Gathering up the ezines, which don’t fill me with excessive enthusiasm, and tackling another urban fantasy anthology. Is it just me, or are there a whole lot of these around all of a sudden? The Good Story award goes to Bradley Denton’s WWII tale from the Strange Streets anthology, despite the absence of actual streets.
- Tor.com, September 2011
- Fantasy Magazine, September 2011
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, September 2011
- Lightspeed, September 2011
- Down These Strange Streets, edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Tor.com, September 2011
One original story, two novel tie-ins.
“Lee at the Alamo” by Harry Turtledove
Alternate history, of course. Happenstance places Lt. Colonel Robert E Lee in command of the US Department of Texas just as the state votes to join the Confederacy. When a Texas militia colonel shows up demanding he surrender his command, Lee considers it his duty to refuse, despite his personal sympathy for the Confederate cause.
“I don’t aim to start a war. I aim to take for Texas what belongs to Texas,” McCulloch said. Again, the men at his back nodded to show their support.
“A man may aim for one target but unfortunately hit another,” Lee said. “And the forts and munitions in Texas do not belong to your state, however much they may have benefited you in days gone by. They belong to the government of the United States of America.”
Instead of surrendering the Alamo and its arms, Lee takes his stand there against a much larger force of Texas militia.
Turtledove’s starting point is only a slight departure from our own timeline. The happenstance that generates it is a very plausible one. But this is not a “what happens next” scenario, even if readers may want to speculate on the course of events. It is a character study, placing Lee in a situation where his notions of duty and honor are challenged. In this case it is not the differences that matter but what remains the same – the character of the man. I’m not sure, however, that Turtledove gives due credit to Colonel Ben McCulloch, who was almost fifteen years older than he suggests and a man of considerable military experience, including the use of artillery.
“Day One” by Matthew Costello
A rookie cop story. In a dystopian future, Murphy’s first day at the Red Hook precinct where food shortages are prompting some extreme behavior in the residents. We all know how the rookie cop story goes, and this one goes there. The real payoff for readers comes when Murphy returns home at the end of the day to his family and sees them now in the light of his new experiences.
I had a moment of misgiving when I saw the introduction, which stated that the story was set in the universe of the author’s upcoming novel. Happily, it is quite well self-contained and comes to a chilling resolution, even if it also hints at what might be forthcoming in the larger work.
“The Night Children” by Alexander Gordon Smith
Another novel tie-in, set in the world of the author’s YA horror novel series, in this case a prequel from WWII. During the Ardennes offensive, four GIs – the author wants us to think of them as boys, but twenty-three year old GIs were definitely not boys – are cut off from their own lines but continue on their mission to locate a missing squad, despite their terrified misgivings.
They were hoping that they wouldn’t find them, because then they’d find out what happened to them. And when a squad didn’t radio in when it was supposed to, didn’t make contact for a whole twenty-four hours, that could only be bad news.
They do find their missing men, gruesomely mutilated. They later come across a German unit whose own men have suffered the same fate and blame the Americans. But it soon becomes clear that there is something else in the forest, worse even than the rabidly clichéd Nazi officer, stalking the men of both sides.
While the jumping-off point appears to have been backstorying the novels, explaining how the character Cross become the monster he is shown to be in later life, the story itself is rather self-contained from the point of view of the American GI. The horror is overt and extreme, the moral atmosphere starkly and unsubtly black and white. The most clumsy aspect of the story is the portrayal of Kreuz, really too evil to be believed. There are also a few annoying factual errors, such as the private who keeps calling his corporal “sir.” [Not in this man’s army, Private!] There is also the unlikely female transport pilot who I believe would not have been in the WAAF but the ATA, a civilian organization with different ranks.
Fantasy Magazine, September 2011
One a bit twee, the other more than a bit dark.
“Lessons from a Clockwork Queen” by Megan Arkenberg
Clockwork fairytale. Or rather, an extended string of fairytales, each concluding in a moral. The clockwork queens [there are two, one the replacement for the other, and the other the replacement for the one] occupy the iconic role of the princess, to be courted and menaced and lost and found. But unlike many princesses in the tales, they are low on agency, as they require to be wound up by other hands [it apparently occurring to no one that they might simply wind themselves; perhaps this might seem too much like manual labor, but it would solve the problem of lost keys and lost winders]. The lesson is given as: And that is why a wise clockwork queen owns more than one winding key, although the decision was never the queens’ to make.
