Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Stretching Characters Until They Break: Exit Stage Left

When I heard that EXIT STAGE LEFT: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan) would reinvent Snagglepuss as a gay playwright in the 1950s, I thought that sounded doable. Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss was a flamboyant, eccentric, theatrical character; being gay wasn’t that big a stretch. Russell already stretched the premise of The Flintstones for their comic book, and I liked that one, so why wouldn’t this one work.

It didn’t, at least not for me. Russell’s Flintstones, while not as sitcommy as the original, still played for satirical laughs. Exit Stage Left is serious, and rather glum.

Snagglepuss was a Hanna-Barbera character from their 1960s TV wave, noted most for his phraseology, such as “Exit, stage left!” (or right, or center) when it came time to amscray. Here he’s a celebrated Southern playwright facing pressure from the government for writing dramas that cast a critical eye on American society — why is he playing into Communist hands by saying America isn’t perfect? In his first encounter with the Unamerican Activities Committee, he stares them down and makes them look like idiots, but the heat is still on. Which is not a good thing, as despite marriage, he’s a closeted gay anthropomorphic big cat. So is his former lover Huckleberry Hound, a rising author who visits New York and discovers what it’s like to be openly out in a place like Stonewall. In between Snagglepuss coping with crises in his latest production, and a Cuban boyfriend who wants to go home and participate in Castro’s revolution, Huck falls in love with Quick Draw McGraw, a closeted cop. Yes, no way sleeping with a cop back when gay was still illegal could turn out bad? Spoiler: it turns out bad.

As a story, it’s well-executed (Russell shares his thoughts on the book at Vox). But it’s so damn serious (what else could it be given the premise) that seeing a bunch of comical cartoon characters cast in downbeat drama felt very off. Nor were any of them particularly like their characters in the ‘toons. Snagglepuss is thoughtful, brooding, literate. Huck is just kind of there. Dimwitted, loudmouthed Quickdraw is insecure and shy. Peter Pottamus, a globetrotting, time-traveling explorer, is the stage manager on Snagglepuss’s latest project. It’s that last one that particularly bugged me; there’s a point to reinventing Snagglepuss and Huck, but putting Peter backstage is just name dropping (that might have worked if I liked the story better though). Ditto Augie Doggie in a supporting role.

As someone who uses a fair number of old characters in various stories, from Conan (by another name) to John Galt (ditto) to Sherlock Holmes, it’s a useful reminded that there are limits to what can be done before the names become basically meaningless; they’re not the characters they’re supposed to be (as I observed with A Study in Honor) which makes using them counter-productive. Of course that point is going to be subjective. Millennials who’ve never seen the old Hanna-Barbera stuff might have a higher tolerance for Exit Stage Left than me, who remembers them well. But it’s still worth keeping in mind.

#SFWApro. Cover by Mike Feehan.

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Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

#SFWApro. Mug design by the Philosopher’s Guild, cover illustration by Thea Harvey, all rights remain with current holders.

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Delivering on the hook: A Study in Honor

Claire O’Dell’s A STUDY IN HONOR shows the pros and cons of a story having a strong hook. If this hadn’t been billed as “gay female black Watson and Holmes in near future setting” I probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But the price of hooking me is that I not only judge the novel on its merits but as a Holmes and Watson variant.

The same problem crops up in Silver Age DC, where it was routine to design a grabber cover, then write the story to fit. Sometimes (as in the Gil Kane cover here) it worked; sometimes the strain to work the hook into the story was obvious. I’ve also seen it in nonfiction articles, like one that starts off somewhere in the Iowa cornfields … and then jumps to a nearby office where the interview is taking place. The cornfields added nothing except some color and some wordage.

In short, a good hook is a wonderful thing, but only if it pays off. I don’t think O’Dell delivered on hers.

In the opening, Dr. Jane Watson returns to DC from service in America’s next Civil War, triggered by the alt.right (as common with dystopian fiction, the future reflects the present). She’s burned out, stuck with a poorly fitted prosthetic and unable to squeeze a new one out of the VA bureaucracy. Her lover dumped her. Jane does landa cool apartment with eccentric Sara Holmes, but the Holmes drives Watson up the wall. After watching Jane suffer for half the book, one of her friends in the VA medical system is murdered. To her surprise, Sara takes an interest in the crime …

And that synopsis captures the reasons this didn’t work for me. When I read a Holmes and Watson story, I expect Holmes and Watson, the team supreme. I expect a mystery, with them working to solve it. I don’t expect half the book to focus on Watson’s personal issues, with no mystery and almost no Holmes. O’Dell says she wanted to make Watson more than just Holmes’ sidekick, and if she’d been writing Doyle’s Holmes and Watson that might have worked. But she’s writing two people who are merely claiming the mantle, so I’m less forgiving.

