops. He liked dinosaurs so much that he once wrote a flash fiction collection with a story for each Dinosaur genus (Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna (2004)), and one of his most celebrated stories, ‘Scherzo with Tyrannosaur’ was expanded into a full novel: Bones of the Earth (2002).
These three sets of stories alone make the collection a wonderful read, and in addition we get some astronauts-in-danger tales as well. As I said, a cross-sectional sample of Swanwick’s favourite locales, and a jumping board for exploring the rest of his bibliography. Again, this book reinforced my opinion of Swanwick as one my favourite writers ever.
Clark Ashton Smith was once one of the Big Three authors of fantasy and horror fiction at the Weird Tales magazine, alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. And while Lovecraft and Howard and their works are still remembered today – are part of popular consciousness – Clark Ashton Smith is all but forgotten. H.P Lovecraft has become the Cosmic Horror Guy and Robert E. Howard the Sword and Sorcery Guy. (I feel that a fourth writer should be added to this because of his influence on the others, Lord Dunsany, the Whimsical Fantasy Guy, but he lived overseas in Britain.) Who was Smith? He straddled these avenues of the fantastic, but leaned more towards the cosmic horror that would be a huge influence on Lovecraft. Smith was perhaps the best writer of the three, and deserves to be remembered.
The stories in this collection range from all over Smith’s career, from his early days as a poet in the 1910s and ‘20s to his longer fantasy stories from the 1930s. It offers a cross-section of stories that are set in the few recurring fantasy locations that Smith liked to pin down for some continuity of place: Hyperborea, Zothique and Averoigne. It’s not so all-encompassing as the Fantasy Masterworks edition, but that one is out of print. And if you would wish to explore one of Smith’s settings better, the Zothique collection from 1970 has all the Zothique stories, which are not all here. The collection ends with a selection of prose poems and actual poems.
Smith’s writing is still loved by many, in part because of his prose style. He started out as a poet and transplanted that poetic talent to his prose. He has a huge vocabulary, which makes him sound erudite and allows him to pinpoint very precise meanings. He writes in long, complex sentences, which swell, rise and fall like waves, but he is not at all difficult to read. Even though he uses fancy words like sibilant and pecuniary and sanguinary, there is a clear-headedness to the structure of his writing and a flowing rhythm to his sentences, which make it easy to follow his meaning. I thought his writing was very pleasant to read and would lend itself well for reading out loud by some David Attenborough character with a taste for the dramatic.
The stories are all short and simple, and all follow a similar format. A man (always a man) starts out from relative every-day normality and ends up seeing or experiencing or traveling to something grotesque and fantastic and alien. And either ends up dead or mentally scarred for the rest of his days. The stories are for example about robbers who enter a temple to a strange god in overgrown ruins of a forgotten city. Or a novelist entering another dimension with bewitching music which keeps drawing him back. Or a scientist capturing the evil rays of a black star and turning mad. These short stories are so short that they barely count as short stories; they are like snapshots of singular encounters with the weird and the unearthly. More often than not, Smith preferred to write even shorter prose poems or actual poems about the fantastic, and writing it all out into stories was pulling away from his preferred medium.
I found Smith a very effective storyteller, both in the realm of horror and of fantasy. Some of his fantasy-horror stories were truly a fantastic mix of imaginative, deep-time wonder and creeping, unavoidable conclusions. His best stories are about sorcerers. He gives them lush mansions and morose dispositions, and things usually end badly for them.
Let’s talk influences. Smith’s first love was poetry and in that form he started writing his fantasies. He was inspired by the early work of Lord Dunsany, such as his little book The Gods of Pegana (1905). Smith couldn’t make any money from this, however, and he wrote at a time when critics began to fall in love with Modernist realists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and poems about faraway suns and forgotten gods weren’t accepted. Around this time, H.P. Lovecraft started sending Smith fan letters, and Smith asked Lovecraft in return to send him some drafts, to show him examples of how to write prose stories. What happened next is that Smith began to populate his stories with alien gods. A frog god named Tsathoggua and a necronomicon-book named the Book of Eidon, and look at titles like The Abomination of Yondo, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis and Ubbo-Sathla. Lovecraft took this and ran with it. Smith saw the influence he had on Lovecraft and other writers and remarked: “It would seem that I am starting a mythology.” Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos seems a direct outgrowth of this.
It’s fair to say though that there was a lot of cross-fertilisation between the two authors. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, for example, was inspired by Lovecraft’s draft for At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of Antarctica, Smith set his story on Mars. Ubbo-Sathla strengthens the connection with Lovecraft’s mythos even more. The story begins with the following lines: “…for Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the new-made Earth.” So if you like Lovecraft, you’ll recognise some names, and I would say give Smith a chance, because he has much better prose.
The best way to read these stories, for me, is not to force myself through them all in one go, but read a few between other books. These stories are dense. Most are not even 20 pages but hardly ever could I read a story in a single sitting. So, read a few stories about wizards using an incantation from the ante-human race of serpent people to conjure an ancient horror, or about explorers in an ancient forgotten ruin in a dreamland or on Mars, and then read a modern book again.
As a kind of sequel to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018), popular science writer Steve Brusatte now looks at the evolutionary history of the mammals. The previous book even ended with a cliffhanger: a giant meteor crashed into the Earth and killed off the Dinosaurs! Oh no! Read on to find out what happened next! Actually, I hear all you science geeks exclaim, ACKshually, you’re pretty wrong there, because (a) dinosaurs still exist in the form of birds, and (b) the story of the mammals doesn’t start with the meteor crash.
