You want vintage sci-fi? You don’t get much more vintage than this, a book written sometime in the 2nd century.
Of course, whether it’s really sci-fi is debatable. “Science” as a concept was very different then. So, while the story does indeed include elements such as a war between the armies of the Moon and those of the Sun, fighting over the contested territory of Venus, it’s not really using space travel in the way we might think of it.
It’s not hard sci-fi. No one will confuse it with Andy Weir’s books. So let’s compromise and call it more of a Space Opera. Still, it has battles with giant spiders fighting over the moon. I say it counts for our purposes.
Then again, I’m not the one whose opinion matters here. That would be up to the showrunners behind Vintage Sci-Fi Month. Obviously, I can only hope that they agree that this fits the bill, despite its lack of the modern scientific mindset.
So much for the “science” aspect. Now for the fiction. Despite the name, the author admits early on that it’s all made it up. It is, he says, in the tradition of “the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.”
The story is a parody of famous Ancient Greek myths, including, of course, the works of Homer. Which is probably why the book is full of fantastic and bizarre things; it seems Lucian was trying to conjure the most insane and impossible ideas he could. For example, he tells us that the denizens of the moon “carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly… it seems to me that the term ‘belly of the leg’ came to us Greeks from there.”
Okay, so probably this joke made sense in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I can’t read Greek. But my mother can. So I asked her about it, and she didn’t know either. 🤷
The tone of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Mark Twain, when he was poking fun at supernatural and fantasy tropes. There are a lot of references to Homer, as well as Herodotus, Aristophanes, and so on; mostly making fun of how outlandish the mythology is.
Despite its age, this book feels surprisingly fresh. Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to the translator in a case like this, and Harmon’s translation makes for a fun, breezy read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Oh, and also there is a brief mention of something called “Pumpkin pirates”; that is, pirates who sail around in hollowed-out pumpkins. Given that pumpkins are not native to Greece, and Lucian couldn’t have known about them, it seems likely that these are actually melons. (Interestingly, the Greek word for melon is apparently the root of the word “pumpkin”.)
As you might imagine, given my own tastes, I love the idea of pumpkin pirates. This book is worth reading just for that concept.
A clever blending of two genres: pulp sci-fi adventure and hardboiled detective mystery, this book tells the story of private investigator Travis Barrett, who is hired to solve the disappearance of a wealthy businessman’s son. His client is the businessman’s daughter, Tina “Trouble” Tate.
Together, the two of them head for Mercury, pursued by the businessman’s goons, Hammerhand and Slick. (Two classic henchmen who have a highly enjoyable dynamic, by the way.) In addition to these two thugs, Travis is also running from something else: his own troubled past. Isn’t every noir detective worth his salt haunted by something? I certainly would never engage the services of one who wasn’t.
Travis and Trouble, together with a host of colorful allies, and at least one person who might be called a “frenemy,” work to uncover the mystery of Tina’s brother and uncover the secrets of the Tate corporation.
The book is fast-paced, with lots of snappy banter and exciting action scenes. It was originally published on Vella, and that’s probably why it’s so pulse-pounding and punchy, with lots of drama and suspense.
If you’ve read Vogel’s other books, his familiar knack for harkening back to adventure yarns of yore is here in force. This book isn’t massively innovative, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to make you nostalgic for the Golden Age of pulp, and it does exactly that.
September kicked off one of the best sustained runs of books in this site’s history. First up was the wonderful comic novel The Beach Wizard, the crown jewel in Shatzer’s body of work. That was followed up by Mark Paxson’s excellent short story collection Killing Berthold Gambrel. What can I say? I’d been dying to read it, and it was worth the wait. Next came two spectacular medical thrillers: Geoffrey Cooper’s Perilous Obsession and the magnificent Carrie Rubin’s Fatal Rounds. I wrapped up the month with Isabella Norse’s Halloween romance, Something Whiskered This Way Comes.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year, my friends! Personally, I’m resolving to review a wider variety of books in 2023. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what all of my friends have lined up for the coming year!