Then there’s the first meeting between Holmes and Watson. As usual, Sara knows everything about Watson, instantly … so she Googles Jane. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not Holmes. Sure, Holmes would use computers (he does on Elementary) but a first encounter where pretty much anyone can get the same information is pointless (I expect any Holmes to do something Google can only dream of).

If O’Dell hadn’t made her heroes Holmes and Watson, I don’t know I’d have liked the book anyway. It’s not quite my thing, and O’Dell’s writing style is really stiff. But without the hook that failed, it would have stood a better chance.

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Sunk by Sexism: The Warded Man

If not for the sexism, I’d class Peter Brett’s THE WARDED MAN as flawed but fun. Fun enough that for a while I thought I’d have to make an effort to get the second book in the series. Instead, it’s a demonstration of how sexism can undercut a good story (though the Demon Cycle ended up encompassing five books, so obviously it didn’t ruin things for everyone)

I certainly like the core concept. Demons rule the night; go outside the wards around each city, town and village after dark and you die. Communities more than a day’s walk away are isolated, except for the Messengers who travel with portable wards. The best people can hope for is survival. Artel, the central of the three protagonists, can’t accept that. After he sees his father refuse to leave the wards to try to save Mom, Artel leaves home, determined to become a Messenger and to fight against the demons. He has a natural gift for warding and in the early sections of the book masters the art. Skip several years ahead and he’s a mighty warrior, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Krasnians, stereotypcailly Muslim-esque desert dwellers who war against the demons despite constant casualties. Skip a few more years and by tattooing wards on his skin Artel has become the Warded Man, an unstoppable demon slayer.

This period, unfortunately, is undercut by skipping and synopsizing so much of Artel’s journey. It’s like a D&D character working up to sixth level, then blam, he’s twelfth level. Them blam again, he’s twentieth! It lost my interest so maybe I wouldn’t have gone with book two anyway. But the sexism was a bigger problem for me.

Because the demons kill so many people, there’s a desperate need to keep the birthrate up. Women, with rare exceptions, stay home, keep house and pop out kids (the Krasnians, of course, are way more sexist). Most women are cool with this, but they’re not cool with men wanting to go off and fight demons or serve as Messengers instead of staying home where it’s safe. Women wanting to tie men down and stop them having fun/adventures is an old annoying stereotype, particularly when almost all the women are like that (Brett does better with this than Robert Silverberg, but that’s a low bar to jump over). We’re told that in one city women who’ve given birth play a role in the government, but we don’t see it.

Then there’s Leesha, the female protagonist (Rojer, a wandering minstrel, is the third). Starting out as protege to a herbalist/healer, she eventually sets off on a journey where she meets Rojer and later Artel. Rebelling against the pressure to marry, she looks like she could become a promising character … but somehow her arc is all about her sex life. The boyfriend who can’t accept she won’t marry him, then lies about having popped her cherry. The constant pressure from her mother. The constant fending off of advances or rape attempts. The struggle to stay virgin. Only tragically, when she has her adventure, she becomes a raped virgin. Like an earlier chapter which casually tosses off that one supporting character sleeping with his own daughter, the rape feels like an attempt at grimdark, but it feels annoyingly cliched, not gritty and realistic. Even less so when Brett has Leesha almost instantly shrug off her trauma so she can put moves on Artel.

There was a lot of stuff I liked in the book, but not enough to make up for all that.

#SFWApro. Cover by Larry Rostant, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Should magic have a price? Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

It’s been a while since I did an Is Our Writers Learning? post, which is partly because I think the format’s become a little stiff (check through some of my past posts for examples). So this time out, I’m going to take a question—does magic need to have a price attached?—and what I learned about it from reading Revisionary: Magic Ex Libris Book Four by Jim C. Hines.

This was the fourth and final book in the series (I’ve also read one, two and three). The premise is that Gutenberg developed printing because the psychic effect of hundreds or thousands of people reading an identical text gives it a kind of reality; libriomancers such as protagonist Isaac Vainio can reach into a book and pull out, say, Lucy’s healing elixir from Narnia, Excalibur or the love magnet from The Road to Oz (some books are locked so that nobody can access ultrapowerful items such as the One Ring or the Cosmic Cube).

