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Matthew Keeley

The Chill of the Latter Days: John Crowley’s Flint and Mirror

In John Crowley’s 1981 masterpiece Little, Big, young Auberon Drinkwater daydreams of writing about Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. His work would feature “Saracens and papal armies, Sicilian guerrillas and potent palaces and princesses too,” but its secret purpose was to contemplate the emperor before his final battle. To Auberon, this “figure seen in a moment of repose snatched between two desperate actions, exhausted after victory or defeat, hard clothes stained with war and wear,” is an object of fascination. Neither Auberon Drinkwater nor his creator John Crowley ever wrote a Barbarossa play, but Crowley’s new novel, Flint and Mirror, evokes the feelings that Auberon dreamt about.

Flint and Mirror recounts the life of Hugh O’Neill, a sixteenth-century Irish earl forever torn between his native land and the English colonizers. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is drawn from history. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is obscure to contemporary Americans. In Ireland, paintings and statues commemorate him; in the United States, his name adorns a few pubs. To summarize: Hugh O’Neill was an Irish lord who, by dint of ambition, family name, political maneuvering, and statecraft, had a chance of uniting Ireland against its English administrators. Though he spent much of his youth in the English court, O’Neill eventually led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth’s colonial forces; he won some battles, lost others, and eventually surrendered to the English. He was pardoned, but in 1607, he fled Ireland for Rome.

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John M. Ford’s Aspects Is an Unfinished Masterpiece

There are books that you never want to end, and John M. Ford’s novel Aspects is one of them. And Aspects does not, in fact, end: It stops, two pages into a chapter, forever abridged by the author’s untimely death in 2006. Always a critical favorite but rarely if ever a bestseller, Ford had many friends and more admirers; they’ve likely already picked up this final novel. But if you haven’t read Ford, or even heard of him? Should you attempt its five hundred unfinished pages? My answer is an emphatic “yes.”

After many years out of print, John M. Ford needs a re-introduction. Neil Gaiman, who has not needed introduction for twenty-odd years, provides it. In a touching foreword, Gaiman offers a portrait of Ford as steadfast friend and humble genius. He also explains the farcical communication breakdown between Ford’s estate and Ford’s literary agent that delayed this book’s publication for more than a decade. Gaiman’s introduction promises wonders; the reader turns the page and discovers that Ford’s book delivers them.

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Swift and Strange: Harold R. Johnson’s The Björkan Sagas

Harold R. Johnson is a difficult writer to classify and, therefore, an interesting writer to read. On his Twitter bio, he labels himself “trapper, fisherman, writer, father, grandfather, husband, lawyer, dog musher, farrier, lumberjack, prospector, Uncle, friend, heavy equipment operator, paddler.” The books he’s written are just as varied and unpredictable. His polemic Firewater draws from his experience as a Canadian Crown Prosecutor to address the scourge of alcoholism, while Cry Wolf matches Indigenous traditions with forensic science in an investigation of a fatal wolf attack in Saskatchewan. His novel The Cast Stone has the United States conquering Canada and facing resistance, while his later Corvus is a dystopian novel set in a future Canada struggling to accommodate catastrophic climate change.

Some themes and motifs recur—the meeting of First Nations and European cultures, the resilience of Cree culture, stewardship of and care for the environment—how these themes will materialize from one book to the next is impossible to predict. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Johnson has now written a fantasy novel of sorts.

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Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land Is a Book of Wonders

Anthony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, has arrived at last, preceded by every form of publicity and marketing that a Big Five publisher can bring to bear. As befits the first novel in a half a dozen years from a critically acclaimed and bestselling writer, there are full-page newspaper ads, website banners, in-store posters and displays, flyers slipped into Barnes & Noble packages, and announcements from And of course there’s a book tour. Doerr’s novel deserves all the attention and acclaim, and yet it’s somewhat strange to see the promotional campaign after reading this novel, because Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book about the transformative effect of a forgotten book.

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Jeffrey Ford’s Big Dark Hole Offers Stories to Fall Into

In the title story of Jeffrey Ford’s new collection Big Dark Hole, a young boy crawls into a sewer pipe and never emerges. The narrator, who witnessed David Gorman’s fateful act, reflects forty years on: “In another five years or so, what’s left of the story will have completely decomposed, fizzed away, fallen back into a big dark hole.” Perhaps that oblivion is the fate of all stories, tales, and memories, but Ford’s stories will linger longer than most. They may not scare or shock, but they rarely fail to disquiet.

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B. Catling’s Hollow Is Abundant and Excessive

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” So runs one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. Judging from his novel Hollow, Brian Catling, who made Blake a character in his earlier Vorrh Trilogy, seems to have taken the poet’s infernal proverb to heart. He has followed Blake’s path as far as it goes: Everything about this novel is excessive, sometimes ludicrously so, but it achieves an ungainly beauty and a crooked wisdom.

Brian Catling, stylized “B. Catling” on his book covers, first came to genre readers’ attention when Alan Moore wrote an introduction to The Vorrh, which he labeled a “landmark work of fantasy.” Two further novels concluded the story begun in The Vorrh. Hollow is the first Catling novel to receive wide U.S. distribution since the trilogy’s concluding volume.

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The Murky Waters of Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time

If the novel’s composition matched the author’s conception, Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time would constitute a major accomplishment in speculative fiction. Newland creates a radically different Earth, devises a complex world-beyond-the-world of astral projection, and then, in the novel’s second half, sends his overwhelmed protagonist on an odyssey into further worlds. 

