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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thoughts on "Parallel Stories" by Peter Nadas (by Liviu Suciu)


Order "Parallel Stories" HERE

INTRODUCTION: As 2011 is drawing to a close, I wanted to discuss all my top books of year here and the only one that was missing was Peter Nadas' 1150+ page, 18 years in the writing and few more in translation masterpiece. I will offer just a compilation of my thoughts as I have been unable to cohere them into a review, but I hope they will give at least an inkling of this book's power. Very long, quite difficult and quite messy and sprawling on occasion, but a great and memorable book that I see myself rereading for a long time. Here is the blurb:

"In 1989, the year the Wall came down, a university student in Berlin on his morning run finds a corpse on a park bench and alerts the authorities. This scene opens a novel of extraordinary scope and depth, a masterwork that traces the fate of myriad Europeans—Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Gypsies—across the treacherous years of the mid-twentieth century.

Three unusual men are at the heart of Parallel Stories: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose German mother is linked to secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration during the 1940s; Ágost Lippay Lehr, whose influential father has served Hungary’s different political regimes for decades; and András Rott, who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad. The web of extended and interconnected dramas reaches from 1989 back to the spring of 1939, when Europe trembled on the edge of war, and extends to the bestial times of 1944–45, when Budapest was besieged, the Final Solution devastated Hungary’s Jews, and the war came to an end, and on to the cataclysmic Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. We follow these men from Berlin and Moscow to Switzerland and Holland, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, and of course, from village to city in Hungary. The social and political circumstances of their lives may vary greatly, their sexual and spiritual longings may seem to each of them entirely unique, yet Péter Nádas’s magnificent tapestry unveils uncanny reverberating parallels that link them across time and space.

This is Péter Nádas’s masterpiece—eighteen years in the writing, a sensation in Hungary even before it was published, and almost four years in the translating. Parallel Stories is the first foreign translation of this daring, demanding, and momentous novel, and it confirms for an even larger audience what Hungary already knows: that it is the author’s greatest work."

THOUGHTS: The parallel stories of the title have rarely any finality and characters jump in and out though there are several mainstays in the "bedrock" part of the novel that takes place in Budapest 1961 and revolves around several late middle aged women with troubled past, their sons, nephews, husbands, and especially the Lippay-Fehr household.

The novel took me several weeks of reading, rereading, going back and forth and extensively using the search function on my epub version which I alternated with the print version as I read each page at least twice, though not necessarily in order, but sometimes following the characters using search. As quite a few of these stories just stop at some point, while others start I think that either a flow chart of some sort or using search is useful in making sense of the huge tapestry of the book.

"Parallel Stories" is extremely dense and jumps between pov's, narrative forms, tenses, characters, so it is best read as a collection of vignettes; some shorter, some longer as in the (in)famous seventy page sex scene that is like most of this novel not for the easily offended - I did not count the pages of the scene though it seemed to be 50 pages at least but others did and 70 sounds about right.

There are haunting descriptions from war to sex to death, bodily fluids left and right while the novel abounds with very deep and subtle connections between characters that are easy to miss. There is also much more so that it is really hard to convey what the novel is about unless you start reading and the book was worth all the money and time I spent on it, no question about it.

On the other hand the scathing review by Tibor Fischer in the Guardian has a kernel truth and the novel may turn readers off easily, but I am in the "masterpiece camp" and consider the book an impressive achievement.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Magic Gifts: A Free Kate Daniels Novella by Ilona Andrews (By Mihir Wanchoo)

Read FBC’s Review of “Magic Bites” & “Magic Burns
Read FBC’s Review of “Magic Strikes” & “Magic Mourns
Read FBC’s Review of “Magic Bleeds” & “A Questionable Client
Read FBC’s Review of “Magic Slays
Read FBC Interview with Ilona Andrews


Amongst the authors which I have discovered in the past couple of years, the pair of Ilona Andrews has rapidly become one of my favorite ones. Their Kate Daniels series is one of the best ones in the urban fantasy sub-genre and it is has gone from strength to strength, with each release surpassing the high of the previous one. Earlier this year in a blog post I had detailed as to how there was a small alteration to their current release schedule with the addition of a new book which would feature a side character. The details of that post can be read over here, also newer details have arisen including the title of the new book which is Gunmetal Magic.

A few months later there was another tweak to that new schedule due to personal reasons and the details can be read over here. However in the first post there was a big announcement that that the authors would be providing “extra content” to help alleviate the extended wait for the forthcoming releases. The plan was to release a Kate & Curran novella during the holiday season, for which the blurb is given below:

Sometimes even the Beast Lord and the Consort have to take a break from protecting the Pack. Sometimes they just want to have a nice quiet dinner out in town. And then a necromancer at the nearby table dies, the lose vampires come flying through the glass windows, and before you know it the walls of the restaurant are redecorated in a lovely shade of red. What seems at first to be an unfortunate accident turns into a slow murder of a child. Now Kate and Curran must follow the clues to stop an ancient power intent on revenge. To succeed, they must bargain with Vikings, face horrifying undead, and hardest of all, work with each other!

The events of this novella occur simultaneously with those of Gunmetal Magic (Andrea Nash novel) and it is currently being offered free by the authors, which shows how tremendously they appreciate their fans and readership! The novella will be free to download in a variety of formats until the 6th of January 2012. Thereafter it won't be available as it's set to be released along with the print copy of Gunmetal Magic as bonus content. This will be helpful for those readers who love to have print copies. So go to the author blog to get your hands on this wonderful holiday present. I know I did and since I finished reading it over the weekend, I can safely say that the novella is another sterling addition to the wonderfully addictive universe of Kate Daniels.
Monday, December 26, 2011

A Nice Chistmas Gift: "Percepliquis" by Michael Sullivan and "Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway (by Liviu Suciu)


After a busy Christmas Eve with late carols and an even busier Christmas with the whole package from the morning presents under the tree (of course most for my son and then for my wife), the Orthodox Church Service and the Christmas party until midnight, I had a chance of finally opening the two very exciting books I got as sort-of Christmas presents in the mail, Percepliquis by Michael Sullivan and Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. As expected Percepliquis starts very strong and I am really looking forward to read this highly touted series finale.



While I have greatly enjoyed The Gone Away World in 2008, today I mostly remember it for the long and convoluted paragraphs that somehow read funny and not clumsy.

Angelmaker
starts in a somewhat similar manner but if anything it is even funnier and wittier and I found myself rolling with laughter at the misadventures of the main hero, Joe Spork, who wants to live a quiet life repairing the odd mechanical artifact, but an intruder cat which wants the house to itself, an assortment of mobsters related to his deceased father's missing inheritance and an old lady with a dog that manages to reassert the supremacy of the four legs against the two legs after Joe temporarily defeats the cat, are determined not to let that happen.

It is early of course but I really expect to have a grand time reading Angelmaker and the book announces itself as a huge 2012 release. And there seems to be a doomsday device and other sff assortments too...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Three Most Disappointing Books of 2011 (by Liviu Suciu)

As I presented my favorite books of 2011 HERE, I decided to talk a little of the three most disappointing books of 2011 too. These are not the worst books I read in 2011 by any means, nor the few books which when I finished I wanted to either rip into pieces (this one) or slap myself for wasting time with them (this or this), but the books I had very high expectations - like a possible top five novel - and for various reasons came short, though as all three are series installments, I have some hopes their sequels will be much better.