So I won’t review it as I normally would. Instead, I’ll try some different approaches…
Review by an Academic Literary Critic
A Cozy Christmas Murder (Z. Shazter, 2021) satirizes 21st-century capitalism in its portrayal of the independent bookstore operator Roberta Smith and her cat, Mr. Bigfluff, who together represent Messianic figures who protect the town of Quaintville from the avaricious motivations of a criminal who symbolizes the profiteering of the wealthiest classes, while at the same time indulging in a pastiche of various pre-post-modernist textual norms. Smith’s friends, Jeannie and Sheriff James, symbolize conflicting modes of sexuality in a petit-bourgeois milieu…
Review by someone who has only read one very specific type of book
I couldn’t follow this story at all. The characters were not wizards, but seemed to all be non-magical people. I kept waiting for something about a prophecy to explain the plot, but there was nothing. Also, the family bloodlines and lineages were left unexplained, so I couldn’t easily categorize the characters.
Review by someone who is too easily offended
The protagonist of this book is a woman. Are they trying to say that men can’t solve mysteries? Do they want our young boys to grow up believing themselves to be incapable of logic and reasoning? Also, why do they only mention Christmas? Are they suggesting that all the other holidays should be illegal? If so, that is offensive and wrong.
Review by That Guy; you know the one…
To be clear, I love the book itself. The characters are funny and engaging, and the whole thing is a delightful send-up of cozy mysteries. However, I’m only giving it one star because Amazon delivered it three minutes late to my houseboat in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane.
Review by someone whose keyboard only has the letter “h”
They don’t write books like this anymore. I say that because this book was written in the past, which is not the present, and therefore by definition is not being written now. You couldn’t write a book like this today. People would say it had already been written, and in a way, they’d be correct. Because we can only move through Time in one direction. Still, if you want to pretend that it isn’t now but the past, then you should read this book in your near future!
Yuck, what was in that eggnog?
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this silliness. Definitely give Shatzer’s books a try if you haven’t already. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and to all a good night!
“A Steampunk Conspiracy Christmas story!” What magical words! How could anyone not read something with such a subtitle? What does this world need, if not more Steampunk Conspiracy Christmas stories?
This one is a quick read, telling the story of a girl who has purchased lights for her orphanage’s Christmas tree. A series of chance encounters lead her to more than she bargained for, including an encounter with some rather shady characters who are mixed up in the holiday business.
The story is very short, and as a result, there isn’t as much world-building as one typically expects from a steampunk story. Aside from a few touches here and there, it was most a standard Victorian-esque setting.
I did like the hints of a totalitarian government assigning people to jobs, as this carried just enough hints of dystopia to make it interesting, without overwhelming the rest of the story.
All told, this is more of a quick sketch than a fully-fleshed out tale. But still, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what could be. Perhaps, we may dare to hope, it presages the dawn of a whole genre of Christmas steampunk conspiracy stories. Imagine bookshelves stocked with seasonal tales of this type. Imagine a whole channel, like the Hallmark channel, but dedicated to films in this genre. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The story of why I read this book begins with a tweet. The author asked what people thought of the cover.
I have to say, I don’t love the cover. Not that it’s bad; because it isn’t. Rather, it just looks like every other cover out there. I feel like a lot of books have faces on the cover, and small wonder, because the eye is instinctively drawn to human faces. The problem is, book marketers have learned this.
But I was impressed that the author was even asking about this. And so I decided, why not pick the book up and give it a try?
I didn’t expect to like it. Early on, it felt like the sort of book I’d put aside and not re-open, as it begins by introducing us to the rather irritating Isabella Jaramillo, a rich, famous, and altogether spoiled professional time traveler. She has the world at her fingertips, and yet she’s rude, angry, and greedy.
But something made me keep going. I got interested as Isabella’s equally unlikable husband decided to strand her in the past as an act of revenge. Isabella started having to make her own way in a world totally alien to her.
The characters of the medieval town to which she is exiled all felt extremely real, too. The characters were well-written and nuanced, and none of them felt flat or clichéd. I felt like I could understand and sympathize with them, even the antagonists. They are a different people, shaped by the harshness of the time and place they were born into, but still complicated and human. And slowly, Isabella starts to be shaped by it, too.
Then the book shifted back to the future and the time-traveler organization, where Isabella’s father Alfredo is frantically trying to find out what’s become of his daughter. But he too has a murky past, and slowly it becomes clear that there are many conflicting agendas at play. The past, or perhaps I should say the pasts, begin to catch up with the powerful men who play at being Gods.
