Vintage Treasures: Skinner by Richard S. McEnroe

Friday, June 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Skinner by Richard S. McEnroe. Bantam Spectra, June 1985. Cover by Enric

One of the advantages of writing up at least one Vintage Treasure every week is that it gives me an excuse to read a lot of the forgotten and overlooked classics I missed out on over the decades. And occasionally, to indulge in a guilty pleasure.

Take Skinner for example. It’s the fifth (and last) science fiction novel by Richard S. McEnroe, a literary agent turned author who began his career writing Buck Rogers novels in 1981. Skinner didn’t make much of a splash when it first appeared; it had a single paperback printing in the US, a UK edition from Orbit a year later, and then went out of print forever. But I don’t care. It’s got a dinosaur on an alien planet right there on the cover, and I want to read it, damnit.

When I went looking for contemporary reviews, I was surprised to find a few. And they only sharpened my interest. Here’s the most popular review on Goodreads, by Scott Schmidt.

What an odd, unique and refreshing work of science fiction. Well worth the fifty cents I paid for it at Goodwill. While I initially picked it up for the content depicted on the cover, this is only a part of a bigger plot that essentially boils down to interstellar shipping economics. I really loved the ending, which came about just as I was beginning to wonder where the story was headed. Great to read a piece of science fiction that didn’t have to be an epic, seven-part space opera. If I happen upon more of McEnroe’s works, I won’t hesitate to pick them up.

It might not be part of a seven-part space opera, but Skinner is the third book in a trilogy (which I didn’t learn until about 30 minutes ago… thank you, ISFDB). Here’s the first two.

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We Have Launch: Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space

Thursday, June 18th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke; First Edition: World Editions, Inc. (Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3), 1951
Cover art by Bunch (click to enlarge)

Prelude to Space
by Arthur C. Clarke
World Editions, Inc. (Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3) (160 pages, $0.25 in magazine digest format, 1951)

Having in my two previous columns here covered Isaac Asimov’s first proper novel (Pebble in the Sky) and Robert A. Heinlein’s first-written novel (For Us, the Living), it’s appropriate now to revisit Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, Prelude to Space. (Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were regarded as the “Big Three” science fiction writers for several decades beginning in the 1950s.) This is a novel about the launch of the first spaceship to go to the moon. Clarke had a background in radar and aeronautics — he famously anticipated the use of geosynchronous satellites for communications — and so one might expect a more truly scientifically authoritative novel compared to those from Asimov (whose background was only in biochemistry) and Heinlein (military service and politics). Indeed, Clarke’s novel is a better guess about how a launch to the moon would work than were those of other writers of the time, who clung to the vision of heroic lone inventors and single enormous rockets that would take off and return intact. Still, some of Clarke’s guesses were misses.
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The Ordinary is Ephemeral: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Battle Against Modernism

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 | Posted by David C. Smith

Weird Tales of Modernity-smallWeird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft
Jason Ray Carney
McFarland & Company (205 pages, $39.95 in paperback/$23.99 digital, July 26, 2019)

Jason Carney’s thesis in Weird Tales of Modernity is that, in their reaction to modernism, the artistic and literary movement that upended culture as it had been accepted in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the Weird Tales Three — Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft — turned modernism on its head with innovations they introduced in their fiction. Make no mistake: the word thesis here is apt. Weird Tales of Modernity is a formal dissertation. Making use as it does of academic jargon, the book will not be for every reader.

Straightaway, for example, Carney introduces us to the term ekphrastic to make clear what the Weird Tales Three were expressing. Ekphrasis is the representation in language of a work of art. Any of us can do this; go ahead and write your own personal, detailed description of Cthulhu or explore how you react to Frank Frazetta’s artwork. Ekphrasis “acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making explicit the connection between art, storytelling, and life.” This definition is from Patrick Smith’s guest blog on the website Interesting Literature. Smith quotes Michael Trussler in defining ekphrasis as “a kind of ontological mixture that signals a world beyond the confines of the text.”

There we have it: ekphrasis “signals a world beyond the confines of the text.” We are now in Lovecraft’s frightening, paranoid, awakened world of the Cthulhu mythology — alive beyond the confines of the text — and Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and Poseidonis, and Robert E. Howard’s brutal Valusia and Hyborian Age. As Carney says early in Weird Tales of Modernity, “When a literary artist, like [Clark Ashton] Smith, artistically describes or fictionalizes a work of art by transforming it into an unreal echo or shadow of the actual, that is ekphrasis.”