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Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book Arrives at Last

The Absolute Book arrives in the United States more than a year after its initial publication with New Zealand’s Victoria University Press. Although Elizabeth Knox’s books have always been critically acclaimed, most of her titles have never escaped the Antipodes. Happily for American readers, a rave review by Dan Kois, a Slate critic briefly resident in New Zealand inspired a bidding war for U.S. rights, and now any American can open The Absolute Book. As someone who has been looking forward to it since the Slate review, I’m happy to report that the novel was worth the wait. 

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The Swallowed Man Reflects on Art and Family From the Bottom of a Whale

I hadn’t expected to see a new Edward Carey novel for a few years yet, but here is The Swallowed Man, just two years after the publication of Little, his big book about the waning and waxing of Madame Tussaud’s fortunes in the French Revolution. That massive novel took fifteen years to write; to receive another book so soon is a pleasant surprise. Little was an epic about the obscure story behind a familiar name; The Swallowed Man, in contrast, is a compact retelling of a familiar story from an obscure perspective.

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A King Arthur Tale for the Brexit Era: Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone

The Matter of Britain, the cycle of stories relating to King Arthur and his knights, is as capacious a set of legends as the world possesses, and so the tales have received a staggering range of interpretations. From Tennyson’s pious odes to Victorian Britain, through Mark Twain’s declaration of Yankee independence, from Wagner’s promotion of the German volk and Edwar Burne-Jones’s self-consciously old-fashioned paintings to T.H. White’s tragicomic elegies, King Arthur has accommodated every vision or concern that artists have attached to him. Perhaps each era gets the Arthur it requires.

Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone gives us an Arthur for the Brexit era: A tyrant in lieu of a king, brute violence in lieu of gallant feats, undisguised venality in lieu of chivalric ideals. This is the Matter of Britain become the Matter with Britain.

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Hugo Spotlight: P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 Offers a Short Glimpse of a Fantastic World

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

The Cairo of P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is in a state of perpetual, and productive, flux. It is 1912, but in Clark’s world, “it had been some forty years since the wandering Soudanese genius—or madman, take your pick—had, through a mix of alchemy and machines, bored a hole into the Kaf.” The mysterious al-Jahiz—perhaps a time traveler, perhaps a prophet, perhaps a harbinger of doom—disappeared but left a world transformed. Djinn and other once-mythical beings openly walk the land and have contributed to an explosion of technological-magical growth. Egypt has become a great world power, while European colonialists have retreated to their homelands, expelled by magic and forced to reevaluate the “superstitions of the natives and Orientals” they once despised. No religion has sole dominion over magic, so religious tolerance laws have been enacted, though biases remain: Many still distrust the new adherents of the revived old religions. And, spurred in part by the role women played in the great anticolonial struggles, suffragette and feminist movements have begun agitating for equal rights. It’s a multiethnic, multicultural, and generally civil society, but, like all societies, not without its tensions and contradictions.

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Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll Meanders, Mocks, and Moves

You might not expect a novel about the Thirty Years’ War to be entertaining, much less funny. Those three decades of massacre, starvation, plague, and pillage littered central Europe with eight million corpses; it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the European nations once again achieved such sheer horror. And yet, despite its grim subject and despite its jacket-copy endorsement from Michael Haneke, bleakest and most depressing of bleak and depressing German directors, Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel Tyll is a rollick and a delight.

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Chilly Stories From the Author of Ice: Anna Kavan’s Machines in the Head

She wrote Ice and then she died. She used prescription heroin for half of her life. She took the name she’s remembered by from one of her own early novels. If you’ve heard of Anna Kavan, and most likely you haven’t, chances are that these are the few things you know about her. Though she wrote more than a dozen novels and collections, though she was a journalist and a painter, Kavan is remembered for a single book and for the dramatic or disreputable portions of her biography.

This month, New York Review Books issues Machines in the Head, a volume of Kavan’s selected stories. It’s a slim book of weighty emotion that will leave readers perturbed. I admire it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

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John Crowley’s Reading Backwards Offers More Than a Decade of Brilliance

John Crowley’s readers have great capacities for patience. Twenty years passed between the first volume of his Ægypt series in 1987 and its last entry in 2007; after his realistic historical novel Four Freedoms appeared in 2009, Crowley’s fans waited seven years for another major publication. With the 2016 publication of The Chemical Wedding, Crowley’s translation of an obscure seventeenth-century hermetic allegory, something changed. Whatever the cause — Perhaps the author’s retirement from teaching at Yale — Crowley has become prolific. A year after Wedding, he published Ka, a thick historical fantasy, alongside Totalitopia, a slim volume that combined fiction, essay, and criticism. And this month Crowley has released two thick hardbacks. The first, story collection And Go Like This, I reviewed a few weeks ago. Now Subterranean Press has released Reading Backwards: Essays & Reviews, 2015-2018

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Discovering Journey to the Beginning of Time, Karel Zeman’s Classic Sci-Fi Film

Jurassic Park appeared in theaters in June of 1993, when I was five years old. I was dinosaur-obsessed to an intense degree; I played with toy tyrannosauruses, ate dinosaur-themed candy, and read dinosaur picture books. Somehow I contrived to learn the Latin names of various saurians; I figured it was good training for my inevitable career as a paleontologist. In pursuit of that future, I even dug up the backyard in search of dino bones. Given this level of obsession, I was heartbroken to learn that my parents would not let me go see the new dinosaur movie. I didn’t quite understand that Spielberg’s film was about people running from dinosaurs that wanted to eat them. Who needs menace and suspense when there were dinosaurs? I would have been perfectly happy watching a dinosaur movie where nothing went wrong and no one was imperilled. I just wanted to see dinosaurs in motion. It took more than twenty-five years for me to discover that the movie five-year-old Matt really wanted to see was Czech director Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time.

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