Alice Gunther

“Let me tell you how they break you,” says Dietz, a young soldier with a number of regrets, describing the grim reality behind a dream of military glory. “From the minute you step off the transport at the training base . . . you aren’t doing anything right. You don’t walk right, look right, talk right . . . No one likes you, let alone loves you. In great shape? It’s not enough. Smart? That’s worse.” Within a week, the victim of this treatment is fundamentally changed: “You yearn to kill, because it’s the only thing that gets your DI to love you. When you withhold all praise, people will do anything to get it. They’ll eat each other, if they need to.” For you English majors out there, the thrum of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the title of Kameron Hurley’s latest is as intentional as you’d expect, but you may be more immediately reminded of his embittered successors Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The characters, no older than the youths of WWI’s trenches, have ample material for a lifetime of shellshock before they’re out of basic training. Within three chapters they’re bonding over a bout of deadly illness caused by the medical treatments that the battlefield of the future demands. “When you’re running, shitting and vomiting,” Dietz notes wryly, “it puts you in touch with the fact that you’re just a bag of guts.”

The Light Brigade has the kind of gimmick memorable enough to stick in the mind after a glance at the jacket flap—at war with a terrorist colony on Mars, Earth has solved the problem of interstellar travel by transforming its soldiers into light, enabling them to “drop” from Earth to a distant planet at light speed. It would be easy to hang an entire novel on the strength of this conceit, with its blazing metaphorical resonances (“Nobody ever thinks they chose the wrong side,” says Dietz, on whom these are not lost. “We all think we’re made of light.”) and its attendant drawbacks, which would do Cronenberg proud (the human components sometimes reconfigure in the wrong order, and a dropper who remains intact still runs the risk of materializing underground or inside a solid structure). Instead, Hurley uses it as the starting point for an old-fashioned tale of time displacement. It becomes quickly apparent that for Dietz, the “drops” are happening in the wrong order, shuffling the young recruit all over the longer timeline of the war from one drop to the next. As complicated as this device may seem, it works because it remains fully in service to a story about war and its human cost. Dietz’s disorientation (how much time has really passed?) feels as much a reaction to the routine horror of combat as the confusion of an accidental time-traveler. The wider cast, though intriguing and full of individual quirks, never come through for the reader in the way Dietz does, with good reason. The isolation inherent to living out events in the wrong sequence forcibly evokes the isolation of active duty.

While Hurley leaves several character elements to be unwound with the story—blink and you’ll miss the fleeting mention of the protagonist’s gender—there is nothing coy about The Light Brigade. At times, the author’s bloody-minded determination to deliver the message (itself a strength; you can hear the frustration of the veteran, or maybe of the teenager) risks turning the story into a lecture, most noticeably in a subplot composed of transcribed conversations with a prisoner of war who monologues like a Bond villain. At its best, however, Hurley’s verb-laden first-person is as immediate and inescapable as a resounding sock in the jaw. At nearly 400 pages, The Light Brigade nonetheless goes down quickly, which is just as well—the nonlinear plot will have you calculating when to fit the reread in.

“Let me tell you how they break you,” says Dietz, a young soldier with a number of regrets, describing the grim reality behind a dream of military glory. “From the minute you step off the transport at the training base . . . you aren’t doing anything right. You don’t walk right, look right, talk right . . . No one likes you, let alone loves you. In great shape? It’s not enough. Smart? That’s worse.”

In the kingdom of Virtudom, one of many territories featured in Samantha Shannon’s new high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, a monarchy is necessary to keep evil at bay. According to the local faith, Sabran the Ninth—the latest in a long line of queens descended from a heroic figure called “The Saint”—is by her mere existence preventing a being called the Nameless One from reemerging. Sabran’s status among her people is goddess-like, but it comes at a price. With the Nameless One’s followers prophesying his return, she cannot waste a moment in finding a husband to conceive an heir. Into the closed-off recesses of her court drifts Ead Duryan, an enigmatic figure with forbidden magic up her sleeves. Ead is no friend of Sabran, but she has taken it upon herself to protect the queen at all costs.

For enthusiasts of the high fantasy epic, The Priory of the Orange Tree is the real deal, a book large enough to draw its own gravity, with maps in the front and a glossary at the back. But it ultimately derives most of its heft from the crossed motivations of its range of characters, from Sabran’s old friend Loth, caught in a deadly quest of his own, to Tané, an ambitious and obsessive would-be dragon-rider from the Eastern end of the world, which revers the creatures that the West fears.

