Spirits of the Vasty Deep

a review by Bob Roman

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Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2018. 297 pages $17.95

stablefordBrian Stableford has been around for a long time. He’s been on my shit list for a long time, too, though for not as long but long enough for me to have forgotten why. Occasionally, an author will cop an attitude or pander to an ideology or write very poorly or write something otherwise irritating and: Enough! Time is too short and swift to bother with any more. In the case of Stableford, possibly it was his 1970 novel, The Blind Worm. Or perhaps not; I mention that novel because I have a copy that was issued as an Ace double novel and I can’t otherwise imagine what the problem was. I picked up Spirits of the Vasty Deep because I had forgotten about The Blind Worm. And that was a good thing because this is a good book, a good gothic novel: terror and medievalism with science fiction elements and some modern add-ons from The Da Vinci Code.

Gothic is not a genre that I’m particularly fond of at all. And the novel begins in a pretty standard Gothic way. Author Simon Cannick, having lost his Bristol apartment to a new landlord and sky-rocketing rent, moves to isolated St. Madoc in coastal northern Wales where he had, to his surprise, inherited a cottage. And then there is the partially ruinous Abbey and the secretive family that has for time out of mind resided there. Is there anything not Gothic in that set-up?

Well, the protagonist is not a helpless and to-be-victimized female, but a geezerly obscure author, possibly based somewhat on Brian Stableford himself. The terror is pretty mild and there is more humor than might be typical. Much of the early part of the book is basically dialogue in a pseudo-scholarly, nerdy Da Vinci Code vein. Somehow I did not find that boring. Stableford wrote well enough to bring it off.

Stableford does play some misdirection games regarding who the important characters are and who are secondary. It maybe helped, for me, that the characters are mostly geezers. Being one myself, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in identifying with them.

So what happens? Read the damned book: seriously, this is a good read, folks. Brian Stableford is now officially off my shit list though The Blind Worm hasn’t gotten any better.

Djinn City

A review by Bob Roman

Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain, The Unnamed Press, Los Angeles, 413 pages, $17.99

I’ve been whining about how so much of genre fiction amounts to remixed clich├ęs that have, through endless repetition, become almost unpalatable even when cleverly constructed, even when accompanied by an important message or point. Well, Earth may be a small planet but it is, nevertheless, a big world. Meet Saad Z. Hossain, a writer of science fiction fantasy social satire from Bangladesh: a breath of richly oxygenated water in what is otherwise becoming a grossly over fertilized dead zone in the pop sea.

Hossain achieves this partly by bringing a cultural perspective from Bangladesh that gathers originality as it becomes an import. There is an additional benefit for readers in the States as Hossain writes in English. With translated work, one is also dependent on the work of the translator who, even when competent, might not be suited to the material. On the other hand, some American appreciation of Bangladesh (and the Indian subcontinent in general) will help illuminate Hossain’s commentary and humor.

Hossain is a funny author very much in the style of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and he is a more than competent story-teller. Unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide, Hossain’s humor is as much in service of his story as it is in service of social commentary or absurdity for its own sake. (Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio drama, not as a novel. Story-telling was consequently a secondary priority.)

Djinn City is a big story, populated by a great many characters: Caution! It’s worth paying attention to them all as multiple characters play major roles, even if they tend to exist more as humorous caricatures than as carefully crafted personalities. That they are caricatures is mostly a trade-off as a character-driven soap opera would have been a very different project (but maybe fascinating?) and probably much longer. I only have one regret about this. I would have loved to have gotten better acquainted with Aunt Juny. She is a powerful character that gains strength from her violation of gender expectations. As written, her caricature functions partly as a commentary on those expectations and some of that humor is nervous laughter evoked by just how uber competent someone like Juny must therefore be. Her function in the plot is kind of a deus ex auntie, as it were, out djinn-ing the djinn.

Bringing a story to a close is a major test for a story-teller. At this test, Hossain is either brilliant or horrifying. If it is the latter, you will see a sequel sometime very soon. When I reached the end, I was full, happy but ready for something different. A sequel: no thank you. You might see Djinn City on the big screen, however. I understand the film rights have been sold.

I do have one complaint about The Unnamed Press edition of this book. Brendan Monroe’s cover art is seriously lame. He could be an artist but, in this case at least, he is no illustrator. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a new book of fiction with a table of contents with chapter titles?

If my comments are not enough to motivate you to read this book, there’s a much better (or at least different) review by John Venegas at Angel City Review.

The Mountains of Evanston

“I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion…”*

evanstonmtns
At the mad mountains of Evanston. Photo by Roman.

* “At the Mountains of Madness” by H.P. Lovecraft.