Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Dark Love Letter to Iceland

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brrr! This wintry novel about a woman accused in the 1828 murders of two men in northern Iceland was filled with shiver-inducing descriptions of the harsh, yet beautiful, rural landscape. Even though I was reading this on a warm summer day, the chilly language made me think about reaching for a shawl.

Hannah Kent, who is from Australia, says she became interested in the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir when she traveled to Iceland in 2003. Agnes was the last person in the country to be executed. She was beheaded in 1830 for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Kent researched the facts of the case and has written a compelling version of what might have happened while Agnes was awaiting her execution.

Kent's prose is lovely and so descriptive that you feel as if you are in that remote Icelandic village. The novel is a bit slow to start, but picks up when Agnes is transferred to a farmer's home to await her fate, and a compassionate reverend starts to visit her. Agnes is reticent at first, but eventually opens up and discusses her past and her relationship with the murdered men.

"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."

While overall I liked the book, one of my complaints was that Kent would switch between third-person and Agnes' first-person perspective, and some of the changes were so jarring and abrupt (with no visible page break) that I sometimes had to backtrack and reread paragraphs to make sense of what I was reading. This is Kent's first novel, and this kind of structural messiness should have been fixed by an editor. I think the whole story could have been efficiently told from third person, OR the shifts between the perspectives should have been telegraphed better. Kent does get credit for including a pronunciation guide for Icelandic letters at the beginning of the book, which was helpful.

But this feels like quibbling in what was a mostly enjoyable read. I liked the relationship between Agnes and the reverend, and how the feelings of the farmer's family, which were at first hostile to hosting a prisoner, slowly changed over time as Agnes proved herself a useful worker. I also liked the glimpse into the workings of a 19th-century village and the differences between the homes of the poor farmers and those of the wealthy commissioner. I would recommend "Burial Rites" to fans of historical fiction or anyone who would appreciate this "dark love letter" to Iceland.

Antipaladins and Archliches: An Interview with Jess Gulbranson

Today's guest is Jess Gulbranson, author of Antipaladin Blues.

How did you hook up with Legume Man? 
It's funny that I lived with Antipaladin Blues for so many years, and have kind of put it out of my mind for a while due to my illness, that thinking about it fresh has allowed me to dig up some really good thoughts about its origin.

I had just written 10 A BOOT STOMPING for the 3Day Novel Contest, and saw their submissions call. If I recall correctly, they posted on the wild wild west that was the old Bizarrocentral forums. I've certainly had (and will continue to have) aesthetic disagreements with the bizarro scene, but I made a lot of lifelong friends there and I would definitely not be as published as I am today without Rose and crew being so welcoming. I will always give props to that, and of course to the fine folks at LegumeMan.

What made you want to write Antipaladin Blues?
That's a tough one- why does anybody want to write anything? In this case there was a specific scene that sort of sprung into my mind and wouldn't go away: a government wizard, his black knight retainer, and some guards raiding a warehouse and killing a bunch of people. That scene is in Blues almost unchanged from how I imagined it.  The likely explanation is that I saw The Limey right around the time I started writing it. The warehouse massacre is one of my favorite movie scenes, and I do have Kannon (the protagonist) quote Terence Stamp as a shout-out.

What would you say the biggest influences on Antipaladin Blues were?
D&D, obviously, but more specifically the campaign world that I was working on as young as 9 or 10 with my best friends growing up. Blues started with the inspiration I mentioned earlier, but as I started to expand it I realized that I was more motivated by deconstruction of the typical fantasy world as expressed by a D&D campaign run by adolescents or teenagers. Keeping that artifice in mind was very important. Another big influence was old detective fiction- Chandler and Hammett. If you look at the characters in Blues, they're not epic fantasy archetypes. They're cops on the take, corrupt feds, mob enforcers, etc. Kannon himself was influenced by an idea I had about Tommy Vercetti from GTA: Vice City. The idea of a guy whose job it is to be 'evil', but beneath that thinks of himself as honorable or duty-bound, but beneath that is really a brute who enjoys breaking legs... I couldn't resist.

Are you currently a Dungeons and Dragons player?
I hang out on a notorious game design forum...if the old BC forums were the wild west, then this place is the club from Hostel. Smart people, but not shy about vivisection. One of the forum members is a Lovecraftean scholar and former Shadowrun writer, and he ran a year-long campaign of 3.5 D&D that was so fun, so literate that it has pretty much spoiled me on playing D&D. That being said, I'd still love to join a group but between my illness and unreasonably high standards, it's tough.

If money and death were not obstacles, who would you cast in an Antipaladin Blues movie?
I habitually cast my characters when writing them. Kannon looks like vocalist extraordinaire Mike Patton. Chamberlin is Samuel L. Jackson, and Averly is Jenny Shimizu. Frank's voice has always kind of gone back and forth for me- somewhere between Keith David and Bill Nighy.

