Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

May 2, 2016

Review – Misfortune by A C Fellows

Filed under: books of 2016,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 11:42 am

Doctor Clam, I believe I owed you a review!

Misfortune (The Rainier Fields Series Book 1) follows the adventures of the itinerant fantasist Rainier Fields, who first appears as a homeless tinkerer making small robots from scrap to get by. An unfortunate run-in with the local authorities leads to Fields making the acquaintance of an emphatically young woman named Mercery Pockles. Fields discovers, by way of never-fully-explained precognitive abilities, that Mercery has a mysterious and potent destiny, and determines to ensure that it will come out in her favour.

Told in episodic flashbacks, sometimes in interviews with other characters in the narrative and some from the perspective of many years after the events of the story, Misfortune is an unusual story. Fields is a self-admitted cypher, a fantasist running away from both a miserable childhood and a self-sabotaging personality, both in the literal sense of being a wanderer and by creating a personal backstory of heroic adventures and noble deeds off in space.

The reality he is escaping is rather more grubby and sad, and yet Fields is for the most part an optimist whose determination to live up to his own fantasy is somewhat admirable. He decides that his alter ego would do everything in his power to rescue Mercery from her plight, and so he goes to extraordinary lengths to do so. And yet he’s a rather uncomfortable character to live with; a middle aged man, his relationship with Mercery is barely platonic and borderline obsessive. When Mercery’s wellbeing is not at stake, he is often passive and uninquisitive, and there are parts of the story that plumb the depths of his psychology at the cost of forward momentum.

The story itself is a series of increasingly unfortunate events that bounce Fields, Mercery and a cast of supporting characters up against weird aliens, sinister conspiracies and cruel experiments. The main characters suffer through a cycle of escapes, separations, captures, torture of one sort or another and fresh escapes, all revealing more about their dark pasts, their strange sort-of-magic-sort-of-psychic powers and their odd relationships as they draw closer to Mercery’s great and terrible destiny.

Misfortune has the feel of a small, human struggle told against the backdrop of an epic adventure that could emerge at any moment. The stakes never move far beyond the personal fortunes of Fields and Mercery – Fields frequently displays a lack of interest in the wider universe in his narrative – and yet the sense that great events are in motion is constant. I certainly look forward to the further adventures of Rainier Fields, in the hopes that future stories might pull the camera back and show us more of the strange setting.

September 25, 2015

Review – Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew McKiernan

Andrew McKiernan’s collection Last Year, When We Were Young (2014 from Satalyte Publishing) is a fine example of a strong writer testing his limits by stretching in different directions. As you might expect from an Australian writer with a well-deserved reputation for compelling dark fantasy and horror, outback ghosts and urban nightmares are represented.

One of my favourite stories appears early in this volume: “White Lines, White Crosses” is a grimly familiar tragedy of teenage isolation, testosterone-fuelled recklessness and car culture, with a smear of the supernatural to amp up the stakes. “The Memory of Water” is haunted by childhood memories of beach holidays tinged with tragedy. And “The Haunting that Jack Built” is a classic yarn of strange and sinister goings-on in a country town.

But McKiernan shows his range with some unexpected variations on theme and setting: the Middle East appears in modern and mythological states, in “The Dumbshow”, “The Desert Song”, “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” and the excellent clash of espionage, battles handed down across generations, old gods and chess in “Daivadana”. He does a creditable Stephen King-like grotesque in “The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim”. He does old-fashioned SF horror in “The Wanderer in the Darkness”. He even does a noir tragedy soaked in betrayal and cheap whiskey in “Torch Song”.

But where this collection stands out is in the weird and absurd corners. The title story is a brief piece of deranged survival horror set in the aftermath of a more than usually disturbing apocalypse. But the jewel in the crown is probably “All the Clowns in Clowntown”, which is perhaps a parable about surviving an epidemic or could be a metaphor for involuntary unionism or hostile corporatism, but in any case is probably the only story you will ever read about the last surviving resistance members of the clown counter-revolution.

Last Year, When We Were Young had a remarkably high hit rate for me. McKiernan’s quality as a short story writer is consistently strong across the collection. Highly recommended.

May 2, 2015

Review – Seeing Red (Ambassador #1) by Patty Jansen

I haven’t actually formally signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015, but I am still trying to include as many Australian writers in my reading diet as possible. To that end I’m going to try to review at least one Australian writer (or editor/anthologist) a month in 2015 (yes, yes, I’m behind on that), keeping an eye on the gender balance as I go. To start with, here’s what I thought about the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series of SF diplomacy.

