Hell of a Fix

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I bought the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction largely to get the story “Hell of a Fix,” by Matthew Hughes. I’ve liked everything else I’ve read from Hughes, notably his satirical far-future SF adventures, such as Template, The Gist Hunter and Majestrum, set in the Jack Vance-inspired “Archonate.” This begins a new series, and while it stands alone as a self-contained piece, it’s also the opening of a novel, which itself will be the opening of a three-book series. So it makes a good way to sample what’s coming, I’d think.
WHAT IT IS
A 16,000 word “novelette” about Chesney Arnstruther, a mild-mannered actuary for a mid-sized insurance company. Chesney isn’t by any means a go-getter—he’s an introvert, a man of only minor ambitions and modest dreams, with no lovers and no close friends (and few casual ones) but a job that suits his tastes, and a life that, if it’s not satisfying, is at least comfortable enough that he’s not spurred to change it, except in minor ways. It’s while working on one of those minor ways that he accidentally summons a demon, and then refuses to sign over his soul on the ground that there was no intent and therefore no contract. This causes a labor dispute in Hell, with troublesome repercussions for the regular world. Chesney, caught in the middle, needs to broker a solution, involving a televangelist, Chesney’s domineering mother, his “better angel” and Satan, among others.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT IT
Hughes calls this an urban fantasy, which is certainly true—it takes place in a modern urban setting and has loads of fantasy to it —but it’s also of a genre I think of as “screwball fantasy,” exemplified by the comic fantasy writing of Thorne Smith, Robert Bloch, Fritz Lieber, Charles Myers and others. Where most urban fantasy seems to be set in a world where there’s occult danger all around us, and only the heroes who walk the shadows betwixt the world of daylight and dark mysticism can save us, screwball fantasy often has utterly absurd things happen, which are then treated in a straight-faced manner by relatively ordinary people who have to use logic against absurdity and somehow corral it, rather than simply beating the crap out of it with superpowers and manly derring-do. The characters tend to be simply (but deftly) drawn, caricatures that have enough charm to liven up the story, without being so nuanced and realistic that they bring what is essentially an airy confection crashing to the ground.
And I love screwball fantasy, so it’s great to have a new story in the genre (and the prospect of a whole series), particularly one this well-written. It moves along at a rapid clip, clever and amusing, and does a great job dealing with the absurd and fantastic. The characters simply take the absurd as normal, and that makes it all the funnier. With some cosmetic changes, it could pretty easily have been published during the heyday of screwball fantasy—for all that there are modern touches like televangelists in the story, the setting it takes place in feels as timeless as the setting of Little Lulu comics. Chesney himself is an ideal screwball hero, an unassuming nebbish who finds himself over his head but rallies to the occasion. All the other characters are engaging—even Satan and the greedy evangelist have just enough rueful humanity to them to give them a likable charm in their particular roles.
It’s also worth note that while most urban fantasy today avoids angels and demons in favor of vampires, wizards, fairies and werewolves (and those that do use Heaven and Hell seem to reduce them to the status of just more Powerful Supernatural Beings You’d Better Be Wary Of, not unlike the werewolves or a faerie queen), Hughes jumps right in to a classical view of Christianity, albeit one that seems modeled on mid-twentieth-century corporate structure, where the tempting and salvation and such are all essentially cosmic office duties. It’s refreshing for not being overused, and a lot of fun.
I won’t share how the story ends, since you should read it, but I will say that it ends well, in a way that brings the events to a workable close, and opens things up in another direction that makes it easy to see that there’s plenty more to do in the novel to come.
It’s a good story, well-conceived and well-written, and I’m eager for what comes next.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT IT
Chesney is a comics fan, and while I’d ordinarily like that, being a comics reader myself, there was stuff I just didn’t like about it here.
Some of it is minor nit-pickery—Chesney is apparently specifically a superhero reader, but the story uses the terms “graphic novels” and “comix” in a way that most superhero fans probably wouldn’t, but that’s pretty minor.
But what mainly bugged me is that Chesney, like many screwball fantasy heroes, is the kind of stuck-in-a-functional-rut nobody who kind of needs a kick in the pants to get him up and out and doing, and much like Cosmo Topper being haunted by the Kerbys, it’s the intrusion of the fantasy that’s going to do it. So in that context, the fact that he likes comics comes across as shorthand for “he’s an immature man-child.” No romantic experience, still tied to his mother, and oh yeah, he likes them superhero funnybooks. Clearly, he hasn’t grown up yet. It comes of as an easy way to infantilize him, which seems to build on an unstated assumption that what he reads is immature junk.
Chesney’s favorite superhero—a super-UPS man called The Driver—seems to fall into the same pattern. While various characters in the story are figures of satire, The Driver’s just a parody, a dumb take on a superhero for no apparent reason other than to show Chesney as a boy-man.
To be fair, Chesney’s interest in superheroes does figure into the plot of the story in ways that affect the ending, so it’s possible there’s more to come, and I could well change my mind about The Driver when I read the full novel. And I may be oversensitive on the subject, of course. In the end, it’s a minor piece of the story that, even though I don’t care for it, doesn’t change my opinion of the story as a whole. I liked Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price, too, even though his let’s-knock-comic-books character, the Super-Duper, was a pill.
[I will note that The Driver’s secret ID, Ben Turner, has already been used, by DC Comics’s martial-arts hero, the Bronze Tiger. But I’m nitpicking again]
SUMMING UP
It took more space to talk about what I didn’t like than what I liked, but that’s not a proper proportion—the good stuff is 95% of the story or more, and the bit I didn’t like is a minor element. Overall, the story is a delight, a light and frothy cocktail of a story that’s like nothing else I’ve seen coming out today—the obvious modern comparison is Pratchett, but this feels much more like Bloch’s humorous fantasy of the pulp era than like anything in Discworld—and I heartily recommend it.
I’d recommend the whole magazine, but I haven’t read much of it yet. I’ve only read one other piece, a moody high-fantasy adventure by Alex Irvine that was well-constructed and skilfully written, but didn’t make me eager for more the way “Hell of a Fix” did.

