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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"In the Valley of the Kings" by Terrence Holt (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order "In the Valley of the Kings" HERE (or use Search Inside for an excerpt)_

: "In the Valley of the Kings", the collection of stories and debut by Terrence Holt is a book that most likely would have escaped my attention but for the rave review from Larry from Of Blog of the Fallen. It's true that the cover and title would have made me browse it if I saw it in a bookstore and from there the magical writing inside would have done the rest, but I am not sure how prominently it was displayed when it hit the shelves. One of the best books I read recently and one I will return several times for sure, since despite its slimness as pages go, it packs content and things to meditate about as for a book double its size.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "In the Valley of the Kings" stands at about 220 pages and includes the title novella for about 1/3 of its length with an additional seven stories that range from great to "only" very good; the "fantastic" elements in the stories range from a plague that is caused by a special word, a sentient heart, solar system settings, Egyptian mythology and to top it all, the end of the world, this one fittingly in the last story...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I will present a short take story by story and I will give some quotes since this book is absolutely great not only for the content of the stories, but for its style/atmosphere and that one is better experienced than talked about. All the stories rank an A++ from me for style and they would make great reading just by experiencing the flow of words, while I found the content of varying degrees of interest, so the ranking below is just for that last.

"Ο Λογοσ" A+
"What claimed the at­ten­tion of ev­ery­one who saw the child over the three days of her ill­ness was the un­mis­tak­able pat­tern in those marks. They formed a word."

The collection starts with the one "medical" story - the author is currently a practicing MD after teaching literature for many years - very interesting premise and very sf-nal tone here, though of course all done in quite an original manner. I like much less the "plague apocalypse" storyline as opposed to the "cosmic event apocalypse" one - see below the last story - so while I enjoyed this one a lot, it did not rank as high as the three A++ stories. A great beginning to the collection though a slightly misleading one since the rest are quite different as content goes.

"My Father's Heart" A-
"My fa­ther’s heart beats in a glass jar on the man­tel, a steady flick­er­ing at the edge of my eye. I try to avoid it, but by din­ner­time each night I’m star­ing. Be­neath my gaze it puls­es, and per­haps it turns a rich­er pur­ple. From the jar I hear a low, dull, quick sound, per­sis­tent as a muf­fled watch."

This story declares its intent from the first lines above; the "most horror-like" one and the shortest of the collection, it was my least favorite though the heart of the title makes a better "character" than the narrator. This story hits also the one different note as style goes from the rest, reading like your favorite horror story rather than the more original style of the rest.

"Charybdis" A++
"HERE IS A list of mis­sion con­trol’s eu­phemisms:

the burn

the event

the in­ci­dent

the ac­ci­dent

the un­for­tu­nate [all of the above]

the spon­ta­neous ig­ni­tion

the mid­course mis­cor­rec­tion

the tran­sor­bital ov­eren­hance­ment. This one was my fa­vorite, but the one they pre­fer is “the ac­ci­dent.” I have start­ed to ask them, “Which one?”

And they say I’ve lost my sense of hu­mor."

A tour de force, this (near Jupiter) doomed astronaut's tale is my favorite piece of the collection alongside the title one; there is a lot of stuff packed and the back-story that slowly unfolds has some twists and turns that add to the intensity of the first person narration; I am sucker for this kind of stories and while I read quite a few in a hard sf context (William Barton has some of the most notable "doomed/endangered astronaut" stories I've ever read till his one), "Charybdis" stands easily at the top of the list.

"Aurora" A+
"And on the Ring I on­ly do not break. I do not van­ish: I ride the wheel of it, arms out against the fall. No glit­ter­ing shards of me dis­perse. My heart is sol­id in­side me, a steady turn­ing.

I can­not re­mem­ber when this was not so."

This story, while a companion piece with "Charybdis" (set near Saturn here) lacks the clarity/hard-sfnal focus of the previous one, so it did less for me, However it's a piece of lyrical writing that mesmerized me and arguably the best of the collection in style, reading almost like a long poem.

"Eurydike" A
"Some­thing ter­ri­ble has hap­pened Ive looked ev­ery­where but all the rooms are emp­ty I see signs I can­not read not even this Is any­one here Can any­one read this?"

This story starts very interesting with the hook lines above, but it goes really nowhere as external reality goes, being mostly a "horror-like", almost solipsistic kind of tale; not my favorite kind, but I liked it quite well and of course the writing is still so compelling that you do not really need coherence.

In the Valley of the Kings A++
"That there were tombs, great tombs, left undis­cov­ered in the Val­ley of the Kings, I could not doubt. Long study in the chron­icles of Egypt, where his­to­ry laps­es, time and again, in­to si­lence, had con­vinced me: some gaps in the record were not ac­ci­dent. The sin­gu­lar lack of ar­ti­facts from a par­tic­ular pe­ri­od—I will not tell you which—the hush of the chron­iclers—the break in the lin­eage of the Kings: even from a time five thou­sand years ago when one might think the si­lences of his­to­ry out­weighed the words, this si­lence: it spoke to me, in­sis­tent­ly, of some­thing with­held. It haunt­ed me, as if out of that si­lence came a voice I could not hear, and it spoke on­ly to me. But each at­tempt I made to trace the lin­eage, each name, each face, each line of ev­idence I pur­sued, all, when I traced them back to a cer­tain decade in the Up­per Nile, all van­ished—cut off, as if the earth it­self had swal­lowed them down."

A novella that has a clear storyline, a mystery and the attraction of the exotic/fabled past, the title story is worth the price of the book by itself. A "doomed" archaeologist this time, trying to leave a mark on the world. Will he succeed? Is he really doomed or is it all in his imagination? Read and find out!

"Scylla" A
"It was a fair cruise, the seas calm, the winds and cur­rents fa­vor­ing, the skies so clear the evening star was vis­ible by day. Morn­ings and evenings low clouds rolled, pink in the sun­rise, or­ange in the west; al­ways they van­ished be­fore us. The crew, off watch, hung in the shrouds, where they swung with the long surge of the sea; high in the fore­top, Te­ofi­lo, the Portygee, sang in his lan­guid tongue. This was in the days be­fore the Law."

This story starts relatively conventionally as above, but then it moves into a very different narrative space, more a meditation on Fate, Change and Death than anything else; as with Eurydike, I prefer stories more grounded in reality than in solipsistic imagination, so I did not like this one as much either, but still very, very good and gripping to the end.

"Apocalypse" A++
"In the gorge the echoes fad­ed. I found my­self lis­ten­ing, hop­ing there would be no voic­es. For a minute or so—it may have been ten—we wait­ed. I could hear the kitchen clock tick.

When the si­lence in the room be­came in­tol­er­able, we both stood to go."

As in Charybdis, this story concerns a subject I read quite a few great hard-sfnal stories about - here it is the end of the world due to an unpredictable cosmic event - Stephen Baxter and William Barton are notable sf authors of such short stories. Of course this collection being more "literature of the fantastic" than core-sf, the story does not explore the unnamed event that will soon extinguish life on Earth, but follows the narrator and his wife trying to cope with their inevitable doom.


"In the Valley of the Kings" is highly, highly recommended and an A++ for style and A+ for content. Anything remotely interesting for me written by Mr. Holt and is a get and read asap.



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