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February 2011

The Repairer of Reputations: The Fighting Chance by Robert Chambers

The Fighting Chance The Fighting Chance (1906) is another society romance by Robert Chambers, intentionally written in the same vein as the other "popular phrase" series, such as The Danger Mark and The Firing Line. (These were all popular phrases, honest!)

The central plot, as with these other two, is a somewhat-star-crossed romance. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy is thrown out of exclusive New York clubs and takes to drink, boy finds girl again. In the course of meeting/losing/finding, the boy and girl in question both reveal their shameful inner weaknesses  and, eventually, come to the conclusion that they should marry regardless. There's not a lot of mystery in what will happen, merely in how it comes about.

In The Fighting Chance, the romantic core of the book is provided by Stephen Siward and Sylvia Landis. The two meet in the first pages of the book, fall in love in the first few chapters, and spend the rest of the 400-odd pages trying desperately to keep one another at arm's length (and ultimately failing to do so).

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The Week that Was (Part 2 - Free Reading Edition)

Not staring at your screen enough? Here's a quick list of the free fiction that kept us entertained all week:

Amazing.


The Week that Was (Part 1 - Site Admin & Linkapalooza)

A busy, busy week on Pornokitsch - in case you missed anything, here's the usual list of links, followed by some general site announcements

A few site admin things as well...

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Underground Reading: Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Pashazade At the London School of Economics' recent literary festival, Space for Thought, an audience member asked Jon Courtenay Grimwood and his fellow panelists how to make science fiction plausible. Character, they each responded.  "There are always characters who unpick the plot" for the author, for the other characters, and for the reader, Grimwood explained:  "characters are the guidebook to the world."

And, indeed, character is key for Grimwood's 2001 novel Pashazade.  Not just key, but the key - providing access to a world where everything you're familiar with isn't quite

You probably know Woodrow Wilson best for his brilliant international statesmanship, particularly his able brokerage of the peace between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in the aftermath of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's 1915 assassination.  In an uglier world than ours, the byzantine system of international treaties that bound Austria-Hungary with Germany and Serbia with the UK, France and the Russian Empire likely would have led to some sort of multinational war, lasting perhaps four or five months.  Thanks, however, to Wilson's negotiating tactics, the world was spared bloody conflict of an unimaginable scale.

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Guest Post: Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Pashazade by Tom Pollock

[Editor's note: We're very pleased to have this guest review from Tom Pollock, who spends most of his spare time making up monsters that jump out at you from around street corners. You can read more of his ramblings about stories, plus the odd bit of fiction or verse, at wingsmith.livejournal.com and you can follow him at @tomhpollock. We do.]

Pashazade A skinny white kid with blond dreds steps off a plane in north Africa. Behind him is a stint in a Seattle prison. Before him: El Iskandriya: the trading capital of Ottoman North Africa. In his hand is a white diplomatic passport, a carte blanche that announces him to be His Excellency, Ashraf al-Mansur, the son of the Emir of Tunis, and by that distinguished heritage accorded the rank of bey. It’s a passport, not just into the country, but into a noble (if virtually broke) family, and an arranged marriage to the daughter of a local gangster.

The trouble is, Raf has no more idea than we do that whether that passport's telling the truth or not.

Pashazade, is, technically, an alternative history. The first world war never got past the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire's still going strong and North Africa owes its allegiance to Stambul. But the details of Grimwood's counterfactual are elegantly backgrounded in casual references to Kaiser and Ren Schmiss. Indeed the more casual they are, the more effective. The very fact that the de facto regent of Egypt is called 'General Saeed Koenig Pasha' bespeaks a rich and complex intertwining of Ottoman and German bloodlines and histories.

But Grimwood doesn't bother explicitly unpicking the historical divergence. The 'What If' scenario is not really his concern. Where the book engages with politics overtly, it's with modern, real world issues like female circumcision and biochemical patents.

Nor despite appearances, is the book really about a murder mystery. Albeit that there is most certainly a murder and a mysterious one at that, at the heart of the plot.

No, at its heart, for me at least, Pashazade is a coming of age story.

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New Releases: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The Fallen BladeThe Fallen Blade is the first book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's new series, The Assassini. In it, he creates an alternate 15th century Venice, one plagued not just by the era's political upheavals, but also vampires, werewolves and witches. It is an exciting time to be alive (or undead).

