[Ed. Note: This article is reprinted from the Internet Review of Science Fiction with permission of the author.]
Mercy Thompson: Homecoming (Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 8/09), story by Patricia Briggs and David Lawrence, artwork by Francis Tsai and Amelia Woo
Indigo Springs (Tor, 11/09) by A.M. Dellamonica
Magic in the Shadows: An Allie Beckstrom Novel (Roc, 11/09) by Devon Monk
Boneshaker (Tor, 10/09) by Cherie Priest
Are You There and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon Press, 10/09) by Jack Skillingstead
The Silver Skull: Swords of Albion: Book One (Pyr/Prometheus, 11/09) by Mark Chadbourn
The Fall 2009 SF/F season suggests some strong trends are just getting stronger. Another non-medieval high-fantasy series has launched; zombies are chewing up the, er, scenery; steampunk has achieved its highest profile to date; and HBO’s popular True Blood TV series, based on Charlaine Harris’s already-New York Times-bestselling Southern Vampire Mysteries, has proven a tipping point for urban fantasy (UF), transforming it from “popular subgenre” to “mass mainstream acceptance” (complete with devoted TB fans who’ve never heard the term “urban fantasy”).
One of the most popular -and best -of the established UF series is Patricia Briggs’s sequence about Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson, the tough, female, part Native American auto mechanic/shapeshifter. This fall, Briggs’s Mercy Thompson is, like Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse before her, taking her popularity to a new medium -in this case, the graphic novel.
Collecting the first four issues of a new comic book series written by Patricia Briggs and David Lawrence, with superior artwork by Francis Tsai and Amelia Woo, Mercy Thompson: Homecoming fulfills the ancient comic-book commandment: Thou Shalt Provide an Origin Story. Such retroactive-continuity backfill doesn’t always work (consider Marvel Comics‘ retconned origin for Wolverine, which is silly, misogynistic, and turns Wolvie into a powerless tool). Fortunately, Homecoming presents a good, solid story about a rogue werewolf pack as it reveals how Mercy came to the Northwest’s Tri-Cities and met reader-favorite characters like Stefan the vampire, Siebold Adalbertsmiter the fae garage owner, and Mercy’s future love interest, the non-rogue werewolf pack leader Adam Hauptman.
On the downside, Homecoming doesn’t really illuminate any new facets of its characters. Still, established Mercy fans will enjoy Homecoming, and the graphic novel will do a fine job of hooking newcomers.
The phrase “urban fantasy” sounds quite broad. However (perhaps unsurprisingly for a booming commercial subgenre), most UF novels tend to cover the same ground. The setting is (duh) a city, large or small. The supernatural elements often take the form of vampires, shapeshifters, fae, demons, and other nonhuman beings. Generally, both the human and nonhuman characters are, or look, Caucasian. And the romances between/among the main characters are largely or exclusively heterosexual.
Well, the titular Oregon enclave of Indigo Springs is a small town, where everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows Astrid Lethewood had an affair with one town girl; still loves another (who has just returned to Indigo Springs); is loved by her stepbrother/roommate, the fire chief’s son; and had a junk-collecting old drunk for a father. Everyone knows about, but does not care to discuss, an ancestral white-settler atrocity that eliminated most of the Native Americans. But no one knows Astrid’s father was a sorcerer, who used swapmeet finds to control the potent magic which is literally pooled under the surface of Indigo Springs. And no one knows Astrid has inherited his talent, with enough strength to literally remake the world.
And things are going quite badly for our planet, as acclaimed short story writer A.M. Dellamonica reveals in the braided past-and-present narratives of her debut novel. Diverting narrative chronology into two separate timestreams is difficult to engineer; and in Indigo Springs it appears, at first, to weaken rather than aid the narrative, because it reveals a fair amount about what’s going to happen at the climax. However, the doubled timestream ultimately proves to enhance, rather than weaken, the climax and its aftermath.
Add the three very sharply drawn young lovers in the romantic triangle, and you have a fine novel that successfully wraps up its storyline, yet offers the possibility of an equally intriguing sequel.
While Devon Monk’s third novel, Magic in the Shadows, keeps the action on purely urban ground (the Northwest’s twin cities of Portland and Vancouver), she, too, eschews the nonhuman characters for the deeply human. And, interestingly, she has a clearly multi-racial (and distinctly sexy) love interest for her narrator/protagonist, the magic-user Allison “Allie” Beckstrom.