That’s exactly Brusatte’s first important point. This book doesn’t start the timeline at the meteor crash but way before, before the Dinosaurs, in the late Carboniferous and early Permian, where the lineage of four-footed animals split in two. One lineage evolved into reptiles and dinosaurs, the other into proto stem-mammals and eventually into real mammals. The first real big apex predator of the time, Dimetrodon, a creature often included in the plastic dinosaur collections in toy stores, was a stem-mammal and not a dinosaur. Later on, the Dimetrodon descendants became small furry mousy creatures while the dinosaurs took over the apex predator niches, and the mammals had to wait for better times to grow big again.
The cool thing about following the evolution of the mammals is that we can trace the development of parts of our own bodies. Something we could not do with the story of the dinosaurs. Even if it is just about small things like the development of our jaw bones, these structures go all the way back to before the dinosaurs and it is interesting to read the up-to-date explanations as to why they developed in the first place. Why, for example, did mammals get a hard roof in their mouth and many reptiles didn’t? (So that we can suck in more oxygen while chewing.) It makes you wonder about your own body and why it ever got shaped the way it is. Some random features have functions that go back a hundred million years and were hip stuff at the time.
From the perspective of a reptile or a dinosaur, mammals are hypercharged vermin. Everything in our physiology, from the hair and the warm-bloodedness to the mammary glands and the shape of our jaws, is optimised for fast and huge food intake, high metabolism, fast growth, high adaptability to climate and big brain support. It’s true that the dinosaurs kept us from becoming big, but the mammals also kept the dinosaurs from becoming small. Nobody could compete with the mammals at sizes between mouse and badger. We were too fast, too adaptable and too clever.
Let’s be honest, half of this book is a story about molars. Brusatte does his best to make his writing interesting by giving us anecdotes about digging up fossils and life as a palaeontologist, but all his stories are about digging up teeth. Since that is most of what we found of early mammal lineages, these animal groups are all named after their dental situation. Not very exciting. Only when the mammals grew big and radiated in diversity did they get more spectacular, but that’s later in the book.
But that’s the stuff I always wanted to read about ever since I was a kid. Dinosaurs are great, but there have also been big and crazy mammals that never really got their moment of fame. There were huge and strange types of mastodons and rhinos and sloths that deserved to be mentioned. And there have been interesting evolutionary stories to tell, such as the development of grass and what that meant for the ecosystems of the world, and the evolution of horses and savanna species that came with grasslands and the Ice Age animals and, ultimately, us. This book delivers much of that, once you get past all those molars.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. What image does that title generate? Something about the past, something that lay hidden, that you thought was gone perhaps, but is coming back. This does not only refer to the land, to the geography. It also refers to the characters that Harrison puts into this novel. It refers to their lives and how they experience their lives. Indeed, Harrison is fond of the idea of psychogeography, the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind or on behaviour, and in this novel there is a strong link between the two. So, we have Shaw and Victoria, two middle-aged Brits who are sort of in stasis in their lives. The way Harrison describes their lives is with an anxious feeling of stagnation or even regression, and that anxiety is communicated through what Harrison chooses to describe to us about their lives. Shaw and Victoria are only half conscious about their situation. They are more avoidant than anxious.
Shaws ageing mother has a clearer impression of what’s going on in her more lucid moments: “The days pass by so quickly,” she keeps repeating in her old frail voice. “Everything that would have happened in my twenties, was stretched out over a lifetime.” “Don’t wait for your life to start.” Shaw doesn’t want to hear it. He hates her moments of clarity. Victoria saw her first dead body at the age of fourteen and hasn’t been sane since. She works at a morgue, and she’s always nervous and projects that onto the people around her: “You don’t have time for me now, do you? I can tell by your voice.” But she’s good with dead people, because they don’t call back. Shaw and Victoria feel real; they feel photorealistic. Shaw moves back to a student flat, regressing, and Victoria moves out to hide in the countryside, and both feel washed up regardless of the direction they move in.
So far about the people, but what about the land? Here’s where we can call this novel speculative fiction, or new weird or magical realism. From the start there’s imagery everywhere of fish and tide marks. Corner walls of a castle are described as the unfinished bow of a ship, waiting for a dramatic rise in sea level. Green tadpoles appear in public toilets, which grow into green human foetuses. People with a green sheen on them, disappearing into the water. A conspiracy website with grey videos of people emerging from the water at high tides. Hints of historical baggage in our DNA, of old fish-like species of humans.
While all that is going on in the background of the novel, there is a pervasive sense of a failure of human connection between all the characters. Shaw and Victoria hook up but never really listen to each other. Victoria sends Shaw endless emails about her life but never seems to expect an answer. Shaw has conversations with his dementing mother who never really knows who he is. People say strange non-sequiturs, or do things like dig a hole in the soil with their bare hands but don’t explain why, leaving it all a mystery what they were on about. All this failure of communication has to do with self-obsession, or as Shaw says at one point: “they lose the ability to contribute to any myth but their own.” I think the book is making a broader point about self-obsession in general, but with Shaw and Victoria it is like a Shaun of the Dead situation where they see all the strangeness going on but it hardly registers with them. And as a result, we the readers don’t really understand what is happening either.
The story develops very slowly. Sometimes I felt that it was drowning in a sea of details that formed kaleidoscopes of metaphors, but what was it all working towards? The chapters in which Victoria settles into her new home in the countryside and gets to know the locals are full of impressions, strange interactions with those locals, short travels in the neighbourhood, musings on local geography, and I often wondered about the point of it all. Harrison’s individual chapters resolve themselves much in the way that his short stories do: with final paragraphs that suddenly resolve the tension or mystery in an unsettling way. Then the weird things break through the surface of normality, for which the chapters have been laying down foundations and have been building towards.
