Escape From Hell I finished Hal Duncan’s Escape from Hell! last night.  A homeless man, a murderer, a junkie whore, and a gay man wake up on a ferry boat after dying.  But this boat is no dingy, nor a wooden raft with crooked Charon at the helm.  No, they find themselves on a New York-style commuter ferry with other confused passengers, and the city of the dead they are shuffling towards looks an awful lot like a blasted-out Manhattan.  Duncan’s hell is a police state, where cowardly cops inflict pain to escape their own weaknesses, where “Vox” news airs the city’s catastrophes 24/7 from ubiquitous televisions, where waterboarding and rape and electroshock and starvation are all part of daily life.  If you haven’t figured it out already, Duncan’s hell looks a lot like the United States of the past decade.

The four characters, after suffering enormous torment in various ways, all come to the conclusion that they can’t take it anymore, and so stage a revolt against the forces of Hell, searching for the mythical “Key” which will unlock their freedom.  And so they venture through levels of Hell, down into ossified caverns and creature-infested halls to a room where Lucifer’s soul has been kept inches from his body for four thousand years.  It only takes one look for the adventurers to give Lucifer back his body.  Then the fun begins.  They blast themselves out of Hell using a flaming sword.

And the flaming sword is no coincidence.  It’s right out of William Blake.  Like Blake’s evil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, evil in Duncan’s universe is self-inflicted pain, the self-flagellating confines of a belief system that, for instance, believes homosexuality to be a sin or that sends people to eternal damnation who have committed suicide.  The hero here, as in Blake’s work, is Lucifer, the light-bringer, who did not trick or tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden, Duncan says, but offered her knowledge of the lunacy of God and the hope that thereafter humankind would be free.  Instead of mankind rebelling against this absurdity (in this case, I believe Duncan is alluding to our blind-faith in the absurd tenants of modern faith), we clothed ourselves and hid in shame.  Hell then, Duncan says, is a creation of man, something from our nightmares, and heaven, if such a place exists, is freedom from shame.  God does exist in Duncan’s world, but he’s a crazy, sadistic bastard.

I really enjoyed this one.  My only complaint is that the typesetting was terrible.  I’m not sure if this was because I got my copy free at the World Fantasy Convention, and therefore it was an ARC with typos.  But there were hash-marks between every section, and too many spacing issues to count.  Regardless, it was a fun and quick read, and I highly recommend it.

Shadows of the Emerald City Review by Greer Woodward

Shadows of the Emerald CityDarkness Gathers, Yet Oz Remains Undaunted

Shadows of the Emerald City
Edited by JW Schnarr
Published by Northern Frights
Reviewed by Greer Woodward

When I originally read L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, two things struck me about the magical kingdom, its breadth – that there were always new characters, communities, and challenges around the bend – and that I very much wanted to go there.  Now I’m far away from those bountiful days of childhood, but I’m pleased to report that Shadows of the Emerald City, JW Schnarr’s 19-story anthology about the dark side of Oz, offers a sense of Oz’s continuing expansiveness as well as a satisfying number of characters that yearn to be part of the enchanted land.

The anthology is a mix of stories featuring well-known characters from The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Wizard, and Witches; lesser-known personalities from the later series – Jack Pumpkinhead, Mr. Yoop, the China People, and Fuddles; several new relations – Dorothy’s father, Dorothy’s husband, and the Scarecrow’s son; and new creations altogether – good-looking gumshoe Captain Jo Guard, botanical specialist Linnaea, and the heroic warrior Trewis and his decaying nemesis Ozymandias.

The range of characters combined with a variety of approaches and themes does well to suggest Oz’s unlimited landscape.  Alternate mythologies, noir takes, origin stories, second chances, and absurdist directions smoothly and effectively link with traditional horror themes – greed, murder, the quest for power, and cannibalism, especially in witches with a taste for children.

One of the most successful alternate mythology pieces, “The Utility of Love” by David Steffen, chronicles the relationship between Dorothy and Tin Man, in this incarnation a heartless assassin.  Tin Man wants Dorothy to teach him about love, a request which juxtaposes Dorothy’s simple thoughts about affection for friends and parents with complex moral situations: lying, killing, the intentional death of a beloved companion, and a deal with the dark side.  The qualities of love spin and sputter, shifting from meaning to nothingness to meaning again as events swiftly change.

