Maintaining Speculative Fiction Junkie for the last half decade has been a truly rewarding experience but I’m afraid the time has come for me to move on. I am in the early stages of working on a new project but it likely won’t come to fruition for at least a year or so, if ever (and no, I’m not writing a novel or anything like that). I want to thank each of the excellent authors, publishers, readers, fellow reviewers, and other friends that I’ve had the privilege of working with during the last five years.
Each year here at Speculative Fiction Junkie ends with a Top 5 Reads post. Many of the books that make these lists have been reviewed here during the previous twelve months, but occasionally a book is included on the list that has no accompanying review. This was the case with D.P. Watt’s stunningly excellent collection An Emporium of Automata, which was initially printed in a very limited print run by Ex Occidente Press. It beat out some serious competition to make it onto my Top 5 Reads of 2010 list, so when I learned that Eibonvale Press would be reprinting an expanded edition of the collection, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give this collection the review it deserves.
This edition of Emporium collects most of D.P. Watt’s short stories that have been published to date and includes three stories that were published after the collection’s initial Ex Occidente Press run. While there are a few that do not leave much of an impression, a majority of them are outstanding works of weird fiction.
“Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” has been a favorite of mine since I first read it a few years ago. It is an engrossing tale of one man’s descent into madness as a result of his obsession with the elusive works of one Emile Bilonche. Irrational obsessions are a frequent subject of weird fiction, but this tale is especially effective because of the slow revelation that despite the protagonist’s high praise for Bilonche, he actually knows almost nothing about him.
Another excellent story is “Room 89.” On the surface, it is a horror story involving a haughty academic vacationing on the Isle of Wight. But beneath the surface, something far more interesting is going on. A closer reading reveals the protagonist to be unwittingly ambling through a carnival fun house hall of mirrors bursting with disorienting reflections, only some of which are accurate. In this respect, the “Room 89″ is a perfect example of the way in which Mr. Watt’s fiction can work on multiple levels.
A final favorite is the first story by Mr. Watt I ever read, “Dr. Dapertutto’s Saturnalia.” This tale opens with a Soviet Inspector being outraged when he receives a package containing a roll of film from Dr. Dapertutto, self-described “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope.” To the Inspector, this is the most “blatant and insolent manifestation of bourgeois decadence” he has ever encountered. When a subordinate sent to arrest Dr. Dapertutto returns and reports that the theater had been destroyed the previous November for staging “theatre of a form unfit for the education and betterment of the Soviet State,” the Inspector decides that he must watch the film and seek out the Direktor himself. The theatrically violent scene that plays out on the film contrasts sharply with the regimented worldview of the Inspector, but the thing that makes this story so effective is the brutally stark way in which the Direktor, rather than the Inspector, is revealed to be the true master of the story’s world.
These stories make clear that Mr. Watt is a master storyteller in every sense of the word, but–as you should expect by now–there is actually more going on here than simple storytelling. Consider a story like “They Dwell in Ystumtuen.” It begins with a bored and distracted historian trying to recall the details of a public hanging that took place in 19th century Britain. But this image is then juxtaposed with the heart-wrenchingly tragic and brutally violent story of what actually happened to the person who was hanged. The contrast couldn’t be clearer and Mr. Watt states it plainly:
Imagine, if you can, dear reader (mindful, kind or otherwise) the infinite neglect of history by the historian. Imagine the millions of lives heaping up, untold, forgotten, yet undead in the graveyard of memory; begging, or praying, with skeletal hands to be brought back to mind, if only for an instant.
This is as concise and as beautifully written a statement as one can find of a theme that seems to be a near obsession of Mr. Watt’s, which is the overwhelming weight of the absent mass of humanity that has been lost over the ages. This same concern is seen in “The Condition,” when a character exclaims that “There is nothing remaining that has not had its song darkened by this century’s deeds. The world will have to begin art again. And from what it has lost it will realise the value of everything.” Another beautiful illustration of this theme can be found in “Beware the Dust!” from The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller (review here) and indeed this is a theme intricately woven throughout much of Mr. Watt’s work.
This preoccupation with not just the humanity before us but with all of the individual humans who are absent is, I believe, at the root of several of the other strengths of Mr. Watt’s work, including the extreme beauty of his prose and the way that his narrators directly address the reader. While these traits obviously owe a debt to the author’s roots in the theater, their real impetus is the urgency that results from the dizzying work of confronting such a terrible vision.