***

Seeing Red is the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series, featuring Cory Wilson, Earth’s brash neophyte representative to an alien coalition called the gamra. About equal parts science fiction mystery and conspiracy thriller, with romance and social commentary subplots thrown in for good measure, Seeing Red is a delicious meal.

On the eve of his appointment as the ambassador of Nations of Earth to the alien gamra, an explosive assassination attempt propels Cory Wilson from Earth to the alien city of Barresh where he must prevent an interstellar war, solve a murder and figure out which of several alien factions is behind it all. Wilson is behind the eight-ball almost the whole time: separated from his alien partner and his fiance, his resources cut off by a suspicious Earth, and caught between the interests of bickering alien governments.

Wilson’s a fun character – overconfident and arrogant, but resourceful and more dedicated to his job than anyone around seems to give him credit for. But the real entertainment value of Seeing Red comes from his navigation of the complicated politics of gamra, the alien organisation that runs the star-travel network known as the Exchange. Gamra is like a cross between Dune’s monopolistic Spacing Guild and a United Nations Security Council where everyone is expecting war to break out. By comparison, Nation of Earth is also like the UN, except that it occasionally behaves with the sophistication of an unruly local council Chamber of Commerce.

There are a few nice action set-pieces keeping the debates and conspiracy-hunting from slowing things down, and the linked central mysteries are well-constructed and satisfying. I found the ultimate villain of the piece was not too difficult to identify, but saying that there are plenty of surprises to be had. In terms of Wilson’s very complicated romantic life, I felt he was sometimes a bit improbably dense or in borderline-cruel denial, but it resolved well and I certainly never felt it got in the way of the intrigue or the shooting.

Seeing Red is an excellent thriller, with what seemed to me to be solid science underpinning the intrigue and action. I’m planning to read the sequels.

February 18, 2015

Review: The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data by Patrick O’Duffy

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 12:00 pm

Patrick O’Duffy’s followup to his wildly entertaining 2012 crime novella The Obituarist opens with the attention-grabbing line “ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR”, then immediately subverts that declaration of delirious intent with a snarky deconstruction of its own cynicism and deceptiveness.

The book holds the same mirror up to its protagonist. Kendall Barber returns as Port Virtue’s resident social media undertaker, a systems analyst specialising in discretely closing down the online presence of the recently deceased on behalf of grieving relatives who may not want to know what their loved ones got up to online.

As before, Barber is a study in contradictions – a cynical, shifty smartarse with the cracking skills of a Russian spammer playing the part of a sensitive online undertaker. He’s a beaten-down has-been with a shaky assumed identity and a driving sense of justice undermined by a fluid ethical framework. Considering the rough treatment he collected in the previous story – beaten up, run over with a car, etc – he also has a surprisingly undeveloped sense of self-preservation when it comes to keeping his mouth shut.

Basically, he’s a perfect modern noir anti-hero. This time around he’s caught between an investigation of his racist demagogue client’s affairs, fending off a hot but nosy investigative journalist, getting the snot beaten out of him by the usual collection of brutal low-rent criminals and playing a game of cat and mouse with Port Virtue’s corrupt, violent police department. Oh, and being mauled by unexpected wildlife.

The setting of Port Virtue gets a little more flesh on its bones with this installment – Barber’s client is the local eccentric scrap merchant king, with a notorious private zoo and an off-the-book business as a right-wing crank-for-profit. The discovery of a collection of body parts looms over the story like a winter cloud. And Kendall Barber clearly has a love-hate relationship with the town where nobody knows he’s a native.

The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data is coarse, violent and awash with the weary bitterness of optimism dashed one too many times. And that’s a terrible description, because this book is also hilarious and brimming with righteous (and yeah, sometime self-righteous) anger. Kendall Barber is more devil than saint, and he knows it, but he’s determined to do as much good as possible before Port Virtue grinds him up for good. He just doesn’t plan to walk a righteous path to do it, not when tricks and lies will do the job just as well. (Spoiler: they don’t).

It’s short, it’s wild and contains even more creative swearing, grotesque thuggery and cautions against lazy password administration than the previous book. If nothing else, after reading this you will almost certainly want to tighten up your online security habits.

