Wednesday, August 4, 2010
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad
BLOODWORLD by Laurence M. Janifer
What does it take to get a two star review?
Not many works earn that distinction. Two stars, or four on a scale of one to ten, is an oddity. It’s easy to reserve five for truly exceptional works, and if three is average, then four is easily classified as better than average but not amazing. Simple enough. One star is what the truly worthless items get. But often, if something’s going to get a two star review, the reviewer will be nice and bump it up to a three.
You can see the final call on this book coming. Let me bring you there.
First, the writing, competent, perhaps better than merely competent, but plagued, overrun by what, in some circles, no, in most circles, would be categorized as excessive commas.
Second, the subject matter. It strives toward literary stature beyond that which was typical for the genre work of the time. I applaud that. But by nesting the kernel of the story in what was a significant concern of the early 1960s - the possible uprising of a youth movement against a society which didn’t seem to understand them - it dates the book terribly.
Third, the setting. The book takes place on another world in the far future but the societal structure is pulled partly from Roman-era political family units and slave culture and partly from 1960s America. The conjoined mess simply doesn’t work, and as it forms the spine of the novel, the book doesn’t work either.
Fourth, unfulfilled promise. The cover is lurid, featuring a nude woman being whipped by a nude man. The story quickly establishes the fetishistic sexual horrors which are performed on a regular basis to the slaves. However, as readers, we are rarely shown any indications of them, nor are we privy to scenes of depravity. It’s hard to be too upset about this, as I’m not normally an advocate of torture porn in movies or books. In this case, however, unease is meant to be generated by the reader’s association with the main character who is both honorable and barbaric. By stripping the barbarism from the scenes the reader has only a generally amiable but not particularly bright protagonist.
Janifer wrote quite a bit of science fiction, and some of it… both on his own and in conjunction with Randall Garrett… was exemplary. I would suggest you find some of that to fill a sf need, and pass on this one for any horror need.
Maybe this book was better when it was first released in 1965. I doubt it.
Two stars out of five.
SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA by Loren D. Estleman
Two legends of the Victorian age meet in this 1978 book by veteran mystery and western writer Loren D. Estleman. While Holmes and Dracula have featured simultaneously in many stories since this novel, I do not believe anyone has done a better job with the characters.
The book is as much a literary game as it is a traditional story. With the aid of a timeline constructed by some Baker Street Irregulars (the legendary fan group associated with Holmes) Estleman weaves together the established storyline from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction and the storyline of Dracula by Bram Stoker. The result is a book which could be used as a viable supplement for either or both works. Minor discrepancies - there are no major ones I was able to find - are explained rationally by the narrator, who in this case is purportedly Watson.
Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Do you like Dracula? If the answer to one or both of those questions is yes, this book is worth buying. You may enjoy revisiting the great detective in his methodology and demeanor, or you may enjoy a second trip to certain sites and incidents from the Dracula novel, this time from a different perspective. Either way, it’s enough to please a reader and leave them wanting more. For example, the one and only sequel from Estleman, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes.
Four stars out of five.
THE MAGICIANS by James Gunn
This novel was produced in 1976, but is an expansion of an earlier 1954 story, “Sine of the Magus”. It concerns a detective who is hired to discover someone’s name during a convention. The apparently simple task is revealed to be far more difficult and perilous than expected when the convention is exposed as a magician’s convention.
Gunn manages to evoke a sense of urgency in the story, but this novel bears more in common with Leiber’s Conjure Wife than Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. It is by turns a mystery, a love story, a science fiction story, and a dark fantasy. The backdrop is mundane and in no small part academic. A vein of light humor threads its way through the book, keeping the book from becoming too grim. If I have a complaint about the characterization it is only that the protagonist and his primary aide fall in love too deeply, too quickly, to be very believable. Outside of that flaw, the characters are simplistic but interesting, idealized and rational.
The initial investigation is not the true core of the story, but its resolution has a significant effect on the final outcome of the novel. This is typical of Gunn, who writes with an easily approachable style but who manages to surprise the reader on multiple occasions throughout the book.
If you’re looking for mass slaughter or detailed horrors, go elsewhere. If you can be satisfied by a battle between good and evil, I can recommend this book.
Four stars out of five.
VAMPIRE CITY by Paul Feval
It seems innovative: vampires who can duplicate themselves, whose thralls wear physical forms which can be altered at the whim of the master vampire, whose bodies glow green as their powers are used… these are all somewhat innovative concepts. At least, they would be perceived as innovative if used today. Actually, they can all be found in this French novel from ‘75.
Brian Stableford has earned my praise for his efforts to resuscitate the three Feval vampire novels from their relative obscurity. Vampire City was originally published by Sarob Press, then re-released by Black Coat Press. Stableford provides a multiple page introduction replete with information about Feval, his work, and the work of the protagonist of this novel, Ann Radcliffe (an amazingly popular British writer of the early 1800s.) He includes notations at the end to aid in explanation of some of the more obscure references. And his translation is of a high quality, due undoubtedly to Stableford’s skill as a professional writer.
The humor in the story tends toward parody directed as racial stereotypes. The Irishman, for example, is uncouth but virtually impervious to harm. The stories of Radcliffe, one of the earliest writers of what would become known as the Gothic, are also the subject of skewering but in only gentle ways; as indicated in the introduction, Feval was likely a fan of Radcliffe. The result is a story where the prime motivator is a strong female and all of the non-villainous males either subordinates or followers of her. (One major exception is a nearly godlike figure who appears as a deus ex machina at a handful of points in the story; the way that character is portrayed is another jab at the perceptions of the British from the perspective of a Frenchman.)
The book has very cool vampires doing stuff that no post-Varney, post-Dracula vampire would ever be seen doing. It has an Irishman who rents his head for the British aristocracy to test its canes on. It has an author, a woman author, as the star. And it’s translated wonderfully. On top of all of that, it’s got some honest historical impact.
Five stars out of five.