All of the Triggers: A Review of Trigger Warning

Neil Gaiman’s latest release, Trigger Warning, is a collection of short stories and poems that I think, perhaps more so than his other collections (though it has been awhile since I’ve read them), shows off his range as a writer. There are horror stories like “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” about monsters that drink humans; some humorous tales like “Orange”, wherein a girl’s teenage sister turns into an alien deity; and the more whimsical types of stories one might expect from Gaiman like “Thing Thing About Cassandra”, a story about a man whose make-believe high school girlfriend turns out to be real.

There are also some stories from other properties, like “The Case of Death and Honey”, which is a Sherlock Holmes story about the later years of Holmes and a strange adventure he has in China. Then there is “Nothing O’Clock”, a short story featuring Doctor Who and Amy Pond going up against a time traveling beast called The Kin.

I think the two stories that really stood out to me the most were “The Sleeper and the Spindle” and “Black Dog”. “The Sleeper and the Spindle” is a take on Sleeping Beauty that I found both fresh and fun. It involves an adventuring queen, rather than a prince, and sleep walkers who act very much like Romero zombies. I won’t ruin any more for you. I do think Gaiman’s adaptations of fairy tales are incredible though. “Snow, Glass, Apples” from one of his earlier collections, Smoke and Mirrors, is an adaptation of Snow White that sticks in my mind after many years, and I can see “The Sleeper and the Spindle” doing the same.

“Black Dog” is another adventure in the life of Shadow following the events of American Gods. This time he is journeying through the English countryside when he encounters a dangerous and legendary black dog that he needs to defeat with the help of his old friend/lover Bast. American Gods is one of my favorite novels, and it was great to read about Shadow in action once again.

Both of these stories were also proceeded by poems that tied into them, in a way. “Observing the Formalities” feels like it is a prologue of sorts to “The Sleeper and the Spindle” giving some insight into the witch’s thoughts when she decides to attack Snow White and her family. “In Relig Odhrain” is about a saint who is buried in the foundations of a chapel, and, without giving much away, the idea of being buried inside of a building plays a rather large role in “Black Dog”.

While each of the stories and poems in the collection is distinct, it is this sort of thematic flow between them that gives Trigger Warning a grander and more unified feel than being simply a collection of shorts. Naturally any fan of Neil Gaiman is going to pick up this book, but I recommend it anyway. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Gaiman before, I think this is a good place to start, as you’ll get a real feel for the breadth of his work and style…though you may want to read American Gods before you tackle “Black Dog”, the collection’s last tale.

Short Story Sunday: Kino

Kino” written by Haruki Murakami (and translated by Philip Gabriel)is a story about a man named Kino going through the aftermath of a divorce. After finding his wife cheating on him with one of his coworkers, Kino quits his job and opens a small bar in Tokyo. But though he thinks that he is getting along well, he finds that he is only managing to do so because he’s been repressing his emotions.

As with most Murakami stories, there is a kind of magical realism that’s at work in the story. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint anything specifically supernatural happening, there are several strange events that take place. It’s this sort of mysterious, ethereal quality that I find makes his stories such a joy to read. Hopefully you enjoy this tale as much as I did.

Between Empires: A Review of The Grace Of Kings

One of the most hotly anticipated books of this year, The Grace of Kings easily lives up to the hype. In his debut novel Ken Liu delivers an amazing fantasy epic with a depth and style that is both familiar but also very unlike many other fantasy epics that I’ve read.

When describing this story to friends I’ve called it Game of Thrones based on Chinese history and mythology, and while I think that’s a convenient way to sum things up in a way that people can easily understand, it doesn’t really do justice to Liu’s work. The two series are similar in that they are both about the politics and grittiness of warfare involved in any war for power. However, that’s largely where the similarities end.

One thing that I think makes Liu’s novel stand out is the scope of its story. The first novel of this projected trilogy begins with the rebellion that destroys a rather newly established empire, goes through the succession wars that follow, and ends with the beginning of a new dynasty, a period of time that covers many years. But it’s not only the length of time covered that gives the novel such scope; it’s also the number of characters involved. While the story is really focused on two protagonists, Liu hops fluidly through the perspectives of a variety of characters, some who appear continuously and others who only have small roles to play, providing a truly full picture of everything that is going on in the conflict.