There were a few other novels I did not like, but where I have quite enjoyed earlier installments and/or work by the author, like The Legacy of Kings by CS Friedman, The Sacred Band by David A. Durham, Extremis by Steve White and Charles Gannon and The White Luck Warrior by Scott Bakker but in all these cases I simply have been moving away from the respective genres (traditional fantasy with ancient evil, kings, emperors, crusades or sf with superior aliens versus the plucky humans and their allies) due to having reached a saturation point, so I cannot say they were really disappointments, but more of a "these books came too late for me" and I would have enjoyed them a few years back.

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Number 1 on the list is The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. A college fantasy book in which almost nothing happened until more than half in and which essentially got really going with some 100 pages out of 900+ left. I simply cannot see how the author can finish the series and honor the implicit promises made in The Name of the Wind about what we will see in it, in only one more book especially at the glacial pace this one went.

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Number 2 is Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright. I stated my motives HERE and I cannot stress how high were my expectations for this book especially after the superb recent short fiction from the author.

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Number 3 is The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. As he is one of the few authors I've read all his novels to date, said novels number 10 or more and I enjoyed to greatly enjoyed all before this one, I was really shocked that I had major reservation about The Fallen Blade not because of vampires but because of the fragmented writing style. Read my joint review with Robert to see more detail.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts on "Leeches" by David Albahari and "The Third Reich" by Roberto Bolano (by Liviu Suciu)

Order Leeches HERE

"The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.

As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories."

"Leeches" is the first David Albahari novel I finished - I tried Gotz and Meyer a while ago but it did not hook me so I marked it for later. The novel has a very striking beginning that takes you in and from there it proceeds in a continual "whole book as one paragraph" manner. At times there is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the words as they seem to come in a deluge, so you need to put the book down and reflect on what you just read.

The book's main conceit is in the grand tradition of conspiracy theories, though of the literate Eco kind not the junky Va Dinci (!) ones, but its Eastern European setting and the author's superb literary skills - and of course the translator's skills as the novel reads very naturally and smoothly - kept me interested despite my "meh" feelings towards this genre.

While a relatively slim 300 pages length, Leeches packs quite a lot of stuff and it reads like a book twice its size. There is action and drama and quite a lot of tense moments while the ending is very good. If there was one small niggle, I would have loved the book to be present tense rather than be narrated from six years later as a little suspense (eg the final outcome for the narrator) is lost.

Overall a dense but very rewarding read and a highly recommended novel of 2011.

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"On vacation with his girlfriend, Ingeborg, the German war games champion Udo Berger returns to a small town on the Costa Brava where he spent the summers of his childhood. Soon they meet another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who introduce them to a band of locals—the Wolf, the Lamb, and El Quemado—and to the darker side of life in a resort town.

Late one night, Charly disappears without a trace, and Udo’s well-ordered life is thrown into upheaval; while Ingeborg and Hanna return to their lives in Germany, he refuses to leave the hotel. Soon he and El Quemado are enmeshed in a round of Third Reich, Udo’s favorite World War II strategy game, and Udo discovers that the game’s consequences may be all too real."


The Third Reich is quite a disappointing novel by Robert Bolano as the "main thread" of the novel dealing with Udo's narration of his Costa Brava eventful sejour is excellent, but the Third Reich game interludes are utterly distasteful not to say obscene for reasons I will not enter into great detail, as they are obvious. WW2 was a catastrophe that cost uncounted lives and blighted even uncounted more and to make a game of it is just disgusting. War porn which is not even serious but a game. So 2/3 an A book and 1/3 that is not even F, but just utter disgusting junk.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Deadcore: Four Hardcore Zombie Novellas (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)



Order Deadcore HERE


AUTHOR INFORMATION:
1) Randy Chandler is the author of the two solo novels Bad Juju and Hellz Bellz, and authored Duet for the Devil with T. Winter-Damon. Randy has previously worked as a magazine editor/publisher, a freelance book reviewer, a mental health worker, a gas-pump jockey, an ambulance attendant, a soldier in Vietnam and a funeral home flunky.

2) David James Keaton’s short fiction has recently appeared in the Comet Press dark crime anthology The Death Panel, as well as Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Espresso Stories, Big Pulp, Six Sentences, Pulp Pusher, and Crooked. He is a contributor to The College Rag and the University of Pittsburgh’s online journal Hot Metal Bridge. He’s also a graduate student in the MFA program at Pitt.

3) Edward M. Erdelac was born in Indiana, educated in Chicago, and lives in the Los Angeles area with his family. He is an award winning screenwriter, an independent filmmaker, and sometime contributor to Star Wars canon. Author of the Merkabah Rider series, his weird westerns that have found audiences on both sides of the pond. he’s way pleased for the opportunity to take a left turn and give rein to his rabid admiration for old school chanbara movies, Romero, and the great Kazuo Koike here.

4) Ben Cheetham’s short fiction has won awards and been published in numerous magazines and anthologies in the UK, US and Australia. Most recently Voice From the Planet (published by Harvard Square Editions) and Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, A Collection of Flash Fiction. He’s a 2010 Pushcart Prize nominee. He’s also completed his first novel and lives in Sheffield UK with his family.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: What do the undead have in common? They're dead. But that is where the similarities end in Deadcore. Join authors Randy Chandler, Ben Cheetham, Edward M. Erdelac, and David James Keaton as they unleash the carnage while breathing new life, and death, into the genre with four unique and zombie-licious novellas.

DEAD JUJU - He's the mystery man on the news. Where he shows up, the shit goes down. The dead are rising, the immigration issue has reached the boiling point, the living are screwed, and unspeakable acts are being performed upon all involved. In this tale of Zombies Gone Wild, yes the dead walk but just where the hell are they going and why? Dead Juju gives you the hardcore truth, if you're ghoul enough to handle it.

NIGHT OF THE JIKININKI - After a comet is observed in the western sky of feudal Japan, a murdered inmate rises from the dead and attacks his fellow prisoners. Three disparate men: a casteless bandit, a mad, child-eating monk, and a renowned but sadistic samurai band together to escape the walled and moat-surrounded prison as it fills with the walking and ravenous dead.

ZEE BEE & BEE (A.K.A. PROPELLER HATS FOR THE DEAD) - At a "Zombie Bed & Breakfast" tourist trap, guests pay for the thrill of a staged zombie assault during an apocalyptic scenario, acted out by sluggish hotel workers who are well-versed in the zombie genre. But soon the script doesn't go as planned, the guests become uncooperative, and the actors are taking their roles very seriously these days.

ZOMBIE SAFARI - Survivors of a zombie apocalypse have carved out new existences on islands, only visiting the mainland to hunt zombies. But things start to go wrong. Zombies don't die as they should. Hunters go missing. A trip that's supposed to be fun turns into a struggle for survival as four men makes a discovery that causes him to question not only what it means to be a zombie, but what it means to be human.