As this seems to be the sort of story in which things aren’t required to make sense, we are probably not supposed to dwell on such contradictions, or the fact that marriage seems to be out of the question for one queen but the second is married off as soon as she’s wound up. I tend to dwell on them anyway, in this appealingly absurd but affected work. It’s clearly meant to be charming; it has its charming moments, but it becomes too much and goes on rather too long.
“Three Damnations: A Fugue” by James Alan Gardner
A particularly apt title. Three people obsessed with each other, a love/hate triangle trapped in intersecting loops. For Mandy and Danny, it’s a house of damnation where they go to steal antiques; in Graham’s case, it’s a time machine. These people remember their history and they keep repeating it anyway. The narrative builds with increasing agency [seems to be the month to think about agency]. Danny is almost purely dumb victim, albeit a willing one; he’s content to be damned if he can spend damnation with Mandy. Graham knows he should stop, but he’s the victim of both his own obsession and Mandy’s manipulation. And she embraces it fully. Nicely done dark fantasy.
Lightspeed, September 2011
Again, one of two nominally pieces of science fiction turns out to be pretty straight future fantasy. Is actual SF that hard to find?
“Join” by Liz Coleman
Derek has returned to Earth for a family visit after an extended stay on Phobos, among the Phoeng. His mother is eager to enfold him again into the family, but Derek has irrevocably transformed himself to become part of a Phoeng family. He doubts that this visit will turn out well.
But though Mom could be friends with an alien, and might even accept that I’d married one, she couldn’t accept that I’d married two, and was running around with their surplus child soaking nutrients from my bloodstream. She definitely couldn’t accept that I’d had my body altered to breathe the Phoeng’s methane-heavy atmosphere, and my throat to better speak their language.
But Derek is in every way Ngoraich’s father, even if only a surrogate; he loves her profoundly and believes that the experience of joining with her is well worth the cost it will exact, shortening his lifespan. All he really wants is for his human family to share it.
A story of family and family love. Ngoraich is loving little larva and Derek is clearly devoted to her, to his Phoeng family, to being part of the species through her. It’s never really clear, though, just why he has chosen this time to come home. A reader gets the strong impression that it will be his last chance, that he won’t live long after Ngoraich is no longer attached to his body, but when a cousin makes this accusation, Derek denies it. We don’t really know very well who Derek was when he was human, before his connection to the Phoeng, which leaves many questions unanswered.
“Thief of Futures” by D Thomas Minton
Eshram Kingston is the thief, which makes him effectively a murderer, as, according to the premise, a person cannot exist without a future. But he is ostensibly a murderer with scruples, as he doesn’t deal with collectors like Mr Padwal, who is pressing him to make a particular hit. Ever since Eshram’s wife Bao had her future stolen, his sole concern has been his young daughter, so he has endangered her by coming to the slums of Kuala Lampur to enter the indentured-servitude lottery for a chance to go offworld. But Padwal is making him an offer he can’t refuse.
While the dystopian setting suggests a vaguely cyberpunked future, the future-stealing places this one squarely in the camp of fantasy; Eshram is a black sorcerer.
I wrap my fingers around the threads of her existence and yank violently, snapping them free. I slide to the side to avoid getting entangled in the loose ends that swirl around me, but as they brush close, the hairs on my arm stand up. Carefully I begin to feed the hours and days and years of her future into the glass ball.
I can’t credit most of this, not the sorcery nor a future in which any country would feel a need to import cheap labor, the most common and cheap commodity going. What interest there is here is in the part of the plot where Eshram realizes that Padwal is pulling a more complicated scam than he had supposed. But this makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to collect the futures of other persons in glass balls, not being able to take any personal advantage of them or drain their good fortune for themselves – another aspect of this story that doesn’t convince.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #77 & 78, September 2011
The editor of this ‘zine apparently likes to assemble some of the issues by pairing two stories on a common theme. I’m not sure that this is such a good idea. The pairing invites comparison, in which one of the two is quite likely to suffer.