Still With the Books

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I saw this in a bookstore, and liked the look of the book—it had a great-looking cover and trade dress that seemed to promised something rich and textured, a book that would take you somewhere and bring it to life well.
And sure, you can’t tell a book by its cover and all that, but it was enough to make me pick up the book, read a paragraph or two, check out the flap copy. I downloaded the Kindle sample later, and wound up buying the book.
The book design was partly accurate and partly misleading—at least, to my sensibilities. The book did take me to an interesting, textured, convincing place that was worth going to, but the story it told once you got there wasn’t the equal of the setting, I’d say. Still, it was a pleasant-enough read, and I’m not sorry to have picked it up.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a first novel, tells a two-track story. The modern-day track is set in 1991, and deals with Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American history, working on her dissertation. She winds up having to deal with an old house in Marblehead, Massachusetts that belonged to her grandmother, and while doing so becomes embroiled in a mystery that may well fuel her academic work—a mystery centered around a book, which may be a recipe book and may be a grimoire, written by a woman named Deliverance Dane, back in the days of the Salem Witch Trials.
The other track is the tale of Deliverance Dane and her descendants, enduring those days and the society that spawned them. The novel jumps back and forth in time, telling the parallel narrative as Connie researches the Danes and learns about the troubles they faced. Early on, the question is raised as to whether Deliverance is merely thought to be a witch by an ignorant and superstitious populace, or whether there’s real magic going on—and this being the kind of book it is, of course there’s real magic going on, and its effects finds its way through history to Connie Goodwin’s present.
The worlds presented in the book—Connie’s scholarly world and her tangles dealing with her grandmother’s house, and the 17th century life of the Danes—are well-written, well-realized and full of interesting texture and detail. The plot of the novel, though, is less so. There’s a villain, and you can spot him instantly, and see his schemes from a mile off—it would make you wonder why Connie can’t tell, except that Connie’s not aware that she’s the lead in a fantasy novel, so she has no reason to be looking for a villain driving the plot (and, for that matter, no awareness that there’s actually magic at stake here until the threat has developed pretty well). And there’s a romance, and as soon as the guy comes on stage for the appropriate meet-cute, you know this is The Romance and you know how it’s going to go, and sure enough it does. And there’s a plot twist about the magic that feels like it came straight out of Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and it, too, is fairly obvious from the minute the story begins to hint at it.
But in the end, the book’s not about the plot or the romance—they’re there to give it a structure, to provide us with a compelling reason for why Connie’s researching this particular past, and why it matters to the present day. So the fact that it’s kind of mechanical and obvious doesn’t damage the book all that much—this is one of those books where it’s not the destination or even the specific journey that matters, but the scenery you get along the way. The plot may not be much, but the context is fascinating, the writing itself is reasonably accomplished and the places the book takes the reader are interesting; the plot’s just there to provide some bones under the skin and keep the story from wandering aimlessly.
And there are some very nice resonances between the two threads of the story, and a touch or two that does work out to be surprising (or at least, that dawn on the reader appropriately and satisfyingly).
Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and the novel’s strengths suggest that Howe knows what she’s doing and should be someone to watch in future books, while its weaknesses are excusable in a first novel. With luck, she’ll improve her plotting while continuing to write about interesting settings and situations. I’ll be glad to check out her next novel, at least.