An Emporium of Automata is a truly landmark collection and is as rich a treasure as literature is capable of producing.
The True First
An Emporium of Automata was first published by Ex Occidente Press in 2010 in a limited edition of 150 copies. Thankfully, Eibonvale Press has done the world the service of republishing the book as both a hardcover and a paperback, with an electronic copy to follow shortly. I purchased a hardcover copy and was very impressed with the physical quality of the book, my first from Eibonvale.
[This review was not based on a review copy]
One of the greatest literary injustices of recent years is the fact that Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden (review here) is almost completely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Dark Eden was my Top Read last year and is one of the best books I have ever read. Once I finished it, the only reason I didn’t rush out to grab his debut novel, The Holy Machine, right away is because I try not to review works by the same author consecutively. Once sufficient time had passed, however, I tracked down a copy of The Holy Machine and eagerly dove in. Sadly–but perhaps unsurprisingly given how incredible Dark Eden is– The Holy Machine is not even in the same class.
The Holy Machine is set in twenty-first century Illyria, a Mediterranean refuge of science and reason that was founded as a sanctuary from the religious Reaction that swept the rest of the globe. George Simling is a resident of Illyria who falls in love with a robotic prostitute who shows signs of emerging consciousness. The prevailing rationality of Illyria would not tolerate (or even believe in) a sentient machine and so George decides to take her outside of its strong walls, but the superstitious zealots outside of Illyria despise robots for completely different reasons.
Anyone who has read Dark Eden will not be surprised to see Mr. Beckett tackling themes likes the ones addressed in The Holy Machine, but he does so much less successfully in this earlier novel. To put it bluntly, the book shows many of the markings of the frequently encountered Imperfect First Novel. These include the oversimplification of complex phenomena to the point that the story loses basic credibility (both the rationalism of Illyria and the religiosity of the outside world are overly simplified in the extreme), fundamental failures of worldbuilding in the sense that the reader is asked to believe that the world is large but that it nonetheless inevitably yields a neverending supply of convenient chance reunions between important characters, and failures of characterization in the sense that nearly every character encountered shares a myopic focus on the exact philosophical issues that the author wants to address.
Ultimately, these flaws wreck the novel. Having said that, though, I am always glad when authors are interested in addressing these issues as directly as Mr. Beckett has and wish that more authors would attempt to do so. Furthermore, what it really boils down to is that if Mr. Beckett had to write The Holy Machine in order to be capable of writing Dark Eden, then I am glad that he wrote it. My advice, though, is to skip The Holy Machine and go straight to Dark Eden.
The True First
The Holy Machine was first published in 2004 by Wildside Press. There were apparently a few hardcover copies printed but these are pretty difficult to locate at this point.
[This review was not based on a review copy]
In this golden age of the small press, new independent presses seem to blink into existence on a near weekly basis. One of the best to have appeared in the past year is undoubtedly Egaeus Press. In its brief existence, Egaeus has established itself as a top tier publisher in terms of both the physical quality of the books it is publishing and the caliber of authors it secures.
The third offering from Egaeus is a new collection of strange tales from George Berguño, whose first two collections were published by Ex Occidente Press and are now unobtainable except at very high prices. I enjoyed Mr. Berguño’s first collection, The Sons of Ishmael, but confess that none of its stories lingered in my mind for more than a few days. The same cannot be said for The Tainted Earth, which contains some very memorable tales. While I have not read Mr. Berguño’s second collection and so cannot say so definitively, I would be surprised if The Tainted Earth isn’t his best collection yet.
The stories contained in The Tainted Earth are varied in their subject matter and setting. My favorite in the collection is probably “The Ballad of El Pichón,” a tale of an elderly man who sits by Valparaiso Bay selling sparrows painted as canaries to unsuspecting sailors. One day, a young girl stumbles across the man and becomes so intrigued by him that from that point forward she constantly seeks him out, against the stern instructions of her mother. The girl’s actions eventually lead to a horrifying, if poetically satisfying, conclusion and the reader is left with a feeling that Valparaiso is a magical place, even if its magic has a decidedly sinister aspect. I hope that this relatively short story eventually leads to a more lengthy treatment of the city by Mr. Berguño.