“Salvage” by Margaret Ronald
Charles the part-automaton has come back to hostile territory with Colonel Dieterich and Professora Lundqvist, a brain in a vat on wheels, to salvage the old wrecked airship Chiaro, which is said to be full of advanced technology never replicated and a fortune in werglass and thaumaturgy. Actually, they are following the Professora’s feckless student Phidias, who has mad designs of raising the vast ship again. Too much of this, including the main characters and the thaumaturgy neep, is taken from the author’s previous work, and, without prior familiarity, is likely to be quite incomprehensible to readers.
“Gone Sleeping” by Heather Clitheroe
Amina knows that witches have their thumbs on backwards, even though there have been no witches on the island for over a hundred years. Messir Wong the alchemist knows about these things, although he isn’t a witch.
So it’s good not to do witch things, Messir Wong says, because even just wanting to do ‘em is bad enough, even if nothing ever happens from the wanting.
Messir Wong is right, and Amina should have listened.
Neat little dark fantasy, told in a disarmingly innocent voice.
“Butterfly” by Garth Upshaw
Set in what seems to be a different but similar world, in which an Event has taken place which resulted in children being born infested by an embryonic Bug. Now, as the children have reached adolescence, the Bugs have matured and are ready to break out. This has the authorities worried, with apparent good reason, so the afflicted children are being taken on trains to be interned. Maia can feel her Bug getting ready to emerge, but her seatmate Aidan is further along in the process. The two of them bond, they try to protect each other from the brutal guard. But it’s too late for Aidan.
The author is sending contradictory messages. On the one hand, we are shown an image of the kids as the chrysalides of butterflies, lovely and benign. On the other, we learn of the havoc the Bugs have already caused.
Waverly and Slepton were destroyed. Three cities in Nagorbi. I’d pored over an out-of-focus daguerreotype of a Bug loose on the Yoruba Plain, overtaking and devouring a herd of antelope. Black maw lined with deadly teeth. Pale, segmented body. Faceted eyes.
Given this, the precautions taken by the authorities seem to be more or less reasonable. And while we sympathize with Maia and her desire for freedom, it starts to look more like a story of revenge and horror at the end
“The Magick” by Kristina C Mottla
Hith seems to be a world where human settlements do not thrive, except that some of their offspring, at about age eighteen, transform into Magicks, beings of heat and light and power. With a Magick around, life is good. But once Magicks are exposed, they are enslaved and auctioned off; the condition is said to be the consequence of innate depravity.
“It’s all about the rod for those Magicks. Sticks, belts, whatever’s handy, right? Remind them of their function. Can’t ever discipline them enough, don’t you think?”
Thus it is understandable that Elna attempts to conceal the signs of her transformation, while her family acquires a Magick at auction.
This scenario has the feeling of a situation contrived by the author to evoke reader sympathy for the victim of the system, but that takes too much effort of suspending disbelief.
Down These Strange Streets, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R R Martin
Yet another urban fantasy anthology, which seems to be the flavor du jour, or at least the fall anthology season. The introduction by Martin makes it quite clear how the editors conceive this subgenre.
The heroes of urban fantasy come out of the hardboiled mystery, while the villains, monsters, and antagonists have their own roots in classic horror… but it is the combination that gives this subgenre its juice. For these are two genres that are at heart antagonistic. Horror fiction is a fiction steeped in darkness and fear and set in a hostile Lovecraftian universe impossible for men to comprehend, a world where, as Poe suggested, death in the end holds dominion over all. But detective fiction, even the grim, gritty, hard-boiled variety, is all about rationality; the world may be dark, but the detective is a bringer of light, an agent of order, and, yes, justice.
This is all very specific and quite promising, although I have to object that it leaves out the “urban” element, from which the subgenre takes its name. But it bodes rather less well when, among his exemplars of urban fantasy heroes, Martin lists Anita Blake. For while “urban fantasy” may perhaps be the “hottest subgenre in publishing,” it is not so much the hardboiled detective generating this heat these days as the stiletto-wearing heroine of what is called “paranormal romance,” which is quite a different creature of the night.