Recently Read

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Put simply, this is the kind of book I’d like to read more of. A lot more of.
It’s got swordfights and spaceships and sea-dwelling clan cultures. It’s got murder and bureacracy and philosophical arguments and ruined castles and robots and masked aristocrats and dancers and secrets and feuds and more.
Template is one of Matthew Hughes’s Archonate novels, set in a far, far future highly-reminiscent of and clearly inspired by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but not quite that “dying” yet. Call it the Fading Earth, perhaps. A world where humanity is scattered to the stars, but where things are decaying and have been for so long that no one remembers a time when they weren’t. Across The Spray, the sweep of human civilization, mankind is splintered into thousands of arcane and obsessive cultures, locked into rigid social, political and philosophical codes, often in stark disagreement with one another. The rich are sumptuously wealthy, the poor are desperately abject and the many worlds of humanity are places where idle play and the grueling fight for survival go hand in hand, all observed with an arch sense of wit and satire, an eye for detail and a deft and confident way with narrative.
Template concerns Conn Labro, an indentured-for-life “player” in a culture built around gambling. He’s an expert duelist, combatant and strategist who plays games for the man who owns his contract, against anyone who can afford the game. But now he’s adrift—his boss has been killed and so has an longtime gaming client, but the client has left him a fortune, enough money to buy himself free of indentured servitude. And enough hints have been scattered to make him realize that he’s now a target himself and that there’s something about who he is and where he comes from that puts him in danger, from unknown powerful and deadly forces.
What follows is a novel of adventure, as Conn Labro plays a no-rules game against unseen opponents, across multiple worlds. And a novel of ideas as well, as Labro seeks answers about who he is and how the universe works. And a novel of style, as Matthew Hughes plays with worlds and cultures and concepts in a lushly textured way, creating a rococo universe full of clever conceits, maddening difficulties, rich satire and more, all in clean, elegant prose that catches the reader’s interest and carries you smoothly through a story that’s by turns intriguing, exciting, amusing and in the end, very satisfying.
The way I’m describing it, it sounds messy and tangled, and that’s definitely and deliberately true of the setting, but the story itself presents you with engaging characters and sends you through that world so easily that the messy and complex setting becomes simply the context for a story that establishes momentum and interest and never flags. And has a great battle at the end, to boot, with compelling action, worthy goals and excellent villains. In some ways it feels like Alexandre Dumas (the elder) writing swashbuckling far-future science fantasy with lots of comedy-of-manners to it.
All of the Archonate novels have this sense of a richly-textured, decadent setting with engaging human stories, but I think Template is, so far, the strongest of them, the one where the story carries the reader best and most smoothly through a fascinating world.
It’s not out in the US yet—I got the British-published limited hardcover—but it’s due to come out next year in trade paperback from Paizo Publishing. And there are more Archonate novels coming, for which I’m grateful. And I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to check out Hughes’s earlier Archonate novels, particularly the stories about Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth’s “foremost freelance discriminator.” Hapthorn’s adventures begin in the short-story collection The Gist Hunter and continue in the novels Majestrum, The Spiral Labyrinth and the upcoming Hespira.
[And the comics geek in me has to note: All the while I was reading it, I kept finding myself wishing DC’s Legion of Superheroes series could be written like this, with such a smorgasbord of varied and textured cultures, that feel credibly like different settings, worlds that diverged from a common source but went down wildly different roads. I suspect superhero fans would begrudge the space it would take to show off the various worlds as distinct and unique cultures with their own philosophies, architectures, topographies and more—it’s easier to make them all shorthand “hi-tech future” settings, and just get to the action—but I think it would be a treat.
[Ah well. As long as I get more Archonate novels, I’ll be happy.]