FORMAT/INFO: Deadcore is 217 pages long divided over four novella parts. Narration is both in the third-person and first person for the different novellas. The book is edited by Cheyl Mullenax. September 30, 2010 marked the e-book and trade paperback publication of "Deadcore" via Comet Press.

ANALYSIS: Deadcore is a book which was released last year and was completely missed by me and most reviewers. I happened upon it on Goodreads a couple of months earlier and upon seeing the blurb details, I was heavily intrigued by the variety and the imaginative spectrum offered. One of the authors Ed Erdelac kindly offered a review copy and since I was already a fan of his Merkabah series, I was extra excited to see how his historical story would match along with the zombie safari, the bed & breakfast story, etc.

The first story is Dead Juju by Randy Chandler and is the longest novella of the collection. It’s a pretty hardcore zombie story detailing the beginning of the apocalypse. Of course the tipping point in this story is the presence of a gigantic eye in the sky which has blinked and causes all sorts of weird stuff to begin. The story has been divided into 29 further sections which has various characters interacting and facing off against zombies and ghouls. The story is mostly set in Arizona and a bit in Mexico as well. The story totally sets the tone for the book as it has action, gore, violence, sex in enormous amounts and begs the question as to what is truly happening and is it the end of the world? It also brings faith & religion in to the equation of life but not in a way which upsets they rhythm of the story. A wild ride and with an ending which leaves the readers as shocked as it does with its opening. Dead Juju opens Deadcore with a visceral thrill which is hard to ignore and equally tough to stomach.

The next story is Zee Bee & Bee, it’s a story set in first person about a bed and breakfast where newly and otherwise married couples go to "pretend" attacked by zombies. While on the face of this story, it sounds a bit silly however kudos to David James Keaton who manages to upstage the settings with his ferocious pace as well as the nods to the various zombie odds and ends which have populated so many movies and books. The story is majorly about the characters who play various types of zombie and the narrator vividly describes the scenes adding his own sense of understanding which brings another layer to the proceedings. A little less violent than the preceding novella however Zee Bee & Bee has a rather dark ending which again matches up the story to the earlier one in its grimness.

The third story of the book was the one which I was looking forward to the most called “Night of the Jikininki” by Ed Erdelac. This tale is set in 1737 feudal Japan and features three remarkably dark characters, all of whom are stuck in the Fukuyama han prison for various reasons when a comet passes by and awakens the dead. Thereby setting off a horrid turn of events to which none are spared. The author has discussed quite a bit about the origins of this tale on his blog which makes for a fascinating read by itself however readers should be warned as it has minor spoilers for the story. Whilst keeping it horror-tinged, the author has very smartly also included commentary about the feudal situation in Japan and especially about the downtrodden class that is known as the “Eta”. Cleverly merging Japanese folklore and societal structure in a thrilling race to survive, the author’s efforts clearly make this tale a special one and one to be savored. Clearly this tale became my favorite based on its inventive approach and suspenseful handling of its twists. The ending again in line with the collection is a very dark one and potentially underlines the cruel nature of fate.

The last story is Zombie Safari by Ben Cheetham and one which will interest the hunters among all the readers. Set in the post apocalyptic near future wherein zombie hunting has become a favorite of the surviving humans. The narrator of this story is a person called Mikey who’s recently lost his dad who was a great hunter and passed several valuable nuggets of information. The zombie classification in this tale is also something in line with the hunting and scientific themes of this novella world. The story is spread out over seven days set in the hunting reserve and the author has cleverly populated this story with various characters who are stereotypical in such situations but has also riddled the story with a couple of twists which will stun the reader as they read them. The story starts as a typical one wherein things go off-kilter for reasons revealed in the story and the ending twist was the best one amongst all the stories of this collection making it the second best novella for me amid the four stories. Poignantly written scenes are interspersed with hunting minutiae to make it a rich story and keep readers thoroughly entertained. Ben Cheetham’s contribution rounds off the collection nicely and savagely in its own way.

All the four stories have one thread in common with the title of combining hardcore elements with zombie stories, these stories are vividly written and are definitely not for everyone. Especially certain scenes in the first two novellas have a certain stomach turning quality to them without being overtly revolting. The remaining two stories do not fall far behind in gore and action sequences wherein one’s imagination will be stretched by the generous descriptions. Lastly I believe these stories were chosen for their imaginative settings and clever twists to zombie stories. Therefore this collection is definitely a standout one because of this very reason however by that very reason it also becomes a book which is definitely not for everyone’s tastes.

CONCLUSION: Deadcore is an enigmatic collection which Zombie enthusiasts have to read to see the verisimilitude showcased within. Taking zombies and mixing with a heady mix of violence, social commentary, human attitude and various other emotions, Deadcore manages to surprise and shock its readers thoroughly. It is a collection that will stay in the reader’s mind for a long time to come.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BLOG TOUR: Maria V. Snyder on "The Trouble with Names"

Official Maria V. Snyder Website
Maria Snyder on Facebook
Order Touch of Power HERE

INTRODUCTION: To celebrate the publishing of Touch of Power, the first novel in her new Healer series, Maria V. Snyder is participating in a blog tour and she was kind enough to include us and offer a very interesting post on how to name characters.

While the official publication date is in January, the novel is available on Amazon now. I have read it a while ago and enjoyed it quite a lot, while I have a review tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday, December 27. In the meantime you can head to Goodreads for a quick summary of my thoughts. I have also reviewed two of her Glass novels on Fantasy Book Critic and talked a little about her superb debut Study series that attracted my attention to this talented author.

Ms. Snyder is running a BLOG TOUR GRAND PRIZE contest on her website HERE. If you want to participate read the instruction carefully and note the geographical restrictions in some situations.



THE TROUBLE WITH NAMES

I normally don't have trouble picking out names for my characters. Before I start a novel, I look through my baby names books and chose names. I chose names based on their meanings and also by what I like the sound of. I put the most time and effort into choosing the main character's names. Then I pick a girl and boy name for each letter of the alphabet (except the main protag's letter) so I end up with fifty names. Easy right?

Not for TOUCH OF POWER. I originally picked Lexa as my main female protagonist. Her name means defender of men. I wrote about a quarter of the book using Lexa, but the name didn't sit well with me. She sounded too modern. I really liked Ava, which means life, but couldn’t use it because I used that name in my short story, SWORD POINT. I really liked the name Avery, but it’s a boy's name. However, I know people have been disregarding the gender thing, so I thought if I spelled her name Avry it would look more girly :)

I also worried about Kerrick. Having used the name Kade in the Glass books, I thought they might be too close, but decided to keep it because Kerrick means, chief hero/king’s rule, and it suited him perfectly. Other perfect names that I found were Prince Ryne (little king), and Tohon (cougar).

Then there's Kerrick's men. Belen (arrow), Quain (clever), Javin (son of Japheth – biblical), and Flea (a nickname of one of my son's friends – see blog about Life is Fodder). My editor thought Javin was too close to Janco from the Study and Glass books so I changed it to Vinn (victor). Except Vinn was too close to Finn from SPY GLASS. Huff! This is going on during revisions and the advance reading copies went out with the name Vinn for what ended up being Loren (crowned with laurel).