The 500 pages hold sixteen original stories from “NY Times Bestselling Authors”. It’s a mixed collection, one that doesn’t particularly reflect the conception of the subgenre described in the introduction. Martin may scorn the term “dark fantasy”, but the fact is, with one notable exception, that’s what we have here, not genuine horror. And much of it is light dark fantasy, at that. Most of the stories have dead people of some sort, and other people doing some kind of investigation, but there are few of the dark-souled and tortured characters we usually associate with “noir.” And while ancient Rome and Babylon must certainly count as cities, the forests of Jamaica and the permafrost of the Aleutians aren’t what we usually consider urban. The consequence is a greater variety of settings and stories than readers might have expected, with the most common elements being some sort of mystery and at least a hint of the supernatural. There are a couple of superior stories, some entertaining ones, and a couple I did not care for – all more or less categorizable as fantastic mystery.
But if I were really going to place a label on this collection, it would be “NY Times Bestselling Author” anthology. The contributors appear to have been selected to bring in their readership in large numbers, particularly those readers who will want to see more of their favorite series characters, which seems to have a strong correlation to bestsellerdom. Naturally, the stories I like best are the independent works that stand on their own merits.
“Death by Dahlia” by Charlaine Harris
In this lead-off, the author doesn’t miss a cliché of the sort that has, in the last couple of decades, degraded and demeaned the vampire from a damned soul to a sex object, from a figure of horror to one of cheap porn. Yes, I know, this is the Bestselling Author listed in the biggest type on the cover. To which I can only say, ack! ptooi! I feel a hairball coming up.
“The Bleeding Shadow” by Joe R Lansdale
Happily, the second story is by Joe Lansdale, because at this point it would take a Lansdale to keep me reading. Richard tells it like a private eye story should be told. One night Alda May comes to him with a problem involving her brother Tootie, a man good for nothing but playing the guitar. When she plays a record that he sent her, Richard knows something is bad wrong.
The air in the room got thick and the lights got dim, and shadows come out of the corners and sat on the couch with me. I ain’t kidding about that part. The room was suddenly full of them, and I could hear what sounded like a bird, trapped at the ceiling, fluttering fast and hard, looking for a way out.
Not a murder mystery but a cross between a missing person case and a deal with the devil – except that the deal isn’t really much of a deal, more like taking out a juice loan for a hit of demonic crack that goes up in smoke before it can give you a high. The streets, in segregated 1950s Texas, are really really mean, and definitely strange. And forsure, it’s horror. Real, nightmarish horror, the kind of thing that leaves images in your brain that you wish you didn’t have, although I’d have preferred a few less beaks and tentacles and more left to the imagination.
“Hungry Heart” by Simon R Green
Part of the author’s “Nightside” series. PI John Taylor, the man who can find anything, is hired by Holly Wylde, a witch who claims that her former lover has stolen and hidden her heart. In fact, what she really wants is the rosewood box that he has ostensibly concealed the heart in. Others, of course, want the same thing, or whatever they think the box is.
Light dark fantasy. Traditional characters like vampires, witches and werewolves originated as the stuff of horror, but these days they are more likely to be used for romantic or comic effect.
Big Bad Betty liked to style herself the Queen of Hearts because she specialized in heart-related collectibles. She was currently offering the carefully preserved heart of Giacomo Casanova, (bigger than you’d think,) a phial of heart’s blood from Varney the Vampyre, and a pack of playing cards that once belonged to Lewis Carroll, with all the hearts painted in dried blood. Nothing special…
Of course this one also employs the form of the detective story, but likewise lightened to the point that nothing is horrific, or frightening, or fraught with any real angst. The concluding sentence, alas, is almost a pun.