Over the course of the previous three books, the existence of magic became public knowledge and the immortal Gutenberg bought the farm. In this one Isaac’s getting it from all sides: the government’s cracking down, there’s a conspiracy within the Porters (the libriomancer’s guild) to sell out, and he’s using so much magic he’s burning out.

Which brings me to the point of my post. My friend Gail Z. Martin has commented on several Illogicon panels that magic must have a price to make the story interesting. I don’t necessarily agree. Magic does need to have limits, but I don’t think it’ll suffer if the hero pays not penalty. And the price can be something as simple as “you’ll spend years of your life studying to master it” or “dealing with demons is risky.” Then again, I’m not a fan of the Charmed approach where magic is easy, basically just a super-power. Then again, I enjoyed Charmed just the same, and several other TV series/films that take the same approach.

Revisionary is an argument for Gail’s position, I think. For all that Isaac talks about the danger of what he’s doing, and the damage using so much magic does to him, he ultimately uses a shit-ton of it without a price. He’s waaaay more powerful than in the previous books. He wields magic from Jim Butcher and Alice in Wonderland, tech from Philip K. Dick and Roger Stern’s The Death and Life of Superman; he flies, ray-blasts, has force fields and telepathy. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance, although Hines does make the final battle challenging. It’s quite obvious Isaac could be even more powerful if he tried: draw out Captain America’s shield from one of the Marvel print novels or Superman’s invulnerable costume from, say, the Bronze Age novel Last Son of Krypton (the Stern novel came out when the costume wasn’t super).

Ultimately, it really is too easy for him. But it’s also entertaining, seeing Isaac become a superhero of sorts, pulling rabbits out of hat after hat, finding the perfect defense against every threat. It’s spectacle, and as a spectacle it works. I enjoyed it. It works better than the previous book in the series, which also had a high level of magic but Isaac was largely passive.

And Hines does a good job, mostly, with the politics. It comes off very bureaucratic and pragmatic — magical healing requires NHS testing for instance — rather than the mindless witch hunting cliches. That falls apart at the end (the bad guys might as well be Operation Zero Tolerance, Project Wide Awake or any other Marvel mutant-hunters). And I find it hard to believe testing is the only issue with magic healing: I’d expect the American Medical Association and Big Pharma to throw roadblocks in Isaac’s path out of self-interest.

Overall it was a fun book. And it does make me appreciate Gail’s viewpoint a little more.

#SFWApro. Cover image by Gene Mollica and Denise Leigh, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Two books that didn’t work, and why

A slightly different version of Is Our Writers Learning? this month as I look at two books that disappointed me and the reasons for it.

MEDUSA’S WEB by Tim Powers was a big disappointment because I usually love Powers’ work. Like Lisa Goldstein, when Powers doesn’t work for me, I’m surprised.

After their Aunt Amity commits suicide, Scott and Maddy, who grew up with her after their parents died, reunite with cousins Claimayne and Ariel. The quartet’s dysfunctional relationship is complicated by the supernatural element: a spider motif that when stared at detaches your mind through time. You can wind up in your own body in the past or future, or in someone else’s. As Scott and Maddy start using the spiders again, they find themselves visiting famous figures in Hollywood’s past who’ve dabbled in the magic. Claimayne, however is using the spiders for evil; Aunt Amity hopes to time jump into Maddy’s body for good; and rival groups obsessed with the power see Scott and Maddy as potential threats.

All of that is vintage Powers. What isn’t typical is that the dysfunctional quartet and their relationship plays a large role in the story and the characters just don’t work. Scott’s a bitter burn-out, Maddy’s a New Age burn-out, Ariel’s bitter and vicious and Claimayne’s just an evil cripple stereotype. While Powers does beaten-down, burned-out characters well (“Scarecrow” Crane in Last Call for instance), his books don’t usually focus on the characters relatiionships as much as this one. That may have been smart.

Plus the magic really doesn’t hold together the way Powers’ powers (ROFL) usually do. I never quite saw how the power enables Claimayne and others to steal youth from people or how Amity would use it to take someone’s body permanently. And the happy ending involves Maddy jumping back in time to live with Rudolph Valentino even though the time-jumping power of the spiders is supposedly broken by then.  I like eucatastrophe endings, but this one doesn’t make sense — and Maddy’s just not interesting enough to care she’s happy.