Then I had characters named Daneen (god is my judge) and Danny (also god is my judge) and while they're not in the same scenes together in TOUCH OF POWER, they will eventually be in SCENT OF MAGIC. So I changed Daneen to Noelle (birthday of the lord), because my daughter wanted me to keep Danny.

So far, the names of the new characters in SCENT OF MAGIC have been fine, but we'll see :)

What do you think? Did I pick good names? Do you have a favorite and do you know what it means?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Maria V. Snyder switched careers from meteorologist to novelist when she began writing the New York Times best-selling Study Series (POISON STUDY, MAGIC STUDY and FIRE STUDY) about a young woman who becomes a poison taster. When she’s not traveling, Maria lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, and daughter.

TOUCH of POWER SUMMARY:

Laying hands upon the injured and dying, Avry of Kazan absorbs their wounds and diseases into herself. But rather than being honored for her skills, she is hunted. Healers like Avry are accused of spreading the plague that has decimated the Territories, leaving the survivors in a state of chaos. Stressed and tired from hiding, Avry is abducted by a band of rogues who, shockingly, value her gift above the golden bounty offered for her capture. Their leader, an enigmatic captor-protector with powers of his own, is unequivocal in his demands: Avry must heal a plague-stricken prince—leader of a campaign against her people. As they traverse the daunting Nine Mountains, beset by mercenaries and magical dangers, Avry must decide who is worth healing and what is worth dying for. Because the price of peace may well be her life....


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stirred by J.A. Konrath & Blake Crouch (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Blake Crouch Website
Official J. A.  Konrath Website
Order “StirredHERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Serial Killers Uncut” by Jack Kilborn & Blake Crouch
Read FBC’s Review of “Run” by Blake Crouch
Read FBC’s Review of “Afraid” by Jack Kilborn
Read FBC’s Interview with Blake Crouch

ABOUT BLAKE CROUCH: Blake Crouch was born in Statesville, North Carolina and graduated in 2000 with degrees in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina. He has written five previous novels and a host of short stories. Two of his stories have been previously optioned for film adaptation. Blake currently lives in Durango, Colorado with his wife.

ABOUT J. A. KONRATH: J.A. Konrath is the award-winning author of the Jack Daniels series. He is also the editor of the hitman anthology “These Guns For Hire”, and his short stories have appeared in more than sixty magazines and collections. As Jack Kilborn, the author has written the horror novels Afraid, Trapped, Endurance and Draculas. He currently lives in a suburb of Chicago with his family.

OFFICIAL PLOT SYNOPSIS: Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels has seen humanity at its most depraved and terrifying. She's lost loved ones. Come close to death countless times. But she always manages to triumph over evil. Luther Kite is humanity at its most depraved and terrifying. He's committed unthinkable acts. Taken human life for the sheer pleasure of it. He is a monster among monsters, and no one has ever caught him. Each is the best at what they do. Peerless. Unmatched.

Until now...

In Luther's experience, people are weak. Even the strong and fearless break too easily. He wants a challenge, and sets his depraved sights on Jack. But with a baby on the way, Jack is at her most vulnerable. She's always been a fighter, but she's never had so much to fight for. So he's built something especially for Jack. His own, private ninth circle of hell - a nightmare world in a forgotten place, from which no one has ever escaped.

It's J.A. Konrath's greatest heroine versus Blake Crouch's greatest villain in Stirred, the stunning conclusion to both Konrath's Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series and Crouch's Andrew Z. Thomas series.

Only one can survive. And it won't be whom you think.

FORMAT/INFO: Stirred is 400 pages long divided over three Parts, an Intermezzo and an epilogue. Also included are Authors’ introduction, a character cast, storyline endnotes, bonus features, afterword and various excerpts from the authors’ books. Narration is mostly in the third-person via Luther Kite, Donaldson, Lucy, Phineas Troutt, Herb Benedict and many other characters. A first-person POV is also provided for Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. Stirred can be read as a standalone, but it will have been useful to have read Serial Killers Uncut and or Shaken before hand to gain a deeper understanding of the story/saga so far.

November 22, 2011 marked the e-book publication of "Stirred" via  Thomas & Mercer, the print division of Amazon Publishing. The paperback will be released on February 21, 2012. Cover art is provided by Jeroen ten Berge.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Stirred is a book for which both authors have been building up anticipation for their reading audience. The first collaboration between both these authors was “Serial” which was a download bonanza, and was the stepping stone in regards to the unification of their individual written worlds. Following in that direction, the authors soon expanded their collaborative efforts with Serial Uncut, Killers, Birds of Prey, etc…  All of these books along with newer material were combined into a single volume called Serial Killers Uncut, which was a huge success as well as loved by the fans. I especially liked the book and was waiting to see how it would end in Stirred as I also read Shaken the penultimate book in the Jack Daniels series. Before starting on with the review for Stirred, I’ll do a brief overview of Shaken before proceeding to the review.

  Shaken was released earlier this year and is the seventh book in the Jack Daniels series, what was especially special about this book was that it had qualities of a prequel and sequel bundled smoothly within. The story has three distinct threads featuring Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels in three different time periods of her life, the first time period is set twenty years ago, the second timeline being focused on events three years ago and lastly the third plot is set in present day. The focus of the story was on Mr. K, a killer of note and one who has refined his methods over decades. The three timelines showcase Jack struggles with him in these various time-periods.  The best part about the book is its ending and how it ties into this book, via the presence of Luther Kite who has set his sights on Jack as he sees her as his ultimate competitor via bonds of alpha predators.

 There’s also a tie-in to this book via several chapters from Serial Killers Uncut as Luther, Donaldson & Lucy return and are worse for the wear. The story begins with Jack who is now nearly eight and half months pregnant, this however hasn’t necessarily dulled her senses and she is now even more alert. Due to reasons revealed in the climax of Shaken, Jack’s friends and everyone around her is hyper alert for the presence of Luther Kite and his plans. The biggest problem is while Jack is about to deliver, she just plain refuses to accept her physiological condition thereby further endangering her own life as well as that of her baby. Luther on the other hand has been rather inspired by Dante and his most famous work and goes about his enigmatic ways to recreate the nine circles of hell in an abandoned are of the country as well targeting several other individuals to raise the stakes of his grand plan. Thus begins the final chapter in the worlds of Jack Daniels and Luther Kite, wherein only one predator can survive and for that to happen the other must be terminated as that is the only way to survive.

 This book while building upon the two previous titles does its absolute best to out thrill both the previous titles. This book is supposedly the end to not just one but two series of two different authors. Not only does it raise the stakes twice over but it also raises the question how effectively two authors can jointly write a saga and manage to make their numero uno character come out on top. As a fan of the Jack Daniels series, it was hard to imagine what fate would befall her however in the back of my mind, I knew J.A. Konrath planned to write a series about Jack’s grandson thereby ruining the surprise a bit but knowing the author’s deviousness and previous book plots, it could have very well turned out that Jack could still be dead and her baby might survive.