It is in the concept of psychogeography that the people and the land are connected into some Victorian fantasy of metamorphosis. The lack of human connection, mental regression and climate change all combine into a single thing. Harrison refers to the real 1863 book The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. A morbid fairy tale about a boy falling into the river and transforming into a water baby as a morality tale. Harrison would never be so vulgar as to put a clear moral message in his stories, but it is something like that. It all adds up to a mood piece that involves both the people and the geography; a sort of state of the nation, of the mentalities of the people, of the driftwood of earlier waves of economic growth, and the land itself reacting to it, or is it the other way around? There are no clear answers.
Most of this review has been me trying to explain the book to myself. I liked reading it, I loved the beautiful poetic language, but it also left me a bit perplexed. I didn’t really understood the emotional journeys of the characters, and I didn’t understood why they ended up where they ended up. I closed it with a giant question mark over my head, and little emotional satisfaction, although the more I think about it, the more theories I can formulate for myself.
If you pay enough attention, many linkages can be made between chapters, between people and locations and which people are involved with what activities. Pay attention at every reference to water and what it might mean, metaphorically. But it isn’t set up as a puzzle book, so there are no clear answers. Harrison plays around with the form of it, with conspiracy thought, with the formalities of horror writing and SF writing, but in the end only uses their suggestive effects and then holds back. A new land is rising, beyond our awareness but one we might have triggered ourselves, and it will take us with it. And for some this is a boon and for others it is not. That’s the main point, I think.
Blacksad is a series of noir hardboiled detective stories, very much in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, and stars a cynical private investigator named John Blacksad. The comic drawings dive with relish into all the typical hardboiled noir tropes, as we see Blacksad navigate cluttered police desks – with the shadows of Venetian blinds on him – dirty back alleys of familiar cities in the 1950s, the lush homes of the rich, and his own past, full of regrets and old flames. All the while giving his cynical internal narration, of course.
Blacksad the comic became popular and highly regarded, receiving multiple awards, and a video game adaptation and a movie seems to be stuck in development for some years now. The comics are produced for the French market first, although created by two Spaniards, and translated afterwards. Once every few years a new volume is released, for the writer and artist have to take their time to produce something special each time, with excitingly composed cinematic pages and painstakingly perfected art and colouring. Each new release has become a publishing event in the world of comics.
So, as you can see on the cover and the pages, this is a series with anthropomorphic animals. Blacksad is a black cat, but there are also mice, rhinos, lizards, gorillas and all sorts of other animals inhabiting the comic, and this is totally normal in the story-world. As the film has been stuck in development hell for years, in 2016 we got the Disney animated film Zootopia (2016) which comes closest to the material but is a kiddie version of the far darker and mature Blacksad comics. The connection with Disney runs deeper, as artist Guardino became a lead artist at Disney studios and worked for example on the Tarzan film. Like in Zootopia, the animals are type-cast insofar that they reflect human emotions. Weasels and lizards are often the criminals, dogs and wolves the police officers, gorillas and pigs are boxers, there is a loud, argumentative director who is a walrus, and Blacksad is very much like a cat: a loner, grumpy, quiet, quick to show his claws.
The art is absolutely wonderful. Guardino can show more emotions (and really nuanced emotions) in these animals than most artists can do with humans. The animal aspects even heighten the expressions or fit closely to our impression of these animals. To murder someone in cold blood makes more sense for coldblooded animals. Reptiles look like predators. Rats look like rats, if you know what I mean. On top of that, every single panel looks as if a lot of thought has been put into the composition and perspectives. The movements and action feel fluid and dynamic, as if we are truly watching a film. And the watercolours add mood: sombre or warm or clear or murky.
As for the stories – look, this was created for those who love the hardboiled detective genre. It is a love-letter to the tropes, and as such it is more focused on style than on substance. Nevertheless, those tropes are taken up with verve and precision. The first story, Somewhere Within the Shadows (2000) is a perfectly composed noir story about the murder of a female movie star and has all the right beats of a noir story, but if you really want to personify with John Blacksad you might find it all a bit superficial. After this opening salvo, the stories get longer and each one tackles some new themes. Arctic Nation (2002) is about racism and a white supremacy movement, started by white-pelted arctic mammals like polar bears, seals and arctic foxes. This suddenly casts John on the Black side of things. Although a bit superficial, the story has some good twists and a strong ending. Red Souls (2005) deals with McCarthyism, runaway Nazis and Atom Bomb secrets. Blacksad investigates murders in a group of leftist intellectuals and artists.
Unfortunately, as the series went on, the level of detail in the drawings and the richness of the colouring declined. Once we get to the fourth and fifth stories, A Silent Hell (2012) and Amarillo (2013), which are sold separately by Dark Horse comics but are part of the French Integral edition, one begins to see a difference in the quality of the art compared to the first or second stories. A Silent Hell still has very impressive panels and occasionally masterful use of light and shadow, and a very realistic depiction of New Orleans, so I am giving that one a pass. But once we get to Amarillo, the contrast between light and dark toned down so far that everything looks flat, and the drawings got sketchier and cartoonier, and it’s really noticeable compared to the first stories. It’s still very good compared to most comics, though.
This change in style may be the consequence of changing preferences by Guardino and by a change to a different grain of paper and materials. In an extended treatise on the making of A Silent Hell, at the end of the album, Guardino explains that he started to experiment with different paper and pens halfway through Red Souls, where I started to notice the shift, and he says that he came to understand that too much heaviness in the shadows can deaden the luminosity of the entire piece. As the final stories are set in Louisiana and Texas, he wanted to capture the light of those places. We can clearly see the difference in the black used for Blacksad’s face, for example. In the early stories his head is deep black and the paintings as a whole have a feeling of weight to them, whereas in the latter stories is head is almost light gray. I really prefer the older style as it looks less cartoonish and more polished.