“Styx and Stones” by Steven Saylor
In which the author takes his series hero, Gordianus the Finder, back to the days of his youth on a grand tour of the ancient world with his old teacher Antipater. They are in Babylon, where looters are carrying off the priceless ancient glazed bricks of the old city. The ruins, such as remain, are indeed wonders of the world, but the locals warn that the environs are haunted. “The innkeeper says there is a lemur at this nearby temple,” said Mushezib, “A woman dressed in moldering rags, with a hideous face. People fear to go there.” The woman, the locals believe, is the revenant of one of the unfortunate women who were required to go to the temple of Ishtar and wait for some man to lie with her; those who could not attract a man were forced to remain in the temple until they died. Gordianus, curious and skeptical, can’t resist climbing the wall of the temple to see for himself, and thus discovers a mysterious death which, of course, he solves.
This is the second of these Young Gordianus stories that I’ve seen, and I’m enjoying them, despite now discerning the outlines of the plot formula, in which our hero debunks rumors of the supernatural. There is a strong sense of the ruins of time, even in that era, and the author makes it clear that Romans and similar imperial conquerors have played their part in creating such ruins. As a Roman, young Gordianus feels a bit of guilt on behalf of his countrymen. Fans of the Gordianus series should also appreciate the early traits that later led him to become a detective in Rome, although the story is quite readable without prior knowledge of the character.
“Pain and Suffering” by S M Stirling
At night, Eric Salvador has a recurring nightmare from his service in Afghanistan. During the day, he’s a cop in Santa Fe, investigating an arson – a strange arson, involving a couple of people who almost don’t exist and maybe drink blood. Homeland Security shows up to tell him that nothing ever happened, but then Eric’s partner gets blown away and he doesn’t care anymore.
Since when has it made sense anyway? I’m thirty-two years old, no wife, no kids, and my best friend just died because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The only thing I’ve ever been any good at was killing people and frightening them. Cesar had twice my brains and now he’s dead and his girl’s dead.
A typical encounter with monsters and bureaucrats, a nice sense of place in the setting. This is one that could be called actual horror. The ending is quite abrupt and leaves the reader staring out at nothing, which may be just as well, since there are some things readers are best not understanding, or rather, things that are better imagined than told.
“It’s Still the Same Old Story” by Carrie Vaughn
Rick is a vampire whose elderly former lover Helen has just been killed by a very old enemy. A series of flashbacks to establishes their long relationship, and that’s where the real story is, more than in the present-day murder investigation.
Set in the universe of the author’s “Kitty” series, without its heroine. The story is one of immortality, the difficulty of keeping relationships with the mortal and ephemeral.
He’d been here before, lying with a woman who he liked, who with a little thought and nudging he could perhaps be in love with, except that what they had would never be entirely mutual, or equitable. And he still didn’t know what to say.
As an immortal, Rick and his problems are interesting, but as a vampire, he’s way too good to be true. It’s just not that easy.
“The Lady is a Screamer” by Conn Iggunden
Ghosts. Jack Garner started work as a scam artist, doing psychic readings door to door.
Hits are when you get a detail right that they think you couldn’t possibly know. “He says he remembers that time in the Maldives, does that mean anything to you?” It’s a golden moment and you never get tired of watching the last trace of cynicism drain away from them. All it takes is a couple of Barnum statements and a little research.
But one day he encounters an actual ghost, whom he removes from the house she was haunting. He names her the Lade and she becomes helpful in his work, which turns from clairvoyance to exorcism. Sometimes he really needs her help.
Of course ghost stories are a lot older than urban fantasy, as old as any story there is. Jack has an entertaining narrative voice, which is what makes the story, although he does minimal detecting.
“Hellbender” by Laurie R King
Science fiction mystery. A future in which people have discovered how to make human chimeras, splicing salamander DNA into human embryos who grow up to be the object of discrimination and intolerance, although many, like PI Mike Heller, pass for human. Others don’t try, and Harry Savoy is one of those. Now he has gone missing and his adopted sister suspects foul play. So does Mike, who knows how much certain scientists would like to cut them up under a microscope.
The title refers to a species of salamander, not demonic activity. There is no fantasy here. We’re not in the mean streets but the cruel laboratory. It’s more an action story than the brooding detective noir. Mike Heller comes across as professional and competent; despite his heritage, not filled with oppressive angst.
But just because there was no one waiting for me (and no one in the bathroom or in the closet) didn’t mean I was safe. In ninety seconds I had my gun, my hat, my go-bag of cash, and a clean shirt, and I was out the door.