October 15, 2014

Back to the Island 3.2 – The Glass Ballerina

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 2:21 pm

Back to the Island 3.2 – The Glass Ballerina

“You said this dock was abandoned” – Sun-Hwa Kwon

“That would be part of the lying you mentioned” – Sayyid Jarrah

Summary: Sayyid, Jin and Sun try to ambush the Others but lose their boat instead

The Best Bit: While the focus of the episode is on Sun, and particularly exploring the fractures that have always existed in her relationship with Jin because of his willingness to use violence, which is a rich, rich vein to mine, that’s not the best bit of this episode. The best bit would be a shirtless, grubby Sawyer attempting an impromptu breakout from the Others’ chain gang, getting thwarted because Juliette pulls a gun on Kate, and then using the resultant brutal kicking to assess which of the Others represents a real threat when the time comes for a *real* breakout. It’s a classic Sawyer moment, combining his charming, sleazy opportunism – he instigates his half-hearted getaway by planting a showy, unsolicited kiss on Kate – and his cunning eye for the long game. Oh and something new is revealed for the first time: “Why did she call you James?” asks Kate. “Because that’s my name,” he replies casually.

The Worst Bit: Nothing about the episode is bad at all, though it feels more like a loosely-connected set of scenes than usual. Sun’s backstory is a clean through-line: she has an affair with her English tutor, her father finds out about it and orders Jin to kill him without mentioning why, Jin baulks at murder but Jae the translator kills himself anyway, and Sun’s dishonour has now made mutual the ill-feeling between herself and her father. None of the rest of it quite clicks into that narrative. Crucially though, Sun officially joins the list of killers among the Oceanic survivors, after she shoots Colleen (one of the Others). Admittedly it’s pretty much self-defense, but still – that doesn’t leave too many characters who have yet to murder someone. Maybe just Hurley and Claire.

The Mythology: The final scene, in which Benjamin Linus introduces himself and reveals to Jack that the Others are in contact with the outside world by showing him the winning hit of the baseball World Series, is purely there to touch base with the mystery. Who are the Others and why are they on the Island? “If you could leave this island, why would you still be here?”, asks Jack, to which Ben replies “Yes Jack, why would we stay?” It’s shameless place-marking, but thanks to the way Michael Emerson plays his fish-eyed delivery off Matthew Fox’s exasperated intensity, it’s a compelling scene to watch.

One question that occurs in this episode that is never clearly resolved is – who are all the other slaves on the Others’ work gang? Since an explicit answer is never provided, I choose to assume that they are other passengers from the plane crash or other castaways who have arrived at the Island over time and have declined to join in the Others’ as-yet-unspecified cause.

The Literature: Pretty sure nobody touches a book in this episode. In lieu of that, I will note that subtitles translating Jin and Sun’s Korean dialogue makes unambiguous that Jarrah’s first name is spelled “Sayid” with one Y. I note that only because I intend to keep defiantly spelling it Sayyid because I like how it looks. So there.

“The Glass Ballerina” doesn’t establish much that’s new, but it’s a showcase for Jin and Sun, whose relationship is one of the most compelling of the pre-crash storylines for my money. Sun’s willingness to use people is clearly shown as a weakness of character – she knows that she puts people in harm’s way for her own advantage or to avoid the consequences of her own actions, and she feels acutely guilty for it, but she does it anyway. The fact that she crosses a rubicon in this period of the story by killing someone feels like a significant milestone, either it’s the crash before her first steps towards redemption or it’s a point of no return on the road to self-destruction. At this point in the show that is absolutely one of the most interesting questions being asked: now that we are starting to get a handle on where these characters came from, where are they heading?

Eight out of ten shards of shame and dishonour for “The Glass Ballerina”.

October 2, 2014

Review – Shatterwing (Dragon Wine Book 1) by Donna Maree Hanson – AWWC 14

This is my fifth review for 2014 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve dropped a bit of momentum on that project (along with most of my other projects, it’s fair to say) but I am still on track to read 10 and review 6 books this year. Er, if I get a move on, at any rate.

Shatterwing is the first half of Donna Maree Hanson’s Dragon Wine series (digital release from Momentum Publishing) and to be very clear, it is very much the first half of a single story. While both its main threads are brought to intriguing points of climax, neither is resolved in this volume. That will presumably have to wait for Skywatcher (Book 2, due out on the 9th of October 2014). Severing the story is an interesting publication choice, but not one that I’ll go into here; I’ll save that for a review of Skywatcher.

