For the last twenty years fantasy has been stuck in the middle: Middle-Earth and the Middle Ages. Lord of the Ring rip-offs and King Arthur clones have inundated the shelf, leaving most readers wary of picking up the latest publication, afraid that “as good as Tolkien” might be less than true once again. But Sturgeon’s Law–the one that says “95 percent of everything is crud”–does have a corollary, that is, “Five percent of anything is worthwhile.” Hope springs anew for fantasy in the form of “steampunk,” fantastical horror and fresh authors who list Borges over Tolkien as a literary influence. Lately these authors have been carving their niche into the dead husk of fantasy, finding in their novels that there may be some kick to the old horse after all. There have always been a couple of novels published among the hundreds that portrayed a unique view, but the past few years have been extremely productive. The most exciting trend has come from California: three friends of Philip K. Dick, now humorously termed the “steampunks,” who were more interested in Queen Victoria than King Arthur. Part of the reason why the “steampunk” writers are so exciting is because they have challenged the status quo, creating a new mold with which lesser writers will be casting watered down prose for the next ten years. Not only have they rediscovered Victorian England in their books, but have also trailblazed into the Carribean Sea and modern Orange County, California.

Of the three, Tim Powers was the first to emerge into the limelight. Even though he had previously published novels in the “Laser” line of books, as well as one Del Rey fantasy (The Drawing of the Dark), it was his Philip K. Dick award-winning novel, The Anubis Gates, that signaled something different. The Anubis Gates is a very wry, witty, almost perverse novel that took Victorian England and introduced skullduggery and mystical happenings, yet left history completely the same. Too many times when reading this book, I wondered where the division was, where the author had introduced the fantasy. It was a worthy winner of the Dick award. Where Phil Dick had always made the reader question the nature of reality, Powers here made you question the validity of the unreality. In both men’s work, you had to come to the conclusion that the real was much more strange than you had ever imagined before. Powers went on to win another Dick award for his next novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, a future alternate history novel that showed he wasn’t a one-trick pony. It’s possible that Powers could have been the first man with three Dicks, except Ace finally took notice and his next novel, On Stranger Tides, received a hardback for its first publication (thus rendering it ineligible for the award). Here Powers returns to the style that marked The Anubis Gates as different. Set in the Carribean during the time of the pirates, we follow one hapless puppetteer, Jack Shandy, in an adventure that is the novel equivalent of Disneyland, at least if Walt Disney had been obsessed by pirates. Shandy meets Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, goes in search of the elusive fountain of youth, and discovers love, wealth and zombies. What On Stranger Tides shares with The Anubis Gates is a unique setting, a seemingly endless string of inventiveness, and pure fun. This is indeed that wonder of books: one that you just can’t put down. Powers held me hostage in the Carribean, a’sailin’ with Jack, and I didn’t complain a bit. Powers’ latest novel, The Stress of Her Regard, returns to England, but this time in the Romantic period. The main protagonist is Dr. Michael Crawford, who has some bad luck with matrimony, but the historical characters, those happy-go-lucky poets Byron, Keats and Shelley, steal the show. Powers seems determined to strike dangerous new territory with each book, to start anew each time he sits to the typewriter, and work his magic where his muse leads. I look forward to a new Powers with anticipation, ready to relearn a new period of history, twisted from bland and boring to the magical.

You saw them lined up on the shelf, too. In that same familiar Del Rey packaging. “Oh,” you thought, “Another book with short people who eat a lot and go on quests with wizards. Bleah.” And that’s what James P. Blaylock’s first novels, The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf, appear to be. But, like the old adage, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Even though I enjoyed Blaylock’s earlier novels, they always had some element that prevented me from recommending them heartily. Blaylock is a literary author–he reads and derives his style outside of the genre ghetto. He writes character fantasies in the sub-genre that up until now has enjoyed an unlimited succession of fantasies based on the “plot coupon” idea, i.e., stereotypical furry characters who have to gather enough plot coupons to appease the god (or the Author or the page amount set by the publisher). And, to top it all off, he writes beautiful description. Up until now, all of this combined to make his characters seem more eccentric than “real mainstream,” his plots seem to finish right when they got started and his prose wordy and thick. But The Last Coin overcomes all this, even though it incorporates all the above. This is because Blaylock has finally found his voice, his even measuring cup that is able to dispense just the right amount of each element, not too much and not too little. His characters are eccentric, yes–but don’t you remember your favorite uncle acting just like that at the New Year’s Eve party last year? His plot seems to meander as before–yet, when you get to the end, you have that warm feeling in your heart of a job well done. And his descriptions are still wordy–but in the right places, and with phrases that flow smoothly like a stream over sand, not jerking about as if over rapids. Obstensibly the book is about Andrew van Bergen, a man with a desire to be the best he can, but only if he does it his way. An individual. But first he has to contend with those stupid cats of his wife’s aunt. And, of course, there is his aunt who he is indebted to and yet intolerant of at the same time. There’s a bed and breakfast to get ready to open. And there’s this weird new lodger who only needs one more piece of thirty silver pieces before he can rule the world. Along the way, you can learn about carp and their amazing powers. Weetabix and midnight cereal meetings. The poetry of William Ashbless and “the one pig.” And you might just learn a little something about yourself. Do you need anything else from a novel?