“Shadow Thieves” by Glen Cook
A “Garrett, P I” story, part of a series that has had a formative influence on this subgenre from way back. As the story opens, a mob of uglies storms Garrett’s office but is repulsed by him and his associates.
Big Ugly finished collapsing. Two of his friends clamored right behind him. One tried to get hold of a very large, equally ugly human being who was down and squashing Dean because Singe’s victim had fallen forward onto him. The guy was still breathing but wouldn’t stick with it long. He had several serious leaks.
Of course the mystery is why, and what they were after, which is solved with the aid of Garrett’s telepathic associate the Dead Man. A stolen object of power is involved and several interested parties want it back. More murders, curses, and other complications ensue.
While the story is readable on its own, readers familiar with the series are likely to get more from it. Even so, the author isn’t much into tying off the strings and supplying neat resolutions. There’s at least as much mystery at the end as there was in the beginning, and, of course, Cook’s inimitable voice.
“No Mystery, No Miracle” by Melinda M Snodgrass
For millennia, beings from another universe have come to Earth and posed as gods, preying on humanity. Cross, once one of these, is now trying to help humans turn to the good side, but there are still openings in the universe and beings ready to take advantage of them. Cross is closing in on one of them, headed for the Democratic convention in Chicago, where the potential for harm is great.
The problem, Cross reflected as he made his way toward the bankrupt theater that Hanlin had appropriated, was that the kind of people who actually worshiped the loving god didn’t tend to lead crusades against unbelievers, start wars, stone whores, or behead adulterers. Which put Cross at a decided disadvantage, because what fed Old Ones was a frisson of both hate and fear. His brethren fed off the murderer and the victim, the torturer and the tortured, while Cross could only sup on charity and love and there just weren’t that many good people in the world.
Fantasy, though not particularly urban. The Depression setting is apt for the story, as hard times tend to lead to a rise in religious fanaticism. The author doesn’t make a secret of Cross’s identity, but she artificially boosts the tension by making him weak, as well as bound by a requirement not to kill in the course of his mission. I don’t know if it’s part of any series.
“The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery” by M L N Hanover
A girl is abducted and murdered in what appears to be a satanic rite, so the cops call in Scarrey to probe their suspect, who is claiming to be a demon.
We’ve got a camera on him, and he’s not just doing it when he knows we’re watching. Does it all the time. Calls himself Beleth, the King of Hell. Every now and then, he stops doing the whole voodoo thing, sounds like himself again, and he says he’s the victim of a huge satanic conspiracy. Asks us to help him. Begs, cries, shits himself. Then Beleth shows back up, and…”
Detective Mason can’t quite figure Scarrey out. He seems to be well-connected. He’s highly empathetic. He has good detective skills and knows a lot about demons and people who want to be possessed by them. But do demons actually exist?
A good bit of theology here, as well as moral philosophy; the distinction between a puzzle and a mystery is interesting, as well as Scarrey’s identity. It makes a good pair with the Snodgrass story, above.
“The Curious Case of the Deodand” by Lisa Tuttle
Victorian ghost story. Miss Lane, with no home and only twelve shillings in her purse, is in urgent need of employment when she sees the advertisement for a detective’s assistant. The detective, Jasper Jesperson, is a young man possessing high skills of either deduction or clairvoyance and compares himself to the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, in need of a Watson. In a coincidence too happy to be credible, Miss Lane has just left employment with the Society for Psychic Research, so it is an instant match. Their case involves a young woman whose previous fiancé was killed under mysterious circumstances; she now fears for her current intended husband, and suspicion points to her guardian, a collector of murder memorabilia. It is indeed a curious case, involving less the power of deduction than simple resolution. The strong note of feminism is not inappropriate to the age, and the narrative voice fits it well, although not so suitable for urban fantasy – this one belongs in the drawing room, not the mean streets. A nicely fitting conclusion, though I would have preferred the deodands rather less active.
“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” by Diana Gabaldon
A series story from a century before that one. Lord John Grey is in Jamaica on a mission to thwart the threatened insurrection brewing on the sugar plantations. He is told that the rebellious maroons employ zombies, and something very zombie-like attacks him on his first night at the governor’s mansion.
