27 First Set (Twenty-Seven)/ Charles Soule & others

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A “how to sell your soul to the devil and get away with it” story, told in a refreshing contemporary way.

Rock guitarist wants to regain his ability to play. Somehow gets hooked up with an entity called The Nine.

Not exactly the devil but a devil’s bargain in that sense.

Strange buttons embedded in his chest, each giving him strange creative abilities.

He gets 27 chances, hence the title.

And what happens in the end?

A perfectly logical twist.

Like I wrote earlier, in a way this is the ageless “how to sell your soul to the devil and get away with it” story.

Like the Billy Goats Gruff triumphing against the troll.

Underdog wins. That’s all I can say.

(Aside: from another angle, it’s like the devil and trolls being short changed, but that’s for another tale, I think).

The iron dragon’s daughter/ Michael Swanwick

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First published 1993. Definitely an evergreen classic.

You could say this was also a coming-of-age story about the protagonist – Jane.

She’s a changeling, of unknown parentage. Her type has iron in her blood, and hence is the only species able to become dragon pilots. Something about being immune to the iron corrupting fey-blood.

The dragons in Swanwick’s fantasy realm are technological wonders, sentient war machines that require human pilots to fly. And maliciously evil too, such is their purpose.

Basically she ends up with a dragon and they both have an axe to grind with the status quo.

That’s super over-simplification of the plot but share anymore and you’d blame me for tainting Swanwick’s magic touch.

OK I’ll add that the end has that Sophie’s World twist to it. Right. Hate me.

Swanwick’s fey-steam punk world holds up a lot stronger than what I’ve revealed (which honestly isn’t much).

It’s a smooth ride, for every line — every backstory — seems such an intricately coherent thread to the whole telling. There doesn’t seem to be any frivolous bits. I found myself revisiting sentences just to replay the mental imagery over. Yet, I still managed to finish this work in days.

You get the assortment of creatures vile and fantastic. His magic is in telling them as if you’ve known them all that while. And the species and characters are there

The only readers who should avoid this novel are those who take offence at depiction of sex. Plus, the faerie-sex scenes can sometimes come across as rather deviant. Certainly much, much more sex than in Dragons of Babel (don’t make a beeline for the book now, y’all)

I’ve mentioned how every line in this book seems to be intricately woven, haven’t I? It’s all relevant to the fey-world and mood that Swanwick is trying to create, IMO.

This novel doesn’t delve as deep into the Babel or the Fey-world backstory (see “Dragons of Babel”) though one is quickly absorbed into the whole Dickensian steam punk-lord of the ringish-faerie tech realm.

Fantastic stuff.

Soulfire: Dying of the light/ J.T. Krul, Michael Turner, Micah Gunnell, Beth Sotelo

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A series created by Michael Turner. Collects issues #0 to 5. According to the Wikipedia article (and from what I gather from the introduction and preceding blurbs in this volume), the Soulfire: dying of the light is a spin off, much like a prequel; an Origins tale.

The story is set in the dying days in a medieval-structured society, of dragons and magic — where its inhabitants have wings and can fly. They find themselves plagued by a mysterious illness that cause people to lose their wings and/ or die (though not all who lose their wings die, it seems).

A few of them go on a quest to discover the cause and cure of this illness. Of which there isn’t any cure and no way out (this is a prequel to the series).

That isn’t all — there is a plot and uprising led by someone called Rainier. He is able to subjugate dragons (both good and bad ones).

Interesting stuff:

There are two species of dragons: four-legged and two-legged. The former are predominantly good and more intelligent while the latter are brutish (actually the two-legged have four proper legs, just that their wings are attached to the front like bats).

Apparent influences of ideas from East-Asian cultures and mythos. Like how the illness isn’t an isolated phenomenon but a natural cycle (influences of Buddhist-like philosophy of the cyclical birth and rebirth?) Or characters fighting with kungfu-like poses; of shaven-headed monks in isolated mountain temples (a bit like the US-made Kung Fu series that starred David Carradine).

The dragons of Babel/ Michael Swanwick

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I recognised the author’s name from previous Scifi Best Of anthologies and magazine stories in Analog (or Azimov?)

Then the blurb made me take the literary hook.

Check this out:

“A war-dragon of Babel crashes in the idyllic fields of a postindustralized Faerie and, dragging himself into the nearest village, declares himself king and makes young Will his lieutenant. Nightly he invades the young fey’s mind to get a measure of what his subjects think.