 This book’s strongest point is in its visceral twists and turns, Luther Kite strongly moulds the story alongside his devious plan that causes Jack and her friends but the readers as well to rack their brains as to what might be his ultimate aim.  This aspect along with the plot’s express pace is what makes this book an excellent thriller as well as one of the best serial killer titles. The authors have to be lauded for their ingenuity in coming up with all the twists for this tale and also for planning the ultimate twist in the climax of this story. I had raised a question in regards to a certain plot occurrence in Serial Killers Uncut, which was severely contradicted by events taking place in Shaken. I had raised this query in my review and also asked Blake Crouch for clarification, to which he had replied that everything will be revealed in Stirred and to my surprise it was. The contradiction plays perfectly into the massive twist planned by the authors and kudos to them for planning and executing it.  All in all this I couldn't put down the book once I started it and as far as thrillers go, this is what every thriller aims for. As for as any negative points to this book, I couldn't find many. Some readers might take umbrage with some of the twists as well as some of the things which occur might be near impossible for a nearly full term woman to do all of which Jack Daniels does.  But if we start questioning too much into these events, the thriller aspect might just fall apart completely.  I think that while such issues can be detrimental to the story they can’t be completely ignored. Take the book for what it is, a thriller book featuring serial killers of the most depraved kind and a cop who hunts them at the expense of her own life as well as that of her near & dear ones. It’s not a medical manual about what severely pregnant females can and cannot do.

CONCLUSION: A fitting finale to two series and with more action and intrigue packed in it to satisfy the most veteran readers. Stirred brings a strong, emotionally satisfying end to a saga of various characters with almost no room for ennui of any kind. Once again J.A. Konrath & Blake Crouch effectively show why they can be counted upon in the future to write plots mixing cerebral & visceral thrills and to thoroughly entertain their fans.
Monday, December 19, 2011

NSB HOLIDAY COUNTDOWN: “A Dirge for Prester John” Short Story by Catherynne M. Valente

INTRODUCTION: In celebration of Night Shade Book’s Holiday Countdown, Fantasy Book Critic is proud to present “A Dirge for Prester John”, the original short story that Catherynne M. Valente’s reimagining of the legend of Prester JohnThe Habitation of the Blessed (Volume One-Out Now), The Folded World (Volume Two-Out Now), The Spindle of Necessity (Volume Three-Out Late 2012) is based on. Enjoy!

A Dirge for Prester John


I. The Habitation of the Blessed

We carried him down to the river.

            It churned: basalt, granite, marble, quartz—sandstone, limestone, soapstone. Alabaster against obsidian, flint against agate. Eddies of jasper slipped by, swirls of schist, carbuncle and chrysolite, slate, beryl, and a sound like shoulders breaking.
Fortunatus the Gryphon carried the body on his broad and fur-fringed back—how his wings were upraised like banners, gold and red and bright! Behind his snapping tail followed the wailing lamia twelve by twelve, molting their iridescent skins in grief.
Behind them came shrieking hyena and crocodiles with their great black eyes streaming tears of milk and blood.
Even still behind these came lowing tigers, their colors banked, and in their ranks monopods wrapped in high black stockings, carrying birch-bark cages filled with green-thoraxed crickets singing out their dirges.
The red and the white lions dragged their manes in the dust; centaurs buried their faces in blue-veined hands.
The peacocks closed the blue-green eyes of their tails.
The soft-nosed mules threw up their heads in broken-throated braying.
The panthers stumbled to their black and muscled knees, licking the soil from their tears.
On camels rode the cyclops holding out into the night lanterns which hung like rolling, bloodshot eyes, and farther in the procession came white bears, elephants, satyrs playing mourn-slashed pipes, pygmies beating ape-skin drums, giants whose staves drew great furrows in the road, and the dervish-spinning cannibal choir, their pale teeth gleaming.
Behind these flew low the four flame-winged phoenix, last of their race.
And after all of these, feet bare on the sand, skirts banded thick and blue about her waist, eyes cast downward, walked Hagia of the Blemmyae, who tells this tale.
           

II. The First Moveable Sphere

            When we first found him, he was face-down in the pepper-fields, his skin blazed to a cracked and blistered scarlet, his hair sparse as thirsty grass.
            The pygmies wanted to eat him. He must have been strong to have wandered this far, from whatever strange country—they should have the right to bisect his liver and take the strength, wet and dripping, into their tribe.
            The red lion, Hadulph, nosed his maimed feet, and snuffled at his dark clothes.
            “He smells of salt water and pressed flour,” he announced, “and he who smells of pressed flour knows the taste of baked bread, and he who knows the taste of baked bread is civilized, and we do not eat the civilized, unless they are already dead and related to us, which is a matter of religion and none of anyone’s business.”
            I looked down at his shape between the black and red pepper plants, in their long rows like a chessboard. It looked like the end of a game to me: I stood over the toppled kingpiece, a big-shouldered knight who has managed, in her jagged L-shaped steps to finally make forward progress. I rubbed the soft and empty space above my collarbone—like a fontanel, it is silky and pulsating, a mesh of shadow and meat under the skin, never quite closed, and each Blemmye finds their own way with it, but often we are caught, deep in thought, stroking the place where our head is not. I stroked it then, considering the flotsam that the desert wind had washed onto our hard black peppercorns like the sands of a beach.
            “He is wretched, like a baby, wrinkled and prone and motherless. Take him to the al-Qasr, and iron him out until he is smooth,” I said quietly, and the pygmies grumbled, gnashing their tattooed teeth.
            Hadulph took the stranger on his broad and rosy back, where the fur bristles between his great shoulder blades, and that is how Presbyter Johannes came into our lives on the back of one beast, and left on the back of another.
           

III. The Crystalline Heaven

            Behind the ivory-and-amethyst pillars of the al-Qasr, which he insisted we rename the Basilica of St. Thomas, I sat with my hands demurely in my lap, fingering Hadulph’s flame-colored tail. We sat in rows like children—the pygmies picked at their ears, the phoenix ran sticks of cinnamon through their beaks, carving it for their nests, the monopods relaxed on their backs, wide feet thrust overhead, each toe ringed with silver and emerald. Grisalba, a lamia with a tail like water running over moss, combed her long black hair, looking bored.
            John the Priest tried not to look at me. His hair had grown back, but it was white, whiter than a man his age should own.

I told him once while he ran his tongue over the small of my back that the sun had taken all his blood, and left him with nothing in his veins but light.

He, ever the good teacher, tried to make eye contact with each of us in turn, but he could not look at my eyes, he could not look down to the full curve of my high, sun-brown breasts, and the green eyes that stared calmly from their tips under a thick fringe of lashes. I blinked often, to interrupt his droning, and he tried to look only at where my head might be if I were a woman.
A-ve.
He repeated these words as if they had any meaning for us, sounding each syllable. We did not like Latin. It sat on our tongues like an old orange, sweet-sour and rind-ridden.
            A. Ve.
            A-ve Ma-ri-a.
            A. Ve. Mari. A.
            Grisalba yawned and picked at her tail, lazily slapping its tip against the chalcedony floor. Hadulph chuckled and bit into the consonants like elbow joints.
            A-ve Ma-ri-a gra-ti-a ple-na. Ti like she. Ple like play. She plays, gratia plena, Maria plays, ave Maria gratia plena.
            A. Ve. Mari. A. Gra. Tea. A. Plea. Na.
            “I wonder what his sweat tastes like?” Grisalba murmured in my ear. I grinned, but he could not chide me, for that would mean glancing down past my nipple-eyes to the mouth-which-is-a-navel, and he would not risk it.
            No, no. She plays. She; play. Shall we try the Pater Noster instead then?
            Pa. Tear. No. Star.
           