McTiernan displays a wonderful skill at knowing just when to switch from what plot thread to another, keeping the reader hooked on every development, waiting to see what happened next. In other words, by the time I was a third of the way in, the book had totally won me over, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
In last week’s book review, I mentioned the harshness of life as a medieval peasant, contrasted with the ease of our modern age. Well, this book demonstrates exactly that, as Isabella is forced to cast aside all the privileges and luxuries she once enjoyed and survive in brutal and unforgiving circumstances.
So often, when I read books about the past, they make one of two errors: either they make the past just like the present, only with the thinnest veneer of Middle Ages clichés ill-concealing a modern sensibility, or else they paint the past as miserable and unenlightened, a world of nothing but ignorant stock-characters.
I’m happy to report this book avoids both pitfalls. The people of the past feel real; both in terms of being different from ourselves in terms of values and beliefs, while at the same time having a core of humanity that makes them relatable.
The book is both science-fiction and historical fiction; both an alternate future with some dystopian elements as well a good old-fashioned adventure/romance. It’s also brimming with interesting religious themes, though I’m probably the wrong person to analyze those.
I started off thinking I’d hate this book and wouldn’t finish it, and by the end, I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so you should know that not all the questions it raises will be answered in this volume, but it’s still a fantastic story.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
[I omit rule 7 from this list, as it contains language which may shock modern readers–B.G.]
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
Obviously, ol’ Samuel Clemens is not acting in good faith. He has devised these rules specifically in order to ensure that Deerslayer will be in violation of them. I suspect nearly all other purported rules for writers are created through a similar process. Probably not with the same degree of venom as motivated Twain, but in the sense of being designed to fit pre-existing books, and not as independent criteria.
Still, Twain’s essay is hilarious. I’d be honored if someone hated my books this much!
If I made a Mount Rushmore of authors from the millennial generation, it would consist of Peter Martuneac, H.R.R. Gorman, Zachary Shatzer, and Bertocci. I don’t mean to imply they are the only good millennial authors, of course. As Tom Lehrer would say, “there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.” It’s just that they are the ones I know about, and each of them, in their own unique ways, captures something about our generation.
And of the four, Bertocci may be the most thoroughly millennial of the lot. Martuneac, Gorman, and Shatzer write of the future and the past, of the supernatural, the fantastic and the bizarre, weaving their millennial themes into their tales. Bertocci, though, writes literary fiction set in the present day, and squarely about millennials.
The Hundred Other Rileys is a perfect example: it follows a woman named Riley who is adrift in life. Here is her description of her job:
[M]y own job is not to understand, it’s to keep track of who’s doing what in Google Sheets and send a lot of emails with exclamation points asking when other people who do things will do them. ‘Riley Bender – Innovation Associate’, my signature reads…
There are versions of me in every sprawling corporation–the hubs, the go-betweens, the copier-pasters and checkers of boxes, whose lot it is neither to know nor to do, but to merely assign, assess, go after, be whatever fills the gap. We look. We circle back. We forward. We facilitate. Sometimes we liaise. We don’t strategize, that’s too serious. We sync. We send updates. We tell ourselves we don’t shuffle papers, it’s all in the digital realm. We thank in advance. No worries if not. We don’t really do what our companies do, but we get on the same page, no worries if not. We do nothing that matters, and we’re all so behind.
Isn’t that dead-on? If you’ve had a job like this, you know how it feels. It isn’t hard… it’s just so blatantly pointless.
But one day Riley sees a picture of a woman who looks like her in an advertisement. And from there, she starts seeing the same stock photo model everywhere, as if mocking her own career’s dead-endedness, alluding to all the other opportunities she missed, all the paths not taken.
What follows is a mind-bending, fourth-wall-breaking, exploration of frustration, stultification and ultimately, how to get past them. There’s even a little bit about writer’s block in it, though I won’t discuss that in detail for fear of spoilers. But every writer I know will want to read it. And that goes double for millennials, to whom Bertocci speaks like no other writer I’ve read.
Be warned, I’m about to speak in broad generalities about an entire generation. Obviously, not every millennial will fit the description I’m about to give. I myself am something of a mixed bag in this regard: in some ways, I fit certain millennial stereotypes to a “t”. In other respects, not so much. So, please don’t think I’m asserting every person born between 1981 and 1996 has all these qualities.
Okay, so what’s up with us millennials? Why, to quote some beloved Boomer family members of mine, are we such whiners? Back in my parents’ day, they had to fight two lions every day… etc. My generation has it so easy!