Allie is a “Hound,” tracking down the people who illegally abuse magic. But using magic extracts costs, such as excruciating pain and major memory loss. And Allie’s talents are so powerful, a super-secret wizarding group is trying to eliminate her. She’s also haunted by the ghost of her dead father, who, before his murder, discovered a way to store magic, like computer programs, on disks. Unfortunately, the stored magic is a lot more powerful than Windows 7, warping people into unkillable monsters, and tearing open the gates between life and death. Events move to a riproaring climax, as Allie and her lover move to a new understanding of their relationship, and the author continues to develop her magical system with SFnal rigor. If Magic in the Shadows is any indication, Devon Monk should become one of urban fantasy’s biggest names.
Northwestern settings have long been common in SF and fantasy, and you’ll find yet another -Seattle -in Seattleite Cherie Priest’s first steampunk novel, Boneshaker. Which brings us to the field’s other two booming trends. One is zombies, a perennial horror favorite which has essentially gone mainstream lately, with the publication of the bestselling mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the release of the hit movie Zombieland. There’s even a zombierotica anthology forthcoming!
The other trend is steampunk, which has been around since at least K.W. Jeter’s novel Morlock Nights (1979), but which, here in the Fall of 2009, has suddenly become All The Rage, complete with steampunk erotica from Circlet Press, Steampunk Month at Tor.com (which is, not coincidentally, the online arm of the publisher of Boneshaker), and Seattle’s brass-shiny new SteamCon steampunk convention.
Everything that rises must converge, it seems, and Cherie Priest’s dark rationalized-fantasy novel Boneshaker merges the steampunk and zombie trends when its alt.Victorian steam-and-cogs mining machine pierces a vein of strange gas that turns nearly everyone in the precociously booming Nineteenth Century city into a zombie. When the son of Seattle’s mad-scientist zombifier slips into the now-forbidden city, the zombifier’s widow boards an airship in pursuit -and uncovers a bunch of secrets about her former city, including the fact that not everyone inside is a zombie. Far from it. And at least one of the living is a mad scientist concocting evil plans. Could it be her own husband?
It sounds like a romp -but, alas, the fog of zombifying gas still lies over Seattle. That means characters spend a lot of time putting uncomfortable masks on and off, slipping in and out of the clumsy alt.Victorian equivalent of airlocks, and slogging through the muddy, murky streets. Call Boneshaker a romp in a swamp. People who don’t find these details slowing will enjoy the novel; and people annoyed by the oft-monoracial nature of steampunk will find an author who has realized people of color aren’t a product of the post-Edwardian era.
These days, it can seem like pure-quill SF is getting crowded out by the genre-benders and the fantasies. And you’ll certainly find fantasy and horror stories (not to mention touches of surrealism and the New Age) in acclaimed new author Jack Skillingstead’s first collection, Are You There and Other Stories. But, taken as a whole, the book feels like science fiction.
I think this is because, while Skillingstead’s influences plainly include Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and the sometimes-name-checked H.P. Lovecraft, his main influences are SF authors, especially Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg.
The reference to PKD probably has you thinking the main characters must wander around wondering what reality really is, possibly while in the grip of powerful drugs. And there is a certain amount of that, in such stories as the noir-ish “am-I-dead?” fantasy “The Avenger of Love”; “The Chimera Transit,” whose narrator programs his own biochemistry with a neuro-stimulation web; and “Human Day,” whose paranoid bomb-shelter dweller cuts himself open to see what’s really inside.
But the main reason Are You There and Other Stories feels like SF is because it’s riding one of the major currents in turn-of-the-millennium literary SF. By this, I’m referring to Skillingstead’s frequently alienated and depressive (and usually male) characters. In fact, I suspect he’s established a new high-water mark in alienated-guy SF, because his male leads are often so self-destructively estranged from themselves and others (especially women), so thoroughly terrified of life and simple human connection (especially as symbolized by women), that they damn near achieve an apotheosis of self-abnegation.
In short, if you’re tired of likeable, sympathetic, relatively uncomplicated characters, and are aching for troubled, troubling, entirely believable characters who frequently descend to being bastards, shits, and, sometimes, even murderers, then you should order Jack Skillingstead’s Are You There and Other Stories by overnight express.
Characterization is the strongest of Skillingstead’s many strong points. His weak point is an overreliance on quick, sometimes unclear endings. The abrupt halts mean that when one of the massively self-defeating characters changes, as in “Bean There” and “Rescue Mission” (among others), you aren’t persuaded the change is going to stick.
