Friday, May 24, 2013


By Susana Clark
Tor Books
1006 pages
Originally published 2004

Why is it I have books in my library that are nearly a decade old and I’ve yet to read them?  Now a devoted book reader will understand that conundrum all too well.  You see, it is virtually impossible for me to visit a bookstore and leave without buying something; even if I’ve already way too many books at home to get to.  None of that concerns me. The only fact that matters is I’ve found a title that intrigues me and so I buy it, take it home and, as mentioned above, stick it on the shelf until the time I choose to read it. Trust me, book lovers around the world do this all the time.  It is nothing unusual for us bibliophiles.

Of course there is another element that needs to be taken into consideration when reflecting on this topic of “when” a certain title will get read.  You see, I am a slow reader and never-ever worry about how long it takes me to get through the any title.  With any normal book of two to three hundred pages, I can expect to finish them in one week and this allows me to post a new book review here every week.  But that all goes out the window with books that are way-way bigger than the norm.  Knowing those will eat up weeks of my allotted reading time; I tend to put off picking them up until something out of the ordinary spurs me to do so.  Such was the case with this particular book, which, according to the interior data was first released to public in 2004.  This being the paperback edition, it has been sitting on my bookshelf for seven to eight years now.

What was that extra prompt that made me finally open it up?  Answer; recently having learned that BBC Television is going to produce it as a mini-series.  Intrigued by that revelation, there was no way I wanted to end up watching this series and not have read the source material.  Thus four weeks ago I packed it away in my traveling bag and took it with me to the Windy City Pulp & Paper convention.  At the airport I began the long journey through Susanna Clarke’s 1006 pages of delightful fantasy adventure and just now have put it down, finished.

In the late 1800s Britain is without any practicing magicians though we are told the country once had a rich tradition of such practitioners.  Alas, with the passage of time, they fell out of grace with the general public who, in their fickle nature, turned their interest and attention to the wonders of modern science.  No longer were spells and potions sought after and soon the transparent roadways that led to the fairy kingdoms became overgrown with brush until their very existence became a thing of myth and legend. Magic was a thing of the past.

So it would have remained save for the appearance of a quiet recluse named Mr. Norrell who one day makes his presence known claiming to be the only remaining magician in all of England.  When others dare to challenge his claim, Norrell suggest a test by which he will prove his ability to create something miraculous.  If he succeeds all other so called theoretical magicians must end their studies of the occult forever.  Needless to say Norrell is most successful making all the stone statues of a church come to life and start talking to the assembly gathered there.  The event propels Norrell to instant fame and he moves from his rural home to London along with his manservant.  There he is soon the most sought after celebrity in the city.  But at heart, Norrell is still a recluse and would prefer to remain at home studying in his vast library of magical lore.

When he ill advisedly resurrects a young woman who died days before her wedding to a British Lord of Parliament. Norrell has to call upon a cruel and sadistic fairy that exacts a wicked price for his assistance in reviving the maid, though ironically Norrell remains totally aloof to the tragedy he has created.

The book’s plot then picks up pace with the introduction of Jonathan Strange, a shy, introverted young nobleman who, on a whim, decides to take up magic as a livelihood.  Much to his surprise, and everyone else, Strange discovers he actually possesses the skills to do magic and is soon weaving various spells to the amusement and delight of his friends and fiancé, Arabella.  When Mr. Norrell learns there is another practicing magician in England he feels threatened, worried that the lad will upset the comfortable lifestyle he has carefully constructed for himself.  But when the two meet, Norrell is charmed by Strange’s naïve personality and takes him on as his student shortly after Jonathan and Arabella marry.

At the heart of the book’s conflict is the evil fairy who, upon rediscovering his ability to cross from his world to ours, sets about kidnapping the souls of innocent people he takes a fancy to, keeping them his spiritual prisoners.  Ultimately he sets his sights on Arabella and goes as far as to fake her death so that he may keep her forever in his fantasy land.  But the foul creature had not counted on Jonathan Strange keen intellect and stubbornness; his refusal to let any puzzle go unsolved.  In the end it is Strange who unravels the evil fairy’s schemes and sets about confronting him, human magic versus fairy magic.