Well, in a sense, yes, we do have it easy. I was born in 1990. I am much happier I was born in 1990 than in say, 1950, or God forbid, 1850. This is actually an excellent time to be alive in any meaningful historical context.
Are we millennials simply coddled, spoiled, soft, decadent weaklings, like the debased aristocrats of the very late Roman Empire? Are we, or more to the point, all our complaints about society, reflective of nothing but moral turpitude brought on by the proverbial idle hands?
Well, I don’t think so. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The problem millennials face is exactly the one illustrated by Riley’s obsession with her doppelgänger: we face too many opportunities. In a world of endless possibilities, we all have to choose one, and it’s hard to be sure which one to take. Thus, we end up either choosing one and regretting it later, or worse yet, staying in a holding pattern too long.
Is this a good problem to have? I think so. Certainly, if Riley had been born a peasant in 1327, she would not face the same problems that she does as young person in the 2020s. And it’s hard to argue that the latter set of problems is not preferable.
What Bertocci has masterfully shown in literary form is that abundance can itself be a problem. It may be a better problem than scarcity, but it’s still a problem. And as a species, we’ve had millennia to learn to cope with scarcity. Abundance? That’s something new, weird, and very much foreign to us. Because biologically speaking, we’re not much different than the peasants of 1327.
That’s not uniquely a millennial issue, of course. Technological progress took off earlier in the 20th century, before the millennials’ parents were even born. Other things that characterize my generation include a sense of humor that relies heavily on cultural references, and a strong desire not to get beaten down by a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality in our work lives. Whether these are positive or negative qualities is something I leave entirely up to you to decide. What I do know is that this book captures all these aspects of the millennial weltanschauung.
This is why I describe Bertocci as, well, the voice of his generation. In many ways, this is the spiritual sequel to Bertocci’s wonderful Samantha, 25, on October 31,which I consider a masterpiece. This book is every bit a worthy successor to Samantha, and in some ways is even more inventive and original. It’s another splendid work of literary fiction, and deserves to be widely read.
[Note: Special thanks to Richard L. Pastore for reading an early draft of this review and making suggestions on how to improve it.]
I didn’t get to write a proper review of the first book in this series, Mandate of Heaven, for reasons I explained in my not-quite-a-review post when it was published last month. But I was not a beta reader on Solomon’s Fortune, and that means I get to give it the full Ruined Chapel treatment.
Ethan Chase, and his fellow adventurers Frankie and Mei, once again find themselves on a globe-spanning hunt for a legendary treasure. This time they are seeking the Ark of the Covenant, and their journey takes them from the Middle East to Italy to a mysterious island in the Atlantic. At every step, they are forced to contend with rival treasure hunters, including a wealthy and relentless Russian arms dealer.
Of course, because they’re chasing the sacred Ark, one is tempted to compare the book with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indeed, much to Ethan Chase’s chagrin, several of the characters draw this parallel. And why not? In my earlier post, I compared the first book to Indiana Jones. Chase’s objections notwithstanding, there’s no question that this series captures that same spirit of adventure, of wise-cracking heroes racing to stay one step ahead of sadistic villains across many exotic and famous locations.
It’s important to remember that Indiana Jones was itself an homage to the pulp adventure serials of the 1930s. We are always nostalgic for a bygone era of adventure, it seems. I’m reminded of something that somebody (Michael Caine, maybe?) said of The Man Who Would Be King: “Even when it was made, people said, ‘they don’t make films like that anymore.'”
And indeed, in our modern world, when the whole surface of the earth is mapped by satellite imagery and everybody has a digital camera in their pocket, can we even keep alive the dreams of forgotten ruins and lost treasures, of ancient mysteries and supernatural secrets, and above all, of heroism and adventure?
I say we can, thanks to books like this. While I was reading it, I found myself instantly absorbed in Ethan Chase’s world. Its themes are timeless, and its characters are likable. Even the villains have some shreds of humanity left in them, which make them all the more interesting.
These books have a vibe to them, is what I’m saying; an ethos that feels familiar and at the same time refreshing. In fact, fittingly enough, I would go so far as to say they are a treasure. If you like good stories, you should read this book, and if you haven’t read the first book in the series yet, you should read them both, and join Ethan Chase on his thrilling expeditions.