Carney devotes an early chapter to the history of Weird Tales and then two chapters each to the three authors of his study, introducing them and then exploring their artistic innovations. He begins his study with an examination of what he terms pulp ekphrasis. “In several of their enduring works,” he says,

Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith engage in a form of artistically inflected criticism termed ekphrasis. They do so by fictionalizing modernism, transforming the real artistic movement into an unreal shadow modernism, a strategic distortion of actual modernism. After many creative iterations honed over several stories — e.g., Pickman’s demented art, Malygris’s sorcery, the fell mirrors of Tuzun Thune — this shadow modernism becomes an inhuman technology that, functioning like a cognitive prosthesis in the virtual world of fiction, thereby reveals the secret truth of history: history is a cruelly accelerating process of deformation. The ordinary is ephemeral. History is an interplay of form and formlessness with formlessness terminally ascendant.

The ordinary is ephemeral. Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard were keenly aware of this truth and reacted to it in their fiction while other Weird Tales writers were moving right along in the modern world, writing their stories of scientifiction, offering narratives of ominous cults and mad scientists (with at least one nude woman per story),  or revisiting the tropes of Victorian horrors.

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New Treasures: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. Harper Voy­ager, October 2019. Cover by Courtney ‘Seage’ Howlett

I missed Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus when it was published late last year. Seems I wasn’t the only one — the book has only 19 reviews on Amazon, far fewer than her debut The Prey of Gods, which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and has over 100 Amazon reviews.

It’s a pity it hasn’t connected with more readers yet, as Escaping Exodus is generating good critical buzz. Kirkus praised its “top-notch worldbuilding and sharp characterization,” and Tom Whitmore at Locus Online was even more enthusiastic, saying “it’s got a breakneck pace: I wanted to take just a little longer to be with these people as they grow.” Here’s an excerpt from his review.

On a generation ship, two young people from different classes meet and fall in love. One rises, one falls, and their complex and forbidden rela­tionship causes a major rupture in the society. This is a classic SF trope: Drayden takes it to new places.

In Escaping Exodus, people use a pod of space whales as generation ships to escape an (unnamed) catastrophe on Earth. The people “ter­raform” the interior of the beasts, exploiting both the beasts’ internal systems and the biota that have adapted to live inside them; as those systems are exhausted, the society has to move from one beast to another. There are ten different groups, each with a different social system… Nicky Drayden’s new novel builds on the amaz­ing strengths she’s shown before. If you can imag­ine a feminist, Afro-centric, queer Heinlein juve­nile, with a strong discussion of class politics, then you might get close to what she’s doing here. I don’t think I could have imagined such a book be­fore reading this one. This is something I’ve been missing.

The sequel, Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, is scheduled to be released next January. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

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Future Treasures: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

Monday, June 15th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell. Saga Press, June 2020. Cover artist uncredited

Nick Martell is a bit of a carte blanche. He’s never published anything before, not even a short story. At the age of 23 he sold his first novel, The Kingdom of Liars, to Saga Press, and it arrives in hardcover next week. Publishers Weekly calls it a “taut, clever [tale] of rebellion and regicide in a world where the use of magic comes at the cost of one’s memories.”

The Kingdom of Liars is the opening novel in a new series, The Legacy of the Mercenary King. Kirkus Reviews gave it a warm review, saying in part,

Martell’s debut novel is a shelf-bending adventure fantasy that chronicles the life — and looming death — of Michael Kingman, an ill-fated young man awaiting execution for the killing of a king.

Set in a secondary world — particularly noteworthy for a fractured moon whose pieces frequently fall to the planet, wreaking havoc on the populace — the narrative takes place largely in Hollow, a once-thriving kingdom now beleaguered by tragedy, treason, and an impending civil war. Michael is an outcast whose father was executed for infamously killing a child prince years earlier, and he’s obsessed with finding the truth behind his beloved father’s death. A war hero, the king’s adviser, and a man of honor, his father would never have killed a child, especially a child he vowed to protect. But with the once-venerated name of Kingman now irrevocably tarnished, Michael, a con man doing what he needs to survive, is faced with the monumental task of restoring his family’s name…

Martell generally keeps the pages turning with a story full of relentless action and more than a few jaw-dropping plot twists…. An impressive fantasy debut that creates a solid foundation for (hopefully) a much larger narrative to come.

The Kingdom of Liars will be published by Saga Press on June 23, 2020. It is 608 pages, priced at $27.99 in hardcover. The cover artist is uncredited. If you can’t wait that long, the digital version is available today, priced at just $7.99. See all our coverage of the best new SF and fantasy here.


In 500 Words or Less: The Book of Dragons, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Sunday, June 14th, 2020 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

The Book of Dragons-smallThe Book of Dragons
Edited By Jonathan Strahan; illustrated by Rovina Cai
Harper Voyager (576 pages, $35 hardcover, $16.99 eBook, July 7, 2020)

More than a year ago now, I was hanging out with Kelly Robson and she mentioned a new anthology she’d been invited to contribute to. The topic? Dragons. When was it coming out? 2020 sometime, probably, and we promptly moved on to talking about other things.