If you don’t like SF or steampunk, but are tired of contemporary and medieval fantasy, there’s hope. Publishers are lately offering a somewhat more diverse array of fantasy, ranging from erotica and young-adult novels featuring ancient Greco-Roman deities, to Napoleonic-Era and Colonial-American alternate histories. Among these expanded offerings you’ll find The Silver Skull, Mark Chadbourn’s high fantasy-cum-alternate history (or, perhaps, secret history) of Elizabethan England.
The swashbuckling, womanizing protagonist, Will Swyfte, is the Queen’s best-known and best-loved spy -an oxymoronic combination, considering no one is supposed to know a spy’s identity. But, as the Armada sails against England, Swyfte’s morale-boosting overt role in the war against Spain serves a covert function. It diverts attention from the real war: humanity’s immemorial struggle with the immensely powerful, diabolically malevolent beings known as fairies and demons.
The Silver Skull is an interesting amalgamation of influences, ranging from Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers and Elizabeth Bear alt.Elizabethiana, to James Bond, Conan, and Horatio Hornblower. As befits this mix, there’s magic, swordplay, an extended sea-going war sequence, and spy hijinks, complete with the de rigueur lost love and Dr. Dee as a sorcerous Renaissance version of Q. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the scarce female characters almost always fill the role of weak, foolish victim (even, bizarrely, Elizabeth I Regina, who, the historical record indicates, was anything but).
The fight-scenes, while imaginative and rousing, tend to fit the Hollywood wire-fu mode. They would look both wonderful and believable on the big screen. On the page, where you have to visualize the action in your head, you realize that many of the fight scenes depend on an awful lot of luck consistently going Will Swyfte’s way, as in this example from late in the novel (page 299, Advance Reading Copy):
(Swyfte) met the guards climbing the stairs head-on without slowing his step. Driving his sword through the heart of the first, he ploughed into the bodies, limbs, spines, skulls. The knife flashed in his other hand, across pale throat after throat, and by the time he had passed the last guard the blood cascaded down the steps around him, and all above were dead.
Um. When I was on the University of Maine fencing team, we used to split into two groups and have melees. You know what? Skill counts for extremely little when you’re opposing even a disorganized group of armed people. However, you don’t need to be a fencer, SCA member, or Hollywood stunt-person to wonder how Swyfte consistently avoids death or crippling damage from someone else’s lucky blow, or his own small-slip-with-huge-consequences.
The Silver Skull will make a dandy action movie, if Hollywood ever grows the guts to put alt.Elizabethan high fantasy on the big screen. In the meantime, it excites, it annoys, but it does not quite convince.
So. What do these six Fall 2009 titles indicate for the future of science fiction and fantasy? Well, I don’t think I’ve managed to review a representative sample, so I hope the first thought that comes to my mind is wrong. That first thought is:
In terms of popularity, urban fantasy is going to keep kicking SF’s ass, and maybe even the rest of the fantasy genre’s ass, because it doesn’t confine women to the role of damsel in distress, or otherwise lock them into the role of The Other (oversimplification alert: Skillingstead’s collection has some stories with active, convincing female leads).
When I was a teenager reading pulp fiction in the 1970s, I loved finding the occasional strong adventure-heroine, like C.L. Moore’s relentless Jirel of Joiry, several dangerous swordswomen and witch-women created by Robert E. Howard, and Marvel Comics‘ problematic, yet highly skilled swordswoman, Red Sonja.
Yet here in Fall 2009, the strong female characters I’m finding in new SF/F are mostly confined to the works of women authors, one of whom is writing genre-bending steampunk, and the rest of whom are writing urban fantasy. And I find myself remembering an observation by Paula Guran, editor of the UF imprint Juno Books:
(Laurell K.) Hamilton mentioned that Robert E. Howard had inspired her writing…Her comment…gave me the final clue I needed to figure out just what it was about “paranormal romance” that was making it so popular. Adventure these books were adventure stories for women. Conan and Anita Blake have quite a bit in common [http://juno-books.com/blog/?page=5].
Here in the waning days of 2009, it seems as if SF, and even perennially popular high fantasy, are in real trouble, because the overall trend in publishing is that male readers are becoming fewer and female readers more numerous. This means that if female characters continue to be “othered,” both genres will inevitably lose readers of both sexes. This distresses me, because I love SF and high fantasy, and I want them to stay alive and vibrant.
Of course, this same trend should guarantee a long, robust future for UF. Given this season’s evidence, it’ll also pump a lot of steam into the engines of the steampunk and zombie movements.
I’m just waiting for the kickass urban fantasy steampunk novel with a strong female protagonist who uses her magical talents, button-booted martial-arts skills, and steam-powered machine gun to mow down werewolves and zombies by gaslight. There’s a book that’ll go Number One with a bullet. A silver bullet.