A minor problem is that while we get references to Hollywood history and appearances by a few people, Medusa’s Web doesn’t immerse itself in history the way Declare did. That makes the mythos much less vivid and interesting.

MJ-12: INCEPTION by J. Michael Martinez, however, is a whole ‘nother level down from there.

The premise: in post-war occupied Germany, Allied forces discover a mysterious energy thing which when disturbed sends out waves of dark matter across Central City — no, wait, that was TV’s Flash, wasn’t it? But the effect is the same, as people spontaneously develop meta-powers. The government recruits a number of “variants” (and man, am I tired of everyone trying to come up with a new name for superhumans — variants, post-human, evos, etc.) for MJ-12, a new black ops agency. However the Soviets have their own Variants and when the U.S. team goes into the field, it’s time for a Clash of Titans!!

By that point I’d already lost interest. Martinez spends half the book doing nothing but set up. He sets up the premise, then introduces us to all the characters before we finally get going on the plot. That would be maybe workable if the premise or the characters were riveting but no. Sure, I’m a comics fan so “superhumans working for the government” is old news. But even if all I ever watched was TV, the premise is old news: Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans, Heroes’ evos, the metas of Flash. It doesn’t take much set up any more. And the characters are stock: tormented healer, tormented living Cerebro, racist transmuter, tormented empath. Even more stock, we learn at the end of the book that future volumes will give us mutie-haters—er Variant haters—and a Variant supremacy movement. That’s old hat too; the first X-Men movie was almost two decades ago.

Spending half the book to set up a formula situation born of a formulaic concept does not a winning novel make.

#SFWApro. Cover design James Iacobelli, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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Is Our Writers Learning? Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

What if Scooby Doo and his friends found themselves faced with Lovecraftian horror? That’s the premise of MEDDLING KIDS which meshes the Scooby team with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

THE STORY: Thirteen years ago, a group of teen ghostbusters and their dog exposed the latest supernatural threat to Blyton Hills as once again a guy in a monster suit (who sneers he’d have succeeded if not for — well, you know). Only deep down they sense something darker, a knowledge that’s tortured them ever since. Now Nick’s in a mental hospital, Peter’s dead, kid genius Kerri is tending bar and tomboy Andy is ex-military with some open warrants out on her. Andy brings them back together with their dog Sean’s grandson to unearth the final secret of the spooky mansion.

WHAT I LEARNED

Sometimes it’s better if pastiches aren’t too close. Unlike some Scooby-Doo takeoffs I’ve seen, this doesn’t map them exactly onto the characters. Which isn’t surprising as Cantero originally based them on a British creation by Enid Blyton (hence Blyton Hills), the Famous Five (Andy is very much a grown-up version of tomboy George). When American publishers gave him a blank stare, Cantero put it as “Scooby Doo meets Lovecraft” and closed the deal (Kerri is recognizably a mix of Velma’s brains with Daphne’s looks).

It’s probably stronger for not being too Scooby-Doo.

Sustaining a premise is hard. The early chapters capture the feel of grown-up kid detectives taking on the supernatural. After that … well, the kid detective part faded too much for me. They could as easily have been the kids of King’s It, or any dispirited group of former friends (The Big Supernatural Chill, if you like). That kind of disappointed me.

Omniscient POV is sometimes a mistake. It’s obvious advantage is that it lets Cantero write with more poetry than if he’d gotten into multiple close-up points of view. But I found it really distancing. The characters are going through an emotional wringer — reuniting, working out their past issues, facing unspeakable horrors — but the writing’s so detached I can’t really connect as much as I’d like.

This is a particular problem with the scenes where Nick explains the Lovecraft mythos (or this book’s version). It’s nothing new to me, or I suspect to lots of other readers, so a big chunk of exposition is a minus. It works in HPL’s stories because no matter how many I read, he always infuses his horrors with, well, horror. Here it’s closer to a Wikipedia entry.

By about halfway through I was disengaging. By the end I’d lost almost all interest, I just finished it to see if it improved (no). I’ve actually had more fun with some of the TV show’s The Monsters Are Real seasons such as 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated.

#SFWApro. Jacket Design: Michael J. Windsor, all rights remain with current holder (as an aside, I wonder if the growing number of professionally published books with covers designed out of public-domain elements means cover artists are another field losing ground to digital technology?).