Please understand, there is a whole lot more that happens in this whopping tome and covering every subplot and character would require me to write a book-long review.  Suffice it to say “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” is a grand fantasy adventure that will demand a reader’s willingness to sacrifice hour upon hour of his or her time but the rewards will be proportional as it is a fantastically brilliant novel that is so well imagined that by its conclusion, I was sincerely sad to see it come to a close.  Though it does so in one of the most touching and loving scenes ever put to paper.

One of the major characters asks Strange, should they become separated for whatever reason, how are they to remember him.  He answers, “Think of me with my nose in a book.”  1006 pages to reach that line and my eyes watered as I added, “Amen.”

Review – Epilogue
During this time, wanting to keep this column active, I was saved by the contributions of several dear friends who offered to submit as “guest reviewers.” My humble and deep thanks to Nancy Hansen, Todd Jones and Derrick Ferguson for their marvelous reviews.

Monday, May 20, 2013

WARBIRDS OF MARS - Stories of the Fight

(Stories of the Fight)
Edited by Kane Gilmour & Scott P. Vaughn
Quick Draw Books
ISBN – 10:0984954813
ISBN – 13: 978-0984954810
476 pages
Guest Reviewer Derrick Ferguson

Here’s the thing; I love The Internet. I truly do. Yes, there’s a lot crap out there that gets in the way of the good stuff but the good stuff is there. It just sometimes takes me a while to get around it. Take for instance the webcomic WARBIRDS OF MARS that has been around for a goodish amount of time now. I, however have been woefully ignorant of it until I was made aware of the anthology WARBIRDS OF MARS: STORIES OF THE FIGHT and while it’s a hefty introduction to the situation and principal characters at the heart of the series it is one well worth reading due to the interesting mix of talent involved.
The set-up is fairly easy to get hold of: Invaders from outer space attack The Earth while it’s engaged in World War II. The alien invaders actually aren’t Martians but what the hey, WARBIRDS OF MARS is a great title so let’s not spoil it with minor details. The Martians have chosen this time to invade as for years they’ve had agents on Earth, half-alien/half-human fifth columnists that have been working behind the scenes to make the invasion easier. And with the world powers fragmented and not able to work together it’s not long before many major cities and nations are conquered and under control of the invaders. But there’s still hope: human resistance forces are fighting back with every weapon and resource at their command to take back the planet.
The core characters of WARBIRDS OF MARS: STORIES OF THE FIGHT! are an elite cadre of resistance fighters known as The Martian Killers. The leader is Hunter Noir, a fedora wearing, trenchcoated man of mystery who keeps his face bandaged. Jack Paris is your typical wisecracking, two-fisted pilot/adventurer. Josie Taylor is the team’s femme fatale and Mr. Mask is a human/alien hybrid who has joined the resistance, proving to be a valuable asset to the the team due to his having been trained by a samurai master.
These characters all get plenty of time to strut their stuff both in solo stories and in stories where they all work together but WARBIRDS OF MARS: STORIES OF THE FIGHT! also takes the opportunity to show what is going on with other people trying to survive in this hellish brave new world in various locations around the globe and through the eyes of characters both human and alien.
“Hunter Noir” by Scott P. Vaughn leads off the anthology with the origin of the leader of The Martin Killers and how the invasion began. It’s a good origin story with the only bump in it for me is the sudden decision by the protagonist to become a masked man of mystery while being hunted by the enemy and whipping up a costume and new name for himself in no time flat but y’know what? That’s just me. It’s that kind of story and you either go along with it or not. It wasn’t enough to make me stop reading the story and that’s the main thing.
“In The World Today” by Megan E. Vaughn is one of my favorite stories in the anthology as it concerns a small-town movie date and the effects the Martian Invasion has on it. It’s a short slice of small town American life kind of story but it doesn’t skimp on the characterization.
I love the weird western comic book “Desperadoes” written by Jeff Mariotte so it’s no surprise that I loved “Southern Cross” even though it wasn’t set in the Southwestern United States as I might have expected. (Ron Fortier takes care of that part of the country…we’ll get to it soon…be patient) No, Jeff takes us out to the South China Sea for this one as Jack Paris gets involved in Oriental skullduggery.