That 40-page making-of material is fascinating though. Guardino shows how he often makes multiple sketches to try out the colors and design the right textures. He discusses different tones for shading, indoor or outdoor, and scenes where he had to deal with multiple sources of light in the panels. The question with contrast is often how to create depth in the panels. There are multiple scenes in A Silent Hell set inside bars and he chose a different base colour for shading each time. Lots of sepia. I loved this look behind the curtains and Guardino is an accomplished artist.
The Dragonbone Chair is the kind of epic fantasy that is perfect for losing yourself in a fantasy world; for burrowing into the world-building and wrapping the familiar fantasy tropes around you like a warm blanket. No need to read online explanations of pretentious books with contorted literary styles. Just follow the kitchen-boy to hero journey, brought to you with a pleasant, colourful prose style with some interesting descriptive flourishes and good-natured humour.
This series had been described to me as the Missing Link between Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. And certainly, it has the elves and trolls and the kind of in-world history of the Lord of the Rings (while not being a blatant ripoff like The Sword of Shannara or The Eye of the World), and also has the grimmer political infighting of Game of Thrones …but the first book that came to mind as I read this, above all others, was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Especially in the first 200 pages. The young boy working in the kitchen and the wizard figure who adopts him as an apprentice are very much like Arthur and Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. The Dragonbone Chair is a Bildungsroman in a way that Tolkien’s and Martin’s are not. Naturally, there are also similarities to other fantasy works inspired why White and Tolkien, like Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (1982).
One thing that jumps out about Williams’ world-building is a strong presence of religion. Not just in the world, but in the writing, and how often the characters refer to it. It’s a realistic reflection of our medieval European past, but what struck me was that other series like The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire do this much less strongly. What made it so conspicuous was that in The Dragonbone Chair we’re talking Christianity in all but name. Christ is given a different name, but beyond that it is precisely the same as we know it. Now, Williams said in interviews that he did this on purpose so as to give the readers something familiar to hold on to, so that they don’t get overloaded with world-building right from the start. All the same, Williams starts his novel with a real info-dump. Master Morgenes literally sits down in a chair in front of Simon and explains the history of the world and the elves over the span of a few chapters. Had Williams spread out this information better in the narrative, then it wouldn’t have been necessary to give the reader familiar elements in the first place.
For the first 200 pages, nothing much happens. Simon learns how to write, sweeps floors, tries to flirt with a maid, plucks mushrooms, climbs a tower. All the while, political players are introduced to us, and some of their conflicts. Here, Williams’ writing has a kind of obviousness to it. How do we know that the evil wizard is bad? Is it because he dresses in red and murders a puppy in the first scene we see him? How do we know that the duke of the vikings is honourable? Is it because he is a big, hearty man and says things like “I don’t like intrigues! Give me an axe!” Very little of this has a direct impact on Simon, so it feels like our main character is just twiddling his thumbs while the world is being introduced. But Simon himself, as a character, is well realised. Williams is good at crawling into the mind of a teenage boy, and we follow Simon for a couple of years as he begins to desire something more than running away from the housekeeper and starts looking for glory, even if he doesn’t know what that means.
And then, after that slow start, Williams throws Simon so deeply into chaos and on a path of misery that it’s rather shocking. For a while, Simon is a hunted animal and it is traumatic for him. The backbone of this novel is Simon’s character development from a clueless mooncalf to something more, and we can see him changing slowly, and this is very well done by Williams, with subtlety and a sense of psychological realism. Simon isn’t winning any prizes for pluckiest protagonist though, especially this early in the story. He’s dull and slow and there are multiple scenes where people tell him to run, run, go on, run! Simon, stop staring like an idiot and get moving! And then it takes another half a page to get him to move, only to have him trip. Stuff like that really grinds my gears.
Williams has a fun interpretation of elves. He called them Sithi – inspired by Celtic mythology – and presents them as a primal, alien people. Sadly, we hardly ever see them. He gives them Japanese sounding names which makes for an odd mix with the Irish thing. The elf queen for example is named Amerasu, clearly inspired by the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. As you can see, Williams carries his influences on his sleeve. What I said about his writing having an obviousness to it carries over into the world-building. The map, for example, is almost a carbon copy of Tolkien’s and the vikings have a one-eyed god named Udun and named the third day of week after him.
What all of this comes down to, is that while Williams’ writing is really quite good on a technical level, it is in service of a story that is slow, sometimes bloated and very much reliant on old tropes and references. Personally, that gave me some trouble in getting through it, but ultimately I enjoyed reading this and I think anyone with an eye for the technical side of sound writing can enjoy it, as long as you have some affinity with classic fantasy. What do I mean with sound writing? The character development is great, the characters and their dialogues and emotions feel real, the writing on a sentence level is pleasant with interesting descriptions and flowing sentences, and chapters are well constructed. Therein lies the difference for me with a book like The Eye of the World. Williams is doing something similar to Robert Jordan but on a far higher level of craft. And just to crap on Jordan a bit more (sorry), The Dragonbone Chair’s story isn’t following the blueprint of Tolkien or White so very closely. Occasionally you’ll find that parts of the plot feel similar to, say, The Fellowship of the Ring, but I would call Williams’ writing as “inspired by” or “in conversation with”, instead of reusing the skeleton of an earlier story.
While this book played an important role in the history of epic fantasy in the sense that it opened a lot of eyes to a new, fresh approach to old Tolkienian and Arthurian tropes, for modern readers I would suggest that they wait until they feel nostalgic for old, classic fantasy. At the time, Williams paved the way forward for epic fantasy to include more political drama and some subversion of tropes and so influenced writers such as George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Patric Rothfuss to take that evolution to the next level, but The Dragonbone Chair is a far cry from the grimdark fantasy of the early 2000s and even farther from the action-packed, female-filled, multi-POV, ethnically diverse epic fantasy that started to appear in the 2020s. It played its role, and can be visited as one of the best examples of that older type. But nothing about the characters, story or worldbuilding raised a sense of wonder in me.
