Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saffron and Brimstone (Elizabeth Hand)

Skinny came bearing gifts. In one afternoon, I found myself the unexpected owner of KJ Bishop's The Etched City, Justina Robson's Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone.

I first saw Ms. Hand's short story collection at a local bookstore and was admittedly drawn by the reviews. Contemporary fantasy with a markedly feminine tone? Sold! But I was strapped for cash at that time and never found the book again. Thankfully, Skinny stepped in to buy me a copy in Singapore, and I tore into as soon as we parted.

Ms. Hand's gentle voice and disciplined eye made me breeze through "Cleopatra Brimstone," which I found intriguingly horrifying, though the outcome was not completely unexpected. Her "Pavane for a Prince of Air" struck a more personal chord with me as it dealt with the pain of loss, speaking of 'the impossible bargains I made at three o' clock in the morning with the pagan deities flitting about the room: what I would give up to save him, which digits, which hand, which leg; eyesight, the power of speech, an ear; two; my tongue (p 73-74).' I was beginning to like Ms. Hand more and more, even if I wasn't taking to "The Least Trumps" and "Wonderwall" well.

But it was The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations that kept me tethered to her engaging prose. Here, she speaks of eternal nymphs and muses, of what has been lost, of what has been forgotten. "Kronia" is my favorite of the quartet, with its simple flavor yet somehow wonderfully disjointed narrative. It has a certain cadence that makes reading it out loud a lovely exercise.

Fans of gritty spec fic may find Ms. Hand's kind of fantasy almost vulnerable, but there is a strength in the way she weaves her words that makes you believe that there is true magic here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Crimson Labyrinth (Yusuke Kishi)

Mr. Kishi actually tells you how his The Crimson Labyrinth will end. I had time to listen to him while I waited to board my flight from Kalibo, and kept on reading 26,000 feet in the air. Given the circumstances, I can't pinpoint why I couldn't put the book down: either it was really good or I just didn't want to spend two good hours doing nothing.

Or better yet, it was fairly decent and reading it was far from a waste of my time. Yeah. That must be it.

The Crimson Labyrinth, translated by Masami Isetani and Camellia Nieh, benefits from Mr. Kishi's almost instructional and extremely expository manner, which clearly depicts the unforgiving setting of this Battle Royale-meets-Lord of the Flies thriller. It's a psychological study peppered with an idiot's guide to the Australian outback. Very informative--even fun.

I didn't care much for the protagonist, though. Fujiki Yoshihiko is a forty-year old ex-broker down on his luck, but I feel that his is the type of personality that can be easily replaced by a thirty-year old schoolteacher or a mid-twenties recovering heroin addict and the story would still move. The story, after all, does not invest in him as much as it does on the whole plot, which is exciting enough if you try not to guess what comes next. Granted, that last twist was something I didn't completely predict, and I give Mr. Kishi major points for that.

The story is tight and well-paced, awarding the reader a glimpse of the fear and paranoia that would beset any unexpected contestant in a grisly reality show. Mr. Kishi has certainly gone to great lengths laying out how this weird game will play out, from the Pocket Game Kids to the checkpoints and the strange tandem of Platy and Lucifer. I suppose if I were in Fujiki's shoes, I really wouldn't last more than five hours in a game like this, so it was an education, in a way.

So Labyrinth was a bit predictable, yes, but in the end, it was still satisfying. Kept me turning the page. Convinced me that I was seeing all this unfold before my eyes. RPG was never this nightmarishly fun.