For a relatively compact book, The Fallen Blade contains a sprawling cast of characters and no shortage of action. The ostensible lead is a mysterious young man called Tycho - who has, quite literally, appeared from nowhere (or ancient Scandinavia, same difference). Tycho is a gorgeous physical specimen with the face of an angel. However, that's where the resemblance ends. He's a vampire (Mr. Grimwood gains kudos not only for avoiding the word but also avoiding it in a natural way) and one with no self-control.

Anne recently drew parallels between vampirism and puberty and, in The Fallen Blade, Mr. Grimwood continues to link the two. Tycho is a raging pit of hormones - hungry, horny and hot - and he's straddling not two, but a half-dozen worlds. His distant Viking past is a series of upsetting memories, his life on the Venetian streets is confusing and lawless and his cultivation into high society is a series of unpleasant, non-sensical rules. Tycho is a perpetual conflict between his festering, murderous instincts and the brittle veneer of civilisation that has been lacquered onto him by his more patient friends.

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Underground Reading: House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels

816266 Egyptologist Barbara Mertz created two pseudonyms for herself when she began to publish fiction to distinguish between her academic and her genre writing.  As Elizabeth Peters, a pen-name she evolved in the 1970s, she writes a three successful mystery series, each featuring a strong female protagonist: art-historian Vicky Bliss, librarian Jaqueline Kirby, and late-Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  (The latter series shares a few important commonalities with Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti novels, and I encourage Carriger's fans to check out them out.)

As Barbara Michaels, a pen-name she developed in 1966, Mertz writes primarily one-off romantic thrillers.  We've reviewed Michaels' novels here before; I'm happily on record as a fan of her feminist, (often but not always) supernatural-inflected Gothic fiction.  Although the novels can be hit or miss, the body of Mertz's work as Michaels rises above the crowd of romantic thrillers for a few important reasons: she writes intelligent female characters (a woefully rare commodity in the romantic thriller genre) and her books are funny.  They're also impressively well-researched and communicate Mertz's very real delight in history and historical mystery. 

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The Repairer of Reputations: The Firing Line by Robert Chambers

The Firing Line Despite the martial title, The Firing Line (1908) only has a single shot fired within its 498 pages, but that one's a doozy. The other 497 pages are about more metaphorical battlefields: the bloody crossfire of convention and the gallant charges of romance. If The Firing Line lacks in action, it overcompensates with a surplus of wit.

The primary storyline follows the star-crossed romance of Garret Hamil and Shiela Cardross. Garret is a landscape designer of great reputation (and presumably talent), recently arrived in Florida to undertake a commission on behalf of Cardross Senior, financial magnate.

Shiela is his daughter - she encounters Hamil twice by accident. The two charm one another in fabled fashion, but by the time they are officially introduced, Hamil understands the truth: Shiela is adopted. The Hamils, we learn, are one of the oldest and most storied names in Society - to mingle with an adoptee of unknown heritage is, well... not to be.

Still, despite conventional wisdom, Shiela and Garret continue to see much of one another. Shiela's a good sport - she's surprisingly witty, a crack shot and an excellent travelling companion. Garret starts off a little too squishy to be true, but his lantern-jawed manliness is tempered by a surprisingly decent sense of humor. Garret is also, in a Chambersian heroic trait, attracted by the genuine and repulsed by the falsely sincere.

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New Releases: Conan's Brethren by Robert E. Howard

Conan's Brethren Poor Robert Howard is hounded on all sides - derided by the masses and inelegantly canonized by those who love him too much. And, perhaps worst of all, his legacy is lumbered with the brawny albatross that is Conan the Barbarian.

Although Conan is certainly Mr. Howard's most famous creation, he's not necessarily his best. Conan's Brethren collects the other swordsmen and adventurers from Mr. Howard's many fantasy works. Solomon Kane, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn are all gathered together – a triumvirate of pouting manliness. Editor Stephen Jones has also diligently scrounged up others, such as Cormac FitzGeoffrey, Turlogh O’Brien and Esau Cairn (from the rarely-reprinted Almuric).

Behind this cacophony of Anglo-Saxon nomenclature is the real hero of this collection: the art of the short story. Mr. Howard was the king of the pulp story and, in Conan’s Brethren, demonstrates the full range of his talent.

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