Well done, but I may not go on to read the rest of the series. My preferences have changed too much. Life’s too short.
Little Bird is a beautifully drawn limited comic series set in a dystopian future of the North American continent, and has a rather standard rebels versus evil empire storyline, complete with young saviour figures that makes the story very reminiscent of Star Wars and Frank Herbert’s Dune. It also has the sort of hidden/not-so-hidden metaphorical political stances that mark it clearly as a comic written in the 2020s.
Little Bird is a young girl, born as the daughter of rebel leaders in an outpost in the Canadian Rockies. America has been taken over by fundamentalists and transformed into a theocratic dictatorship, the Holy Empire of the United Nations of America, ruled by the Bishop from his seat of power in the New Vatican. This is an age of rampant genetic modification – mutants and so on. The story opens with an attack by Bishop’s cloned crusader armies on the village of little bird, and her mother, the local rebel leader, is captured. Little bird is sent into hiding, and has been given a mission: free the powerful mutant The Axe from a penitentiary for genetically modified beings. The Axe, a huge grizzled, bearded man with the flag of Canada on his shirt in the shape of an axe, is nigh immortal. He’s mutated with a Resurrection Gene, something like Marvel’s Wolverine, and is Little Bird’s grandfather.
While the Christian fundamentalists have started their evil empire, the rebels reach back to a culture and spirituality closer to the Canadian First Nations. Little Bird has a cute little owl companion, and her resurrection gene powers are interpreted as her being part of the fields, mountains, rivers; part of the land, but also as something feminine. There is an artfully drawn scene in which Little Bird is resurrected, using dreamlike imagery of a womb and eggs, evoking feminine powers, and her crawling out of the ground back to life is drawn as her emerging from a birth canal. It also evokes shamanistic spirit walking. Her lost mother visits her in those dreams, giving advice, like a shared consciousness through the female line like in Dune.
Meanwhile, also like in Dune with the house Harkonnen, the evil guys have their own child that’s playing a big role. Bishop’s son Gabriel is being groomed as a new leader, and told that he must do things that are difficult and cruel to fulfil God’s mission. But Gabriel tells his father that he prays yet hears nothing, suggesting that the evil empire has strayed from God’s will. The bishops and nuns in this empire are fat, misshapen, afflicted with rash, reminding me again of the Harkonnen depictions in Dune films. All the inhabitants of the empire are sick (I think, it’s unclear) and Bishop wants the resurrection gene of the Axe and Little Bird to cure Gabriel and the rest (I think, but I’m not sure). So, the metaphors of sickness and health, and resurrection, are inverted, with the Holy Empire needing to be saved and the rebels the cure.
There are many violent twists and turns in the story. Many revelations, and quite some things that I didn’t see coming. Which is all good and well as they break the mould of the Dune/Star Wars structure, except that the story isn’t communicated well. The plot moves so fast that we’re not really given the time to get to know the characters and fully understand their motivations. On top of that, much of the plot twists have a supporting narration by Little Bird that is supposed to explain the reasons for the twists that we’re seeing, but she only gives vague profound-sounding speeches that don’t explain much.
In the end, I’m sorry to say, I only half understood what happened. I’m not even sure if there’s a good story hidden in here. The narration got so vague and the events on the pages so convoluted that the final half of the final issue is a mystery to me. Events that could have been emotional, or laden with meaning, remain hidden under chaotic storytelling. The creators prioritised blood and explosions over storytelling, with a high ratio of guts per page, but I have no idea how it ended. Shame, because the artwork is great.
Some final remarks. If you like this future dystopian world of creepy, gross Christian rulers and runaway gory, gross genetic engineering, I can recommend the short comic series Genetic Grunge (2002) by Roberto Bayeto. Also, watching reviews of Little Bird is fun because of how every American reviewer absolutely butchers the Dutch name Van Poelgeest. And finally, if you liked this, a prequel is in the works, called Precious Metal.
A few weeks ago I reviewed the first set of Jim Woodring’s disturbing Frank comics: The Frank Book (2003). While the stories in that collection were unique and the story of the author himself even more interesting, I wasn’t that moved by the comics, because I felt them to be too short and they read too much like random visions or hallucinations without meaning, and that didn’t leave an impression. Since the days of those comics, Woodring began to draw longer stories. He produced four full graphic novels starring Frank: Weathercraft, Congress of the Animals, Fran and Poochytown. Now, the last three of them are combined into a single large story in this new publication, with a hundred new pages to tie them together. That gives me renewed hope to read something extraordinary here.
As is the rule with Jim Woodring, there is a disturbing reason why these three novels fit together as a story. In my first review I explained how Woodring sees hallucinations and probably has schizophrenia. He seems to believe that the world of Frank, the Unifactor, exists, and dictates to him how the stories must be drawn. In the first novella, Congress of the Animals, Woodring deliberately went against the dictates of the Unifactor and the story ends in cataclysm. To redeem himself, Woodring had to draw the second novella, Fran, and the dramatic sequel Poochytown. Hold on to your butts.
And something extraordinary is what we got. The long story format works much better for Frank, as one crazy scene now leads to another like a string of chained happenings with some crazy logic connecting them together. Woodring’s drawings are more refined and confident, and the story is more interesting. In the first parts that cover Congress of the Animals, Frank frequently meets strange figures and every time he does the tension goes up, because anything could happen. They could make sudden rifts in reality or twist his face into something monstrous. What looks like nightmarish body horror sometimes makes Frank laugh as if it is not a big deal. From the outside, we can’t really tell when something is a joke or a serious transgression of bodily autonomy. Sometimes it is. There is real upsetting imagery here.