IV. Saturn, Cold and Dry

            The strange man lay on one of the fallen pillars in the central hall of the al-Qasr—the smooth tower of violet stone had crashed to the floor one day while the quarter-moon market bustled in the portico—tile-shards of gold and splinters of ebony came tumbling after it, and we could all see the stars through the hole it made, like coins dropped into the hand of heaven. A brace of tigers looked up from arguing with a two-faced apothecary about whether she should be allowed to sell the powdered testicles of greater feline castrati as aphrodisiacs; the lamia paused in their venom-dance; I placed an arm beneath my breasts and lifted my eyes from the scribe-work before me to the ceiling. We all looked back and forth from the fallen pillar to the hole in the roof, up and down, up and down: work to sky to ruined architecture.
Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes, I had copied out from one greenish sheet of pepper-leaf paper to another. Animals and their variegated parts exist, and the plants and the simple bodies exist, and we say that these and the like exist by nature.
The pillar had chipped its complex torus, and bitten into the onyx floor.
All the things mentioned present a feature in which they differ from things which are constituted by art. Each of them has within itself a principle of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration).
The constellation of Taurus-in-Extremis, the Slaughtered Cow, could be seen winking through the broken wood, and ebony dust drifted down on a soft breeze off of the river.
Even motion can be called a kind of stationariness if it is compulsive and unending, as in the motion of the gryphon’s heart or the bamboo’s growth. On the other hand, a bed or a coat or anything else of that sort, in so far as it is a product of art has innate impulses to change.
            Rich black earth had spurted up around the ruptured floor. The pillar’s belly was swathed in it.
As an indication of this, take the well-known Antinoë’s Experiment:  if you plant a bed and the rotting wood and the worm-bitten sheets in the deep earth, it will certainly and with the hesitation of no more than a season, which is to say no more than an ear of corn or a stalk of barley,  send up shoots.
I could just glimpse the edge of the sardis-snake which guarded the entrance of the al-Qasr, ensuring that no folk who are not lamia and thereby licensed, could bring poison under its roof. Behind it and far off, the Cricket-star flickered as if in chirruping song.
 A bed-tree would come up out of the fertile land, its fruit four-postered, and its leaves would unfurl as green pillows, and its stalk would be a deep cushion on which any hermit might rest. It is art which changes, which evolves, and nature which is stationary.
The quarter-moon market gave a collective shrug and went about itself, stepping over the purple column and leaving it where it had fallen—wasn’t it better, the cyclops murmured, to let a little light in, and have a nice place to stretch one’s feet? I glanced back at my thrice-copied treatise, tiresome as all secondhand treatises are, and finished the page.
However, since this experiment may be repeated with bamboo or gryphon or meta-collinarum or trilobite, perhaps it is fairer to say that animals and their parts, plants and simple bodies are artifice, brother to the bed and the coat, and that nature is constituted only in the substance in which these things may be buried—that is to say, soil and water, and no more. 

By the time we laid the stranger out on the pillar, it had grown over with phlox and kudzu and lavender and pepperwort, and we rested his battered head on a thatch of banana leaves. He moaned and retched like a sailor coughing up the sea, and I held him while he wracked himself clean. It was past the fishing hour when his eyes slitted open and his moth-voice rasped:
“Thomas, I came searching for Thomas and his tomb, the Apostle, where is the Apostle?”
Hadulph and I exchanged glances. “What is an Apostle?” The lion said.


V. Jupiter, Hot and Moist

We lay down on the altar that is a throne that was a sacrificial mound before the al-Qasr was the Basilica, and when we woke, the nave that was the portico was full of roses and partridges and orthodox hymns, and peacocks lay sleeping on my shoulders. Their blue heads pressed on me like bruises: the pulse of their throats, the witness of their tails.

            “Say it,” he said. He sat me on the ivory chair and knelt at my knees, the beauty that all supplicants possess sitting full and shining on his thick features. He closed his kiss over my navel-mouth and his tears were like new wax. “Say it,” he whispered.
            The ivory chair is long; it curls at its ends into arm-rests in the shape of ram’s horns, severed from the sea-goat when the first caravan settled in this endless valley, the first enclave of bird and monopod and gryphon and cricket and phoenix and pygmy—and blemmye. And they camped on the beach-head and pulled from the sea with their silver spears a fatted kid, and ate the fat of its tail sizzling from the driftwood fire, and in time those first horns were affixed to the long chaise which became a sacrificial plank which became and altar which became a throne which became my pillow as his weight pressed the small of my back against the cold ivory—
            “Please,” he said, and wept, for he had tried not to, tried not to brush his palm against my eyelid, tried not to run his fingers across the teeth in my belly, tried not to glance at the soft place where my head is not. He had tried not to lift me onto the nacreous chair, and tried not to enter me like a postulant sliding his hands into the reliquary to grip the dry bone. Virginity confers strength, he had said. It is the pearl which purchases paradise.
           
I had led him to the edge of the river which churns basalt against schist, and showed him the trick with the bed—but I had used my favorite lapis-and-opal ring. I moved his hand as I would a child’s,  digging the furrow by moonlight and the river’s din, placing the ring in the earth, covering it with moist, warm soil. Wait, I had said, till the pepper blooms black, and you will see what paradise I can purchase at the price of a ring.
            We waited; I learned my Latin declensions: rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosā. The pepper harvest piled up black and red fruits; the stalks withered; the snows came and went again. Rex. Regis. Regi. Regem. Regē.
            I took him to the river which churns agate against marble and showed him the thing we had made: a sapling, whose stem was of silver, whose leaves curled deep and blue, lapis dark as eyes, veined in quartz flaws. Tiny fruits of white opal hung glittering from its slender branches, and the moon washed it in christening light. This is hell, he quavered, as I stroked the jeweled tree. It seemed to shrink from him in shame. I touched his face, his unyielding neck which would not catch my eye; I wrenched his head towards me, and he stared into the eyes that blink from my breasts, the cobalt leaves peeking around my ribs like the heads of curious peacocks. At the ends of the earth is paradise; look around you, the earth is nowhere to be seen, I had whispered, and I do not need pearls.
As if his hand was dragged through the night by a hook of bone, he had touched the place where my head is not, the soft and pulsing shadowy absence, the skin stretched and taut, and beneath our tree of blue stone he had spilled his seed into me for the first time—it seemed safer than to spill it into the ground.

