Owl Dance is a thoroughly enjoyable steampunk western by David Lee Summers.
The heroes, Ramon Morales and Fatimah Kamiri, are no simple tropes. Morales is a short, bespectacled Mexican sherrif, while Fatimah is a Persian healer who has fled persecution in her homeland. It is wonderful to have characters removed from the usual chiseled lawman or drunken sawbones. Throughout the book, Summers introduces a wide and varied cast of characters.
I have to say that this wide-spread cast made the first few chapters felt a bit disjointed – less like a novel than a series of short stories which feature the same two protagonists – but as the book progresses, you can see the threads of the skein coming together in a very rewarding manner. By the end of the book, we’ve seen almost every character return to some level of prominence in a climactic battle for the Denver Mint involving pirates, Russians, ornithopters, bounty hunters, engineers, the US Army and Billy the Kid.
The central theme is one of patience and understanding – again, an unusual choice for a western, but one which gives the book real heart. None of the central characters are beyond redemption, instead looking to one another for a way to make a better life or, indeed, a better world. It was this heart that kept me reading, more than any other facet of the book. It may come across to cynics or self-proclaimed realists as less believable, but I felt its good-natured hope set it apart in an era where so many authors seem to exalt blood, savagery and darkness in their works.
The writing is occassionally a bit staccatto for my tastes. The sentences tend to be brief, pointing out individual facts, then moving to another, then another. I noticed this more near the end of the novel than the beginning, and at some points it did jar me out of the fantastic world. However, it’s a small quibble with an otherwise fine piece of work.
In short, Owl Dance is a truly fun read for any optimistic hearts who enjoy alternate histories. I recommend it!
“Ivan Ewert’s FAMISHED: THE FARM blends horror and Americana like a Texas cook blends spices. And just you wait ’till he starts the fire.” – Kenneth Hite, TOUR DE LOVECRAFT
“Ivan Ewert’s FAMISHED: THE FARM is some fun, old-school horror. Ancient gods, cannibalism, and more than a little madness. Ivan Ewert is a seriously twisted writer.” – Stephen Blackmoore, DEAD THINGS
Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS is a remarkable piece of urban fantasy. His protagonist, Miriam Black, has a gift and a curse: By touching skin on skin, she can see exactly how and when you are going to die. Presuming herself to be powerless against fate, she becomes a drifter living on cheap whiskey and superficial relationships until encountering a man whom she sees die under torture – whose last words are “Miriam?”
With that, she is involved in his life and death, no matter how hard she tries to extricate herself.
Sounds dark? It is, but without the absent nihilism that afflicts so much modern fantasy. In fact, I found it to be a story of redemption, of the triumph of human effort; although that triumph is painful and hard-won.
BLACKBIRDS is an urban fantasy, but firmly rooted in reality. Wendig lives in “Pennsyltucky” and deftly uses the region he’s familiar with. From Waffle Houses to the Pine Barrens, the landscape will be familiar and accessible to any modern American.
Its antagonists are equally realistic. Though they range from merely opportunistic to downright psychopathic, there are no vampires here, no werewolves, no angels or devils. Everyone in the book is human, and operates on human motivations such as greed, fear, or ambition. In particular, I found the character of Harriet, the housewife-hitman, both comical and chilling.
While Miriam’s “gift” sets her beyond the pale, she, too, is very human. She’s been through much before the book begins, and suffers more with every turn of the page. We learn more of her backstory throughout, in well-placed scenes that never lecture. Her life is woven into the book with a lighter touch than the hammering speed characteristic of the main story. She is a young woman from a troubled home who sees death wherever she goes and suffers for it, though she hides behind a mask of apathy and creative profanity.
That’s worth pointing out, by the way. I’m one of those who couldn’t watch DEADWOOD due to its constant cursing, and BLACKBIRDS carries plenty of its own. It didn’t bother me in Wendig’s book, however. It might be because of the novel’s modern setting, or because I was reading instead of watching – but I think it’s the fact that the swearing fit the voice and pace of the book so well.
Wendig writes in car-crash prose, swift and sharp. The sentences hook you and pull you along at a breakneck clip. There’s no time to worry about the number of blue streaks it takes to get you there, in my opinion; but I can see where it might turn a more sensitive reader away.
That same sensitivity may impact your reaction to the manifold scenes of death and torture, but see my primary note above: this is NOT a nihilistic book. Wendig isn’t gleefully dragging us into a pit. Rather he guides us, a modern Virgil, through scenes of growing darkness until allowing us to crash into a tense, sharp, and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Mind, I won’t promise you a happy ending.
But I will call it wonderful, like the rest of this book. Highly recommended.
Leigh Kimmel over at the Billion Light-Year Bookshelf has a very in-depth review of HUMAN TALES up as of July 24.
The review points out the anti-Semitism which I tried to weave into Bloody Spindle, the retelling of Rumplestiltskin. Like Leigh, I’ve read very compelling studies pointing out this overt thread in the original fairy tale, and that was part of the reason I chose this story when approached for an anthology in which the humans were made to be the villains.
It’s a difficult balance to strike – I wanted to acknowledge a great deal of the injustice that was perpetrated against “the Other” in medieval times and today, without actually writing a polemic. A good deal of the polish for this story was tweaking, removing, or reworking sections that could have come across as either too filled with modern-day sensibilities of equal rights and courtesy, or as outright racist screeds that could have reflected poorly both on yours truly and the anthology as a whole.
So thank you, Leigh! I’m pleased to see that it came through, presumably without harm to anyone.
How about you? What tips can you offer around striking that balance between what you believe, and what the story demands?
Evan Dahm, creator of Rice Boy, has a new Webcomic called Order of Tales. It began in July, I found it today. It’s not too early to start catching up on it, and if it’s half as good as Rice Boy was, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As a writer, I appreciate what he does with words. If I were inclined to find fault I’d say his characters often sound similar to one another. Still, I always hear the voices in my mind, clear and distinct, as though a favorite uncle were telling a story chapter by chapter as we fell asleep.
Visually, I admire what he does. Dahm’s style is not for everyone, but that hasn’t stopped him from picking up a pen and illustrating his stories. They would be less in pure literary form – the dream he creates is as much visual as it is auditory, and I find that inspiring.
Dahm’s worlds are strange and beautiful – he reminds me of L. Frank Baum, though he has never shied from putting true and meaningful violence in his tales. From Rice Boy’s Ascension to the seige of Themb’s tower, there is weight behind what happens in this seemingly childlike world. We do not expect Glinda the Good to descend in a bubble, with a happy answer for all the disappointment that we have witnessed. Instead, we cheer for the victory of the small and good creatures who have endured those disappointments in Dahm’s mind and our own.