Frank clearly understands much more of his world than we do. In one scene, he goes to a movie theatre and all that is on the screen are organic shapes, flowing in and out of each other. Frank laughs and cries. Woodring’s comic seems to stress again and again that there is a hidden chaotic base reality of raw organic shapes and emotions underlying everything. While reading you automatically try to understand what is going on in the stories but it feels like some sort of uncomfortable pressure on the brain to do so. You’d have to be mad.
The story really starts when Frank meets a woman of his species, Fran, and they fall in love. The honeymoon phase as they woo each other is really sweet, but then they fight, break up, and then the whole thing goes off the rails with jealousy and a rival and so on. And since it is all filtered through the mad world of the Unifactor, it becomes something bizarre and unpredictable, a graphic metaphysical psychodrama. Good thing his faithful dogs Pupshaw and Pushpaw stick with him. And just to mess with your head even more, this part of the story ends where Congress of the Animals began! You could read these two novels in an endless loop.
But again, I’m getting less actual storytelling than I hoped for. Fran is gone all too soon and the rest of the book consists of Frank just wandering around, meeting and losing characters and seeing weird shapes everywhere. In the end, it never gels together into a story and I am getting the feeling that Woodring is doing the same thing over and over again. I am finding that I do really need a story in my comics. The final ten pages though are a brilliant conclusion that I never saw coming. Woodring’s Frank comics are unique and his talents and imagination are noticeable, but just like in the Frank Book, I find it all too superficial. I’ve seen enough of this to be satisfied and am ready to move on.
Welcome to that time of the year to feel guilty! Guilty? Why yes, because I have not seen nearly enough of those artsy fartsy arthouse films that are supposed to be good, and not nearly enough of those subtle sensitive human drama films. I haven’t seen last year’s every Midlife Crisis Movie, and not every Old People Trying to Date Movie. Instead, I’ve stuffed my face full of M&Ms while watching superhero crap. So who am I to make a top 10 list if I don’t watch all that highbrow Kino? Just a random movie goer, like everyone else.
Interesting Films That Came Out in 2021 But Appeared in 2022 Where I’m At, And Didn’t Make The List But Still Deserve A Mention
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021). Cumberbatch plays an eccentric goofball artist who paints cats, and struggles mightily and clumsily against English stiff-upper-lip culture and class hysteria to woo Claire Foy. It is a quality film, lifted up by production value, talent and artistry. The story gets more unconventional and uncomfortable towards the end, dives deep into mental health problems and ultimately is much more touching than I expected.
Nightmare Alley (2021). Guillermo del Toro’s new movie is a beautifully realised piece of art. Bradley Cooper’s acting is smooth and natural as a mentalist at a carnival who tries to make it on his own. Del Toro’s style of course fits perfectly with that most colourful and grotesque environment of a carnival. The film is a pleasure to watch simply for the quality on display in every facet of filmmaking, from the sets to the shots and acting. The conclusion could have been stronger, though.
Licorice Pizza (2021). A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is always a must for every film lover. Anderson makes unconventional movies, about unconventional people, and Licorice Pizza is about an unconventional relationship/partnership/association between a young guy and a little bit older girl where you never really know what it is between them, but it sure is fun to watch. The unfamiliar actors do great work and show oddball chemistry that made this film very enjoyable. Cute and atmospheric.
Red Rocket (2021). This film is both a bit of a masterpiece and disgusting. It follows some 45 year old ex-pornstar who moves back to Bumfuck Texas to hustle his way back into his ex’s life. Then he meets a 17 year old girl and starts… grooming her for the porn industry. Director Sean Baker (Florida Project) is making a name for himself by filming the poor underbelly of America who live in the most depressing places, and adds real-life people to his film next to the actors. Baker found the perfect location for this film where every horizon shows some dirty oil refinery constantly in the background, like a symbol of exploitation. The film lures you in with its smooth-talking actor who really seems like he is trying to fix his life and he even seems kinda charming, but before soon you realise that he corrupts every situation he is in while leeching off other people. It’s a very immersive film, like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
The Power of the Dog (2021). Nominated for 12 oscars. Is it really that good? No. But it is a decent western with a slow story that only becomes clear near the end in a very strong ending. All the acting is strong and subtle and there is an uncomfortable tension throughout the movie. What makes this western feel modern is that the background tension in the film is directly in line with the perspective of Dunst, the widow. It is her anxiety we feel. And when we are ultimately released from that, how do we feel? That is for every viewer to decide for themselves.
Films From 2022 That I Haven’t Watched Yet But Might Be Good, Even Good Enough To Appear In My List. I Apologise.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Decision to Leave
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022). An action-comedy starring Nicolas Cage as Nick Cage, as an ironic meta-commentary on his career. He plays himself as an ageing, failing actor who finds that there is no script for being a good dad. Then he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a CIA mission. On the one hand, most of the jokes are references to his earlier movies, which is a bit lazy. On the other hand, if you’re a film buff and like Cage, this will be entertaining. The film keeps evolving from genre to genre, drama, bromance, action, and the second half is quite good with many fun moments, leaving you well satisfied.
Bullet Train (2022). Is a fantastic funny action comedy, of the type that has assassins galore, witty dialogue, flashy action scenes and weird twists of fate. A whole bunch of assassins find themselves on a Japanese bullet train and their fortunes intersect in many ways as they try to fulfil their missions. The film rests so much on coincidences and plotlines coming together that the writers simply made ‘fate’ the main theme of the story. I highly recommend it. It a smart, funny film that stays entertaining all the way through.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022). The newest film by George Miller. The story concerns an academic played by Tilda Swinton who buys an old bottle that surprisingly houses a djinn (Idris Elba). Swinton however is a narratologist and refuses to believe he is real and first thinks her imagination is playing tricks on her and secondly, is well aware of all the fairy tales in which magical wishes go wrong. The djinn tells her stories of myth, of Sheba and Solomon and many others, gorgeously shot, which Swinton of course doesn’t believe. Each story is about longing in some way. It’s a film about stories and about love, and falling in love with stories. I greatly enjoyed it, conceptually, but as a love story it didn’t do much for me.
