Causing Pandemonium
Underground Reading: The Man Who Played Thief by Don Smith

Review Round-up: Vaudeville, Body Horror and other Topics

Sometimes, the hardest thing to review is a genuinely good book, at least, without resorting to meaningless fluff words like "gripping", "great" and "brilliant". But they need to be reviewed, if only to bring them to the attention of other readers. 

The TroupeHere are three books that deserve better reviews than they're about to receive. Sadly, this is less a serious critical evaluation than a "lookit!". These are all terrific, and, dare I say it, "gripping".

Robert Jackson Bennett is quietly building up an impressive body of work. Mr. Shivers was genuinely creepy, The Company Man was a great SF/noir cross-overs (although the ending really disappointed me) and The Troupe (2012) may be his best yet. Circuses are a hot topic right now, and The Troupe's vaudevillian theme runs the risk of getting it lost in the crowd. But, although there are similarities with Cyber Circus, Mechanique and (especially) The Night Circus, The Troupe takes a different tack: this is an epic fantasy, set against the background of the Depression. George Carole is a young (and talented) pianist, off on a search to find his father, the great performer Hieronomo Silenus. When he does, he finds himself entangled in a greater quest: Silenus is piecing together fragments of the Great Song, in the hopes of fighting off the forces of darkness.

It sounds silly (and, to be honest, it is), but Mr. Bennett quietly utilises the tropes of the traditional high fantasy epic to create a clever and oddly heart-warming story. George is a precocious, likable protagonist, even as he makes all the wrong decisions. Silenus is a Machiavellian grump, and the forces of darkness are alternately creepy and charming. The Troupe is a well-produced show, with all the bit players getting their time under the spotlight. And that's where it varies the most (and the most interestingly) from the fantasy tradition: George may be the protagonist, but everyone is the hero of their own story.

Topics About WhichAfter he won last year's Red Tentacle, Anne and I started stalking Patrick Ness in earnest. (Sadly, there really is no more accurate verb.) Although the Chaos Walking trilogy is – deservedly – well-known and well-acclaimed, the book that has delighted me most is an earlier collection of his short stories, Topics About Which I Know Nothing (2004).

"Jesus' Elbows and Other Christian Urban Myths" was my personal favorite - the story, a collection of short statements from a variety of unknown speakers, is as hilarious as it is unsettling. Even as I laughed through it, I was forced to acknowledge that, like all urban myths, the ones captured here could easily have their subscribers. 

"Quid custodiet ipsos custodes?", "The motivations of Sally Rae Wentworth, Amazon", "The Seventh International Military War Games Dance Committee Quadrennial Competition and Jamboree" and "The Gifted" all dance the line between science fiction and social satire. They're explorations of imaginative ideas, equally funny and cutting. "Implied Violence" is something straight out of Lauren Beukes - a group of underpaid call centre employees quietly resent their new co-worker and the way that she cheerfully questions the organisation's (increasingly) sinister motivational techniques. And the surprisingly romantic "2,115 Opportunities" made me get a bit misty-eyed. (That is all. Move along.)

Overall, I feel slightly cheated. Not by the collection, which is magnificent, but because it took me so long (and such a random series of events) to find it. Due to the vagaries of market categorisation, I never even thought to read Topics - it looks like and is shelved as contemporary 'lit fic', and it never even showed up on my radar as something to my taste. As a result, I'm a decade late in finding not only the best single author collection I can remember reading, but also exactly the sort of book that I'm rationally hunting out: an author using fantastic concepts to explore contemporary social issues, and doing so with distinctive style and flair. 

My own emancipation from "SF/F ghetto" mindset is nowhere near as complete as I thought it was, and I'm the one to suffer for it. Better late than never. Don't make the same mistake I did: find this book now and pounce on it.

Mammoth Book of Body HorrorFinally, Paul Kane and Marie O'Regan's The Mammoth Book of Body Horror (2012) is going down as one of those rare, beautifully-constructed anthologies. The title, I'll confess, put me off. After a brief splatterpunk period in college, I generally try to avoid the stuff (I find books like Fred Venturini's The Samaritan more the exception than the rule). But the editors haven't put together a volume of cheap, snuff-related thrills: this is an insightful exploration of a fascinating horror theme. The vintage stuff alone is worth the price of admission, with Mary Shelley's "Transformation", George Langelaan's "The Fly" and John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (three classics that I'd, embarrassingly, never read before this volume). The modern selections is equally as impressive, with one of my favorite Clive Barker tales "The Body Politic", joined by its (probably superior) Stephen King counterpart, "Survivor Type". Contributions from Brian Lumley, James Herbert, Christopher Fowler, Michael Marshall Smith, Nancy Collins and Neil Gaiman also excel. Less heralded (but equally talented) contemporary voices are also well-represented, with stories from David Moody, Conrad Williams, Axelle Carolyn, Simon Clark and Gemma Files, amongst others.

Like every anthology, I didn't love every story, but for a volume this size (and it is fairly elephantine), Mr. Kane and Ms. O'Regan did a spectacular job in choosing winners. What I found more impressive is that they deliberately tackled a topic with the potential to be stomach-churning, and made it thoughtful instead. The only absence of note was a foreword from the editors themselves. Stuart Gordon's guest introduction is enthusiastic but cursory. I would've liked to hear more about how (and why) each story was selected, as a lot of thought clearly went into the process.