            “Say it, please, Hagia, say it,” he cried, and the muscles of his neck strained in his cry, and I held his face in my hands, and his tears rolled over my knuckles, and I sung quietly under him, and my voice filled the empty choir:
            Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus—


VI. Mars, Hot and Dry

            Fortunatus clawed the sand of our crumbling amphitheater, with the nations of our nation gathered—as much as the nations are inclined to gather, which is to say lazily and without much intent of discussing anything. He was nervous; the color in his tail was low and banked, and his throat dry. The hulking beast did not love speaking, and he loved less that his size bought him respect he did not feel he had earned. So everyone listened, and he hated them for listening.
            “I think,” he began, his beak glittering gold in the glare of the sun, “that we ought to make him king.”
            “Why?” shouted Grisalba, trying to wrangle a slab of honeycomb with her sister, who had thought she was invited to a festival, and not a makeshift parliament. “When Abibas the Mule-King died, we planted him and if we have any disputes we take it to the mule-tree and it’s been as good a government as you could ask for.”
            Fortunatus frowned, and the glare went out of his gold.  “Abibas has dropped his leaves and it has been far too long since he gave us any velvet-nosed fruit on which to hang the hopes of primogeniture. The Priest will not be partial—there are no other creatures like him among us, no faction for him to favor. And,” the gryphon cast his yellow eyes to the sand, speaking softly—yet the amphitheater did its work, and not one of us failed to hear him, “he must be lonely. There is no one here for him, no one of his kind who understands his passion for the Ap-oss-el, no one to speak his snarled language and look him in the eye without reflecting their own strangeness back to him. I pity him—do you not?”
            “He will make us convert!” cried the monopods, snapping their garters in consternation. “He will make the al-Qasr into a church and we will all crawl around begging forgiveness for who knows what!”
            Fortunatus shrugged his great, shaggy shoulders. “And when Gamaliel the Phoenix was queen, she called the al-Qasr an aerie, and set it aflame every hundred years. We rebuilt it, and called it what we pleased. This is the way of government. That is the way of the governed. How can he ask for more than she did? Besides, it is a lonely thing to be king, and he is the loneliest of us.”
            I held a long green canopy over my torso with both hands to keep out the sun; a pair of rooks alighted on it, and their weight dragged the warm cloth to my shoulders. I said nothing, but scowled and practiced my verbs silently.
            Regno, regnas, regnat. Regnamus, regnatis, regnant.
            I reign, you reign, he or she reigns over.


VII. The Sun, Benevolent Gold

            “My name is John.”
            His blistered lips were watered, and he had not yet noticed that I held him in my arms, propped against the breasts he would call demonic and unnatural. He had not yet called us all demons, succubi, inferni—he only asked for bread, and more water.
            He had not yet screamed when Hadulph spoke, or trembled when the crickets chirped in iambic rhymes. He had not yet called us all damned, demanded tribute to kings we had never heard of, forbade anyone not made in God’s image to touch his flesh.
            He had not yet castigated us for our ignorance of the Trinity, or preached the virgin birth in our mating season. He had not yet searched the lowlands for a fig tree we ought not to touch, or gibbered in the antechamber, broken by our calm and curious gazes, which we fixed on our pet day and night, waiting for him to perform some new and interesting trick.

            He had not yet dried his tears, and seen how the al-Qasr was not unlike a Basilica, and how the giants were not unlike Nephilim, and how Hadulph was not unlike the avatar of St. Mark, and the valley of our nations was not unlike Eden. He had not yet decided that all of the creatures of the world were not unlike holy things—except for the blemmyae, except for me, whose ugliness could not be born by any sacred sight. He had not yet called us his mission, and followed Grisalba home trying to explain transubstantiation, which she, being the niece of a cannibal-dervish, understood well enough, but pretended to misconstrue so that he would follow her home.
He had not yet called her a whore and tried to make her do penance with a taper in each hand. She had not yet sunk her teeth into his cheek, and sent him purpled and pustulant back to Hadulph.
            Hadulph had not yet licked him clean, roughly and patiently, as cats will, and called him his errant cub. He had not yet fallen asleep against the scarlet haunch of the lion.
            He had not yet retreated into the al-Qasr to study our natures and embrace humility, ashamed of his pronouncements and his pride. I had not yet brought him barley-bread and black wine, or watched over him through three fevers, or showed him, when he despaired, how my collarbone opens into a sliver of skin like clouds stretched over a loom.

            He had not yet come crawling through the dark, shame-scalded, to hear my belly speak, and read to him from the green pepper-papyrus of my daily calligraphy, just to hear the way I said my vowels. He had not yet said that my accent sounded of seraphim.
           
“My name is John,” he said, “I..I think I have become lost.”


VIII. Venus, Cold and Moist

            The long bones are found in the limbs, and each consists of a body or shaft and two extremities. The body, or diaphysis, is cylindrical, with a central cavity termed the medullary canal.
           
The Presbyter cloistered: cross-sections of satyr and blemmye are spread out on a low desk of sethym wood, the male blemmye with limbs outstretched, encircled with diagrammatic symbols as though he is pinioned to a wheel, showing the compact perfection of his four extremities, which correspond to the elements. The satyr was bent double, clutching her hooves, a goat-haired ouroboros.
            “Please concentrate, John,” begs Fortunatus, his conscripted tutor, “if you do not learn our anatomies how will you live among us? How will you help portion the harvest if you do not know that the phoenix require cassia and cardamom for their nests, while the satyr cannot eat the pepper plants that the rest of us prize? How will you build, brick upon brick, if you do not know that the blemmye orient their houses in clusters of four, facing outward, while the monopods have no houses at all, but lie beneath their own feet, like mice beneath toadstools? How will you sell your goods at the quarter-moon market if you do not know that the lamia especially love honeycomb still clung with lethargic bees, while the dervishes eat nothing but their dead?”
            “Where I come from, all men have the same shape,” says the Presbyter, his eyes bloodshot from reading, unwilling to acknowledge the scribe, best of his own discipuli, who translates each of the illuminated anatomicals into Latin so that he will believe them true—for he has told them that Latin is the language of truth, and the vulgar tongues the dialects of lies.
            “That is a sad country, and you should give thanks to your God that you need not return there, where every face is another’s twin,” the gryphon says with a long sigh.
            “All the same I long for it, and wish myself there, where nothing is strange,” John murmurs to himself, and stares past me to the long, candle-thin windows. His hair still shows scalp in patches, but the scalp itself is not so scorched and peeling as it has been. He shakes himself from dreams of Jerusalem and looks at the wheel of flesh before him.
            “I do not understand the blemmyae,” he announces, without turning his head to me, “they carry their faces in their chests and have no head—I suppose the brain is just behind the heart then, in the chest cavity—but how,“ the Priest blushes, and shifts in his seat so that it will be clear that he does not address the indecorous question to me, “how would she nurse a child, Fortunatus?”
            The gryphon twitches his wings—once, twice.
“Why, she would but weep.”


IX. Mercury, Lined with Quicksilver

            I admit it was I who showed him the mirror.

