Review: Murder in the Vatican, the Church Mysteries of Sherlock Homes

Reviewing Murder in the Vatican requires a bit of backstory. When I was 13, I started reading through the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. I made it about halfway through. stopped dead by “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”—the first time Holmes was the narrator.  Even G.K. Chesterton noted that it showed why Watson was relevant: because Holmes was a terrible storyteller.

Since then, I have been critical of anything about Sherlock Holmes written after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Robert Downey Jr. starred in Sherlock Holmes, I crossed my fingers and hoped it didn’t suck … instead, I got a checklist of what they did right.

When they created Sherlock, I also crossed my fingers. It was surprisingly awesome.

Then I heard about Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. It had an interesting premise: author Ann Margaret Lewis takes Watson’s offhand references of Holmes working on cases for the Pope, or involving religious figures, and turns them into entire stories.

I experienced the same feeling of dread. How off would the narration be? Would someone try converting Holmes? How lost would a detective from Victorian, Anglican England be in Catholic Rome? How many different ways were there to screw this up?

I stopped worrying when I read the first sentence. And, oh my God, this book is awesome! I loved this book…

Lewis caught the voice of Dr. John Watson as though she had taken it, trapped in a bottle, and used it to refill her pen into as she wrote. I liked the voice. I liked Watson, the doctor, trying to diagnose an ailing Leo XIII (85 at the time of the events of the first story). I like the brief sketch of the political situation between the Vatican and Italy. I even enjoy Watson’s discomfort at the Pope slipping into “The Royal We” when he speaks of himself as the Pope.

Even the artwork was as though it had been lifted from issues of The Strand magazine. Someone had fun here.

Thankfully, there is no overt attempt to convert Holmes, evangelize or proselytize him. There is only enough theology in the entire novel that explains to the casual reader exactly what the heck the Pope is doing. The closest the book comes to exposing Holmes to theology is a page-long sequence that ends with Leo saying, “Perhaps you should spend some of your inactive time pondering that conundrum [of Jesus] instead of indulging in whatever narcotic it is with which you choose to entertain yourself.”

That is the best zinger I’ve ever seen a character use on Holmes regarding his drug use. Even the most secular person I know can appreciate a page of theology for one of the better one-liners I’ve ever seen.

Also, the little things were entertaining for a nerd like me. For example, the casual mention of John Cardinal Newman, referred to as “a recent convert.” The political situation at the time is given just enough of a sketch to explain what’s going on, but nothing obtrusive; history nerds like me can be satisfied, but you don’t have to have a degree in it to comprehend what’s going on.

There are truly parts where the novel seems to merge all the best qualities of Sherlock Holmes with those of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown short stories …

At this point, I must make a small confession. I write reviews as I read the book. There is plenty of backtracking, filling the blanks, and rewrite the review as the book goes. I wrote the Father Brown line when I finished the first tale. In fact, the interview questions I sent to Ann Margaret Lewis were written before I even received a review copy of the book.

I then read “The Vatican Cameos,” and discover a Deacon, named Brown …

I swear I didn’t see that coming.


The first story in this collection is “The Death of Cardinal Tosca.”

In this memorable year ’95 a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca — an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His Holiness the Pope . . . .

—Dr. John H. Watson, “The Adventure of Black Peter”

Imagine Sherlock Holmes on vacation … if you see that vacation turning out like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, with a body hitting the floor at some point, you pretty much have the setup. It has a poison pen letter, with real poison, some Masons, references to two different cases in the space of two paragraphs, and a Papal commando raid with a real pontiff. This story is so delightfully odd and over-the-top, but still preserves as much reality as any other Holmes tale. I enjoyed every moment of it. And I can’t argue with any story where the pope gets most of the amusing one-liners.

Heck, even the murderer gets in a good line. When confronted, our first killer sneers. “Let me guess. You’re going to explain, to the amazement of your friends, how I did the deed?” Holmes replies, “I’ve already told them that. It would be old news. They already know you blundered badly.”

I think the story concludes on a nice, solid note. As Holmes tells Watson, “[Leo XIII] is genuinely pious. He is also imperious, but in a most endearing way.”

Watson merely replies, “Yes, well. I’m used to that.”