Let’s get the important bits out of the way first – Shatterwing is brutal. If you need trigger warnings for torture and sexual abuse, consider yourself warned. I hesitate to use the expression “grimdark”, mostly because I’m yet to see a satisfactory definition of the supposed subgenre, but it is grim and it is dark. The setting alone is post-apocalyptic – one of the moons has shattered and left the world of Margra a devastated meteor-blasted wasteland. Wild dragons prey on incautious survivors. A brutal dictatorship controls the only commodity that matters any longer – dragon wine, which has restorative properties and might be the only thing keeping humanity alive. Violent rebels use terrorist tactics to wrest control away from the governors. And political prisoners are kept in slaves camps to tend the dragon wine vineyards.

Salinda is a vintner is a prison camp ruled by the Inspector and a sadistic cadre of guards. Salinda avoids the most savage treatment meted out to the prisoners partly by virtue of being a skilled wine maker, but mostly by pretending to be diseased so that her guards won’t rape her. Brill, a new prisoner assigned to her as an apprentice, is tortured by the Inspector for information on a rebel faction. The first part of the story concerns their fight for survival within the camp and the revelation that both are guarding powerful secrets.

A second narrative thread concerns an explorer from an underground city who has been in life suspension for hundreds of years, emerging to explore a world in complete ecological collapse. A third concerns a trade delegation from an order of astronomers that goes badly awry. Both storylines are interesting but are more set up than resolved in this volume.

Rape, along with every other conceivable form of torture and maltreatment, is a constant threat throughout this book. To be clear – protagonist characters in this book are raped, tortured and threatened with abuse and death. It is rough going – while there are moments of optimism and even some sly humour, the characters of Shatterwing suffer terribly. Strange powers and secret knowledge do not protect them from horrific abuses at the hands of their captors.

Shatterwing is not so much a brutal fantasy as it is a fantasy about surviving brutality. The characters endure horror and loss, but they keep going, hanging on to life with a death grip. The story looks at the different ways that humans respond to horror, whether though grim resolve, pragmatism, denial and a desire for justice or revenge. For all that the brutality was not an enjoyable read, the honesty with which the characters respond to the brutality is a strength of this book.

The world building in Shatterwing is also a strength. I could happily have read an entire novel about the intricacies of combining dragon physiology and wine making, not to mention the various hints that crop up about strange magic powers – or technologies indistinguishable from magic. This first Dragon Wine volume raises a raft of interesting questions that I want to see paid off. Understanding how this broken world works – and how these characters might put it back together – has got me intrigued to read the concluding volume.

I’ll steel myself for what the characters might have to go through to get to the end though.

September 19, 2014

Review – Bound (Alex Caine #1) by Alan Baxter

Bound (Harper Voyager 2014) is the first volume in a supernatural thriller series by Alan Baxter. Alex Caine is a mixed martial artist whose professional fighting career is helped along by the ability to see what he calls his opponents’ “shades”, vague outlines of possibility that allow him to predict what they are about to do.

Already handy in a fight, Caine is making a tidy career in Sydney’s underground fighting circuit when his unwillingness to throw a fight gets him into a spot of bother with local gangsters. His need to slip out of sight for a while coincides (or does it?) with the appearance of a dodgy Brit by the name of Patrick Welby. Welby claims Caine’s ability to see the shades is magical, and he wants to hire him to accompany him to the UK to use his magic to read a certain book for him.

That’s the setup. What follows is a cascading sequence of dramatic revelations, startling ambushes and supernatural punchups that start big and keep getting bigger. Alex is soon joined by Silhouette, a mysterious Kin woman. The Kin are humanlike predators organised into clans and the Fey are involved somehow and – look, there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on. In a quest to rid himself of a parasitic curse, Caine is pursued by a psychopathic broker of mystic artefacts and a variety of horrifying supernatural mercenaries. People die, smack is talked and a lot of stuff blows up.

Bound moves from one scene of bloody mayhem to another with a smooth grace, slowing down just often enough for a bit of hidden lore or a spot of raunchy sex before rolling into another action sequence. It’s a fast-paced ride, escalating to a gruesome climactic confrontation in a suitably picturesque location. Baxter doesn’t muck around, constantly keeping his protagonist on his toes and constantly second-guessing the motivations of his allies.