Shannon frequents well-loved fantasy concepts but rarely leaves a familiar trope untampered with. Her dragons, honed to the setting they inhabit, are so specific in their biological quirks that it’s hard not to feel that you could do further research into your favorite species if you could only find the right field guide. Her prose is self-assured and light on its feet, maintaining a tightrope height without sacrificing the tension of its narrative or descending into the overwrought; her dawn doesn’t break, but “crack[s] like a heron’s egg,” causing “pale light [to] prowl . . . into the room.” Lay this one in as a companion for a lazy summer break or a weekend spent snowed in.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Samantha Shannon about The Priory of the Orange Tree.

In the kingdom of Virtudom, one of many territories featured in Samantha Shannon’s new high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, a monarchy is necessary to keep evil at bay.

An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing. Written in between installments of her extremely popular Bone Season novels, Priory is a wonderfully complex, female-driven fantasy novel with dragons, ancient evils and just the right amount of political intrigue. We talked to Shannon about reimagining mythical creatures, which of her fictional worlds she’d like to live in and what prompted her shift into high fantasy.

Your latest book has the kind of heft and scope that seems to demand a secluded week or two from the reader, but that’s nothing compared to the undertaking of writing. How many years did The Priory of the Orange Tree take to complete?
Over three years—April 2015 to June 2018.

What inspired you to take on high fantasy? Who are some of your creative influences in the genre?
I wanted to write a book that explored some of the history of our world—particularly the 16th and 17th centuries—but also to incorporate myth and legend, and to have the freedom to create my own countries and events. Epic fantasy was the best genre for that. Most of my influences for this book were historical (e.g. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, various versions of Saint George and the Dragon, the Nihongi and the Kojiki), but some of the authors I admire within speculative fiction are N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Laini Taylor.

You give a great deal of care and attention, not only to the characters, but to the creatures they encounter, embellishing common fantasy animals with your own zoological quirks. Which was your favorite to reimagine?
The ichneumon! They’re mentioned in literature of old—sometimes under the name echinemon—as the enemy of the dragon or serpent. In Priory, they’re huge, loyal, mongoose-like animals that have teamed up with human mages to fight wyrms. They have powerful jaws with teeth that can pierce scale, and their bones can be used to fashion weapons.

You’ve been hard at work on The Bone Season and its sequels for years. What made you take a detour from that series to create an entirely new world?
I started The Priory of the Orange Tree during an interlude in the Bone Season series, where my editor had the manuscript of The Song Rising for quite a while and I was unable to start work on the next installment. Since I’m a full-time author and needed to occupy myself while I waited for notes, I decided it would be the perfect time to start writing a re-imagining of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon.

You veer between a number of characters in this story. Which of the voices or perspectives came to you most naturally? Which was the most rewarding to work with?
Tané was the first of the four perspective characters to step into my head. Out of all of them, she’s most like me—an anxious workaholic with imposter syndrome. Ead and Niclays came next, and finally, Loth. I loved taking each of them through their arcs and unpicking their various backstories, but Ead was the most rewarding to write overall. She’s shrewd, brave and certain of her beliefs, with a bit of a dry sense of humour, and her story is bursting with court intrigue and ancient secrets. Ead is also the character whose story is most connected to the title.

If you could live in one of the civilizations you invented for this book, which one would it be?
Tough one, but probably Seiiki. It’s a beautiful country—a mountainous island of deep forests and black sands, surrounded by the limpid green-blue waters of the Sundance Sea, where glowing dragons roam the skies and swim beneath the waves. It’s also home to the calendar trees, which bear different coloured flowers every season.

Do you plan to write any more books or stories set in this universe?
I would love to, yes. The world of Priory has more tales to tell . . .

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Priory of the Orange Tree.

Author photo credit Louise Haywood-Schiefer.

An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing.