It’s now the middle of 2020 and that anthology is here, my friends.

Look at this freaking contributor list. You might think that an anthology about dragons is going to hit a few specific themes or styles, but you would be wrong and should know better, especially with Jonathan Strahan at the helm. I grinned with excitement reading JY Yang’s “The Exile” – dragons that terraform new worlds! (Also a poignant piece about loneliness and consequence.) Pretty sure I muttered a silent “ooooooh” at how Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky present bee-like dragons dealing with hive collapse in “We Continue.” Plus there’s Elle Katharine White’s story “Matriculation,” about a young woman with tuition debt, her machinework dragon and a kindly vampire bookseller, which I already described on Twitter as an emotional gut punch.

If I had to pick a thematic through line (not sure if that’s the right term, but I’m going with it) that seems to tie most of The Book of Dragons together, it would be family. In some cases, the focus is reforming bonds and learning to trust each other, like in Zen Cho’s “Hikayat Sri Bujang, or The Tale of the Naga Sage” or Kelly’s “La Vitesse” – an epic ride of Alberta school bus vs dragon. Or it’s about the loss and heartache that sometimes comes with family – like the adopted human watching the hive collapse in “We Continue,” or in R.F. Kuang’s story “The Nine Curves River,” about someone escorting their younger sister to be sacrificed to end a drought. Or the idea of found family, which Seanan McGuire captures brilliantly with “Hoard,” about a long-lived dragon who cares for foster kids close to aging out the way others care about gold.

The idea of gold or treasure comes up often, too. Sometimes as more of an addendum than a focus, like in Sarah Gailey’s “We Don’t Talk About the Dragon.” The real story there is a young girl growing up in a harsh, abusive family – though there’s also a dragon living in the barn.

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Vintage Treasures: Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson

Saturday, June 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson. DAW paperback original, 1986. Cover by Kathy Wyatt

Jennifer Roberson was one of the 80s class of DAW women writers. Her first short short story, “The Lady and the Tiger,” the genesis for the Tiger and Del series, appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s groundbreaking Sword and Sorceress 2 in 1985. Like Mercedes Lackey, Mickey Zucker Reichert, Cheryl J. Franklin (whom I covered last week) and others, Roberson was a fixture on bookstores shelves and the DAW catalog all through the 80s and 90s. She launched several popular paperback series that ran for decades, and helped transform DAW into an industry powerhouse.

Her first novel was Shapechangers (1984), the opening book in the long-running, 8-volume Chronicles of the Cheysuli. In September 1986, with the first three novels in that series under her belt, she released Sword-Dancer, the first book in perhaps her most popular series, Tiger and Del, which follows the adventures of Tiger, a legendary warrior and sword-dancer, and Del, the sword-singer who hires him to rescue her brother, and who turns out to be as good with a blade as he is — something that vexes him greatly at first.

Tiger and Del ran to seven volumes (so far). The first six were collected in a handsome trio of omnibus trade paperbacks in 2006 with new covers by Todd Lockwood, making a nicely complete set on my bookshelf… until Roberson released a seventh book, Sword-Bound, in 2013. It’s tough being a collector sometimes.

As a series opener, Sword-Dancer is a little uneven, but still well worth reading. Here’s a snippet from one of my favorite Goodreads reviews by Dana.

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New Treasures: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Friday, June 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Obsidian Tower-smallMelissa Caruso is the author of Swords and Fire, a 4-book fantasy trilogy (there’s more of those than you think). I don’t know much about it, so that doesn’t tell me anything — although I note that the first book, The Tethered Mage, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017, and that’s definitely an asset in my book.

Her latest is The Obsidian Tower, the opening volume in a new series, and it’s been warmly received. Publisher Weekly calls it “no-holds-barred epic fantasy,” and James Tivendale at GrimDark magazine raves, saying:

Like Caruso’s previous trilogy, The Obsidian Tower is set in the world of Eruvia. The action takes place at least 150 years after the events of Swords and Fire… Ryx is a vivomancer but her magic is flawed and so twisted that it is dangerous. Anyone she touches dies, which, to her dismay, has happened a few times. At twenty-one years old, her role is to look after the castle in Gloamingard and at the beginning of the narrative, she is hosting a conference with neighbouring Alevar and the Serene Empire. Her castle is full of nooks, crannies, and secret passages, many of which seem only known to Ryx, as well as being host to a mysterious tower with a magical door which must not be unsealed….