Any plans to continue the story begun in Antipaladin Blues?
Yes. When it was first picked up by now-defunct publisher Evil Nerd Empire, in its uncompleted state I had imagined one long novel. The publisher insisted on having it be three short novels, so the first installment could come out ASAP. That of course was the exact opposite of what happened. Atypically for me, the next two installments (Archlich Hotel and Johnny Devil Comes To Town) are actually completely outlined and plotted. I've written a sizable chunk of book two but I'm going to get myself back on track before I continue.

What other works have you published?
My amazon page should say it all, but I do have two full novels- MEL, my first, which was written serially for an online arts mag, and 10 A BOOT STOMPING 20 A HUMAN FACE 30 GOTO 10 which, to be perfectly honest, is a fucking great book and I can't believe I wrote it at all, much less in 71 hours.

Would you say more fantasy authors need to think outside the Tolkien box with their stories?
Absotutely. The problem with the Tolkien box is that it's not even his box anymore- it's the Tolkien-by-way-of-D&D-box, and while it might be great for firing the imaginations of the multitudes, it's pretty stultifying as far as tone and subject matter. There need to be better approaches to fantasy- either stuff like Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books where Tolkien is implicitly rejected, or like Mary Wells' Wheel of the Infinite where Tolkien just isn't even a relevant issue.

If you woke from an opium-induced haze and found a woman with an ice pick stuck in her neck in your bed, what would you do?
I'm no spy, and I'm no murderer, I'm just a boring suburban guy who happens to already have a plan for situations like these. No details that I can share, though, because I think it is a trick that will only work once. But once will be enough. [/creepy]

Who is your favorite author? 
That's always so hard. The main influences I cite are Stephen King, Mark Twain, Hunter Thompson, HP Lovecraft, Gene Wolfe, and Marquez.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Speaking of Gene Wolfe and Marquez... I think for me it's been a tie between Shadow of the Torturer and Autumn of the Patriarch for best books ever written.

What are you reading now?
The False Magic Kingdom Cycle by Jordan Krall. It's inspiring, since it's very very good, and also very similar in structure and content to a project I had going. Makes me want to resurrect that project, even though it's really hard to compare them. Krall is an amazing writer, and he is forging his own path in the writing and publishing world.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
I've been writing ever since I can remember, intermittently. I think the very first time a book blew me away and made me write then and there was the HPL collection Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, when I was 8 or 9.

What do you have coming down the pipeline?
My 5-year-old daughter and I are working on a tabletop rpg called Castle on the Edge of the Moon. It uses FATE: Core as a system, and is equal parts Adventure Time, Fallout, and Studio Ghibli, with a sprinkling of Thundarr and Axe Cop. We're hoping to get it finished and hopefully crowdfunded this year. She's great to work with, a limitless imagination. She got her first story published this year, in a horror/bizarro anthology! I have a couple of short fiction projects that Garrett Cook and I are chipping away at, and a mostly complete novel (magical realism, see Marquez obsession above) that needs to go through the rewrite grinder. Plus some kids' books that I work on idly from time to time. Apart from that... well, I'm using my illness as an opportunity to reinvent. Not sure what kind of writer I'm going to be if/when I come out the other side. Hopefully a better one.

Any advice for aspiring writers?
An essay of mine on that topic got published a couple years ago. The thumbnail version: start now. Don't wait. This is the absolute most important first step. Don't think about agents or markets or your abilities. You may suck at first, but you always throw out the first pancake anyway, right?

Antipaladin Blues

Antipaladin BluesAntipaladin Blues by Jess Gulbranson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the forces of good prove to be a bunch of assholes, the world needs a bad guy to settle the score. With his demonic spiked armor and flaming sword, Kannon comes to the City of D to set things right...

Antipaladin Blues is a novella that takes the standard Dungeons & Dragons inspired fantasy tropes and drops them on their heads. The main character is a carnage-loving antipaladin and the rest of what will eventually resemble an adventuring party consist of a denim-wearing mage, a lady alchemist trying to make a go of things in a man's world, and Frank Burley, last of the red-hot archliches.

The worldbuilding is surprisingly good for a novella of this type. Imagine a world where wizards suppress non-magical healing techniques and the emperor plots against his own people.

The book runs on ultraviolence and anachronistic humor, reading like a twisted version of Sam Raimi's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. There are also quite a few Dungeons and Dragons inside jokes, making for a funny read but at no time does the humor descend to a silly level. The ultraviolence is the star of the show.

The thing that separates Kannon from a lot of dark fantasy characters is that he knows what he is and loves it. There's no lamentation, no regrets, just a bastard in a spikey suit of armor kicking ass and taking names, the asses in question belonging to paladins, wizards, angels, psionicists, and all sorts of other things.

Antipaladin Blues is a fun read and I'm hoping Jess Gulbranson continues the story in the future. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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