“Just Another Day,” my favorite song from the Oingo Boingo album Dead Man’s Party, isn’t about death, but about the uncanny awareness of survival: “There’s life in the ground.” In his debut novel The Gutter Prayer, Irish game designer Gareth Hanrahan takes that sentiment to skin-crawling heights. The catacombs of his city of Guerdon contain two species of scavenger ready to fight over your corpse: the Ghouls (descended from cannibals, according to local mythology) and the Crawling Ones, sentient beings who are libraries unto themselves, each being formed from thousands of memory-preserving worms. Hanrahan claims to have written “more game books than he can readily recall,” and it’s hardly surprising: role players may find themselves desperate to know the stats for antagonists such as Ravellers—who convincingly ape humans by knitting themselves together from aspects of various victims—and Tallowmen, an alchemically-made police force who are half-human and half-melting candle wax. This won’t be a series for the weak of stomach, but Hanrahan’s writhing world manages the rare trick of being dismal without being dreary. It’s as lively and multifaceted as the maggot-infested underside of a dead raccoon.

If you’ve read your share of fantasy you already know the protagonist, a feisty urchin beset by powers she didn’t ask for and prophetic visions she can’t shake. More intriguing are her two companions, who each illustrate terminal illness: Spar, infected with a disease that is inexorably turning him to stone (the pricey medication he injects to keep it at bay can only forestall its progress), and Rat, a ravenous young ghoul (“young” being the operative word; mature ghouls are too far gone in their flesh-cravings to exhibit normal consciousness, lending a new urgency to the old fear of becoming like your parents). If these characters often seem like living inroads to the concepts they represent, the ideas are sufficiently rich to make a meal on their own, particularly given the surprising eloquence of their expression. A particular scene stopped me in my tracks by using a literary device to take Spar’s crisis from conjecture to direct experience on the part of the reader. I hope others will catch the same visceral chill I did. The old story of the untutored wunderkind coming into her own even gets some welcome heft through creative addition. To cut a complicated story short, the “gods” that selected her for their purposes are less abstract, and more oddly situated, than one might expect.

None of this mentions the story itself, which loosely involves the machinations of rival pantheons and more directly has to do with power struggles in Guerdon’s teeming underworld. At times this book can seem like a Crawling One, coming at you with more individual worms of information than you’ll know how to process. Yet its extreme extroversion of scope is tempered by an unusual introversion of style. The characters, and there are many, feel and experience the events around them far more often than they talk about them, and the erosive flow of Hanrahan’s prose is as lovingly crafted as his Lovecraftian setting. Spar’s futile medicine “digs away at the channels of his thought” like “pure rainwater washing away debris in a gutter,” and Rat’s heightened sense of smell shows us a world in which—from the saltwater tang that distinguishes sailors to the chemical smell of factory-soaked locals—“each person is shrouded in their past doings.” If the elaborate setup sometimes swallows up the storyline, it’s still an appropriate starting point for Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy series, and those in the market for a dense, disturbing and original entry in the crowded realm of high fantasy will have a hard time getting their minds out of The Gutter Prayer.

“Just Another Day,” my favorite song from the Oingo Boingo album Dead Man’s Party, isn’t about death, but about the uncanny sense of awareness: “There’s life in the ground.” In his debut novel The Gutter Prayer, Irish game designer Gareth Hanrahan takes that sentiment to skin-crawling heights.

Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

In the introduction to her new collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, Kat Howard declares her ambition to “hang a skin of myth on the skeleton of the strange.” If you’re inclined to overlook this phrase as a bit of airy lyricism, don’t. The bone first pokes through the mythical skin in “Translatio Corporis,” in which a young girl’s slow physical decline gives life and dimension to a city of her own creation. By “The Speaking Bone,” a meditation on an imagined island manned by bone-divining oracles, the physical structure and its mythic overlay are indistinguishable. Like the protagonist of another strange short story, Ray Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” Howard is obsessed with the human frame and returns to it again and again.

It’s a fitting motif for a writer as preoccupied by the construction of myth as by its content. “When I wrote my versions of these stories,” Howard writes, “I wanted to . . . break them out of the frames they had been displayed in.” The opening story, “A Life in Fictions,” gives the reader a taste of her intention, depicting a woman whose reality is profoundly altered when she becomes a recurring protagonist in her boyfriend’s writings. The fascinating novella “Once, Future,” published here for the first time, sees an English project turn sinister when college students find themselves helplessly reenacting the fall of King Arthur. (Fans of the short form may wonder if the knowing “Professor Link” heading the experiment is really veteran slipstream writer Kelly Link.) And “Returned,” which is more contemporary thriller than ancient epic, throws a wrench into the Eurydice myth by asking whether our heroine really wanted to be resurrected.

