A Review of Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination, by David Nickle

Review by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

 

Radiant, Not Abominable

Apologies, first, for any spoilers in this review, but readers should know they’ll get plenty of good stuff, even if they have a heads-up on some of the reveals. Stoker Award-winning Canadian author David Nickle presents a historical-fantastical body-horror epic, looping in Brownshirts, fighter aces, extreme biology and the nature of faith. And if that sounds like a potent mix, well, try it and see.

Volk unfolds in Europe c.1931, with occasional flashbacks to pre-war America. The Volk of the title refers, of course, to Germanic völkisch ideology, but also to a different and more intense group identity, centred on a parasitic organism, the Juke, which can appropriate human drives, beliefs, and even perceptions to its own needs. The Nazis, and other groups, including the survivors of past encounters with the Juke, are all interested in exploring and exploiting those properties – for diverse purposes and through all sorts of means, some of them very atrocious.

The book is a sequel to Nickle’s previous work on eugenics, also from Chizine, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, which originally articulated “the biology and parasitology” of the Juke. “I’d never written a sequel until this one,” the author observes in the Acknowledgments. Personally, I hadn’t read Eutopia prior to reading Volk, and still haven’t, but I can tell you that it’s not necessary to do so to catch up on the extensive backstory (you can read more about that here), as Nickle does manage to communicate all the necessary information without Volk feeling like an appendage. He also does a great job of evoking the atmosphere of interwar Europe without overdoing the period detail, in a way that recalls Eric Ambler’s “Popular Front” thrillers. Nickle has appeared in the Queer Fear series, but any overt homoeroticism in Volk is laid on with a light touch. Read more »

A Review of The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Review by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

Stone Three

The Stone Sky, third in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series, comes hard on the heels of her second Hugo Award for the trilogy’s second volume, The Obelisk Gate. This is definitely not a standalone volume, though: you absolutely need to have read the first two books of The Broken Earth series to know what’s going on. All the same, it fairly zips along, with fewer words spent on explication – even though Jemisin is an expert world-builder. This means there are few of the quieter, reflective passages that allowed readers to get the measure of Jemisin’s imagined post-multiple-apocalyptic world and society: events push towards a grand finale. Massively grand. In the process, the backstory behind the whole narrative comes fully into focus for the first time, raising the stakes by more than a few orders of magnitude. That also gives The Stone Sky an uncommon quality in multi-volume fantasy cycles these days: Un-put-down-ability. I finished it in a couple of days. Read more »

A Review of Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Review by J. S. Loveard

“Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome.”

So says the often arch narrator of Ian McEwan’s latest novel NutshellThe story? Shakespeare’s HamletIn twenty first century London, the narrator discovers that his mother, Trudy, and his uncle, Claude, are not only lovers, but are plotting to murder his father, the poet and publisher John Cairncross.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Hamlet only begins to suspect his uncle’s involvement in ‘murder most foul’ after the deed is done. But this is not the only premature element in McEwan’s retelling. In Nutshell, the narrator is a nine-month-old foetus speaking to us from his mother’s womb, eloquent beyond his years through what he gleans from podcasts, television and BBC radio.  Read more »

A Review of The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

 

Review by William Grabowski

[A] very large yellow butterfly with black spots like microchips on its wings; flying toward her: It had a scrunched-up, old man’s brown face, with wrinkles, sort of pruney, she thought.

 

Jane Yolen has been referred to as “the Hans Christian Anderson of children’s literature,” a claim I’m not qualified to dispute. But her unerring ability to transform even the most mundane events, objects, and people into mythic gold is too well-known for doubt, earning—among others—awards such as the Nebula, World Fantasy, Rhysling, and Caldecott Medal. Yolen was the second woman to attain the position of president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Read more »

A Review of Mongrels: A Novel, by Stephen Graham Jones

Review by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

A Howling Good Time

I reviewed Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior here recently, and I’m glad to report that Mongrels: A Novel is very different. It also deserves every accolade it’s received. Mongrels won a slew of best novel nominations, including for the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award and Bram Stoker Award. In contrast to Mapping the Interior, though, Jones’s Blackfeet origins don’t emerge at all into the story – at least explicitly. If they’re there, they’re like werewolf hair – under the skin of the story. Read more »

A Review of Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories, by Caroline M.Yoachim

 

Review by William Grabowski

She was not a ship at all; she was the ocean, deep and vast, with a form forever changing in waves of green and blue.