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Is Our Writers Learning? Year One by Nora Roberts

I love Nora Roberts’ work as JD Robb, a dark cops-and-serial killers series set in the future of 2050 (a lot further away when she started). So at the library I picked up her first book in the Chronicles of the One post-apocalyptic fantasy series.

THE STORY: A couple of families spend Christmas hunting at a lodge in the Highlands. One of them spilled blood in a local stone circle years ago; now he does it again. Result: he becomes the carrier for a pandemic, the Doom, which wipes out much of the world in the days, months and years following. As the survivors struggle to keep surviving, they discover the Doom also triggers supernatural powers or amplifies them in practitioners. Some of whom are good, some evil. And soon a child will be born who will be the Chosen One, who can save the world from the dark powers. If she lives long enough.

WHAT I LEARNED:

Realistic exploration of the fantastic is a good thing: In contrast to the Left Behind series, Roberts has put some thought into the way people cope with the apocalypse. The breakdown of society. The loss of technology. Things that are suddenly no longer possible when too many people are dead to keep things running. There’s an interesting discussion pointing out that even if someone successfully mastered a vaccine, time and logistics guarantee the death toll will be in the billions. I think Roberts handles the details better than The Stand, which shot more for Mythic than realistic (for the record I hated The Stand, though not for that reason).

Roberts also does a good job exploring how the end of the world we know affects the characters: Arlys, a reporter, keeps on reporting, even as society collapses. She believes it’s a good thing  — that people need to know what’s happening even if they can’t do anything about it. She’s one of the better reporter characters I’ve seen in a while. Then there’s the mourning of the dead, and the realization that there’s no longer any way to reach people alive but living too far away.

Doing something new with something very old is tricky.Much as I enjoyed the realistic touches, I’ve been reading stories about surviving/rebuilding from the apocalypse since my teens, and they go back way further than that. It’s a YMMV reaction, but I just felt that part of the book has been done and redone.

Multiple points of view can be a problem. As I found out in early drafts of Southern Discomfort, having too many characters reduces the impact of any one character. That’s not necessarily bad (I still have quite a few), but it works against Year One. The good guys are believable characters, but none of them are particularly distinctive. None of them stands out enough to grab me or interest me. Focusing on one or two characters might have worked better.

Recycling cliches is worse. And lord, the fantasy stuff is cliched. The powers are conventional, mostly resembling psi/metahuman abilities (i.e., to work magic just point and will it to happen) — thirty years ago, she could have done them as radiation-induced mutant powers and not change much. The characters who turn evil are all unsubtle; they seem one instant away from laughing maniacally (“He thinks his soft, white, weak power can measure to mine?”). The Chosen One is a very well worn trope, though I don’t hate it the way some people do. Mutie-haters out to kill all the mages are even more cliched and I hate that shtick).

Magic or metahuman powers suddenly manifesting in the real world is an old trope too. Shadowrun. Barbara Hambly’s Magic Time (which also deals with magic manifesting post-apocalypse). Larry Correia’s excellent Grimnoir books. Heck, even Flash‘s metahumans and Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans. I don’t think it’s a used-up idea, but it doesn’t work in this setting. With a death toll of seven billion and the breakdown of society, neither the evil mages nor the mage-hunters seem to matter.It gives me some respect for The Stand in that Stephen King makes Randall Flagg a convincing threat even in a similar pandemic.

#SFWApro. Cover design by Ervin Serrano, all rights remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning?: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

Mostly what I learned from Paul Krueger’s LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTSHADE LOUNGE is that some books simply don’t work for me. That’s not a reflection on the book’s merits, just that some books are pitched at a frequency I don’t pick up. Usually that’s a matter of the genre being one I dislike, but this book shows it can be other things too.

THE STORY: Bailey, a Chinese American newly graduated from college is stuck living with her parents and working as a barback in the Nightshade. Then she discovers bartenders are part of an ancient society of “Alechemists.” Drunk humans attract evil spirits, the tremens; bartenders brew magical cocktails that give them superpowers to fight the demons. Bailey becomes a rookie in the Alechemists, but is that what she wants for a career path? And is the organization really on the up-and-up?

WHAT I LEARNED: Like I said, some books are just not a good fit for me. I suspected it might not be when Krueger described the premise at Illogicon, but it seemed a shame not to try a fantasy by someone I’d actually met.