Let’s see Martin Freeman deliver that line.


“I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.”

—Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The second tale, “The Vatican Cameos,” is a bit of a flashback episode to when Holmes first met Pope Leo XIII. A collection of cameos is sent to Queen Victoria, secured tightly in the box, but upon their arrival in London, the box is empty. The Queen simply sends Sherlock Holmes. Watson is busy with a medical emergency, so he wasn’t around.

When Watson asks Sherlock about the incident, Holmes says, quite clearly “Watson, I am incapable of spinning a tale in the way you do. The narrative would read like a scientific treatise.” Thus, there is only one person left who to narrate this tale … Leo XIII. This was the story that truly showed that the author did her research, assembling little details of Leo XIII’s interests and hobbies and putting them together into a rich, vibrant character. He is shown here as witty, humorous, and bright.

The byplay between Leo XIII and Holmes in this story was marvelously entertaining. The Pope is shown to be about as smart as Watson … maybe a little smarter. When Holmes first meets the Pontiff, and rattles off conclusions in his usual rapid-fire manner, the Pope takes a minute, and deduces how Holmes came to most of them. Not all, but most. Making Leo this smart only serves to make Holmes as impressive as he should be—yes, everyone else may be smart, but Holmes is smarter.

Also, having Leo XIII using Thomas Aquinas to talk with Holmes of reason and science … it works for me.

And the scene with Holmes, the Pope, and the gunman was fun, too.


“You know that I am preoccupied with this case of the two Coptic Patriarchs, which should come to a head to-day.”

Sherlock Holmes, “The Retired Colourman”

“The Second Coptic Patriarch”: The third and final tale is from yet another throwaway line of Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

In this case, a former criminal comes to Holmes to solicit his services; the priest who converted him away from his life of crime is in jail for murder. A bookstore owner has been murdered with a book (“The Rule of Oliver Cromwell–weighty subject, no doubt,” Holmes quips), and the priest will only say that the victim was dead when he arrived.

It’s almost Sherlock Holmes meets Alfred Hitchcock … I didn’t know someone could do I Confess like this. It’s a fun little read, and possibly the most traditional of the Holmes stories — it’s a good tale. From the perspective of the overall book, it’s a perfect cap to the character arc.

Now, after reading Murder in the Vatican, I think I’m going to go back and finish the Sherlock Holmes series — and keep Murder in the Vatican handy, so I can read them all in chronological order.

Ann Lewis said that the book was “meant to be fun and lift your heart for a short time. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you have a blast reading it.”

Mission accomplished.

Frankly, between Cumberbatch, RDJ, or Elementary, if you had to live with only one expansion of Holmes works, you buy Ann Lewis. Period.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Review of Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge

What happens when you bring together one of the best SF&F writers into one of the best fantasy worlds in books today? Grunge.

At LibertyCon, John Ringo mentioned that he had been reading Monster Hunter International because it’s not the sort of thing he would write, so he wouldn’t be stealing anything from it by accident.
Instead, Ringo ended up writing three books for the world Larry Correia invented.
The premise behind this one is … interesting.

 

When Marine Private Oliver Chadwick Gardenier is killed in the Marine barrack bombing in Beirut, somebody who might be Saint Peter gives him a choice: Go to Heaven, which while nice might be a little boring, or return to Earth. The Boss has a mission for him and he’s to look for a sign. He’s a Marine: He’ll choose the mission.

 

Unfortunately, the sign he’s to look for is “57.” Which, given the food services contract in Bethesda Hospital, creates some difficulty. Eventually, it appears that God’s will is for Chad to join a group called “Monster Hunters International” and protect people from things that go bump in the night. From there, things trend downhill.

 

Monster Hunter Memoirs is the (mostly) true story of the life and times of one of MHI’s most effective—and flamboyant—hunters. Pro-tips for up and coming hunters range from how to dress appropriately for jogging (low-profile body armor and multiple weapons) to how to develop contacts among the Japanese yakuza, to why it’s not a good idea to make billy goat jokes to trolls.