For noir takes, Shadows offers an entertaining trio.  Jack Bates’ “Emerald City Confidential” features a reluctant sleuth, double-dealing over-the-top sirens, and a hidden power struggle of monumental proportions.  “Four AM at the Emerald City Windsor” by H.F. Gibbard examines a marriage gone bad, in this case, the union of Dorothy Gale and Bert Lister, formerly The Great Cagliostro, master of might and magic, now a hopeless and possibly murderous drunk.

Lori T. Strongin’s “Not in Kansas Anymore” is also about an older Dorothy, this one a stripper who calls herself “Kansas.”  In the opening paragraphs she regrets her youthful expectations, not knowing then that Oz was “the place where innocence went to die; where broken hearts met broken glass, and blood was just graffiti on emerald green walls.”  The narrative takes her through a garish replay of the events of The Wizard of Oz, with monstrous embodiments of her former friends, leading her to question the truth of what she is experiencing and the source of the horror.

But several of the stories I found most memorable looked at the disturbing implications of some of Oz’s quaint, distinct, and originally delightful notions, most in books following The Wizard.  Rajan Khanna’s skillful “Pumpkinhead” and Jason Rubis’ darkly amusing “A Chopper’s Tale” involve the magic Powder of Life, known for animating Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, and the Gump in Baum’s 1904 The Marvelous Land of Oz.  In “Pumpkinhead” the powder goes terribly wrong and in “A Chopper’s Tale” it goes terribly right, at least from the point of view of the narrator, a psychopathic axe.

“Mr. Yoop’s Soup” and “The Fuddles of Oz” consider the downside of one of the most famous benefits of living in Oz: its citizens do not die.  Michael D. Turner’s soup story is very funny, but may not be for the queasy.  Mr. Yoop, a giant cannibal first appearing safely behind bars in 1913’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, has escaped and appropriated an antique, two-handed cleaver.  Several subsequent scenes take place in the boiling meal between the disembodied – and chatty – heads of the King of the Munchkins, a goose girl, and a famous wrestler.

Baum devotes a chapter in his 1910 The Emerald City of Oz to the Fuddles, described as the most peculiar people in the Land of Oz.  Each Fuddle is a living puzzle made of wooden pieces.  Unfortunately when a visitor approaches, the pieces scatter and the Fuddles need the outsider to put them back together again.  In the Baum book, Dorothy and her friends spend several amusing hours reassembling the Fuddles, but in Mari Ness’ story, a not very bright Winkie is befuddled by the Fuddles with unhappy consequences.  It’s a beautifully structured little tragedy: the Fuddles are undone by their uniqueness and also by their obscurity – they are mere dots on the giant, continuously unfolding canvas of Oz.

And then there are the touching stories about finding a way into Oz – for the first time, or to return.  T.L. Barrett’s “The China People of Oz” centers on Ronie, an eight-year-old fan of the Oz books who is dying of leukemia. On a trip to Kansas from the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, she finds a set of figurines in a memorabilia shop and is convinced they are the actual China People from one of the final chapters of The Wizard.  Is Ronie a victim of her imagination or has she stumbled on something impossible, but nonetheless real?  The story tenderly and perceptively explores this delicate question.  Ronie’s feelings and actions ring true, as do those of her parents.

The first and last stories in the collection, Mark Onspaugh’s “Dr. Will Price and the Curious Case of Dorothy Gale” and Martin Rose’s “The King of Oz,” also consider the logistics of getting to Oz.  The first examines what is necessary for a successful return, and both suggest that the most profound horror of all is losing – forever – one’s only golden chance.

In contrast to the stories about reaching Oz, editor Schnarr’s superb “Dorothy of Kansas” begins with Tin Man and Scarecrow leaving the magical country, not because they are dissatisfied or have grander plans, but because they want to save their home.  Joy – and life – have left the land. The Emerald City is strewn with corpses; the sky is smoky, and acid snow falls constantly.

It’s a stark, absurdist journey, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot.  Tin Man is covered with rust and crumbling, and nothing is left of Scarecrow but a stuffed head in a bucket.  They seek Kansas and Dorothy in the hope she can restore the kingdom.  What they discover is a bleak relationship between real and imaginary worlds.  Just as Baum’s Oz reflected the optimism and possibility of the early 1900’s, Schnarr’s work captures the unsettled, angst-ridden spirit of ours: maybe the apocalypse won’t happen this week, but it’s out there, lurking.