UPDATE: The first chapter can be read here.

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And to wrap up my comments on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which I posted about earlier, before I’d finished the book:
It didn’t crash and burn. Not in the slightest.
I don’t want to say too much about the rest of the book, since it’s largely the final act and I wouldn’t want to blow the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I will say that it delivers in fine fashion.
If the book was “Harry Potter for an adult sensibility” for the first half, then after that it spent a little time in “Bright Lights Big City/Less Than Zero with magic” territory, before slamming into its final act, which could be described as “Narnia for an adult sensibility.” These are all shallow and hamhanded comparisons, and Grossman’s writing is enough to make all of this clearly its own thing, and well of a piece with the rest of the work. But the Narnia influences are clearly present, with analogues to Cair Paravel, Aslan’s How, the Deeper Magic and more.
But it’s not Narnia. The characters go to their fantasy land, and it’s not charming, it’s not easy, it’s not uplifting—it’s a children’s-fantasy world seen through the eyes of an adult. It’s messy, dangerous and unpleasant. Bad things happen, truths are revealed, minds are changed, perspectives are widened…it’s not clean or neat or pretty, but it’s the kind of climax that’s appropriate for this book, and it’s compelling and credible and fitting.
And then comes the dénouement, which addresses and resolves the threads that have been running through the book from page one, and does so very satisfyingly. There are many points in the novel where things are bleak, where characters feel lost, or feel there’s no meaning to anything they do, but that’s not the ultimate point of things and Grossman handles it well. It’s an at-times harrowing journey through a lot of fantasy tropes we’re used to as comforting rather than harrowing, but in the end it’s a worthwhile and satisfying journey.
A very, very enjoyable book. I recommend it highly.

Currently Reading…

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I stumbled across this while prowling through Amazon recommendations, and it sounded intriguing, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle. I read the sample last night and got the rest of the book post-haste, and have been reading it more or less all day, while waiting at the doctors’ office and on a car trip and such.
I’m now halfway through it, and am suffused with “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”
It’s a real treat—an author I’ve never read before (never heard of, in fact), but right from the start I feel like I’m in good hands, being told a story worth telling by someone who knows what he’s doing, who writes in his own voice, not an attempt at being someone else, and who has great confidence, playing with genre expectations, subverting them where he feels like it and fulfilling them where he feels like it.
It’s set largely in New York, so far, so it has an urban fantasy flavor to parts of it, but since much of the action (again, so far) takes place at a hidden magical location that no one can reach but magician types, it also feels like hidden- or secondary-world material. It’s chock full of well-written magic that’s credibly strange and transporting and magical. It’s the story of a kid who goes off to a secret magic school to become a magician, but it seems to have been written from the point of view that the Harry Potter books are unrealistic twee childish twaddle, and if there really was a school of magic, it would feel like X, and the kids in it would act like Y, and there’d be sense and logic to the magic as well as wonder. There’s even a magical sport/game, but it makes quidditch seem terribly mundane. And it’s all written beautifully, with magic that feels like magic and alienation that feels like alienation and a sense of wonder grounded in young characters who drink too much and have sex and fall in and out of friendship and wonder what the hell they’re going to do with their lives.
There’s a secondary plot—or, well, I expect it’s about to become the primary plot for the second half of the book—about a series of Narnia-like books that turn out to be real and we’ll discover that the magical otherworld has fallen on hard times since the books were published and our lead will have to do something about it, but aside from a lot of hints and portents, that hasn’t really started up yet so I can’t say much about it other than that halfway through the book I feel like I’ve already gotten a book’s work of story, so the idea that there’s yet more coming is a delight.
It’s described in some of the Amazon reviews as “Harry Potter for adults,” but I wouldn’t say that—it’s not adult so much as not-YA; it’s too straightforward about sex and booze and the idea that adulthood isn’t a resolution of anything to be comfortably YA, but it’s still very much about young people figuring out how to be adults. It’s sort of what Harry Potter might be if the basic idea had been filtered through the mind of filmmaker Richard Linklater; a well-executed blend of classic YA fantasy ideas with a semi-literary coming-of-age novel.
It might crash and burn in the second half, but given how good the first half has been, I’m expecting something good.