Okay, a change from politics and me making tortured analogies tying my world view to the works of early 20th century fantasy writers. I have caught up on a bunch of really good books that had been sitting in my to-read pile and I highly, highly recommend each and every one of them!
A Song For No Man’s Land is yet another one of the Weird War 1 kind of novels that have started to trend in recent years. It is also one of the best of the bunch. If you look at the Amazon reviews, you’ll see that a lot of the biggest complaints are about the pacing and the hazy, dreamlike quality of the supernatural leaking into the story. Those are actually what I liked most about it. It’s a fantasy story about the horrors of the trenches, and in many ways the worst of the horror comes from the agonizingly long waits between fights, when these men were stuck in nightmarish mud-graves with hungry rats, watching their own body parts start to rot off from the accumulation of filth. I think it’s incredibly important not to forget how awful the trenches were and I take a lot of offense from books that try to whitewash it or focus only on the heroic aspects of WW1. This book does neither. The monstrous creatures from the forest and below the earth are like a welcome reprieve from the man-made hell of the battlefield, and they tap into mythologies I haven’t seen used as reference for a very long time. You’re not going to find anything remotely traditional about the monsters, no well-worn tropes to hold onto for comfort, you know as little about them as the protagonists do. I will say that the first book is very much a “setting up all the pieces” opening, but it’s a novella and short enough to power through to get into the real meat of the trilogy. Read back to back, Song matches seamlessly with Return of Souls and The Iron Beast to form what feels like single book of nice length.
Next up, a change of pace from trench warfare – I read Brom’s new book Lost Gods. Man. It’s hard to explain Brom to people who haven’t read Brom before. The best way I can think to describe his work is that it has many similarities to Neil Gaiman’s work, but filtered through three layers of smoke and bluegrass music. It’s gritty and earthy and tremendously grounded in the details, which makes the supernatural elements pop that much more. He deftly weaves together elements of world mythologies with very simple, powerful, human emotions. Lost Gods draws heavily on the Orpheus myths and follows a man’s journey into the afterlife to try and save his wife and unborn child from a horrible monster that stalks the threshold world between life and death. He finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy between old and new death gods, fighting against ancient spirits, aided by scorched angels and cursed blades, armed with a sack of pennies more powerful than most weapons. If you ever played the old World of Darkness games way back in the 90s, there’s a lot of nods here to the setting of Wraith: The Oblivion. Styga is a mesh of every afterlife, a chaotic jumble where souls try to eke out a second existence while harried by forces beyond their comprehension. Oh, and Charon – one of my favorite mythological figures – plays prominently, so massive bonuses.
I feel like if I had gotten into Brom at a younger age a lot of my own writing would probably be unconscious attempts to ape his style, so I’m glad I only discovered his work as an adult who can appreciate it both as a reader and a writer.
The third big one I read recently was Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree, the sixth book in his Rivers of London series. Have I spoken about Rivers before? I don’t think I have. I discovered them last year during my first trip to Australia when I had something like 40 hours combined flying in the round trip and that meant stockpiling a couple dozen books on my kindle. I devoured the first five back to back, completely fell in love with the setting and the characters. If I had to compare it to anything I would probably say the Dresden Files just for being a sharp urban fantasy series, but honestly it’s so different from anything else I’ve read in the genre. It combines elements of the cozy mystery, the BBC police procedural, old school Doctor Who (kind of a given, considering Aaronovitch has worked on the show in the past), an intense love for the history of London and the surrounding areas going back to ancient times… It’s a hectic mess but in a fun way to read, if that makes sense. It’s less about showing off the magic and more explaining the foibles of that magic and trying to integrate it with contemporary police technology. There are times when the main characters eschew a spell and go “no, this is dumb, it would work great in the 1800s but computers have actually outpaced the supernatural here” instead. I’m a monster who took advantage of ordering it through one of the commonwealth Amazon sites since it doesn’t come out in the USA until January, but that gives you plenty of time to catch up on the series if you haven’t tried it before. Trust me, I’m a huge urban fantasy snob and very few series have grabbed me as well as this one – it’s got jazz-eating vampires, immigrant river avatars, some of the best fairies in fiction, weaponized poltergeists, and a geriatric wizard who once “dueled” a Panzerkampfwagen Tiger and came out unscratched.
Outside of reading a shitload of books, work has been very good. I’m coming to the end of my current contract and have another lined up, much longer term, to work with a kids’ cancer care project down in the southern half of the city. It looks like it’s an hour commute each way by bus so I should have plenty of time to churn through more books while I work there. I might have to re-invest in an Audible subscription and start renting those again, last time I used them was when I had a similar commute in NYC.
I’m finding myself more and more drawn into charity work and nonprofits lately. Now that I actually have time to write, and I’m realistic about probably not having a blockbuster series I can support myself with right out the gate, I’d like my “day job” to be something that actually helps other people even if it doesn’t pay as well as a cozier office job. I get home a lot less tired having done something that feels useful nowadays, compared to the old cubicle city and ten hour days to make ends meet.
Oh, and I scheduled a new tattoo for January. First one in Australia. I forgot that when you aren’t buddies with the artist you have to wait forever, but it’ll be worth getting a killer Morpheus from The Sandman filling the big gap in my flash sleeve!