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Bookworm 2014: Weird Histories

Posted on | December 31, 2014 | No Comments

Helene Wecker - The Golem and the JinniEvery now and then, I get a hankering for a bit of écriture feminine of the fantastic variety, usually as counterpoint to a lot of “manly” reading about explosions and spaceships and boobs and whatnot. That is not to say that there aren’t women writing manly stuff and men writing womanly stuff – that is not even to say that gendering these two types of writing is something to be supported – but much like genres, it makes finding just what I’m looking for that much easier, leading me straight to such wonderful, emotional adventures like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, a (moderately) modern fairytale love story about the titular creatures, unfolding among the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities of very-early-twentieth century New York. Despite the era, it blessedly avoids all the trappings of steampunk and stays period, and stays, well, very New York, from the little I know about the city. Although there are a few rare editorial-type slip-ups sprinkled around this debut novel, they are irrelevant next to the simple beauty of the writing, and the fact that the author (presumably) writes about other cultures does not come off colonial at all.

Jesse Bullington - The Enterprise of DeathThat écriture feminine need not be by females is proven by the occasional discovery of people like Jesse Bullington with his The Enterprise of Death, in many ways similar to the above, again a fairy tale love story about magic and its cost in a bergmanesque medieval European/Near-Eastern setting. Bullington manages to weave a fat story, nearly 500 pages of lesbian necromancers, whores, mercenaries and inquisitors that manages to be both an enjoyable adventure, as well as an emotional journey of self-discovery that is never boring.

Russell Hoban - PilgermannTackling a similar setting, but from a distinctly different angle is Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann. If you’ve read Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t – why on Earth haven’t you already?!) you know that Hoban writes intriguing allusion-filled novels with religious-philosophical overtones. Pilgermann is about the essence of a German Jew recounting his story from the moment he cuckolded the local tax-collector through his pilgrimage towards Jerusalem accompanied by a menagerie of ghosts including, inter alia, Jesus Christ. Far less mad than it sounds and far deeper than my description may make it seem, this is a deliberate meditation about life, death, the transience of being and the permanence of creation.

John Hornor Jacobs - The IncorruptiblesI’ve been introduced to the work of John Hornor Jacobs a couple of years back, through his intriguing delta-blues horror novel Southern Gods, and I was intrigued – it started brilliantly, but fell apart during its second half, leaving me feeling that there was definitely talent there, but one that needed a bit more practice. It would seem that in the interim, he’s had plenty. His young-adult outing The Twelve-Fingered Boy, the first part of a trilogy, is an interesting bit of anti-harrypotteriana, with correction-home misfits with special powers being discovered and hunted by others with similar capabilities, but the book that really made an impression on me this year is The Incorruptibles, an intriguing bit of fantasy-western meshed with alternate history where Rome is the principal global power, much like the USA is today. We follow a steamship driven (literally) by demons chugging upriver and beset by elves of a distinctly vicious and incomprehensible variety, led by a family of Roman nobles on a secretive mission, observed and recounted through the eyes of a dwarven soldier from among the rank and file. The worldbuilding itself was enough to sell this, and the fact that it is a well written, exciting western conquest-of-the-wild-frontier adventure was just icing on the alt-history cake.

Robert Jackson Bennett - City of StairsThe list of this year’s impressive feminine novels would certainly be incomplete without the (likely) last book I’ve read in 2014, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. This fantasy novel in a vaguely late-nineteenth early-twentieth century alternate reality filled with murdered gods and nations clinging to half-made-up glorious national histories (a theme ever too familiar sounding to us in the Balkans) started off like very light, perhaps even trashy beach-reading fare with an almost stereotypical plucky heroine and her trusty (and burly) northman companion trying to solve a murder case, but nevertheless, despite my aversion to whodunnits, it all felt very enjoyable. However, the story quickly descended into deep philosophical analyses of the nature of myth, history and identity with characters slowly uncovering layer after layer of ever more depth, while still remaining an exciting balls-to-the-wall adventure in a brilliantly imagined world, making this my candidate for 2014’s fantasy book of the year (a clean sweep mainly because most of the above are not from 2014).

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  • Goodreads

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
    From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time
    The Ophiuchi Hotline
    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
    Green Eyes
    Crackpot Palace: Stories
    The Fractal Prince
    The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter

    Sebastian's favorite books »