The two primary characters, around which everything else plays out, are Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Garu is a low-born man who rises from a school drop-out and street thug to the position of lordship, taking advantage of the chaos of the rebellion to grab power. He is inventive and intelligent, winning through kindness and ingenuity rather than brute force. Zyndu is the opposite. He is from a noble house that was displaced by the empire, and he seeks to return the world to its former glory of honor and nobility. He is a great warrior, unmatched on the battlefield, but also quick to anger and limited in his thinking.

In many ways the conflict boils down to a battle between traditional (represented by Zyndu) and modernity or progress (represented by Garu). However, the characters don’t didactically represent their ideals. Both are complex, full of inner turmoil as well as shortcomings. Zyndu’s pride and vision of what the world should be often leave him blind to realities, and where the world doesn’t fit with his view he often sees imperfections and the betrayals of lesser men (though to be fair his is legitimately betrayed on more than one occasion). Garu, on the other hand, is often seen as a benevolent ruler who is good with people and listens to the counsel of his advisers. These are good qualities to have, but Garu’s reliance on his friends also causes some trouble, as their advice is not always sound.

Both of these characters are sympathetic and heroic, but sometimes also frustrating, each in their own way. I found myself rooting for each at different points in time but also seeing the severity of some of their flaws and what leads (or could lead) to their undoing.

The world building for this story is also quite good. The land of Dara, occupied by the many warring Tiro States that Zyndu, Garu, and others come from, is full of technologies and customs that are interesting and unique. As far as the fantastical element goes, there are many different gods who inhabit the realm, all of whom have a stake in the war. While they cannot directly influence what is going on, each seems to have a champion that he or she favors and will try to do what they can to put their state in the most advantageous position.

If you want to read a little bit more about Liu’s approach to world building, he did a great interview, along with Kameron Hurley, about world building and the importance of researching history. Personally I thought it was a fascinating read, and I definitely recommend it to any budding fantasy writers out there.

The first installment of The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is incredibly grand, and I can’t wait to see how it develops. If you are a fan of epic fantasy, then I would say that this is absolutely a must-read.

Short Story…Wednesday?: The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species

As those of you who regularly follow me know, I usually post my book reviews on Wednesdays. However, it’s taking me a bit longer to get through Ken Liu’s tome of a debut novel, The Grace Of Kings, and I’ve decided I would rather spend another week taking my time to enjoy reading it rather than rushing through it. For those of you who are curious, what I’ve read so far is quite good.

Anyway, in lieu of having a review, I’ve decided to extend “Ken Liu week” and post some more of his short stories until I can deliver The Grace Of Kings review next week. Sound good? Thought so.

The story I’m sharing today, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species“, first appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in 2012. It isn’t really a narrative story so much as a description of the way that some very strange and fantastical species read, write, and pass on their tales and histories. Ultimately it is a celebration of books, regardless of what form they take, and poses some interesting descriptions of ways that other species might make their own.

I’ll be back on Sunday with another tale from Liu, and then a week from today I will definitely have my review up. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the stories.

Short Story Sunday: Paper Menagerie

This week is Ken Liu Week over here at SFFpunk. I’m currently in the process of reading his first ever novel The Grace Of Kings, and so I thought I would share one of his short stories as sort of a prelude to my book review, which should be up on Wednesday.

For those of you who don’t know, Ken Liu is a prominent short story writer in the sci-fi and fantasy community. The story I’m sharing today — “Paper Menagerie” — is the first story by any author to have ever won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. It is a beautiful, if heartbreaking, story about a young man who denies his heritage to fit in in America only to realize what he’s lost when it’s too late.

If you haven’t read it already, do yourself the favor. I think this story is definitely worthy of the accolades.

Of Faith and Knowledge: A Review of War Of Rain

This week I am participating in H.W. Vivian’s blog tour to promote her new novel War Of Rain. This is H.W. Vivian’s third novel, her second under that moniker (one of them being released under the pen name Alex Chu), and it marks her return to YA.