 

Grunge harkens back to the Golden Days of Monster Hunting when Reagan was in office, Ray and Susan Shackleford were top hunters and Seattle sushi was authentic.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge has everything that I’ve come to expect from Ringo: a smart character (in this case, super-genius) taking over-the-top situations, and responding to them very pragmatically. Swarm of zombies? Shoot them in the head. And shoot faster. Have a dream about a mission from God? Well, it could be a dream, or it could be a vision. We’ll see.

Also, “57.” And “do the whole village!”

Heh. You’ll have to read the book to get that one.

One of nice bits of business I liked was the interaction with Agent Franks, where one is fairly certain that our hero was given access codes to a secret handshake between himself and a creature like Franks.

However, if you’re reading this work looking for the John Ringo of Ghost … don’t. First, I never thought the first novel was representative of his work (even representative of the rest of that series). Second, Grunge feels a little bit more like my personal favorite of Ringo’s series: Special Circumstances. And I swear that Ringo immersed himself in Japanese culture and has come back to his Catholic roots — there’s a lot of both in there.

Ringo also brings in politics to the realities of monster hunting. While Larry Correia goes for a more laissez faire attitude between government and private enterprise (“Seriously, federal government, leave us alone”), Ringo has a more intricate view of this. This is due to the fact that Larry’s books are nonstop action pieces that largely take place over the matter of days, while Ringo’s is a look at years of service in a particular region (in this case, Seattle). And even most of the politics boils down to “This is the nuts and bolts of how things get done …. poorly and with plenty of cash.”

From what I can gather, the series will be broken down by region, Grunge is Seattle, Sinners will be New Orleans, and I presume the third one will take place in MHI’s home base of Cazador. But that last one is just a guess.

Due to the way Ringo has this book set up, we get a detailed look at the day to day operations of an MHI outpost — dealing with MCB agents that aren’t running the whole bureau into the ground; occasionally making deals with things and people you’d rather see shot dead, but the sausage has to get made. This doesn’t happen with the main series all that often, because those novels usually start with them up to their neck it, with a truck backing up with another load.

Grunge is a little more laid back. Granted, Chad, our narrator, is … okay, I don’t know why he sleeps with everything that moves, but thankfully, if it’s off-putting to you, you don’t have to worry about it. There’s nothing graphic …. usually, barely anything suggestive …. and doesn’t drastically impact the story a lot.

And everything fits together.  There are plots for this book, and an overarching plot that will spill over into the final book. And while Ringo even tells you who the ultimate bad guy is (and it’s not difficult to deduce), it doesn’t change anything.

Obviously, there are cameos from some of the supporting characters in the series, and I suspect they will play a larger role as Ringo’s series continues.

Overall, I recommend this one. It deals with the politics of monster hunting, how the boots on the ground MHI personnel interact with local law enforcement, and even how locals interact with the feds and the MHI alike. Also, let’s just say that the politics of an otherworldly fashion come into play. And boy, do you want a lawyer for them. Heh.

I suspect the rest of the series will be just plain fun.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Eta Cancri review

Please welcome Xewleer to Superversive SF, he is a new reviewer and you can expect a lot more from him. His review is cross posted from his blog millennialking.wordpress.com

Spoilers! It’s a great book, and worth reading.


I just finished Eta Cancri by Russell May. It was, surprisingly for an author who was not on my radar before, an excellent read chock full of delicious theology. It was a treat, to be sure. The characters are living and breathing with distinct personalities. The descriptions are on point. The science is a good medium-hard, with just the right amount of give for philosophical and theological conversations the teeth they need to grow. Ah… that more stories which pride themselves on science and philosophy would take this route!

The book switches through various characters’ POV. My personal favorites were Ed and June, along with the AI Archie. Each one has a solid voice and drive that breathes life into this book more than could be expected. Indeed, books that switch perspective live and die on this sword. I could tell that the POV shifted through the author’s choices in word play, character focus and other hints almost instantly.

The conceit of the story, which involves demonic possession, bacteria and genetic modification, was well done and quite unique to this author from my experiences. Though I have experimented and read up on demonic possession and stories about it, this is the first time I’ve seen it used in such a broad and interesting way. Nothing triggered any sort of violation of the suspension of disbelief. It holds up the story incredibly well. This is dreadfully important in this genre as Russell did it. If the suspension of Disbelief is violated, then the entire book will fall over itself and the threads that he depends on to carry the story forward logically will be lost, unable to be gained back.