“The Deadly Triad” by Alex Ness is a nifty little look into what’s going on with the Chinese and Japanese and I greatly appreciated the break from the slam bang adventure of the previous story to take the time out to see what was going on elsewhere in the beleaguered world.
Sean Ellis has long been one of my favorite writers who never fails to disappoint and he doesn’t do so with “The Farmboy’s Adventure” which has an ending that I truly did not see coming and when it did I immediately went back to the beginning of the story to see if there were any clues that I had missed. I’m betting you’ll do the same.
“The Bitter Edge” is by Kane Gilmore and is another origin story. This one concerning Mr. Mask, so called because he wears a German gas mask constantly. He’s a lot of fun to read about as I kinda get the idea that Kane’s inspiration for the character was G.I. Joe’s Snake Eyes. But with Mr. Mask being a Martian/Human hybrid training how to be a samurai warrior brings an added dimension to the character that moves the story into an exploration of identity and self-respect that lifts it a notch above just another action/adventure entry.
As promised, Ron Fortier serves up a wild west romp with “The Monsters of Adobe Wells” which takes The Monster Killers way out west to team up with Sioux warrior Charlie Three-Feathers, a character I wouldn’t mind seeing more of if there are future WARBIRDS OF MARS anthology. And again, the changeup in setting provides readers with another aspect of the war against the invaders. The international aspect of this anthology is one of the best things about it and a western story fits in here just fine.
Megan E. Vaughn returns for “The Skull of Lazarus” which is a story that makes me wonder if Megan is a “Thunderbirds” fan as her Lady Doyle and Jerry reminded me strongly of Lady Penelope Creighton and her bodyguard/chauffeur Parker. This is an adventure built for nothing but sheer thrills and like Ron’s Charlie Three-Feathers, I hope to see more of Lady Doyle.
“Red Sky Phoenix: The Rise of Free Russia” is another snapshot from Alex Ness as to what’s going on in yet another part of the world. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have even more of these prose postcards in future anthologies (you think they’ve gotten the hint yet?)
“Human Guile” by Chris Samson is where I finally hit a major bump. I’ve read this story twice and still can’t quite wrap my head around what the story is about. It just seemed to me like there was way too much plot and way too many characters doing things I just didn’t understand why they were doing them. For me, motivation is a Big Deal in my fiction. It’s not necessary for me to like or dislike the characters but I do demand that the writer establish why they’re doing what they’re doing and I simply didn’t get that here.
“Surprise” by Stephen M. Irvin is indeed that as I didn’t expect to find a hard-boiled noir story in here but I as I continued reading more and more into this anthology it soon became apparent to me that this concept could and did support a variety of genre stories very well indeed such as J.H. Ivanov’s “The Road Out of Antioch” and “Shipwrecked” by David Lindblad, both of which are out-and-out horror stories with “The Road Out of Antioch” approaching Lovecraftian proportions of cosmic dread. It’s that good, trust me.
“Refined Elegance” by Scott P. Vaughn takes us home and if I had to make a choice between this one and “Hunter Noir” I’d have to go with this one, much as I liked “Hunter Noir.” It’s told from the point of view of Josie Taylor. The Martian Killers have been doing that for quite a while now, the war appears to have no end in sight and Josie is starting to ask herself and her teammates some hard questions the dangerous missions they routinely go on.
The stories are complimented by strong, solid artwork from Jean Arrow, Adriano Carreon, Mike DeBalfo, Bill Farmer, Matt Goodall, Christian Guldager, Robert Hack, Rob Hicks, John Lucas, Paul Roman Martinez, Nathan Morris, Dan Parsons, Nik Poliwko, Richard Serrao and Jason Worthington that serve the needs of the stories they were drawn for, successfully evoking the mood and tone of the prose.
So should you read WARBIRDS OF MARS: STORIES OF THE FIGHT? I certainly think so. One of my concerns about New Pulp is that it not fall into a rut. Masked avengers of the night and scientific adventurers are cool as hell, no doubt about it. But New Pulp can’t survive on a steady diet of those. Stories such as the ones in WARBIRDS OF MARS: STORIES OF THE FIGHT! that gives us mashups of war stories mixed with science fiction, horror, day in the life, hard-boiled noir and other genres provide a refreshing new dish for the palate of our imagination to taste and savor. It’s a solid package as you get a lot of story and art for your money and time. Enjoy.