The reason I doubted Nightshade Lounge would work for me is that I’m not a drinker. I find most booze tastes awful, it stimulates my acid reflux and I don’t get buzzed, just depressed and numb. There’s no fun in it for me. And as I suspected that took the fun out of the premise. There are several sections from an Alechemist’s grimoire discussing the lore of the various drinks and while a lot of readers loved them, I just skipped over them.

That said, the book might have held me with the characters, who seem an appealing lot. And I like that there’s a fair mix of diversity in the cast (one trans person, one deaf, Bailey herself) just treated matter-of-factly. But unfortunately the book is “New Adult” (unlike the premise I didn’t know that before picking it up); the character arc is primarily Bailey, the new graduate, struggling to get a life.  And that just didn’t interest me — not because Krueger did it wrong, coming of age stories leave me cold, whether they’re tweens, teens or twentysomethings.

Possibly this reflects my being, well, old. My twenties are far behind me. Though I don’t recall I’ve ever liked coming of age stories in print (on TV or in movies, they can work for me) at any age. Certainly my own stories with twentysomething protagonists don’t deal with the real-world challenges of having to start adulting. It just doesn’t grab me.

I did like the emphasis on the hard work the bartenders put in on the job, and Bailey’s distaste for a couple of friends whom she sees treating bar staff with contempt. I’m glad that despite the “new person enters supernatural world” Krueger didn’t bury me in exposition (I’ve seen that happen often enough). I didn’t particularly like the tremens, who are uninteresting horrors. But overall I don’t really have a critical analysis to offer, only personal taste.

I don’t think Krueger made a mistake building a fantasy novel around drinking, something which I’d guess the vast majority of readers indulge in. Several of the positive reviews I’ve seen were “What would be really fun is reading this book over cocktails!” so they obviously felt the charm. But for me it was a no-go.

Cover design by Timothy O’Donnell, all rights to image remain with current holder. #SFWApro

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Thing in the Woods by Matthew W. Quinn

I decided to read THE THING IN THE WOODS by Matthew W. Quinn after reading his discussion of how the cast would have voted in 2016. It’s a contemporary-set horror which has some definite similarities to Southern Discomfort (small town with a secret, lots of newcomers moving in), though happily not too many.

Fair warning: it came out from Digital Fiction, which also publishes Where Angels Fear to Lunch. Their royalty model says we all divide up the pot equally, so if Thing in the Woods sells, that’s good for me. Nevertheless, I really did like it.

THE STORY

James Daly is a teenager whose father recently uprooted the family from Buckhead in Atlanta to Edington, Ga., a small town partly transformed into a bedroom community. What James doesn’t know, but will soon learn, is that there’s a local cult that feeds people who piss them off to their tentacled god. Once James learns about the cult, he’s #1 on their shit list.

WHAT I LEARNED

Setting can be an asset. I think the strength of the story is that it’s set very much in the modern south. Characters coping with recession, businesses dying, old-school Southerners who bitterly resent the newcomers in town, the changing demographics, the fact life just ain’t the way it used to be. References to Chapel Hill and Destin, both of which I’m familiar with. It’s a South I recognize. And while the bad guys get my back up (I’ve known too many people like them), Quinn does a good job making them decent. Except, you know, their bigotry and the whole human sacrifice thing.

Setting the cult and its god against that backdrop is the book’s strength, making the story much more interesting (to me, anyway), than if it had been, say, Innsmouth or something equally old-school.

Obviously there’s a parallel to Pharisee, Georgia, in Southern Discomfort: the clash between locals and outsiders, the magic secret. Pharisee’s secrets, though are a lot nicer.

Keeping the story moving is good. Well, obviously. What I mean is, Quinn does keep things moving a lot faster than I do, dealing with the town’s situation in dribbles as the plot advances. But of course the cult is a lot more incidental to Edington than the McAlisters are to Pharisee, so the effects of Aubric’s death are a lot more far-reaching. Which is likewise why I have more POV characters many of whom aren’t involved in the action: I’m shooting for a bigger overall view of Pharisee than Quinn is. Obviously his approach worked; hopefully mine will too.

Endings are tricky. The final battle with the monster is lively, but I was a little disappointed they used brute force and modern weapons rather than anything occult. It isn’t huge issue though — lots of monsters get blown up, shot, poisoned, gassed, buried, etc. — but I did expect the creature to be more supernatural than it appears to be.

Overall, it was a satisfying book. Hopefully it’s not going to launch a wave of fantasies set in Southern bedroom communities before my own comes out.

Cover image is uncredited; all rights remain with the current holder.
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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Southern Discomfort