Mike’s Prattle


Caitlin R. Kiernan – Five of Cups, Gene Wolfe “The Cat,” “The Map;” John Holbrook (Jack) Vance – The View from Chickweed’s Window; James Tiptree Jr. – Tales of the Quintana Roo; Gordon Dickson – “Act of Creation,” “The Warrior;” Sheila Finch – The Guild of Xenolinguists

Posted by Mike on April 15, 2010

Trying to catch up here before I drown…more reading notes.

Five of Cups is Kiernan’s first written novel, but published later via Subterranean press, I was lucky enough to be able to check it out from the library, as it’s somewhat prohibitively expensive now. I’m doing my best to read through her work chronologically after being impressed by a story in Lovecraft Unbound. This is definitely early work in that it seems mostly a result of influences rather than what happens later when said influences are absorbed and an independent and unique voice has emerged, but while I think hints of this could already been seen in some of the early stories I talked about last installment, I don’t get that so much here. Anyway this is a vampire novel, something I wouldn’t necessarily pursue as a means to itself as even the author admits at the time of the writing that this wasn’t something many were encouraged to pursue. Anyway almost everyone except for a few very minor characters are vampires here and they follow their own sense of “moral logic.” But the set up here is that vampires all follow a particular hierarchy and in this book a woman far down the chain starts to more or less break down (or out) and stop following the culture’s rules and of course all hell breaks loose. I’m not sure anyone would consider this a great book necessarily, but what happens when someone does write a lot of great books, the small presses end up satisfying the plans by releasing what amounts to “outtakes.” And while this is one, it’s still entertaining and I had little problem following it to the end. On the other hand it didn’t demonstrate what is Kiernan’s incredibly deft prose, the hand of a master who I’m going to assume just gets better and better, and I’m happy to keep following along (especially as I was surprisingly impressed with her early shorts).

The two Gene Wolfe stories here are short shorts that are part of his “Sun” metaseries, the two of these being based around the original quartet and published between those and the Urth of the New Sun. I guess you don’t hear about them much as they’re relatively minor, in fact I think one was written for a convention guide or something. They actually remind me a little of Le Guin’s early fantasies, less New Sun than purely magical and fable-like.

Vance’s “Chickweed Window” is a fiction novel. It would be easy to classify it with some of the other mysteries of the period but it’s more an elaborate revenge story, almost like one of the Demon Prince novels in a contemporary society. It also has shades of children’s literature as a girl moves in with her uncle and aunt, after her father dies, the latter a bossy, horrible harrdian, the former initially agreeable but with obvious pedophiliac tendencies. She befriends a very sick boy who lives next door and ends up running away from the whole situation when the uncle is shot and killed and she’s more or less set up for the murder. She spends time in juvenile hall before she repairs her life and meets the romantic interest, only to figure out by putting together the pieces that she’d been set up for the murder. The rest is a revenge plot, something Vance is always terrific at. It’s a solid book, and once again I’m reminded that it doesn’t matter what genre Vance is tackling, I almost always enjoy the read.

Quintana Roo isn’t much of a short story collection despite it winning (I think) the World Fantasy award for one, as it’s only three novelettes. It reminds me of the work of both Lucius Shepard and Avram Davidson in that they’re fantastic (rather than strictly fantasy) works set in a Caribbean environment with the descriptions that could only come from experience. All the stories were quite good, imbued with a certain surreality as most of the stories were told to the protagonist by another character who recount the tales of the area: a man who ends up waterskiing into legend, a diver encountering a dangerous animation in a rarely travelled diving spot, another man who seems to experience some sort of bizarre time travel.

The two Gordon R. Dickson stories are early Dorsai related shorts that I’d not learned of until lately (I’ve so far only read the first three novels). The first seems mostly related due to the term Dorsai and was somewhat forgettable (in that I did), the latter entails the journey of one of the characters from the books back to Earth to confront the brother of a man who deserted during duty.

And the last title for this installment, the collected shorts of a series whose title name describes what is essentially a guild of people devoted to the translation of alien languages of all types. Many of these entailed guildmembers harboring doubt about their duty, substance addicted, towards the end of their career, who end up being drawn into a situation whether they need their wits to translate a particular language and solve a situation. While I found most of the stories entertaining, the true stand out is the Nebula-award winning novella “Reading the Bones” which entailed an addict who is thrown into the role of child protector when the parents are killed by the local alien race for an unknown reason and the xenolinguist and two children are forced on the run. Naturally the group is captured again with the xenolinguist forced into a position to help create a new language. It’s sort of a mix of science and mysticism at its heart and once again I’m amazed at what a perfect form the novella is for the genre. It seemed roomier and better paced than the rest of the shorts and novelettes in the collection. Naturally I really wondered what a novel set in this universe would be like.


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