When the Barenaked Ladies sang “Everything old is new again,” they probably weren’t referring to science fiction and fantasy. But if this month’s offerings are any indication, they certainly could have been. For August we have a new vision of elves, a Dyson sphere populated by historians, pirates and fools, and an anthology of vampires inhabiting a multitude of ecological niches.
The title of Elfland leads one to expect a traditional fantasy story—the orphaned hero, the last surviving remnant of the monarchy, a motley and moral fellowship, a great quest—but readers will be pleasantly surprised by the directions in which the story branches. Yes, the narrative engine is driven by the threat of a world-ending ice giant, Brawth, and the efforts of one man, Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper between Earth and the Otherworld, to contain Brawth.But Freda Warrington’s novel rises above other fantasies by focusing on the lives of the densely interwoven Wilder and Fox families who are concerned with the threat, but not consumed by it. Though it’s branded as a fantasy, Elfland shares as much with mainstream fiction as it does genre. The novel begins when the oldest child is not yet an adolescent and ends well after he’s spent time in prison for murder and has (borrowing from the romance genre) stolen the heart of a woman who once despised him. The novel generates greater emotional responses from the warp and weft of the families’ twisted skein, including adultery, betrayal, incest, love, lust, murder and brutal secrets brought to light. It is a strong beginning for a series that has the potential to attract a diverse group of readers.
A fantastic new world
Even though three books in the Virga series come before it, The Sunless Countries doesn’t require any outside knowledge—an odd discovery in light of the novel’s philosophical stance. Virga is a mini-Dyson sphere with a nuclear fusion engine as its sun, and various wheeled cities rotating around even smaller fusion engines. Leal Maspeth is a tutor hoping to be promoted to faculty, but what is a historian to do when the ahistorical Eternists (straw-men stand-ins for Creationists and Wikipedia-ists) have taken control of her city? And what is she to do when she falls in with Hayden Griffin, the hero and sunlighter, just as a voice resounds through the world warning of impending doom for all Virga? As in many otherwise excellent hard science fiction novels, the characters here suffer from a certain flatness. Virga is a superb example of world-building, with complex visual wonders deftly handled by Karl Schroeder’s writing. Curiously, Leal’s historical view is oddly old-fashioned, seeing history as a collection of static, objective facts, which she sticks to despite the evidence that her own historical role will be read one of two ways—heroine or quisling—depending on whether she is alive or dead when the Eternists eventually fall. A fifth novel is demanded.
The vampire authority
Popularly, vampires have ranged from bogeymen to darkly sensual to angst-ridden, but John Joseph Adams’ hefty anthology, By Blood We Live, resurrects 37 incarnations. There are familiar names with familiar stories, most notably Armstrong, King, Lumley and Rice, who is represented by her only published piece of short fiction. Vampires appear in historical and mythological contexts, from the sinking of the Titanic to James Wentworth’s South Pole excursion, the American West to 1930s China, Roanoke to Fallujah. Often the setting is merely a place to locate the vampire, but some authors venture much further. In “Snow, Glass, Apples,” Neil Gaiman brilliantly re-examines the underlying assumptions of the Snow White mythology, and with Lilith Saintcrow’s pitch-perfect “A Standup Dame,” we are treated to a consideration of gender roles in noir genre. We learn what happened to Elvis and Gatsby, Jesus and the devil’s own son, among others. There is also lust, parasitism, violence and narrow escapes. More than anything, this anthology demonstrates that the vampire is not only undead but mutable, and in the best writers’ hands, a tool for analyzing our mortal frailty and resilience in the teeth of unadulterated evil and unimaginable love.
Sean Melican is the new science fiction and fantasy columnist for BookPage. In alphabetical order, he is a chemist, father, husband and writer.