Caruso is a terrific writer who weaves fascinating and intricate fantasy tales that are heavily focused on magic and politics. In The Obsidian Tower Caruso also introduces mystery elements to the mix which fit perfectly with her style…. [it’s] is brimming with many well-crafted and colourful characters… My personal favourites were the formidable ruler of Morgrain The Lady of Owls, the mysterious Severin, the envoy from the neighbouring Alevar, the talking fox-like Chimera and castle guardian Whisper, and the loveable oddballs that make up the Rookery….

The Obsidian Tower is an entertaining, well-written, and expertly-paced novel with incredible magic schemes and a great cast of characters.

The Obsidian Tower was published by Orbit on June 2, 2020. It is 528 pages, priced at $16.99 in paperback and $9.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Peter Bollinger. Read a lengthy excerpt here.

See all our recent coverage of the best new SF and fantasy here.


A Superior Confection: Robert A. Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020 | Posted by Damien Broderick

The Pursuit of the Pankera-smallThe Pursuit of the Pankera
By Robert A. Heinlein
Caezik (503 pages, $29.99 hardcover, $9.99 digital, March 2020)
Cover by Scott Grimando

It’s almost impossible to discuss Robert A. Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel about Parallel Universes without revealing and thus spoiling the plot devices of it and its 1980 prequel/sequel, The Number of the Beast—. Heinlein, first Grand Master of the SFWA, for decades acclaimed as the Dean of sf, no longer pleases everyone. Some readers, especially academic critics, have denounced both books as grossly self-indulgent and even worthless. Others, like the brilliant Marxist professor H. Bruce Franklin (in his important 1980 study Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction) catch the feel of Beast: “a cotton-candy apocalypse — frothy, sweet, airy, mellow, light, festive, whimsical, insubstantial” (199).

That final word is unjust, since many pages are devoted to an investigation of lifeboat rules, and what Algis Budrys termed “protocol,” capable of mutual acceptance by four genius-level libertarians, two of them women, one the daughter of crusty and irritable Professor Jake Burroughs used to having his own way. Oh, plus an increasingly intelligent and willful computer in the younger man’s flying car, uplifted to true personhood during a visit to… The Land of Oz. This jolly and quite necessary absurdity is a side effect of their discovery that the world is built of myth, of fictons, yielding a kind of “pantheistic multiperson solipsism” occasioned by the dreams, terrors and wishes (as it were) of writers and readers. (Regrettably, Heinlein’s term ficton is “corrected” to fiction in Pankera.)

Robert Heinlein, it follows, is the god (or demon) of the universes the four learn how to visit in Jake’s continua craft. Some of these worlds he had written himself (especially the history of near-immortal Lazarus Long and his incestuous mother and clone daughters, or would write later. Others are the creations of other major writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars), L. Frank Baum (Oz), Heinlein’s older friend E.E. “Doc” Smith, whose inaugural space opera sequence tracks the psionic Lenses gained by eugenic human warrior-saints, chess pawns in a cosmic war between aliens billions of years older than humankind.

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Epic Fantasy on a Reliable Schedule: A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Ruin of Kings-small The Name of all Things-small The Memory of Souls-small

Covers by Lars Grant-West

Bestselling fantasy dominates modern bookshelves in a way I could only dream about as a young reader. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle are the two biggest examples in recent memory. Of course, both are also unfinished, and the latest installments are both long overdue. Makes you wonder what they could have accomplished if the publishing magic that fueled them had also included a reliable schedule.

Tor is trying something impressive with their latest big-budget epic fantasy. If things unfold as scheduled, Jenn Lyons’ ambitious 5-volume series A Chorus of Dragons will be released in rapidfire sequence. Here’s what Lyons said on her website last year.

The series is on a nine month release schedule. That means that, should everything go to plan, Tor will be releasing a book in the series every nine months or so. Two this year, one next year, two the year after that (again, if all goes to plan.) Is this stunningly ambitious? Yes. Is this going to kill me? Quite possibly…

So far, Jenn (and Tor) have hit the deadlines. The Ruin of Kings was published in February 2019, The Name of All Things in October, and Book 3, The Memory of Souls, is now scheduled to arrive on August 25, 2020.

The series has been a critical hit as well as a commercial one; the first novel scored a rare publishing quadruple crown, with starred reviews from Library Journal (“Stunning”), Booklist (“Dazzling”), Publishers Weekly (“intricate epic fantasy”) and Kirkus Reviews (“Un-put-down-able”). Tor has been leaking news about the third book since October. I’ll be very curious to see if the buzz built up after the release of the first two volumes continues once the third arrives.

Read the complete first chapter of The Ruin of Kings at Tor.com, and see all our recent New Treasures here.


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