I had a lot of fun with this one. Recommended for anyone who enjoys watching the Big Bads get a punch to the face and a roundhouse to the nards.

September 3, 2014

What I’m working on in September

First of all, I still don’t have a day job, so the main thing I’m working on is reversing that. Much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the mortgage won’t pay itself and I have to say I’m fond of living in my own home. So, it’s not quite time to retire into full-time writing. Yeah, I’m disappointed too.

Around that, I’ve got some projects ongoing. Now that the weather is warming up, the downstairs guest room is finally getting some renovation love. Last week I painted the walls – we’ll quietly overlook the fact that I didn’t check the paint buckets I was using and so have painstakingly applied two coats of exterior paint in a room that gets barely any sun and now reeks of unusually weird fumes – and this week I’m doing door frames, cornices and cupboards. We have a guest arriving next Tuesday, so I’m on a deadline there.

I have some writing projects as well:

Lane of Unusual Traders – I got my submission in (just) to Tiny owl Workshop’s  The Lane of Unusual Traders anthology that closed on Sunday night. I’m pretty proud of how it came out, a bleak little fantasy fable about a character who believes he can hold on to his humanity in a job where a conscience is an active hindrance. That probably sounds like a thinly-veiled political critique but if so it wasn’t intentional (I only just this minute recognised that as a possible interpretation of the story). I suspect that it is really my subconscious lecturing me about the self-destructiveness of procrastination, which is a far more resonant theme with me.

Lost – On my trip to Sydney this weekend, my buddy Andrew reminded me that he was watching along with my Lost reviews, the last one of which I posted almost two years ago. I felt immediately guilty for absolutely no sane reason. As a result I have resumed my rewatch and blog project Back to the Island, starting with the Season 3 opener ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (see next blog entry!). I figure I will probably power through Season 3, which is probably my least favourite, so that a succession of pretty terrible Nikki and Paolo episodes don’t kill my enthusiasm.

Lighthouse – My still-unnamed lighthouse story is now a full draft in need of revision. I think it’s a pretty good story, so I’m doing my best to look forward to throwing myself at editing it. I still haven’t quite cracked the art of being enthusiastic about revising my work, though I am at least starting to consciously acknowledge the benefits of taking editing seriously. That’s a start.

Breakdown – What would have been my entry to the CSfG Never-Never Land anthology really never came together, but I worked on it a bit over the weekend and at least dragged it a bit closer to being a real story. This will be my “just write it and see what happens” project for the month. Because it’s always worked this way before, I expect that at some point the story will just click into place and I will know how to get from where I am to where I think I’m going, but at the moment it’s a bit of an existential talk-fest between two mildly hostile teenagers. I suspect it needs to be a little more than that. I’ve missed the deadline for the anthology though, so the pressure is off that one.

School Hall – A long-ish fantasy short story with an interesting setting and intriguing characters that either needs paring back to about half its current word count, or needs an injection of considerably more action to justify its length. Either way it’s in need of a complete revision and rewrite. With that one I will have to do a proper outline, not to mention a glossary so that I can remember the weird terminology I made up around the magic systems and the oddly-constructed character names. It’s also a story in search of a title.

Colony Ship – The outline of the novel is about three-quarters done, but there’s a space of about three chapters which is thematically similar to and not much more detailed than “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed” (only way less cool than that opening sentence to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series). I am unsure whether I need to know what happens in that bit before I start writing or if I can just jump in and expect to have to revise my outline as I go anyway. Either way I probably won’t start writing that novel for a while yet – probably not before I have an outline for the sequel at least.

Short stories – Even once I’m finished with the stories I have in draft form, I still have two stories to write to make my minimum goal of ten new stories in 2014. I’d like to get at least one of them underway in September. Most of the stuff I’ve been writing lately has come in at the 6000-8000 word mark (though my Lane story was written to a 3000-word limit) so I would like to aim these next couple at the far more manageable (and marketable) 4000 word length. We’ll see how I go – both Lighthouse and School Hall were intended to be that short, and both are nearly double that size.

Slush reading – In addition to doing a lot of critiquing of other peoples’ short stories, I’ve started working as a volunteer slush reader for an Australian speculative fantasy magazine. Basically the job involves rating stories for the benefit of editors putting together an issue of the journal, and providing a few critique comments for the author about what did and didn’t work. At some point down the line I may throw my hat into the ring to become an editor, but for the moment I’m concentrating on building my ability to read critically and pull writing apart to see how it ticks. It’s not something I’ve ever worked hard at before, but I’m interested now.