He gulped and breathed, trying to get clean air into his lungs, to replace the disgusting stench of the creature. He’d been a soldier most of his life; he’d seen the dead on battlefields, and smelled them, too. Had buried fallen comrades in trenches and burned the bodies of his enemies. He knew what graves smelled like, and rotting flesh. And the thing that had had its hands round his throat had almost certainly come from a recent grave.
But of course there is more going on, as if more were needed, than rebellions and zombies. There are curses and snakes and jealous females, and complications from the entanglements of Grey’s previous adventures.
A long story, an historical fantasy adventure with a large cast. The author plays loosely with the history, and this would have to be considered an alternate version. It is more adventure than mystery, more jungle than streets – mean or otherwise. The amount of attention paid to Grey’s backstory makes it likely that readers familiar with the series will appreciate it more than those new to the character.
“Beware the Snake” by John Maddox Roberts
Part of the author’s SPQR series of Roman-era mysteries. A priest of the Marsi comes to ask Decius Caecelius to retrieve the Marsian sacred snake of Agnita, which they believe to have been abducted and taken to Rome. Since the Marsi are clients of Caesar, his incentive to succeed is strong, despite the fact that the snake is question is a venomous swamp adder.
“You are aware, I take it, that almost all of the snake-charmers you see in the markets and at festivals are Marsian? They never use swamp adders for their performances. They would never touch one except for religious purposes. You aren’t really looking to buy one, are you, Senator?”
Locating the snake is suspiciously easy. Solving the concomitant murder is a stroke of dumb luck on the part of Caecelius. Lots of Roman history neep adds flavor – indeed, I think the flavor is the main dish. The tone is lighter than that of the Saylor story, and there is also no real fantastic element.
“In Red, With Pearls” by Patricia Briggs
Warren the werewolf is the Paul Drake to Kyle’s Perry Mason when the zombie in red dress and pearls comes into the office and attacks Kyle. Kyle wants to find whoever murdered her. Warren wants to find whoever wants to assassinate his lover.
Kyle had a lot more enemies than I did. When he chose to use it, his special gift was to make the opposing parties in a courtroom look either like violent criminals, or like complete idiots — and sometimes both. Some of them had quite a bit of money, enough to hire a killer, certainly.
Despite being rather overpopulated with supernaturals, this is a pretty straight detective story, and the supernaturals are used to good if not actual horrific effect; we can see their capacity for evil, but they have no monopoly on it. The murdered woman turned zombie is more than a mcguffin; she is a person who mattered, whose death has devastated the family who loved her, a person who deserves justice. The detective element is credible, and the plot is nicely populated with suspects. The identity of the villain comes as a twist I didn’t anticipate. I liked the story better than I had expected, and only wish there had been rather less backstory, apparently from a series, about the love affair between Warren and Kyle.
“The Adakian Eagle” by Bradley Denton
Stationed in the Aleutians during WWII, the narrator discovers an eagle apparently sacrificed in a blood rite. As it happens, Dashiell really Hammett is stationed on the same island and is sent with the narrator to investigate, whereupon they discover a dead man nearby, with an eagle feather in his pocket. And an Aleut shaman. Hammett doesn’t want to get involved or tell the colonel.
“I’ll tell you what he’d do,” Pop said. “He’d question us repeatedly. He’d make us trek back up here with M.P.’s. He’d order us to fill out reports in triplicate. He’d force me to run a speculative and sensational story in The Adakian, even though it’s a Navy matter and affects our boys not at all. And then he’d question us again and make us fill out more reports. And all for what?”
Unfortunately, the colonel takes it into his head to charge the narrator as the killer, so people who don’t want to get involved have to get involved.
I knew straight off this was going to be a good one when the author mentioned a couple of sad sacks on the base, and I knew that he knows what that phrase really means. There’s a body and an investigation and some justice done, but all that is incidental to the fact that this is an homage to Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and father of noir detective fiction. It is also a tribute to the soldiers who fought the Battle of the Aleutians, which Hammett documented in print. This is a rich mine, and Denton has brought up gold from it.