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11-04-10: Pierre Pevel Sharpens 'The Cardinal's Blades'

Dragons, Cults and Conspiracies

Fantasy has happily returned to reality. It was not so long ago that the presence of a dragon in a novel meant that it was a second-world fantasy, set in some never-never land. But times have changed, and 'The Cardinal's Blades' (Pyr /Prometheus ; October 28, 2010 ; $16) by Pierre Pevel continues an admirable trend that started with Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. Translated with brio by Tom Clegg, 'The Cardinal's Blades' is a truly ripping yarn with atmosphere to spare. It's all in the details.

For this reader, it's the descriptive details that make a historical fantasy immersive, entertaining and "buyable." And from the get-go in Pierre Pevel's novel, we get the kind of intricate details that ultimately make 'The Cardinal's Blades' a ripping yarn as opposed to a tawdry toss-off. Pevel writes his scenes with just enough intricacy to make us feel we're there, but not so much that we feel we're reading a fictionalized thesis on the furniture of France. Moreover, he takes these details seamlessly into the realm of the fantastic, with a complexly-imagined ecology of dragons. By starting out in a place that's familiar, he can take us some place that never was with authority.

The story is quite cleverly constructed; Pevel unites his world-building with his plot. Pevel's world is pretty simply stated; he gives us seventeenth century France with dragons, all sorts of dragons ... except the kind we usually met. We get tiny, table-top dragons, and mid-size sedan car dragons, all making things generally more interesting and slightly more dangerous. So long as you like dragons!

'The Cardinal's Blades' is clearly the first in a series, and spends a fair amount of time setting up the Cardinal's Blades — they fight crime. That said, they do so quite entertainingly. Pevel has a great sense of the set-piece, which he uses in a somewhat overwhelming manner to introduce all the characters. But his sense of creating a historical background is superb, and Clegg's translation seems fully up to the task. Even though most of the book is plot, running here, fighting there, Pevel manages to convey a dark, dank and detailed backdrop. Here's a novel where the art direction in the prose plays a major part in the pleasure of reading.

The benefit of all this is that Pevel gives himself room to create some vivid and pithy characters; Lapat and Laincourt emerge as the most involving. The rest are sketchier, and the women tend to be under-developed psychologically and over-developed physically. This is no great shock, and to be honest, the plot moves fast enough so that the reader will realize this only in retrospect. The fact that you might even think of such things in retrospect is a good sign. There are probably a lot of "mash-up" descriptions of this novel, but the true virtue here is that is does not feel like as mash-up. Pevel quite successfully muddies our own uncertain sense of history with verve and imagination. And dragons. You can practically hear the tinny soundtrack music. It's the only detail that Pevel doesn't supply.

11-03-10: Cormac McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian'

Horror In the Eyes of the Beholder

We like to diminish horror fiction. It serves our souls well to dismiss it, to trivialize our terrors. By pretending to be scared, we pretend that we are never scared, that there is nothing in this world, nothing in us that is so terrible that it cannot be laughed away. We are experts at lying to ourselves.

Cormac McCarthy is an expert as well, but his expertise is in sculpting words that show us ourselves. McCarthy is not so good at lying to us. In fact, his ability to tell us the truths we'd prefer not to know have made him one of the most important writers on the planet, certainly in America. I remember when 'Blood Meridian' came out so long ago. I was on a horror fiction mailing list. These men and women were the experts on adult horror fiction, the sort of stuff that actually scares us, without pretense. 'Blood Meridian,' one of our contributors said, was the best horror novel ever written.

Twenty-five years hence that still remains true, even in the dark show cast by McCarthy himself with his subsequent work. Now, readers who crave the closest to the original reading experience can capture it again with 'Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West' (Modern Library Hardcover / Random House ; September 28, 2010 ; $23), a 25th anniversary simulacrum of the first edition, in the same size, with the same cover art. If you're looking for a reason to read a horrifying piece of Americana (again), here's a great excuse. If you've managed to miss this novel thus far, then it's time to saddle up take a quick tour of hell.

This edition of 'Blood Meridian' includes an excellent introduction by Harold Bloom from his book, 'How to Read and Why,' that to my mind works better as an afterward. McCarthy is an all-in experience. His prose is unique and immersive. This book is, like revenge, best served cold.