“Mouse and the Falconer” is a close second favorite. It is the story of a young man who tracks down an artist hailed by some as a great photographer. The young man agrees to look after the artist’s apartment while the latter is away. Years pass and the young man passes up opportunity after opportunity to immerse himself in life. Eventually, the artist returns and confronts the young man with the sad facts of his life in a direct and powerful way. There is nothing particularly subtle about this story, but it is very effective nonetheless.
Another wonderful story is “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” in which a man is writing a tale inspired by an Scandinavian Saga which in turn was recounted on a rune stone that had since been destroyed. The story contains two threads: the Scandinavian saga being retold and the story of how the writer learned about the tale he is recounting. While the interwoven story format is interesting, it is the Scandinavian saga thread that steals the show. It is about a minor king who sends his son to find him a new wife after the boy’s mother dies. The boy returns to his father with the daughter of a witch who eventually takes an interest in the younger man. When the latter spurns her advances, the results are not pleasant.
Towards the back of the collection is a section called “About The Stories” that contains a few remarks from the author about each of its tales. Some authors of weird fiction routinely decline to explain their creations or to speculate on the inspiration behind them, but Mr. Berguño does not hesitate in this regard. While his remarks are interesting, they seemed to bear almost no relation to how I felt about a particular story. For example, in the notes that accompany “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” the author states that “[w]hat I wanted to achieve, above all, was to transform an ancient text that praises heroic male deeds into an existential meditation on the futility of heroic action, and the communicative gap between men and women.” I did not read this story in this way at all, although I confess that I can see that this is what the author was doing in hindsight.
The truth, though, is that Mr. Berguño’s stories are memorable and effective on their face without resort to their underlying purpose or meaning. While some strange tales are effective because of the quality of their prose and others because of the strength of their vision, Mr. Berguño’s stories are powerful because they draw from the same deep well that folk tales do. Authors who can draw on this oldest and most powerful of literary veins as well as Mr. Berguño does are rare, to say the least.
The True First
The Tainted Earth was first published in 2012 by Egaeus Press in a print run of 300.
[This review was based on a review copy]
The success of Anthony Ryan’s novel Blood Song has allowed him to quit his day job and devote himself to writing full time. Who is Anthony Ryan, you ask? You might be surprised to learn that his debut novel Blood Song had over 650 reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 5 at the time I began writing this review. By way of comparison, the entire list of Speculative Fiction Junkie’s Top 5 Reads of 2012 has a combined total of 27 reviews on Amazon. I almost never judge a book by its Amazon reviews and I mention them here only to demonstrate the scale of this book’s popularity. What would you say if I told you that this book won’t even be printed in physical form until July and that it currently exists only in electronic format? I haven’t read or reviewed as much pure fantasy in recent years, but the pre-publication popularity of Blood Song was just too intriguing for me to pass it up.
Blood Song tells the story of Vaelin Al Sorna who as a young boy is left by his father to be raised by the Sixth Order, one of a handful of orders dedicated to preserving the Faith. Each order performs a different primary function in service to the Faith and the Sixth’s is combat. The early part of the book focuses on the training and trials of young Vaelin and his ever closer group of companions as they learn fighting, survival, and other skills. As the book progresses, Vaelin matures quickly and distinguishes himself as a leader. At the same time, he increasingly finds himself entangled in the complex interplay of the Faith and the secular power of the King. He eventually is forced to make a number of difficult decisions that lead to war and to his eventual capture. As the novel opens he is relating his tale to a chronicler while on board a ship that is taking him to fight a duel at the insistence of his captors.
Blood Song thus combines a typical fantasy story with a coming of age tale in much the same manner as The Name of the Wind does. They are also structurally similar in that they both proceed by having the protagonist relate his story to a chronicler. Despite these superficial similarities, though, Blood Song is not even in the same league as The Name of the Wind.
There are a number of problems with the book. The first is that it does an inadequate job of convincing the reader that the children we meet at the beginning of the novel are the same individuals as the adults they have ostensibly become by its end. An author cannot expect a reader to believe in a character’s transformation simply because the author says the character has been transformed; the author must demonstrate and convince us of the character’s transformation and this book flat out fails on that front.
A second issue that detracts immensely from the story is that it fails in a number of ways to convince the reader of the reality and internal consistency of the world in which it unfolds. The most glaring example of this is the way that no matter how big this world is supposed to be, everyone keeps running into one another everywhere. This is a frequently encountered red flag for lesser quality fantasy fiction and it is disappointing to see it here. Furthermore, travels over great distances and pivotal events like battles are often barely described and instead we join the action after they’ve already concluded. This gives the world a small and unreal feeling and constitutes a near total failure of worldbuilding.
