So what, pray tell, have I been reading lately? Wouldn’t you like to know. Wouldn’t you?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise (Solaris)
After proving herself a master of both the short story (This Strange Way of Dying) and the presentation of other people’s short stories (Dead North, Fractured, Future Lovecraft), Silvia Moreno-Garcia proves herself a literary triple threat with the release of her wonderful debut novel. A gentle coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of 1980’s Mexico, Signal to Noise shares the adventures of unhip teenager Meche who, along with her friends Sebastian and Daniella, discovers that the music she listens to allows her the ability to cast spells. Being teenagers, the trio immediately and obviously opts for popularity, money, and other surface pleasures: being characters within a novel told by a canny storyteller, they quickly garner far more than they ever anticipated.
Much as Jonathan Lethem accomplished with his Fortress of Solitude, the fantasy elements of Signal to Noise, while important, do not drive the narrative; rather, it’s the sensitive and lovely portrayal of childhood ideals mashing up against adult reality that forms the book’s heart. Meche and her friends are realistically flawed beings driven by a combination of childish wishes and adolescent hormones, finding themselves with an avenue into the fantastic and yet unable to reconcile this newfound power with any emotional maturity. Signal to Noise is about magic, but more importantly, it’s concerned with what lies beyond magic, when the fantasy has collapsed and all we can do is pick up the pieces and go on. In other words, magic itself isn’t important; it’s how we deal with its absence that proves who we are, or what we may be.
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Rio Youers‘ Sunburst Award-nominated novel Westlake Soul, but after surviving Point Hollow I’m ordering a copy forthwith. A purebred horror novel, Point Hollow showcases an author unafraid to employ (as Stephen King loosely puts it in Danse Macabre) the full trifecta of horror writing: Point Hollow (1) terrifies the reader, (2) horrifies the reader, and (3) grosses out the reader (sometimes all at once!). As with similar town-centric genre novels (‘Salem’s Lot, Niceville), the idyllic Norman Rockwell facade of the town of Point Hollow disguises a roiling underbelly of corruption. Embodied by the outwardly popular and well-adjusted businessman Oliver Wray, Point Hollow is a township held in thrall by Abraham’s Faith, a nearby mountain that somehow guides its development. When Matthew Bridge returns to his hometown — as a young boy he came perilously close to becoming the town’s newest victim — his presence serves as catalyst for a renewed bout of municipal depravity, and he finds himself inexorably forced into Point Hollow’s insanity.
Youers lays out clues as to how this ungodly pit of despair came to be, but backstory is not the fuel for this horror, it’s the physical manifestation of indescribable malevolence driving the narrative. As the extent of Point Hollow’s degeneracy becomes more and more apparent to the novels many characters (all of whom are extremely well-drawn), so too the horror exponentially grows. Youers’ creation is not a pleasant read — I’ll likely never eat an Oreo cookie again — but that’s as it should be, that’s how you know the horror is working. It’s a grotesque, filthy, and gruesome trek into evil (think Jack Ketchum), and I highly recommend it. It’d make a fine double-bill with Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night.
But again (and I cannot stress this enough), avoid eating cookies beforehand. When you read it, you’ll know why.
I’ve never been a big fan of what I, for lack of a better term, shall call the swashbuckler. I’ve enjoyed a few films and such, liked a bout of swordplay now and then, but I’ve never felt an urge to intentionally seek out the genre. I’ve never even seen an episode of Game of Thrones (goodbye, sweet geek cred!). Now, Traitor’s Blade may not wholly change my mind, but it has made me anxious for Sebastien de Castell‘s next entry in the series. So swashbuckling may still get a “meh” from me, but de Castell earns an enthusiastic “More, please!“
Easily the most purely entertaining adventure novel I’ve read in quite some time, Traitor’s Blade is a slightly fantastical take on The Three Musketeers, following the exploits of a disgraced gang of “Greatcoats” as they struggle to find dignity serving as mercenaries. Falcio Val Mond, once a protector of the king, has been reduced to working as bodyguard for wealthy misanthropes. The assassination of his current employer triggers a stream of events that leads Falcio and fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti straight into a conspiracy to overthrow the realm.
Unlike much of the modern crop of leaden fantasy epics where every scene is drenched in mud and grey, happiness is nowhere around, and every portentous utterance is laced with doom — nothing against these epics, mind you, I love a lot of them, but c’mon, people, crack a smile, willya? — Traitor’s Blade is brisk, quick-witted, and most of all, fun. This is not to take away from the weight of its story; de Castell leavens his plotline with plenty of serious talk, conspiracies, corruption, double-crosses, and bloodletting. But damned if you don’t have a smile on your face by the last page. Traitor’s Blade is an epic that moves with the grace of an expert fencer and leaves me begging for more. As de Castell has recently signed a hell of a nice deal for more novels, it looks like my wish has come true.