Thursday, December 13, 2007

Kirkus Reviews genre review round-up (December 15th issue)

Jobless in Gehenna. With gray hands. And there's sleet outside. Could my life BE any more fun? Here's yer damned Kirkus Reviews:
The Táin, translated by Ciaran Carson (Viking): * Starred Review * "The Irish poet and author best known in the United States for his wonderful autobiography The Star Factory (1998) offers a new translation of his country's ebullient epic tale, also known as "The Cattle Raid of Cooley." It's actually one segment of the larger Táin B~ Cúailnge, itself part of the 8th-century Ulster Cycle, which celebrates the deeds of the prehistoric inhabitants of Northern Ireland. In an introductory section, Carson mostly suggests that his Táin be viewed as "commentary" on and "tribute" to Thomas Kinsella's near-legendary 1969 translation. Yet the elegant introductory section bespeaks his authority as much as do the vigorous rhythms of the agreeably blood-drenched narrative he translates: a combination of prose and verse, as it happens, with roots in and debts to the epics of Homer and Virgil and the stories of the Christian Bible. The story begins when Queen Medb of Connacht, jealous of her husband King Ailill's possession of a fertile white bull, negotiates the loan of a great brown bull owned by the king of Ulster. When it is learned the men of Connacht were prepared to use force, agreements are voided and a catastrophic "raid" ensues—in which Ulster's stalwart teenaged hero Cú Chulainn prevails in single combat against successive Connacht challengers (including those who shape-shift into fearsome nonhuman creatures). Hyperbole attends both the combatants' frequently exchanged boasts and the core narrative (e.g., "In that great massacre…Cú Chullain slew seven score and ten kings as well as innumerable dogs and horses, women and children, not to mention underlings and rabble"). Ominous visions attend the climactic three-day battle between Cú Chullain and Connacht's champion Fer Diad (the former's foster brother and friend)—which is succeeded by the clashing of the great bulls themselves, then the arrangement of a peace between Ulster and Connacht. A great story, too little known in this country, and an invaluable treasure for both its suggestive contemporary relevance and its elemental beauty and power." (March 2008)

The Outlaw Demon Wails by Kim Harrison (Eos): "Harrison (For A Few Demons More, 2007, etc.) wraps up a story arc but promises more to come in this sixth volume of a series set in a future Cincinnati. Most humans have been exterminated by a rogue virus, allowing witches, vampires, elves and other nonhuman creatures to come out of hiding and live among the survivors. Among the witches is bounty hunter Rachel Morgan, and she's in trouble again. The demon Al, supposedly imprisoned in the ever-after, is being summoned from his confinement each sundown, allowing him to seek revenge on the person who got him locked up—i.e., Rachel. While evading Al and searching for his summoner, she refuses a hazardous assignment from corrupt elven politician Trent, who's tried to kill her in the past. As these plot lines converge, Rachel is forced to not only accept, but to exploit some unpleasant, newly learned truths about herself. Meanwhile, she continues to mourn the death of her boyfriend Kisten and struggles to remember the terrible circumstances of his murder. She must also resolve her tension-filled relationship with vampire roommate Ivy, decide what to do about Marshal (a potential new boyfriend) and address concerns about her emotionally unstable mother. It all might sound like a soap opera, but Harrison makes Rachel's conflicts real and poignant without turning them into melodramatic slush. So it doesn't matter too much that her current adventure is highly dependent on back story and can't really stand on its own. Not for those new to the series, but Harrison devotees should find ample emotional revelations and plot resolution, with enough loose ends to have them eagerly awaiting the next installment." (March 2008)