Third, while a number of morally and ethically complex dilemmas are hinted at and portrayed at a superficial level, they are so wholly unbelievable that the treatment of these issues lacks basic depth and credibility. For example, at one point Vaelin realizes that one of his slain opponents was blackmailed into fighting him by threats made against his family. He is so incensed by this that he takes his beef straight to the King (who he has never met before) and demands that the man’s family be taken care of. In exchange, the King extracts his agreement to essentially do the King’s bidding in the future. There is nothing in the entirety of the book that precedes this sequence of events to convince the reader that Vaelin would be so incensed by this situation, much less that he would essentially compromise his entire future to see that a couple of people are treated well. Thus, from its very inception the dilemma of his competing loyalties (to his order on the one hand and to the King on the other) is unconvincing and the reader can’t help but feel that it is a false dilemma. Add to these issues the fact that the novel is at times hokey, overlong, and written in prose that is little more than utilitarian and the book just doesn’t live up to the hype. There is no other way to say it.
Despite the harshness of the foregoing, the news isn’t all bad because if one looks past the many problems with this book, the underlying story itself is a promising and interesting one, and the book even works well in places. In the future, if Mr. Ryan can simply improve in his execution he has some real potential as a fantasy author.
The True First
Blood Song will be published on July 2, 2013 in the U.S. and U.K. by Ace. The book is already available in electronic format.
[This review was not based on a review copy]
Incredibly, this is the fifth annual Top 5 Reads of the Year list we’ve done here at Speculative Fiction Junkie. I never thought that this site would be around for half a decade! Without further ado, here are our Top 5 reads of 2012:
#1 – Dark Eden (review here)
Everyone should read this book. A tale of a few hundred people descended from a handful of survivors of a crash five generations previously on a planet billions of miles from Earth, this book is the perfect statement of humans’ strengths and weaknesses.
#2 – This Hermetic Legislature (review here)
D.T. Ghetu & D.P. Watt (Editors)
If you’re going to splurge on one expensive book from 2012, it ought to be this homage to Bruno Schulz from Ex Occidente Press. It contains some of the most beautiful short stories ever written.
#3 – Strange Epiphanies (review here)
This debut collection from Peter Bell is a powerful collection of stories that contain heavy measures of both melancholy and mystical insight. His stories will stay with the properly attuned reader long after the book has been finished.
#4 – City of Bohane (review here)
You have never read a book quite like City of Bohane before. A dystopia written in prose that is practically musical, City of Bohane is also unbearably hilarious in places. Please, somebody–but not Tarantino!–make a film out of this book.
#5 – At Fear’s Altar (review here)
Richard Gavin’s latest collection, At Fear’s Altar, is predominantly a collection of tales of cosmic horror, several of which are unforgettable. If you’ve never read Mr. Gavin’s work before, this collection is as good a collection as any to start with.
Close Contender: The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller (review here).
There have been a number of other really stellar developments this year. Chief among them is probably the publication of the VanderMeers’ massive anthology, The Weird. The only reason you haven’t seen a review of this massive collection here yet is because I am only about 20% of the way through it. During the coming weeks, I hope to make some serious progress with it, with an eye towards a possible review in 2013.
Another stellar development is the advent of the new biannual journal from Hieroglyphic Press Sacrum Regnum, “a sort of contemporary Symbolist review, intended to rediscover those hidden essences which have been obscured by the greyness and mechanism of the modern life.” The first issue contains a lot of good things, but chief among them is some amazing fiction from some of the best authors writing today. I will be devouring every issue of this journal as it is released.
After reading D.P. Watt’s debut collection Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers (review here) a few years ago, I was struck by how little attention it was garnering. The situation was much the same by the time I read his follow up collection, An Emporium of Automata. Lately, however, I have seen Mr. Watt’s work mentioned more frequently and I think he is slowly gaining the reputation he undoubtedly deserves as one of the best authors of weird fiction working today.
It had been a while since I had read anything new by Mr. Watt so I was anxious to get hold of his latest effort, The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller. I read the book. Then I reread it. Then I reread it again. And then I read it a fourth time. I even discussed it with others before writing this review, which is something I don’t normally do. After all of that, I’m still not sure I’m any closer to fully grasping its greater depths. What I can say is that it is an entrancingly beautiful and puzzling book, one that begs to be reread and pondered.