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022). This film offers a visual spectacle of the likes I have never seen before. It looks real. It also offers a story so bland that I have no interest in seeing it again. So it only has value as a theater experience, really. But for those three hours, you get a full immersion in an alien world, as close as it gets. That must count for something I suppose. As a former biologist, travel enthusiast and sci-fi nut, I’m predisposed to loving this, but since I’m also a movie lover, I can do no more than merely liking it. If a part 3 comes out, I’ll still be watching.
The Fabelmans (2022). Spielberg’s film about his own childhood learning how to make movies, including how to shine bright lights in your face. It takes an hour of mildly interesting family scenes before anything of spice starts to happen, and after that the movie doesn’t exactly take flight, but all in all it is a well-made film with some touching moments. It has some drama, some comedy, but the story didn’t amount to much in my opinion.
Nope (2022). A movie that at first reminded me very much of Signs (2002), but with some interesting twists, a little bit of comedy added, and a different subtext about the taming of wild animals and the use of them in showbiz. The film looks great, the imagery and cinematography is great. The story is restricted to a couple of locations and a small cast of characters and that works wonderfully for a sense of isolation and for a memorable tone and mood for the film. There are some fantastically creepy moments, and the tension is ramped up with scenes full of ingenuity. I really liked it, and I think it will reward repeated viewings to discover all the thematic linkages.
Bones and All (2022). A roadtrip movie about a romance and with a supernatural twist. Honestly one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s full of tense scenes, surprising moments and unsettling shots. The supernatural aspect feels very grounded in a believable, realistic world. Timothee Chalamet is a bit too present, to the effect that he threatened to take the attention away from the main character, Taylor Russell, and is getting typecast as the romantic loner. But the acting is great all around. Fascinating from start to finish.
Top 10 of 2022
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022). Del Toro steps over the Disney interpretation and reinvents the Pinocchio tale by adding in themes that have captivated Del Toro throughout his career: themes of death and of fascism. And they make for a very good fit, since Del Toro blended it all marvellously. This is a great interpretation, looks fantastic, and I think this one will stick around for a while in pop culture.
The Batman (2022). A class act. The film perfectly radiates that gothic noir atmosphere. Excellent visual style – dark yes but it suits the material. Feels like beautiful darkly painted comic with excellent use of muted colours and compositions. This batman is a good one, not slightly absurd as Christian Bale’s version. And this version of the Riddler has much in common with John Doe in David Fincher’s Seven, as does the rest of the film. This is a more personal batman too. While Nolan’s films were so focused on the villains, Bale’s batman didn’t have much personality, but this new film is more balanced in that regard. Catwoman was a great addition this time, as she adds an emotional layer to the story. Yes, I liked this film very much.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (2022). Al Yankovic’s biopic, couldn’t miss that one after Elton John, Elvis and others, BUT since the script is written by Al himself, he made it a parody! Yankovic wipes the floor with all the biopic cliches by exaggerating them, and Daniel Radcliffe, he goes for it. It all depends on whether you enjoy his sense of humor. The film is like a series of comedic sketches, like his old UHF material. It’s consistently funny all the way through and I loved it.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022). A pretty good sequel. I was never a huge fan of the original Top Gun, but this sequel like Maverick himself flies through an obstacle-course of Hollywood-pitfalls and emerges unscathed at the other end. The superficial emotional beats of the old film, like his relationship and his tragedy with his wingman, are taken up again and are given more depth. The film wins you over by being respectful to the old film and to the audience both.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021). I have no words for how adorable this film is. It’s a fake documentary about a walking, talking shell, and it made me tear up. Marcel has a life story, and fears and pizzazz, and lives with his grandma shell in the corners of an Airbnb home. The voice work is fantastic. The little life lessons are touching, and the film not as twee as you might expect. The whole family can enjoy it. It’s a little long for the kind of artistic project that it is, but it’s one of my favourites of the year. I loved it.
The Northman (2022). While watching, my couch grew wings and we set course for Valhalla. This is a cinematic masterpiece. Like a visual interpretation of grimdark, this brutal and realistic depiction of a Viking revenge tale grips you by the guts and doesn’t let go. Good pacing, a fantastic soundtrack and first-class cinematography kept me in thrall, while Robert Eggers’s little arthouse additions lifted the film up further so that in rewatches you can admire the short metaphorical scenes, the interplay of the natural and supernatural, the play with colour against dour backgrounds and the stylised, slightly poetic and alienating human interactions. It isn’t meant to be a slick blockbuster. The film expresses its own truth and doesn’t bow to the lowest common denominators.
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022). From director McDonagh (In Bruges, Three Billboards…). On a little Irish island, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell) used to be friends. Problem is, Padraic. He’s dull. Now Colm doesn’t want to be friends no more. That’s it, that’s the story and it is funny, but also deals with some existential questions about legacy. Farrell should get an Oscar. I love how the location and cast are very contained and you slowly get familiar with the figures and the village. The location works perfectly with the themes of emptiness and legacy, like an external representation of despair.