Though there is no part of the story I groaned at the reading of, I did feel fatigue about halfway through on chapter 3 or 4 (?). The story before and after focuses on multiple characters, the evil of the Demon Legion, the science, philosophy and theology mix and POV shifts. This middle bit has nothing that really sticks out too hard. The story sticks to Pierce the techno-everyman and doesn’t shift too much. There’s just too much dialogue and not enough cool stuff to give us a rest between theological questions. Not that I was exhausted by the questions, I just wish the heady brew was cut a little with soda. Even a bit where Ed deals with his crazy and preps for the ship coming in, or June sees something which heightens our horror at the actions of Legion would do much for the pacing and general interest. I’ll point out that Ed has no reason to not succumb or struggle with Legion’s influence and a decent POV could have been written comparing and contrasting his belief in Dame Fortune and the belief in God, which is touched upon later but not to my satisfaction.

I’ll point out that, theologically, what we call Dame Fortune is the Will of God. That the saved man has free will is not something I debate or question. I question how much Dame Fortune impugns it. (I use Dame Fortune as a conceit from the story. Mentally, I use the term ‘Fate’) Does a belief in Fortune change how free will operates as we continue in Christian Free Will or Willfulness Against God? I think that there might have been an excellent few points to be made there between Ed and Father Justinian, more than was done in story. Though, there is a sequel in the cliff hanger, and I will be purchasing it as soon as it comes out.

I also wanted a little more debate on the nature on Transhumanism. I am not fond of it, as I believe that the body has the critical mass to keep the soul ‘Human’ and that, at a certain point, the ‘I as I’ that is ‘You as you are’ becomes warped into something that could be described as ‘ME’ 2.0. Also, what is morality to someone who is neither permanent or baseline human? (Though those points are touched on) June seemingly has no contrast in character, but rather is June personality as June soul is June without much debate despite much lycanthropy. Various ideas are presented with authority, but I don’t feel it is earned. The matrons producing ubermenschen in the asteroid belts are not properly repudiated in a manner that I call an argument. Rather, it is just presented as wrong. I dig, but I’m really hoping for a similar thing to Ed in the sequel.

I’ve not gone into the plot because it’s quite simple. A colony goes dark and a ragtag group of cyborgs, everymen and mercenaries go to figure it out and cleanse with fire whatever’s in there. Just about right, really. You don’t need fancy pants intrigue for stuff like this. Most of the characters are moral, upright and probably one of the best portrayals of Christians I’ve seen in Science Fiction. I’m sorry John C. Wright, but sort of randomly turning Mickey the Witch into the Space Pope of the Seventh Humans because of his wife without a redemption scene just doesn’t compare to baptism after flamebroiling demonic abominations with improvised explosives created by a literal Biblical evil. But it’s different scopes. That scene doesn’t compare to the Cathedral of Luna in the 4th book of Count to Eschaton. Ahhhh it’s perhaps differences in scale. But I’d be very interested in talking with Russel May some time to break down what he believes and what his reasoning is.

I wanted MORE, if you could believe it. I find that I have a hard time reading philosophy directly, so I have a better time consuming it if its regurgitated through literature, especially when the author provides examples within the story to provide a more definite framework for the reader to investigate. It really does wonders for the most artistically inclined philosophers, who may not be able to as readily read the great works directly. Of course, this assumes the reader is able to properly manage things that are presented vs. their origin points. Counter and counter-counter is appreciated through the characters of Archie, Father Justinian and even Legion. Legion’s absolute Nihilism is well presented without the usual tropes in plain evidence. There’s always a fresh horror from him. His unfetteredness and nihilism make an excellent baseline for the ‘evil’ of the universe. Nihilism is a hell of a drug, kids, and leads to madness.

I also think the book is missing a carnival scene. But then again, I’m a sucker for them. I also wanted more crazy bomb stuff fight scene flip outs from Michaud and Lars, but ah.

The combat scenes are fresh, well done. The weapons properly treated with excellent extensions of characterization through them. The creativity that Russell displays drives the story forward with brazen steps. Lar’s and the rest of the characters’ spirituality treated so delicately as to be art. Ah! There are few flaws and many boons to reading this book!