(Clam – still going on the middle 99 Cities. Ssstttiiiilllllll going.)So that’s it for now (unless there’s something I’ve forgotten which is by now means impossible). What’s up in your neck of the woods?

August 4, 2014

Review – Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres – AWWC14

I’ve been off the pace on my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, but as I’m resolving to do more blogging in August, what better way to kick off proceedings than by catching up on my own self-imposed commitments? This will be my fourth review for 2014, which means I’m well behind on my target of ten Australian women writers read and six reviewed. That’s unsurprising as I’m behind on my reading in general. For some reason my book consumption has declined sharply in the past few months, though sadly my book acquisition rate has pushed through previous ceiling records.

Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres (Angry Robot Books 2014) concerns Virgin Jackson, a park ranger who works in Birrimun Park, a vast desert nature preserve in the middle of the megalopolis that covers the eastern Australian coast. Jackson witnesses an after hours murder, when the park should be deserted and monitored by every surveillance device known to man – but there’s no sign of the killer, she’s wounded by what appears to be a ghost crow, and an implacable police detective seems determined to fit her up for the killing. She bristles when her boss agrees to United States cooperation in the investigation, and she is assigned a stetson-wearing, sixgun-packing partner named Nate Sixkiller.

Peacemaker walks a strange line between futuristic police procedural and old-fashioned Western, mixing in a supernatural conspiracy to boot. With such a bizarre melange of elements, not to mention two lead characters with borderline-ridiculously iconic names, there’s no way this book should work. And yet it does, carried along by strong character work and a solid investigative core. Virgin is a tough loner with a tragic past who’s buried herself in her work – of course – and Sixkiller is a strong, laconic lawman who knows more about what’s going on that he’s letting on – of course – but their strained partnership dodges around cliches of sexual tension and professional jealousy and works all the more strongly for it. The supporting cast is very strong, including Virgin’s stripper boyfriend, her investigative journalist best friend and an introverted tech support guy with privacy boundary issues.

The action moves fairly quickly, and Virgin in particular comes off the worse for wear in virtually every confrontation, but it all remains remarkably grounded and focused. De Pierres sneaks some fascinating world-building in at the edges, shoring up the implausible setting elements with some real thought and care. This is a fascinating setting, and I’m keen to see more. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that it leaves an awful lot open for the sequel (or sequels, I’m not sure). The resolution of the central murder mystery become almost incidental as the scope of the plot expands outwards. I’m also looking forward to seeing whether the author will successfully pay off what seems like a contrived final-chapter revelation. That said, Peacemaker is a solid, fun and confident-enough book that I’m definitely on board for the next installment.

 

May 19, 2014

Review – A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Filed under: books of 2014,books read,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 10:03 pm

Doctor Clam: this is specifically a recommendation for you.

Sofia Samatar’s wonderful ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ (2013 Small Beer Press) is the story of a naive innocent, Jevick of Tyom, who travels from his isolated backwater island home to the dazzling opulence of the mainland empire of Olondria, armed only with a student’s command of the local language, to trade spices. It’s almost criminal to reduce the book to the plot elements of Jevick’s various adventures, which concern legal strife, hedonistic anarchists and an inconvenient haunting. What sets ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ apart is the richness of its prose and the novel’s preoccupation with the beauty of language itself.

This is a glorious, dazzling book, its endless sumptuous descriptive passages conveying a fascination with language, culture and the transformative effects of communication. A fantastic world with few fantastic elements – though those are of deep significance – ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ is alive with strange alien customs and characters who are at once instantly recognisable and wholly foreign. Jevick’s journey through Olondria passes through phases familiar to any traveller: the dazzling shock of first impressions; the bewildering challenge of comprehending unfamiliar behaviours; the slow process of acclimation to local customs; and finally the return home of the traveller, much changed by his experiences.

On top of that, throw in a few of the standard dangers of travel – becoming sick, running afoul of legal systems beyond your comprehension, becoming involved with cultural movements outside your experience – and one or two problems with a supernatural edge.

Samatar’s powers of description elevate what might be a reasonably straightforward fantastic travelogue into a rich banquet of language, each course more lavish and satisfying than the last. The fantastic elements have their place in the novel alongside the mundane, but no matter where the author directs her gaze the writing is glorious and compelling. ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ is fabulous, simply fabulous.

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