Kicking off last year’s monthly feature where I attempt to jot down some notes on what I’ve enjoyed reading-wise during the month. During February and March I’m going to attempt read the BSFA shortlisted novels, but January’s selection was a bit more of a lucky bag.
The Sword Of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett – a proper classic in the 1950s Martian fantasy mould. I wanted to read this for a number of reasons. 1/ An acquaintance claimed that this was his favourite novel EVER; 2/I’d never read Brackett, and I have a long standing commitment to sample at least one book by each of the genre greats; 3/ I loved the BBC radio adaptation of her Last Days Of Shandakor. So, the verdict? It’s bollocks. High camp, entertaining bollocks played for adventuresome thrills, quickly read and then put aside. It really reads like a 70 year old book; once again I’m struck by how such minor considerations as just a *bit* of characterisation were considered superfluous in the pulp era.
The counterbalance to Rhiannon was Juliet E McKenna’s Dangerous Waters. I’ve enjoyed Juliet’s short fiction before but until now not read one of her novels (I go through phases of not being at all interested in THE Fantasy** – the most recent bout of that lasted several years). Since her most recent book was the start of a new series, that seemed like the ideal opportunity. By contrast to Rhiannon, this is rich with well rounded and realistic viewpoint characters and nuanced throughout with notes of political opinion, historical detail, religion, superstition, and homespun wisdom that make the world come alive. All of which, of course, makes the book a long one and drags down the pace of the story. Regular readers will know that I’m impatient with long books, and during the first quarter of the story I found myself indulging in the kind of pointless authorial grumbling that basically comes down to “well that’s not how I’d have done it”. As the story kicked in though, the pacing won me over, the character setup proved its worth and I was perfectly happy to follow the tale (of a country’s coastal baronies defending themselves against seaborne raids while the local wizarding community bickers about whether to get involved or not) through some surprising plot turns that felt determined by the characters’ personalities and goals rather than the author’s grand design – which is of course, exactly how it should be, and why really well written THE Fantasy (like Dangerous Waters) is made completely of WIN.
So I enjoyed Rhiannon’s adventuresome brevity and I enjoyed Dangerous Waters’ depth of character and detail. I wonder if there’s a golden zone that balances that level of characterisation with pacey fantasy adventure. Is anyone doing that at the moment?
(**THE Fantasy – Traditional, Heroic, Epic)
My short fiction reading in January was sporadic, and what I read was pretty mixed, but I have been dipping into The Weird from time to time. All I’ve read from it has been excellent, but the one story that I’ve completely loved so far has been HF Arnold’s 1926 story, “The Night Wire”. Brilliantly spooky, and just the right amount of weird.
Inexplicably I managed to forget that I read, and loved, Aliette de Bodard’s “Scattered Along The River Of Heaven“. It’s a stately, pitch perfect tale of war, family and the power of language. Beautiful stuff.