K.W. Jeter’s work has been hard to classify, an indication of something off the average. He merges the thin lines that divide the categories of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, always remembering the heart of the story is in the characters. Jeter is probably the least known of the ‘steampunks’–for now. I suspect Jeter will come into his own in the nineties, as soon as enough people try his fiction. For one book is all you’ll need to get you craving for more.¬†Jeter’s fantasy, Infernal Devices, borrows heavily on the same sources used by Powers and Blaylock. ¬†A brief description of its plot, in fact, would be indistinguishable from Blaylock’s Homunculus. ¬†But¬†Jeter makes the story his own, a more dark and realistic vision of the world, if slightly out of focus. This tendancy to the dark side of life has led Jeter toward that more lucrative of markets (at least for the moment), horror. His recent novels, In the Land of the Dead and The Night Man, have no touch of steam to them, but rather a sinister psychological bent that make them all the more chilling. Jeter understands that the true horror in this¬†world is man’s own actions against himself and his fellow men, and it is this course he is following at the moment. I recommend Infernal Devices to you, but I strongly would suggest you stay on the lookout for the next time that Jeter strays into the fantastic realm. Given the progress he is making as a writer, it could be well worth the wait.

Magic realism became a catch term in the eighties, a neat way to look at books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges and the other South American novelists who were writing novels somewhere between mainstream and fantasy. Their method of describing unusual occurrences in everyday terms defined a new class of fantasy that genre writers weren’t slow to invade. Some novels of these types show the haphazard and unfamiliarity of the authors. But others gave the field a shot of adreneline in the ol’ Abracadabra!

If you missed Radix, Attansio’s first book, you probably weren’t alone. It received little publicity, and few reviews. Yet it was definitely a novel that tested barriers, that pushed the boundaries of SF. Unfortunately, it was also a first novel. (People don’t buy novels by authors they don’t know, right?) Yet Attansio didn’t give up, and is back with a vengeance. Wyvern is A.A. Attansio’s entry into the Fantasy Revolution, fueled by lush phrases and extended description influenced more by Borges than by Tolkien. In it’s setting, Wyvern resembles Powers’ On Stranger Tides: they both feature adventure on the high seas in a time when guns were swiftly becoming the high magic of the land. But where Powers took the actual history of Blackbeard and his merry crew and inserted fantastic elements that didn’t negate the history, Attansio invents his own history around the setting and yet makes it seem as if he was telling you the truth. The story follows the birth of Jaki Gefjon and the first 30 years of his life. The book is broken into four sections, each a seperate rite of passage for Jaki. ¬†Wyvern is a lush book. It’s full of characters and settings and a plot that is elaborately beautiful. It’s also a very “real” book. Set in the Caribbean in the early 1700’s, there is nothing in Wyvern¬†that couldn’t have happened in “real life.” Yet, as far as I know, there wasn’t any dread pirate ship named Wyvern. Attansio has cheated, in a sense, but what a cheat! Take their own world and make it seem as fantastic. And fantastic it is. Pirates. Head-hunters. Deadly spiders. Cloud reading. Star reading. Bible reading. Mushroom delusions. Love delusions. Angry fathers. Back stabbing friends. Gold bullion. I loved it.

Lucius Shepard set the fantasy world on edge when he published “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule.” Sure, Tolkien had a couple of dragons and we’ve seen them popping up forever from the imitators. Dragons are passe, right? Well Shepard showed them where they were wrong–dragons could be new, especially if they were old, centuries old, and big, miles big, er, long. But fantasy wasn’t too prepared for Shepard and he only received a world fantasy nomination for “The Man…” Pretty good for your first try at the stuff, ain’t it? Shepard has now returned to his dragon in a prequel (though you need not have read “The Man…”) called “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter.” Griaule’s there, and his mile long presence has permeated the valley with its evil. And the Beautiful Daughter, an important stereotype for a fantasy tale, is there, whose father, with some rare insight, makes her sleep in a dug out hole that allows her to touch the dragon’s skin. (Oh, I bet I forgot to tell you that Griaule, all two miles long of him, has been taking a nap for a bit–centuries enough for dirt and grass and trees and villages to grow up, around, and over him.) And, of course, if you’re beautiful, you’re going to have suitors and jealous rivals and adventures. The stuff that fairy tales are made of, right? But don’t be mistaken. Shepard’s world is not the Disney version. His world is straight from the original style of Grimm’s–dark, depressing, as filled with horror as happiness. And it’s touched with some of the horrors of our world as well: rape, murder, loneliness. After reading “Scalehunter’s,” you’ll realize the beauty that can be told in a fantasy tale. Something Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Terry Brooks,¬†and the rest of the fantasy bestsellers should take note of before their works crumble into malformed pieces that they jury-rigged together.

If books were like your relatives, then Swordspoint would be the uncle that always forgets your name and makes up twenty different ones for you, along with a complete history that you know nothing about. This one’s strange. And wonderful. And…strange. Once again, there is nothing “magical” or “fantastic” really about this book. It seems as if everything is real. Is it SF? Is it fantasy? No, it’s just good. I would try to explain this book like I have some of the others above, but it’s pretty inexplicable. Let’s just say you pick a lot of clues up from the text. And you come in with some notions that help you fill in the gaps. But it ain’t earth, at least in any time period that I’ve ever heard about.

[Finished 1988]


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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