If you’ve read the Oz books, you’ll enjoy what this anthology adds to the canon.  If you’ve only seen the 1939 movie, there are enough red shoes, pink Glindas, and fragments of iconic dialogue to keep you interested.  In fact, my only criticism of the anthology is that so many images come from the film, not the books.  But perhaps that’s a sign of the times.  If you google “The Wizard of Oz,” the first listings will likely reference the film.  You’ll have to try “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” Baum’s original title, to find the book at the top of the heap.

Not that I mind, at least for long.  I’ve ordered the 70th Anniversary version of the film and by the time you are engrossed in the expansive landscape of this shadowy anthology, I will be singing along with Dorothy.  And both of us many wonder – even you on Schnarr’s considerably rockier pathway – if childhood wishes are so wrong, if it just might be possible somehow, someday to reach the Land of Oz.

Blaze Book Review

Book CoverBlaze
by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King)
Published by Scribner
Review by Angela Crockett

Stephen King’s latest novel, Blaze, is being released under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. It’s a trunk novel, written in 1973, during the time the other Bachman books were written.

King wrote Blaze just before Carrie. There’s a similarity between the two because both share an outcast protagonist who is a hero and also a villain at the same time. In Blaze, Clayton Blaisdell Jr., known as Blaze, is a mentally slow man. His condition and hardships throughout his life bring out strong pathos in the audience. In the beginning of the novel, a terrible incident of child abuse causes his condition. From then on, the audience feels for him through every mistreating he endures. He’s the hero for them. But he’s also a con man, hence being the villain duping some of the other characters.

His con partner and friend, George, dies before the story takes place, yet Blaze continues to communicate with George, and George talks back. It could be his ghost, or it could all be in Blaze’s head. It’s mostly left to the audience to decide. Either way, this aspect of the story quickly becomes accepted.

Blaze goes for his biggest con yet — the kidnapping of a rich couple’s baby for one million dollars in ransom. To go about it, he uses plans George made before his death, and the help George gives him in their “conversations.”

Blaze is half about everything relating to the kidnapping, and half about Blaze’s earlier years. With the baby, he’s caring, a gentle giant. King shows the point of view of the kidnapping from multiple sides — it’s a very hot case for the police and FBI.

Regarding his early years, as a child, Blaze grew up in Hetton House, a state-run orphanage. He led a hard life. Throughout it, he had only two real friends — George, and his childhood friend, Johnny. A lot of the flashbacks are about Johnny. There are quite a few about George as well, including some about the clever cons they pulled together.

Blaze feels like an homage to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, both having similar main characters — physically and mentally — and both having friendship as a theme. With its strong characterization and action, Blaze is hard to put down and a very fast read. It ranks up in the best half of King’s works.

November 9, 2007 – Angela Crockett for Senses Five Press

Kushiel’s Justice Review

Kushiel's JusticeKushiel’s Justice
By Jacqueline Carey, published by Warner Books.
Reviewed by C. Wright.

Kushiel’s Justice continues the story of Imriel de la Courcel, third in line for the throne of Terre d’Ange, and child of the nation’s most infamous and deadly traitor. Imriel, regarded with suspicion since his childhood, is determined to prove himself loyal to his country. Instead, against his will, he finds himself committing the one act guaranteed to condemn him for treason in the eyes of the nation if discovered—falling in love with its dauphine, Sidonie. Yet Imriel is already engaged to Dorelei mab Breidaia of Alba, and weds her to secure Terre d’Ange’s political influence in Alba’s succession. In doing so, he betrays his own heart and violates his god’s single imperative, to “love as thou wilt.”

In this sequel to Kushiel’s Scion, Jacqueline Carey turns the reader’s eyes to Alba, a barbarian tribal society steeped in druidic magic. Here a scattered tribe of bear-like mystics, desperate to protect Alba from the devastation foreseen in visions of Imriel’s future, use Imriel’s lingering passion for Sidonie to strike at the heart of his Alban family. The resulting tragedy spawns a quest for revenge that spans three nations.