Howard’s myths are independent sallies, some mutually exclusive, not all effective. Her evocation of Catholic imagery sometimes seems as surface-level as a Sacred Heart on the wall of a tattoo parlor. (It’s at its best in “The Calendar of Saints,” which explores doubt by alluding to real hagiography.) Further, her attempts to shatter the frame of myth fail to contend with the fact that such subversion is a common frame in itself. The last story, fittingly titled “Breaking the Frame,” self-consciously describes a gallery of feminist reinterpretation (think Beauty holding the head of the Beast) that would be at home in any college art building. But if Howard’s ringing challenges aren’t always surprising, her more wholehearted investigations may drag you in their wake. The most moving tale in the collection, “All of Our Past Places,” keeps its myth at the edges, using fantastic cartography to explore the history of a longstanding friendship.

If Cathedral speaks for the adolescent rebelling against the prescriptions of its elders, Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is decidedly grown-up, its wildest surrealism rife with parental anxiety. (The fetching abstraction of its translated title doesn’t quite capture the violent punch of the Spanish Pájaros en la boca, “Birds in the mouth”—a fitting header for a story detailing a father’s struggle to accept a teenaged daughter’s bizarre appetite.) In “Preserves,” a young couple discovers an unusual way to put an unplanned pregnancy on hold. No harm is done to the child, but the success of their trick can’t deliver them from the reeking guilt they feel at having played it. “On the Steppe” hits the opposite end of the adult terror spectrum, dealing with the pain of infertility by taking baby fever to feral extremes. Between these points lie a breathtaking range of misgivings and inadequacies, from a lethal mistake comprehended a heartbeat too late in the nightmarish “Butterflies” to a child’s misunderstanding of a broken marriage in “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House” to a haunting reverberation of the Pied Piper in “Underground.”

Readers may relate to the hearer of the latter tale, who, abandoned without an ending, squints at the landscape, “searching for some revelatory detail.” Schweblin doesn’t offer that easy solution, preferring to dispense discomfort. Her art lies in setting up a problem and letting the reader sit with it. “The Size of Things” gets to the bitter heart of onlooker helplessness, and the title story is a particular highlight, asking (but not quite settling) the question of how far parental love can go.

Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

Early on in W. Michael Gear’s Abandoned, a newcomer to the planet Donovan marvels at the beauty of its alien forest: “He could have imagined nothing like it short of a VR holo fantasy come to life. The stuff of dreams and exotic special effects.” Unfortunately, Donovan—named for the first of many humans to die on its surface—bears less resemblance to James Cameron’s Pandora than to its mythological eponym, the holder of a box of unlimited horrors. Flesh-burrowing slugs, tentacled tree-dwelling “nightmares” and snakelike “sidewinders” are all constant threats to the lives of Donovan’s luckless colonizers.

This second installment of Gear’s Donovan series picks up where its predecessor Outpost left off, as Donovan’s settlers adjust to the presence of a group of stranded terrestrial officials who arrived to enforce order and found their means of return less reliable than expected. Talina Perez, the unofficial leader of the settlers, continues to grapple with the mental presence of “her quetzal,” a raptor-like creature whose psychic ghost has haunted her ever since she killed it. Kalico Aguila, the once-unflappable supervisor of the newcomers, longs for her former rank in the totalitarian Earth she left behind, even as she finds herself growing strangely comfortable in her new surroundings. Unbeknownst to either of them, Mark Talbot, a marine lost in Donovan’s lethal wilderness, finds a small community of Donovanians living far from the epicenter, who may have found a way to work with their deadly environment rather than against it.

Gear alternates between these and other threads with flipbook swiftness, successfully maintaining the atmosphere of casual horror that characterized Outpost. (The settlers’ vocabulary for the threats that surround them recalls the Southern U.S. with its slangy deadpan: “gotcha vines” are scarier than they sound.) At the same time, he introduces a new wrinkle to the situation by asking whether the creatures of Donovan are thinkers as well as devourers. Starved summer-action movie enthusiasts would do well to start at the beginning, but established fans of Outpost will find a satisfying expansion of Gear’s perilous universe.

Early on in W. Michael Gear’s Abandoned, a newcomer to the planet Donovan marvels at the beauty of its alien forest: “He could have imagined nothing like it short of a VR holo fantasy come to life. The stuff of dreams and exotic special effects.” Unfortunately, Donovan—named for the first of many humans to die on its surface—bears less resemblance to James Cameron’s Pandora than to its mythological eponym, the holder of a box of unlimited horrors.

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