Overall this book is mos defs a purchase soft-cover, maybe hard-cover kinda book. Sadly, there are only kindle copies available at this time. It is worth a read! It is SUPERVERSIVE. I hope with fervent prayer that we are coming to an era where the dominant voice in Sci-Fi is Christianity! If Russell May joins the luminaries of the Superversives, Castalia House and others, shall not the glory of God be expanded in this genre of atheists, science worshippers and deviants?  DEUS VULT!

Xewleer

I, even I, drink ink like wine.

In Defence of Motherhood

In stark contrast to the glowing review by Marina Fontaine I commented on two days ago, another review of Beyond the Mist appeared at the Publisher’s weekly website last week. The review contains a large number of spoilers and is a mixture of muted praise and sharp criticisms. Some of those criticisms claim that there are structural flaws in the storytelling and weak characterization. Perhaps those are justified, perhaps not, I am too close to the text to be able to be unbiased in that regard – I leave it to those who have read the book to decide if the reviewer is being fair. Other complaints seem to flow from political disagreements with the themes and concepts in the work. One issue in particular I would like to respond to without giving away too many spoilers. Continue reading

John C. Wright’s Iron Chamber of Memory

John C. Wright - Iron Chamber of Memory

The mystery of an island where the past never ended.

Riddles in an ancient house whose doors remain locked; not to keep thieves out, but to keep ghosts in.

A quest for the Holy Grail, and a love triangle worthy of Arthurian legend.

Murder plots, skin changers, cases of mistaken identity, and meditations on memory and storytelling itself–all of these things, and many more, reside within the Iron Chamber of Memory.

Every writer has a deeply personal project–a labor of love written not under contractual obligation or an editor’s deadline, but at the muses’ direction. All too often, commercial pressures relegate such convention-defying works to obscurity in lower desk drawers and forgotten shoe boxes in the backs of closets.

Luckily for us, John C. Wright submitted his trunk novel to the fine folks at Castalia House, who have published it to high acclaim.

Whatever you’re expecting from Iron Chamber of Memory going in, know that the book will deliver on your expectations, plus myriad others you never knew you had.

Craving a romance about lovers desperate to overcome the insurmountable obstacles keeping them apart? Wright has dreamed up the most creative and diabolically clever source of conflict I’ve ever heard of in that genre.

Looking for a mystery set in a medieval mansion on a remote island fiefdom that turns on masterful misdirection, ingenious plot twists, and philosophical pondering on the nature of memory to shame Christopher Nolan? Iron Chamber of Memory will keep you turning pages long past bedtime.

Do you seek something more profound–answers to why heaven allows evil to reign on earth, or how mercy can coexist with perfect justice? Wright’s novel treats these questions as seriously as any work by C.S. Lewis while maintaining the integrity of the story as story.

It’s rare for a book that combines so many genres to achieve such a satisfying result. A major reason why Wright excels where countless others manage only mediocrity is that he didn’t set out to create a genre mashup. He wrote as the spirit moved him and left the genre labels to his publisher.

Describing Iron Chamber of Memory much further is difficult without risking spoilers. I can mention other books that this one reminded me of, including The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. Yet here, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

To indulge in a bit of brazen flogging, the mood, themes, situations, and symbolism found within Iron Chamber of Memory reminded me of my own book Souldancer. Any connection may not be entirely coincidental, since Mr. Wright’s wife also edited my novel.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Iron Chamber of Memory by John C. Wright to any lover of Gothic romance, preternatural mysteries, or historical fiction who also appreciates the higher Mysteries of supernatural love and atonement.

@BrianNiemeier

Phantastes by George MacDonald

(Originally posted at the Castalia House Blog)

PhantastesEverything I said last week about “The Golden Key” applies in spades to Phantastes. Though there is a tenuous common narrative thread through the book and continuity is kept, this book overall reads more like a stream of consciousness sketch show, but where the object of each sketch is not comedy, but to inspire awe. I’ll start with a little compare and contrast between the two.

Like in “The Golden Key”, in Phantastes the viewpoint character is a human that travels into fairyland from the human world, is warned about dangers and has many weird and wonderful experiences.