There are three main characters in The Ten Dictates, two of whom are dead. It is probably easiest to mention the unnamed narrator first, because it is he who connects the other two characters. These other two are Alfred Tesseller and an unnamed person who is the audience for the narrator’s account. I call this person “the Audience” rather than “the Reader” because the Narrator talks to him as though he is not a generic reader but instead a particular person who shares a history with the other two characters and who can be interacted with. The very first paragraph in the novella will give you a sense of what I’m talking about:
You remember Alfred Tesseller — the quiet one who arrived, all those years ago, in our decrepit country classroom. He had that accent that was so strange and yet so enchanting. We thought his family were ancient gypsies and the tales we told about him rivalled any myth performed around immortal fires. You must remember him!
As the book opens, the Narrator recounts for the Audience how he met Alfred Tesseller in the place that the latter had instructed him to:
There in the undergrowth I found his body, preparing himself for transformation.
But Alfred Tesseller could never be content with the ease of death. He has many places left to visit, and many decades to dismantle. The low hum of working insects around him jittered into words and through them he told me what I would do for him.
And as I grappled with maddening thoughts I rifled his corpse. I do not wish to unnerve you, merely to pass on the few lines I found in his notebook before his metamorphosis, or should I say resurrection, began.
They are simple words, written in the beauty of his flowing foreign script.
In the next few pages, we learn that the Narrator’s own death is what enabled him to accompany Alfred Tesseller on his journey backwards through history:
Beyond the fear we learned brotherly love for all the rotten things of this earth, and many others. We learned how to cascade through memories and fall through lives. Initially my spirit reeled with the monstrosity of this new existence–how at each moment I might collide with Alfred Tesseller’s form and inhabit him as he strode through history. In other moments he set me free, like some demented dog. On our first dreadful journey I learned the loneliness of war.
What follows is a series of loosely related vignettes, glimpses of Alfred Tesseller’s and the Narrator’s journey back through human history, to such places as a World War I battlefield, a bombed out city, a hospital room, an ancient Mediterranean religious ceremony, and more. These are told in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever encountered. Consider this, for example:
I was death–no longer my own futile erasure but all possible deaths. I illuminated her own death–so hidden from each of us but so entirely our own–and she reflected back my own impossible moment in pupils now dark and wide. Two deaths for me, meeting somewhere far back in her brain to fuse into an image–a moment of cognition that silently sounded out my departure.
Despite the beauty of the prose, however, part of the reason I read the novella four times is because from time to time it can be difficult to understand what is actually happening from one page to the next. And while I understand that obsessively grasping for the finite in a work such as this can be counterproductive, I found myself wishing that Mr. Watt would have provided the reader with a little more explanation as to what was happening, even if this had diminished somewhat the book’s poetic power.
Because my understanding of The Ten Dictates is necessarily filtered through my only partial understanding of it, I may be completely off base when I say this but in my opinion the book’s chief effect on the reader is to convey a mystical sense of the wholeness and completeness of all of the many dramas acted out by humanity over the millennia. Mr. Watt accomplishes this feat by juxtaposing some of our disparate highs and lows with one another and by revealing the illusory nature of time by speeding it up. Take the following for example:
I lay here in the mud trapped inside the bloating body of Alfred Tesseller, strung upon the wire. Beside me lies a broken revolver, a musket, a cannon, a halberd, a sword, a dagger, a club–each mutating into each other as the landscape collapses into fields of grass, expanses of desert, swamps, ruined buildings crumbling into jungle palms.
The result is that the reader is forced to view these scenes from a far greater distance than is ordinarily possible and cannot help but see them as the stuff of myth and drama.
I am sure that there is a lot that I am missing about this most interesting book. I attribute most of this to my own failings as a reviewer and perhaps a small bit to the inscrutability of the book itself. Perhaps I am not alone in having this reaction: while I have seen several enthusiastic reactions to the book, I have yet to come across a single intelligible review of it anywhere. D.P. Watt is one of my favorite writers, and this book shows that he is not afraid to take his work in bold new directions. The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller contains more of what makes D.P. Watt’s voice such a powerful one: prose that is almost unbearably beautiful and a way of speaking to his audience so directly that it lends the work a seldom encountered intensity. I only wish that the book was a little more comprehensible.
The True First
[This review was not based on a review copy]