Eventually forced from the village, Will travels with female centaur soldiers, witnesses the violent clash of giants, and acquires a surrogate daughter, Esme, who may be immortal. Evacuated to the Tower of Babel — infinitely high, infinitely vulgar — Will rises as an underling to a haint politician and meets his one true love — a high-elven woman to whom he dare not aspire.”

Wow.

War-dragon. Centaur soldiers. Just conjures up fantastic visions and promises of action; the sort that guys stereotypically like. Which I believe we do.

Plus the hints and promise of romance and intrigue.

The main protagonist is a man-child called Will, whose origin was of a mystery even to himself. His life changes when he is forced to work for the war-dragon. From there till his meeting of the centaur soldiers is pretty slick and exciting stuff. You’ll hate me if I give the plot away.

Will meets Esme, a young child who seems to have exceptional luck. Along the way, Will finds himself a mentor by the name of Nat, who is a con-artist and has plans for a grand scam.

The trio ends up in Babel, which is like the main hub of high civilisation. Will finds work with a politician, learns to be city-smart. There’s an exciting side-adventure where Will finds himself leading a band of underground insurgents.

The conclusion is also coherently slick. All the seemingly hidden agendas and disparate plot lines come together into a final coherent reveal.

Gene Wolfe called this work a “machine-age fantasy universe”. I call this Steam Punk. But not quite, because there is an element of the fantastic: magics and elemental mythical beings.

Maybe its a universe where Faeries acquire technology. Or perhaps it’s a advanced industrial society that chose to shape itself along mythical lines, built to a level that technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s a refreshing concept for me, whatever the case.

Almost immediately into the first few pages of the novel, I was reminded of Gibson’s Neuromancer, McCaffery’s Dragons of Pern and Pratchet’s An Mor Pok. Or, World of Warcraft meets Halo, in the realm of electronic games.

Whatever I might call it, this novel was definitely unputdownable. I devoured this in three days. Less, if I had the entire day to read. Definitely one of those books that give reading fiction a great reputation.

Btw it’s a 2007 story first published in 2008 (paperback edition came out in 2011). I think this will be a timeless classic.

The dog said bow-wow/ Michael Swanwick

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Michael Swanwick is definitely one of my favourite Fantasy/ Scifi/ steampunkish author.

This book is a collection of 16 short stories (published in various places) compiled as one book.

Includes stories of the two cons, Darger and Surplus. There’s also the Faerie/ steampunk stories that are part of the Dragons of Babel novel.

Stories range from Scifi (“Hello,” Said the stick) to Epic Fantasy (Urdumheim). Everything in between is a mix of both, which I think is Swanwick’s style.

Funny intro by Terry Bisson (a creative fictional piece of Swanwick being interviewed in a talkshow).

Stories:

“Hello,” Said the stick.

The dog said bow-wow.

Slow life.

Triceratops summer.

Tin marsh.

An episode of stardust.

The skysailor’s take.

Legions in time.

The little cat laughed to see such sport.

The bordello in faerie.

The last geek.

Girls and boys, come out to play.

A great day for brontosaurus.

Dirty little war.

A small room in koboldtown.

Urdumheim.

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the bogus identity/ Mike Carey & Peter Gross

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I think this is book one of the series. It does answer the question (for me) why Tommy Taylor was incarcerated in the story I read earlier.

This is one of the more complex graphic novel stories. Taking in the visuals and narrative, I get a sense that something is about to tip over, and I am carried along for the ride. Kind of like Twin Peaks weirdness and pace.

Tom Taylor is worshipped as the same-named character in his missing father’s acclaimed novel (did you get all that?)

It’s like Harry Potter made real (as perceived by fans). Tom is treated as the literary incarnate, with the same magical abilities and all. Which Tom finds himself both wanting and hating his association with the novel’s character.

But slowly Tom discovers forgotten memories about his father and his own past. I’m led to suspect that Tom has no real past, and there is about about the literal power of words to make things real.

To use the Harry Potter parallel, it’s like a real world Harry discovering the literary figure is real while he isn’t. Or so it seems to me.

Mind bending stuff.

The Odyssey/ Roy Thomas & Greg Tocchini

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A Marvel graphic novel adaptation of the Greek classic. Covers the story of Odysseus after the sacking of Troy, to his another decade epic journey home, and the retaking of his home. There’s the usual meddling of the gods. I’m not sure how the original Greek poem was like; this version also splices the narrative of his wife’s Penelope’s and his son Telemachus.

An accessible and visual introduction to the epic poem. Also has endnotes on the origins of the Illiad and Odyssey.

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