Once again, Carey’s talent for creating rich and fully articulated characters shines through in this novel. As with its predecessor Kushiel’s Scion, Kushiel’s Justice focuses primarily on Imriel’s inner conflict and growth. Imriel’s struggle between love and duty, though a familiar trope, is handled with a refreshing maturity and complexity, putting Sidonie’s regal air and constrained passion in contrast to Dorelei’s charming naïveté without invalidating Dorelei as an intelligent and insightful woman in her own right. Alais, Sidonie’s sister, captivates with her blend of quiet wisdom and lingering insecurity, and a new cast of Alban characters beautifully fleshes out Imriel’s world. Imriel himself undergoes subtle but visible character growth over the course of the novel as he recognizes his own selfish tendencies, earnestly tries to make himself worthy of his wife’s affection, and begins to trust that he can be true to his nature and still be good.

Series fans may feel the absence of Phèdre and Joscelin, heroes of the first trilogy, who spend much of this book following their own pursuits and play only a tangential part in this chapter of Imriel’s story. Similarly, events in the Alban sections of the story seem greatly distanced from the familiar society and world of Terre d’Ange; this sense of encapsulation feels appropriate to Alba’s political standing in Carey’s world, but it may leave the reader longing for more of the signature flavor, intrigue and social politicking of the series. The slower pacing of events in Alba is occasionally frustrating, but it does give the reader time to revel in the sensuality of the books.

On the whole, Carey has done an excellent job of exploring Imriel and Sidonie’s forbidden passion, bringing Imriel through staggering character growth, and including hints of the plotlines from the prior novel and series by incorporating Imriel’s mother’s letters and the secrets of the Hidden Guild. She leaves the reader at a moment of high anticipation, with Imriel and Sidonie poised to return to Terre d’Ange and handle the tenuous political situation into which their romance has plunged the nation.

June 13, 2007 – C. Wright for Senses Five Press

Kushiel’s Scion Review

Kushiel's ScionKushiel’s Scion
By Jacqueline Carey, published by Warner Books
Reviewed by C. Wright.

With Kushiel’s Scion, Jacqueline Carey returns the reader to the world of Terre D’Ange, whose people are descended from gods and carry passion in the blood. The novel opens with Imriel de la Courcel, the long-missing Prince of the Blood, returning to his home country and joining the household of Phèdre nó Montrève and her consort Joscelin Verreuil, heroes of Carey’s first Kushiel trilogy, who rescued him from torment and slavery. Imriel is already regarded with suspicion in the public eye—and doubts about his loyalty increase when his infamously traitorous mother, Melisande, escapes from her self-imposed prison in neighboring La Serenissima.

In addition to accusations of treachery and deceit, Imriel struggles with his mother’s other legacy—the dangerous desires inherent in his family’s bloodline. Desperate to escape his history and darker urges, Imriel flees to Tiberium, where he encounters the Unseen Guild, a secret organization who taught his mother the arts of covertcy and who now seeks to recruit him.

This novel is something of a departure from Carey’s earlier Kushiel books; though it maintains the complexity of character and the richly articulated world that characterized her first trilogy, it has a much quieter tone and slower pacing. The focus is on Imriel’s internal struggle to reconcile the traits he inherited from his mother with his own desire to do good; the book deals much more with philosophy than action and adversity. However, Carey enlivens the novel with a compelling blend of character personalities, clever subterfuge, and the continuing mystery of Melisande’s schemes that unites this trilogy with her earlier work.

In Scion, the author has done an excellent job of creating a distinct and authentic voice for Imriel, who shares neither the previous heroine Phèdre’s unique sexuality nor her assurance and sense of self-identity. Terre d’Ange and its familiar locations take on a new character when viewed through Imriel’s eyes; the experience of her world is appreciably different in this book. Imriel himself is a strongly sympathetic and relatable hero, whose thoughts and views change believably as he himself matures and develops over the course of the novel.

To her credit, Carey has not tried to top the epic arc of her first trilogy by introducing an even more staggering series of events; her approach in following more subtle plotlines makes for a very authentic-feeling follow-up to the first trilogy. This start of what seems to be a quieter series of books gives a different and interesting view of life in Terre d’Ange in the wake of heroes.

June 13, 2007 – C. Wright for Senses Five Press