In “The Golden Key”, the protagonists are children who lived just beyond the borders of fairyland in full view of it, constantly aware of its existence, and they enter fairyland simply by walking out of the door (or climbing out of the window and walking there.

In Phantastes, the protagonist Anodos is an adult from the normal human world (a man from Scotland having just turned 21) totally unaware of the existence of fairyland. A little while after meeting a tiny magical creature that appears form his late father’s old secretary desk, he finds a path into fairyland through the designs of his bedroom furnishings turning into the things those designs represent: his washbasin turns into a spring that feeds a clear stream across his bedroom floor, his carpet which he himself designed to look like a field of daisies turns into an actual one, the carved ivy designs on his dressing table become real ivy etc. It seems not unreasonable to me that this inspired some of C.S. Lewis’ gateways into Narnia, such as the painting in the Dawn Treader coming to life.

In “The Golden Key”, the children carefully obey the instructions and heed the warnings they are given, and so the reader never really fears for their safety.

In Phantastes, Anodos basically ignores every warning given to him (about travelling in the forest at night, about an evil seductive beauty, about opening a certain door), a couple of times making me want to reach into the book and slap him. Ignoring these warnings gets him into serious trouble and facing some genuinely scary enemies (a vindictive ash tree that stalks him through the night, a hollow shape changer, an ogre etc.) The self-inflicted problem that sticks with him the longest is his evil shadow that plagues him with cynical eyes so that the magical things in fairyland appear mundane and worthless.

Anodos meets all sorts of creatures and people: beautiful women of one sort or another including a living marble statue that he falls in love with and rescues from its entombing alabaster through the power of song, a maternal figure, a young girl with a mystical globe, Sir Percival of Arthurian legend, a pair of princes who teach him how to fashion armour and together they take on three giants, there are also miniature fey creatures, walking trees, and brutal cultists.

He ventures through all sorts of places: through field and forest, river and sea, cottage and boat, a long and narrowing misty tunnel, a prison tower, a watch tower and a fairy palace with all manner of wondrous rooms and furnishings. In all of these places he meets fantastical creatures, makes fascinating discoveries or faces genuine dangers.

One of the fun things about this work is all the ways you can see it inspired other writers. Here are a few examples:

This little passage about the cynical shadow shows how it inspired the dwarves who proudly disbelieved in the wonders of Aslan’s Country in the Last Battle.

 But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of the shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, “In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.”

And this description of a forest I think inspired the wood between the worlds in the Magician’s Nephew:

 But even here I was struck with the utter stillness. No bird sang. No insect hummed. Not a living creature crossed my way. Yet somehow the whole environment seemed only asleep, and to wear even in sleep an air of expectation. The trees seemed all to have an expression of conscious mystery, as if they said to themselves, “we could, an’ if we would.”

Scattered throughout the book are little asides, beautiful thoughts and insights, for example:

 Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?—not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

This is the sort of thing that G.K. Chesterton would later become famous for, blending his own stunning insights into his tales even more expertly; perhaps it is no stretch to imagine that he got the idea from reading MacDonald?

There are many more, and I’m sure those who are more widely read than I will see even more connections than I did.

C.S. Lewis once said that a certain quality of the story, a wondrous purity, a ‘bright shadow’ that the whole of Anodos’ adventure was infused with, he later recognised to be holiness. Not just the connotation of purity and goodness, but also the word’s original meaning of something being set apart for a higher purpose, otherworldly and different, yet reflected in the world around us.

As I have noted, the story is meandering, with a plot that is really a series of loosely connected short tales and scenes that perhaps both reflects the chaotic, enchanting, otherworldy and glorious nature of fairyland as well as MacDonald’s admitted shortcomings as a writer. The character growth of Anodos on my first reading also seems a little haphazard, while the supporting cast also lack character depth. The ending also felt a little sudden, though maybe it wouldn’t on a second reading.

Other writers took inspiration from his astounding worlds and combined it with compelling characters and well-crafted plots to produce some of the greatest literature of the early twentieth century. It is as if MacDonald mined a seam containing brilliant undiscovered jewels and presented them to the world, then others came afterwards to expertly cut and set those gems into exquisite jewellery. In the process those later artists became more beloved and popular than the one on whose shoulders they stood.