            We think nothing of it—it is only a mirror, and we are not vain. Rastno the Glassblower made it soon after the al-Qasr was erected, and it was hung up in the portico before the pillar fell, draped in damask, for its visions were distracting—but for Rastno’s sake we did not wish to dishonor his best-beloved child.
Rastno was a phoenix, and he reasoned that his glass should be finest of all, since he feared no flame but his own. And true to this he filled the capital with beads and baubles and bowls and chalices, plates and amphorae and children’s toys. And mirrors, mirrors of every shape. But the mirror I showed to John was his last, for when Rastno lay down in his pyre he did not rise up again—we do not know why fewer of the orange and scarlet birds return each burning season; some say the cassia crop has been bad, some say they are suicides. Rastno was one of those who went into the flame and did not come out again, but laughing before he sparked his embers he said that the mirror he fired in his own feathers would be a wonder beyond even the churning river of stone.
When we dragged the shard of glass from the charred bones and blowing ashes of his pearl-lined nest, when we cleared from it the blackened ends of Rastno’s beak and talons, and scraped the boiled eye-wet and blood from its surface, we found a sheet of silver so pure that it showed the whole world, wherever we wished to look, into any dragon-ridden corner of the planed earth.
It disturbed us all, and taught us only that our land was best, best by a length of ten giants, and we covered it—but hung it in the hall all the same, as funerary rite.
“Why did you not bury his remains, if that is what you do with your dead?” John asked, when I rolled the bronze-set glass from its resting place behind a bolt of salamander-silk. I shuddered.
“Would you love a tree whose trunk was ash, whose foliage was burnt and blistered flesh, black with flames you cannot see, but the tree remembers? What terrible fruit it would bear! Better that he be eaten, as the dervishes do, or given to the river, like the blemmyae, than to suffer planting!”

I showed, him, yes, but he was happy in those years, and his belly was fat, and he gripped me gleefully by the hips in the late afternoons and kissed the place where my head is not, opened my legs and said his favorite mass. He hardly even insisted I speak Latin anymore, or take any saltless Eucharist he might fashion, and only cried the name of his Apostle in his sleep. How could I know?

He stood for a long time, watching a city with domes of dust and crosses of gold and chalcedony flicker by, watching its stony streets run rivulets of blood like the porches of a dozen butchers, watched horses clatter over altars and books burn like phoenixes, curl black at the edges and never return. He stood with the drawn damask clutched in his white hand, and watched a sullen orange sun set on the city of dust, and his beard grew even in that moment, his scalp showed pink through his hair, and his spine became a bent scythe, until he was an old man in my sight, and he wept like a nursing mother.

X. The Moon, Benevolent Silver

“Why didn’t they come?” Prester John coughed and spat; his blood was bright on the pillow, my hand. “I wrote them a letter, I sent twelve gryphon to deliver it. I wrote them, but they didn’t come. I told them it was beautiful here, I told them it was full of virtuous beasts, and jewels, and every fruit imaginable. I told them about the al-Qasr and even the blemmyae, oh, Hagia, I told them you were a beauty, I told them about the mirror, I told them where I was, and that they only had to come for me and I would save Jerusalem myself. Why did no one come for me?”
“I don’t know, my love,” I whispered, and mopped the sweat on his brow.
“Perhaps I am being punished. I am not righteous; I have sinned in this place. I told them I had converted the land, and you say the Ave as well as anyone, but you don’t mean it, and I knew it, even in the days when I thought myself a missionary, I knew when you put out your tongue for your first communion that you had no faith in your heart, but I did not care, because my fingers could touch your tongue, the sweet tongue of your belly, and I would have given a hundred false communions for that tongue. I lied when I wrote to them, I lied, but they would not understand, they would think you were devils, and I could not bear for a friar to look on my Hagia and spit at her.”
            The lines around his eyes over which I had run my fingertips so many times, which I had imagined deepening into a grandfather’s wrinkles, had done their promised work. I leaned over his prostrate form and let my eyelashes flutter against his cheek.
            “Perhaps they never got the letter. Perhaps they did not believe it, for who would believe such a tale in a land where all men’s shapes are the same? Perhaps they were too consumed with their horses and bloodletting to come so far. Perhaps they sent someone, and he crossed eight or nine rivers, an inland sea, a jungle thick with panthers and bats, only to perish in the great desert which separates us from the world. Perhaps even now there is a man—a doctor? A clerk?—lying face down in the sand, his bones whitening under the bone-parched sky, clutching a second letter in his skeletal hand, a letter which says: John, we hear, and we will welcome you home. Perhaps no such man ever set out. Does it matter? I am here, your own sweet succubus—remember how long you called me succubus, after all the other names had silenced themselves on your lips?—is that not enough?”
            He asked for water, and in my ears he was wretched as a baby, wrinkled and prone and motherless on a pillar, asking for water for his blistered lips. I held his cup for him, until he pushed it away.
            “It is enough,” he rasped, and the rasp became a rattle. “But do you think,” said Prester John, “that if I could bury Jerusalem in this earth, a Jerusalem-tree would grow on the banks of the river, with little mangers for fruit, and a trunk of the True Cross?”
            I pressed his clammy cheek to my breast, and our eyes fluttered together, until his were still.

XI. The Spindle of Necessity

            We carried him down to the river.     

There was some talk of burying him, but I knew that though his book demands burial, he would not like it. He wants the paradise that is bought with pearls, not the pearl itself, which sprouts and blossoms. I would have sat at his roots and told him how Fortunatus was trying to form a school to carry on the language of the Lonely King, but we all snickered; everyone knew that the lion-bird could never keep his declensions straight. I would have told him how the youngest dervishes barely in their first sandals jump and dance under the portico, singing: A! Ve! Marry-A! She plays, she plays! A! Ve! I would have sat beneath his leaves and held my tongue against his fruit, and called it Eucharist. But it is selfish of me to want to take him from the angels, who he had promised were more beautiful even than lamia.

We carried him down to the river and delivered his body to the deeps. The crush of the stones broke his body bone from sinew, and the boulders were stained red with the splash of his fluids. The current soon took him under, and we were left with the crash and grind of it echoing into the night. He had gone from us, and the procession turned under the stars, Virgo-in-Repose wheeling overhead, back to the al-Qasr which was once more the al-Qasr.
I sat cross-legged by the riverbank until the sun came rolling back around, like a whetstone strapped to a drowning man’s back. Grisalba waited by me, her tail all withered and dark, her dry, splay-fingered hand warm on my shoulder.
“Salt,” I said, finally. “His sweat tasted of pressed flour, pressed flour and salt water.”
I took the lamia’s hand and we walked from the cacophony of granite against alabaster against flint against bone.

In later years, the river would throw up a stone stained red, so bright it was as a ruby in all that dusty rock. When we see these, we throw up our arms and cry the name of Prester John, who is with the river and in the river and the river is with us, and the lapis-tree waves its branches, as if it remembers, and he is with the river and with me, his red, red stones and his high blue tree.

ABOUT CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books of fiction and poetry including The Labyrinth, The Orphan’s Tales, Palimpsest, the Dirge For Prester John series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Deathless. Her work has been awarded the James Tiptree, Jr., Mythopoeic, Andre Norton, and Lambda Literary Awards, and has also been nominated for a Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus Award. For more information, please visit the links below:

Official Catherynne M. Valente Website
Order “The Habitation of the BlessedHERE
Order “The Folded WorldHERE
Read FBC’s Review of The Orphan’s Tales HERE (Pt. 1) + HERE (Pt. 2)
Read FBC’s Review of “Deathless
Read FBC’s Interview with Catherynne M. Valente

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