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Archive for May, 2007

Jon Courtenay Grimwood – Pashazade, Jeffrey Ford – Memoranda, Lucius Shepard – Softspoken

Posted by Mike on May 22, 2007

I gave Pashazade to my old man after I finished reading it as something of an experiment and after 90 pages he returned it to me with “Does it ever go anywhere?” I think this speaks to the first 1/3 of the book which I admit does seem pretty slow, although I think part of that is Grimwood’s talent with being subtle, not signposting plot twists and clues. Pashazade is the first of the Arabesk Trilogy, which takes place in an alternate history where the Ottoman empire survived World War I and became a power in its own right. El-Iskandriya (Alexandria) survives in the modern era (or near future) and I found it fascinating how Grimwood sets up the city and the feel of it all, for me this was well worth the slowly developing plot in the first third. The protagonist himself, Ashram Bey, starts out, like in a lot of books, as something of an amnesiac in that he doesn’t seem to remember parts of his life, he’s obviously been “upgraded” with tech and the like, although the first book doesn’t go into a great amount of deal about Bey’s past, just enough to keep the mystery alive. Bey, like a lot of noirish protags, is stuck with a murder and goes his way to solve it and thus save his niece and love interest. It reminded me a lot of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon in feel, except not quite as violent. I felt after finishing it that it was a good set up to the rest of the trilogy, Effendi and Felaheen, the latter which won one of the awards that makes good lists for me.

I read the first of Jeffrey Ford’s first trilogy (The Physiognomist) not long after it won the World Fantasy award for best novel. For some reason I remember being underwhelmed, but by the time I finally got back to this second volume, it felt like my memory hadn’t quite gotten it right, a strange coincidence for a book that deals with the subject of memory. In fact in the acknowledgement section, Ford lists two books by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory and one I own yet haven’t read yet, Giordano Bruno & The Hermetic Tradition. So you can imagine Memoranda was right along my lines, with a lot of play on symbology and a plot that takes our ex-physiognomist from his current life into the mind of his old master. As usual, Ford is just an excellent writer, very imaginative with great originality, and I fell into this second volume quite easily. The kind of book you’d love to sit down and discuss some day. Quite happy to have a third volume ready to go, not to mention all kinds of shorts.

Kind of torn here between full disclosure and revealing the origin of my copy of Softspoken, I guess I’ll just say it’s a gift and a cherished one at that by a writer I respect on a number of levels and one who is having a pretty prolific year (I talked about Vacancy earlier, but there’s a new novella in F&SF I need to go find as well). Softspoken is a ghost story set in the deep south, a milieu Shepard returns to on occasion and one that often reminds me (like in Vacancy) of Florida (although this a bit farther north). Sanie, the protagonist, is a wife in a disintegrating marriage who starts seeing ghosts and who avails herself of her brother-in-law’s peyote to get a better look, setting up some of the most pristine and uncannily accurate descriptions of the psychedelic experience I’ve read, in fact this is one of Shepard’s great skills, his ability to talk about thresholds, and the comparisons of the threshold between sobriety and the peyote trip and the peyote trip and the supernatural experience without coming to any definitive answer, the bounty coming with the insights. As she comes on, she starts seeing all sorts of figures in the house, but in some ways the ghost story part of this is small potatoes compared to the dissection of a failing marriage and the effect various characters have on Sanie’s failed attempts to get out of the marriage. It all works up to a rather dark conclusion, but one that ends with a bit of ambiguity, another element I like about Shepard’s work. Definitely some solid work, as usual, if not one immediately clamoring for classic status.

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