War Of Rain takes place in a future where the Earth has been ravaged by global warming and humanity has been reduced to pre-Bronze Age level technology. The protagonist, Miri, is from a village called Boreala where her people are known as Rain-gatherers. This doesn’t mean quite what you’d initially think. Rain is in fact a special resource, a kind of highly purified frozen water that is gathered from a special cave and can only be melted for consumption through prayer. Miri and her people make daily pilgrimages to the cave, collect the Rain, and then trade it with other nearby villages that specialize in making other things like pottery or woodwork tools.

The conflict begins when Miri’s Rain gathering caravan is attacked by barbarians, a war-like group from the faraway city of Stratos that does not know how to pray to unlock the Rain but hoards it anyway. Miri kills one of the barbarians to defend a friend, and this sparks a war between Stratos and Boreala, a problematic situation for the Rain-gatherers who are peaceful and don’t have much in the way of weaponry. It’s the catalyst that sends Miri on a quest at the bidding of the barbarian king to find a mythical invention that can be used for both war and peace and will help the people of Stratos and Boreala. In return he promises to spare her people.

This book could be put under the dystopian or post-apocalyptic YA label, but to go into the story expecting it to really fall into that sort of category will probably leave the reader unfulfilled. In reality this story is a religious parable mostly aimed at young readers, and I think looking at it that way is really the best way to effectively judge it.

For example, without directly giving away too many spoilers, the story ends in essentially a Deus Ex Machina, something writers are told repeatedly to avoid in their stories. However, in the context of Miri and her people being saved by divine intervention as a reward for her faith, this actually works in the story. Certainly it is more fulfilling than the classic bad example of ending your story with a nuke landing on all of your characters for no reason. A lot of the over-the-top action and the existence of the fantastical, physics-defying Rain in a supposedly future-Earth setting would also be rather bizarre if you viewed this story through the lens of “realistic science-fiction”.

The writing style can be somewhat didactic at times with Miri’s internal monologue churning through events and extrapolating life lessons from what she is encountering on her quest. But, again, in the context of a religious parable for young readers, I don’t think this approach is inappropriate. I found Miri herself to also be sympathetic character with the first person perspective really allowing the reader to see the development of her intellect as well as her crises of faith as she goes about her quest.

I did enjoy that the story emphasizes the importance of both faith and science and the ways in which they should work together. The primary philosophy of the book seems to preach a sort of middle way (like Buddhism!) showing the dangerous outcomes of both religious fanaticism and intolerance as well as the pitfalls of overt reliance on technology with a lack of ethical guidance. I think these are important ideas to consider given the social and political conflicts of our time around things like global warming, and I think War Of Rain espouses a useful mythology in that sense.

One thing that I wish was expanded upon was the primary villain, the leader of the barbarian hordes. Without revealing any real spoilers, Miri’s journey takes her to a secluded society that has kept itself hidden and aloof from the barbarians and the Rain-gatherers. It is here that she discovers the invention she needs. However, while no one else in the story knows about this society, the barbarian leader does, but he doesn’t actually explain how he came by that knowledge. That relationship is something I would have liked to learn more about.

Overall I think this story does what it does well, and it wraps a fun tale around its lessons too. I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to anyone who is a hardcore atheist (though as an agnostic/atheist myself, I didn’t find it offensive or obnoxious), but I think it is certainly a good story for young readers, and, as I said before, presents some good ideas about the potential unity of faith and science.

Short Story Sunday: Chimeras

A few weeks ago I posted a story by my friend Julie Steinbacher called “Inter-Exo“. She has another story published in the online magazine and podcast Escape Pod called “Chimeras“. You can read the story or enjoy the great podcast narration by Jessica Dubish.

“Chimeras” is a bio-punk story about a future where humans can modify themselves with different animal aspects. Told in the second person, it follows a woman who has recently broken up with a boyfriend who cheated on her and decides to have her body modified, something her recent ex was against.

The story follows the narrator’s journey into the new world of the chimeras, allowing the reader to see the implications of what this kind of extreme body modification could have on society. However, it is also very much about the character’s personal life, her relationships, and how things in her life change, or in many ways really don’t, despite all of her outward physical changes.