I’ve been fortunate these past weeks to receive books by authors mostly new to me—including Caroline M. Yoachim‘s debut collection. As much as Weird Fiction has evolved since roughly the late 90s, Science Fiction, in the hands of writers like Yoachim, has responded even more radically to the times.

Beyond the stories’ obvious value, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World is precisely the collection for readers not wholly invested in the “gosh-wow” factor that drives most—but not all—technologically oriented novels and short fiction. This is not to say Yoachim’s work displays no interest in exploring technology’s indelible role in speculative futures—it does. But the carefully figured science and engineering are embedded, favoring characterizations and storytelling. By embedded, I mean it isn’t necessary to comprehend—second by second—exactly how your coffee-maker’s circuitry operates during the brewing cyle in order to reap its benefits. You already know the machine’s function, so can focus on other matters. Read more »

A Review of She Said Destroy, by Nadia Bulkin

Review by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

Destroying Your Certainty

Nadia Bulkin’s debut collection comes roaring out of the gate with one of the strongest titles of the year. As far as I know, the title is nothing to do with Marguerite Duras’s Destroy, She Said. Nor, fortunately, is it anything to do with the song by Death in June. But it does demonstrate a gift for titles also evident in the 13 stories in the collection. All of the stories but one have appeared in other publications, but given their quality, that’s no surprise. Quite a few of those appearances are in “Year’s Best” anthologies – again, no surprise. Three of the stories were nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. And that title immediately gives you some idea of why. Read more »

A Review of Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Review by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

Inescapable Origins

I already had the pleasure of reviewing Stephen Graham Jones’s superb short story collection After the People Lights Have Gone Off, so it’s an equal pleasure to renew acquaintance with his often very domestic focus. But that’s domestic in an entirely different sense than you might think. Here, it’s a 1140 square feet modular house, where the protagonist Junior, then age 12, first sees the form of his dead father, in full Indian fancydancer regalia with “spikes coming out from his lower back,” step out of the kitchen. The family have left the Blackfeet reservation where his father died, yet “you can leave the reservation, but your income level will still land you in a reservation house, won’t it?” And that’s where the family are stuck. With something mysterious, and potentially very malign, coming after them. Read more »

A Review of The New Voices of Fantasy, Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

 

Review by William Grabowski

By the time Aiko leaves, her footsteps echoing down the hallway, I’ve dug deep gouges in the door’s paint with my nails and teeth, my mouth full of her intoxicating scent.

The key word in this anthology’s title is new, and if that doesn’t quicken your heart, a sampling of the impressively diverse voices will. Editors Beagle and Weisman, both top-tier in their own right, seem to have absorbed the generous reach and flexible sensibility of Ellen Datlow who—like them—knows that a writer’s name and/or present level of accomplishment have little to do with storytelling. No one needs to be reminded that common expectations of plot and originality crumble into ash when handled by masterful writers. Read more »

A Review of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, by James Morrow

 

Review by William Grabowski

Now he began spinning in circles—like a deranged dancer, or a whirling dervish, or a man inhabited by devils….

James Morrow explores ideas with visionary audacity and a satirical (yet nonetheless disturbing) bent perhaps unequaled since Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series—as if directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I like to imagine eavesdropping as some curious stranger—hearing Morrow’s profession—blurts, “Ooh, an author! What do you write?”

“Well,” says a stoic Morrow, “one of ’em features the divine half-sister of Jesus Christ. She’s been reincarnated in Atlantic City. Another one picks up after the death of God, and no one knows what to do with the 2-mile-long corpse. Bummer.” Read more »