Triangle of Sadness (2022). A perfectly written, very well directed satire of cuddled and clueless rich folk. Some vapid instagram models and Russian oligarchs are on a luxury cruise. Once the ship breaks down, things go from bad to worse. Director Ostlund’s films take their time to get to the point, and when they do, they’re more uncomfortable than hilarious. Very uncomfortable. Ostlund’s films are full of awkward relationships and people who don’t want to lose face. Ostlund writes and directs like a social psychologist, and shows what dumb creatures we are. The film changes shape a few times. Like the three sides of a triangle. One of the best interpretations I’ve seen is that the characters and events in the film represent the history of the 20th century. One of the best of the year, if a bit long.
The Menu (2022). A unique thriller that is a masterclass in tension building and one that constantly keeps you on your toes. It plays with the dynamic between artists, critics and the common people, and the rich and poor. It satirises the foodie culture. The whole film feels like a sustained act, a play, which the victims fail to participate in. It has a rhythm of tension and comedic release that works wonderfully, and Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are mesmerising. I loved it.
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). It is pretty amazing how much emotion this film could wring out of me while also being a crazy crazy rollercoaster of sci-fi craziness. This film engages in a pretty abstract sci-fi concept about people swapping bodies while traveling from universe to universe and this generates many scenes that are not easy to interpret if you are not paying attention. (Again with the multiverses, I know, but this is a good one.)The film becomes a kaleidoscope of genres as Michelle Yeoh has to act different versions of herself, which she does brilliantly. And because the main cast of characters are all well-written, quirky and funny people, there is an emotional core to the story that made me tear up with happy feelings towards the end. Besides all that, this film is hilarious and very imaginative. I was glued to the screen for two hours. I laughed, I cried, and so did everyone else in the theatre. It has the acting and absurdity of a wacky art-house film combined with innovative special effects and a complexity of script and film that you hardly ever see in the theatre. I expect this film to be my favourite of the year.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf(2019) offered an eclectic mix of high epic fantasy, African mythology, oral storytelling styles, non-chronological and unreliable games of narration, the violence and eroticism of James’s earlier Jamaica-focused work and above all a very confronting, visceral writing in which all the blood, piss, faeces and semen had an explicit presence in sweltering jungles. All of that put together created a unique work of fantasy with a wealth of ideas, very vivid characters and a feeling of immersion that engaged all the senses, for good or ill.
The second book was a struggle for me to get through. Many times I considered giving up, but James’s skill as a writer was visible enough on the page to persevere. Ultimately, I had to skim the final 100 pages, but there were memorable scenes in the book.
What kind of fantasy epic is James telling here? The first book spoke about some prophesy about a little boy, a boy that disappeared but was the true heir to the throne. But all of that happened pretty much in the background; the boy didn’t even get a name as far as I remember and his story didn’t end in some farmboy-to-king tale. Instead we followed Tracker. We read about the traumas of his childhood and how he got hired to track down the boy, and in the course of Tracker’s journey we meet the cantankerous old witch Sogolon. Moon Witch, Spider King is Sogolon’s story, and happens before and concurrently with Tracker’s. Sogolon narrates the whole thing, in her African accent.
James’ series-spanning story isn’t so much about the plot, then. It’s about the individual characters’ life histories, and characters that traditionally would have been side characters in epic fantasy stories.
James has such a fantastic command over language. He choses descriptions that fit so well the inner worlds of his characters, and repeats certain lines as beats in the story. These techniques create a mood unique for the book. He has a feeling for twisting a paragraph suddenly with an unexpected word or line to make the whole thing poignant. These aspects alone make an impression, but combine that with rough subject matters about violent childhoods, exploitation and other heavy subjects like that, and also sudden fantasy elements like a python shapeshifter or a misshapen giant or what have you, and a book like this just takes centre stage and mows down all the memories of other books you’ve read recently. And it is a good thing that he dialled down the constant sexual violence compared to the first novel, even though that might be hard to believe if you’re reading this one first (and you could, read this one first).
It is not easy reading. It’s not easy to get a grip on the overall story or on the Iron Age African world that James builds, and the text itself isn’t easy to penetrate. It’s like looking through a fog. I think this will be an obstacle for many readers. If you love epic fantasy because you fall in love with a world, this might not work for you. His characters also are not easy to personify with. I wonder if James is aware that he approaches the genre differently. In another sense, Moon Witch… is easier to follow than its predecessor. Much of the book is a rather straightforward coming-of-age story, a witch origin story, told in a linear way without much of the time jumping and narrative games of Black Leopard. And the final quarter follows the same journey as Black Leopard but from Sogolon’s point of view, adding more substance and significance to that shared storyline.
That witch origin story… my greatest problem was that the story lacked tension, and reading it felt like hard work with little reward to keep me going. There was no one to root for, no sympathetic characters, no goals, and the political machinations in the heart of the kingdom were uninteresting to me. James basically gives us a series of short stories; every 100 pages we move on to a different period in Sogolon’s life in a new location with new characters. But these short stories went on for too long, and Sogolon as a character is formed by constantly being a victim of exploitation, in every period of her life, over and over. And while those are important topics, it doesn’t really give her a character of her own. She’s shaped totally by outside influences, characterised by victimhood and bitterness, and the flip side of that is that she shows only very little actual character development. She’s the avenging bush woman with a hatred towards men and gods, but we already knew that from the first book.
What I wanted was given at around the halfway point of the novel, in the sense that Sogolon’s life is turned upside down in ways that push her to really think about what she’s doing with that life. For a short while, James constructs a powerful story of motherhood, grief and anger. Amidst large amounts of furry sex, a tale of vengeance began to take shape against the grand vizier and court magician, the Aesi. But by this time my energy and goodwill had run out and the book started to feel endless. Once the story started recapping the events of the first book, I was all out of energy and didn’t care for any thing or any one. Just like Sogolon herself.
Fans of James’ writing will tell me that he deploys literary techniques that cause this fantasy series not to feel like conventional epic fantasy. While undoubtedly true, I could not get into the groove of his writing, and I will exit the series here.