Even if it turns out that his particular style is not to your liking, MacDonald’s contribution to the world of literature is one that we should all be grateful for, and the above metaphor will become even more apt as we look next week at The Princess and The Goblin together with its sequel The Princess and Curdie.

Review: Hard Magic by Larry Correia

Hard Magic

A friend was recently asked which novel is the best introduction to Larry Correia‘s work. She recommended Hard Magic: Grimnoir Chronicles Book I, and I was reminded that, although I’ve read and enjoy the book, I haven’t reviewed it yet. This post is meant to correct that oversight.

NB: I’ll do my best to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but those who haven’t read Hard Magic and want to approach the novel totally fresh should proceed with caution.

It’s 1932, albeit a very different time from the one our grandparents knew. Certainly there are similarities. The ashes of the Great War aren’t yet cold, and the unquenched embers threaten to spark an even more terrible conflict.

On the other hand, the war ended with pyrokinetics and demon summoners driving the Kaiser’s undead army behind the walls of Berlin. Imperial Japan prepares for global conquest, its dictator’s ruthlessness more than making up for broken Germany’s absence.

Magic–or a force practically indistinguishable from it–appeared in 1849. That power has wrought monumental changes through the one tenth of one percent of the world’s population strong enough to wield it,

Two such gifted individuals are Jake Sullivan: war hero, federal prisoner, and gravity-altering Active with far more ingenuity than the typical Heavy; and Faye Vierra: ADD-afflicted Dust Bowl refugee and teleportation prodigy. They find themselves drawn together even as they’re drawn deeper into an occult war with hundreds of millions of lives at stake.

My Perspective

The Grimnoir
Hard Magic was the first Larry Correia book I read. At the time I’d heard of the author and was aware that he was vilified in certain quarters of the SF establishment as a hack writer of gun porn. I was forced to conclude that Larry’s accusers couldn’t have read his work–or couldn’t be speaking honestly if they had.

Yes, Hard Magic (and its predecessor Monster Hunter International, which in all candor I did find to be a little rough–but hey, it’s a first novel) features lovingly detailed descriptions of firearms. And yes, its main speculative premise is best described as “diesel punk X-Men”.

If you thought there was a “but” coming, what the hell is wrong with you? Gun trivia is awesome–especially when it’s delivered with Larry’s expert touch. Diesel punk X-Men is such an awesome idea that Marvel’s failure to do it first is a sure omen of their decline.

Larry Correia tells imaginative action tales that put fun first–right where it belongs. He is helping to save SFF from the preachy nihilists and socially conscious schoolmarms who’ve spent the last two decades running genre fiction into the ground.

Reading Hard Magic made me appreciate how thoroughly Larry’s detractors underestimate him. Unlike most of the grievance studies set, he grew up on a dairy farm where predawn mornings found him elbow-deep in cow–not indicative of someone who abides laziness. He earned an accounting degree and worked for a Fortune 500 company and a defense contractor–not indicative of an intellectual lightweight.

Most importantly for our purposes, Larry contracted a library-devouring case of the reading bug at a young age–highly indicative of a Real Writer.

Hard Magic isn’t just a workmanlike pulp yarn (though it is, that; thank God). From the painstaking historical research (Quick aside: I have a history degree, and I focused on Japanese history. Trust me when I say that Larry got it right.), to a magic system of Sandersonian depth and scale, the book is replete with marks of real craft.

The crowning glory of Hard Magic, though, is its characters. Instances of navel contemplation and lengthy monologues are blessedly lacking. These characters show us who they are by what they do. Usually what they do is kick all kinds of ass, yet the violence always has meaning and is always justified by the stakes.

A recurring character element that jumped out at me while reading is the tension between the families we’re born into and the families we choose for ourselves. Loyalty to, and sacrifice for, family struck me as a major theme of Hard Magic (even if the author himself didn’t notice).

Conclusion

Hard Magic by Larry Correia delivers rollicking pulp action elevated by trenchant characterization. The author’s trademark attention to detail and commitment to fun make this book the perfect jumping-on point for new fans.