Spider Star by Mike Brotherton (Tor): "Far-future alien-contact yarn from astronomer Brotherton (Star Dragon, 2003). By 2453 a human colony thrives on planet Argo, previously home to warlike aliens who vanished a million years ago, leaving extensive records and functional machines. Space navy Commander Manuel Rusk, exploring one of Argo's moons, inadvertently sets off a device that causes the sun to shoot fireballs in the planet's direction. Unless these "Lashings" can be stopped, Argo will die. Help may be found at the Spider Star, deciphered Argonaut records indicate; so Rusk launches an expedition that includes alien-contact expert Frank Klingston, Rusk's warrior-assistant Sloan Griffin and various smart robots. The Spider Star turns out to be a gigantic alien space station complete with external atmosphere and exotic dark matter at its heart. After docking, the team signals in the Argonaut language and begins to explore. Argonauts attack Frank's group and whisk the survivors off to an island floating in the atmosphere. Rusk, meanwhile, faces powerful robot-like "hydras" mindlessly intent on chewing up his airship. After various rescue attempts, Frank and Rusk separately fall into the Spider Star's core, where they will be reborn in young bodies and meet the Spider aliens for a chat. Solid science and ideas aplenty, but none of the characters act or react with any real intelligence, and it's deeply unsatisfying that their problems are solved by extraterrestrials rather than by their own efforts." (March 2008)

A Magic of Twilight by S.L. Farrell (DAW): "Farrell (Heir of Stone, 2005, etc.) starts a new series with this agreeable political fantasy, set in a city reminiscent of Renaissance-era Venice. Over the centuries, the city of Nessantico has conquered most of the surrounding territory. Now, religious fanaticism and social tensions threaten to fracture the patched-together empire as its ruler, the Kraljica Marguerite ca'Ludovici, approaches the 50th year of her glorious reign. Unfortunately, there are those who are too impatient to wait for Marguerite's natural death, including her son and heir, A'Kralj Justi ca'Mazzak, and the vassal king who commands the bulk of Nessantico's army, H™rzg Jan ca'Vörl. Caught between these two combatants are a heretic, a rising cleric with incredible magical power, a general whose duty smothers his conscience, a religious leader who's playing both sides and a scarred beggar with a hidden and very threatening agenda. Telling the story from multiple perspectives, Farrell (aka Stephen Leigh) attempts to make a fairly direct plot seem more complex than it truly is. Similarly, his invented language sounds artificial. However, the book retains considerable charm and appeal. It's always refreshing to read a fantasy where neither side in a conflict has much of a moral edge on the other, and the cast of characters is an enjoyable mix of the sympathetic, the villainous and the ambiguous. There's definite potential here for a satisfying series. A solid read with ambitions it doesn't quite reach." (Feb. 2008)

Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Alexander Levisky (Overlook): "Stories, poems and novel fragments dating back to the 1700s, none written much later than the first half of the 20th century. Using broad definitions of fantasy and science fiction, Levitsky selects various tales of the supernatural and the absurd, utopias (usually in warm places, far from Russia's chill) and dystopias of the distant future, and some early stories of space travel. He draws on the work of such towering literary figures as Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Zamyatin, as well as others less familiar to Western readers. The editor intersperses these choices with his own dry, jargon-loaded essays on the pieces' peculiarly Russian nature and their inspirations in folklore, philosophy and politics. Scholars of the fantastic with an interest in literary history will discover some curiosities and some genuinely fascinating, powerfully resonant works. Casual sci-fi fans in search of light entertainment—or contemporary Russian works of speculative fiction—will be disappointed and possibly bored. Uneven." (Dec. 2007)

Runemark by Joanne Harris (Knopf): "The Lightning Thief meets The Sea of Trolls in this well-executed, if rather plodding children's debut by the author of the adult novel, Chocolat. In a world where the intolerant "Order" has deemed the old Norse myths as blasphemous, village misfit Maddy Smith discovers she is the daughter of the Norse god Thor. Guided by Loki and advised by Odin, Maddy travels to the "World Below" to try and thwart the prophesied war between the old gods and the new. The heroes win the day, but at least one villain escapes, hinting at a sequel. Unfortunately, Harris's determination to include just about every Norse god in her narrative brings Maddy's quest to a standstill at times. Some youngsters not well-versed in Odin's family tree may find the discussion of the gods' past grudges confusing, while others will be inspired to dig out their old copy of D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants to refresh their memories of the Vanir and Aesir. A mini-course in Norse mythology for the tween set." (Fiction. 10-14) (Jan. 2008)

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