To that end, I'll simply mention enough set-up to give you an idea of what you are in for, if you haven't read the novel already. It's based on history, of the sort we'd prefer not to remember, that bled into the sands near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850's. 'Blood Meridian tells the story of The Kid, a fourteen year-old boy from Tennessee who comes into the orbit of the Glanton gang murderers on official business and led by Judge Holden.

Those are the bare facts of the story, and that's all you need to know going in. The rest is up to Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy is an author who carves his stories from language, who creates sentences that build and hypnotize, paragraphs that capture and unspool in the readers mind like razor-wire whips, cutting lazily through flesh and blood and sinew and heart to reveal the messy, bubbling horrors within. He works slow, and keeps close to the ground. I'll eschew all the usual comparisons, because as applicable as they might once have been, it is clear by now that there is no parallel to McCarthy, and that his peculiar brand of American horror is matched only by his own work. McCarthy writes with the heat-haze vision of a man swept away by blood lust. The words rise from the page with the faint scent of copper.

Of course, 'Blood Meridian' is not just words, not just language, but characters, humans who come to life in our minds, sometimes to our regret. Judge Holden is one such man. He is a monster wrought from humanity's purest essence. The problem with prose like McCarthy's is that his images and his characters are all the more unforgettable. This is not a good thing when it comes to Judge Holden. The words that McCarthy shapes around him have something of religious bent, even if McCarthy is not talking about religion. That raw power will leave you wondering what set of eyes in the crowds around us belongs to a soul such as Holden's. The key to McCarthy's success is that Holden becomes a unique character but his traits, those things that make him less than human, surface in the world around us. He is a character who cuts through our lives. 'Blood Meridian' is a book that cuts through our lives. And yes, you will bleed. Words will make you bleed.

11-02-10: Charles Burns Gets 'X'ed Out'

Welcome to Your Nightmare

Dream imagery sounds so easy, and it is often attempted. The general idea seems to be to throw in some calliope music, a few random images from elsewhere in the text or story and a dwarf, then presto-change-o! You've got a dream.

Well, everybody has dreams. Few of us remember them, fewer still with any kind of accuracy. But just writing down what you remember from a dream does not convey in a reading experience the sensibility of dreams. Nor does including random images from elsewhere in a story. Dreams are not random. They're very precise, but they are also surreal. They're a lot like the work of graphic novelist Charles Burns, and 'X'ed Out' is Burns' best bad dream yet. It's as if he took a razor blade to an intense, emotional story arc, cut it into pieces just to watch it bleed to death, then grafted his nightmares about doing so between the oozing body parts. And this time, he dreams in color.

'X'ed Out' begins with the endpapers, that show us a series of iconic images; a cat, a camera, a pig fetus in a jar, a hole in a brick wall, a man wearing a mask, a startled, topless woman who appears to have her hands bond behind her back; more. Dark red on black.

From there, things get stranger.

Doug is asleep in his bed, and wakes up to find his cat, Inky, beckoning him to step through a hole in a brick wall that leads to a desolate wasteland. But Doug is narrating the scene and Inky is dead. We're not in a world we know. We are elsewhere.

'X'ed Out' leads readers between two very different worlds. The world on the other side of the wall — which you see on the cover of the book — is a surreal nightmare, perfectly rendered. It makes sense, but it is manifestly not our world. Our world, such as it is, is the 1980's punk-art scene. There, Doug attends a party that unfurls like the perfect party nightmare. He gives a spoken word performance, and the night goes awry. Burns immerses us in discomfort, in interpersonal unpleasantry.

Those familiar with 'Black Hole' will find his new color work equally evocative and richly satisfying, and those who have never seen his work before will find it disturbing and beautiful. Burns has a visual sensibility that operates below our symbolic radar. His work is simple and direct. He combines disparate elements with grace, but the combinations are upsetting and evocative in a manner that is uniquely difficult to comprehend. We know we're being played with. We're off kilter, the floor is tipping and we are slipping into some place where we will not be able to control our own lives.

'X'ed Out' is beautifully produced and printed. The first installment is not very long, but we're told there will only be three. The story we see set up has the feel of a novella, but it is far stranger than 'Black Hole.' Burns creates indelible images that will haunt you, and tells a story that is fantastically unique. The dreams of Charles Burns, rendered in this graphic novel, seem infectious. Burns' talent is such that it is difficult to tell if the illness is transformative — or fatal.

11-01-10: Graham Hancock is 'Entangled'

Informed Speculation at the Edge of a Cliff

Ria is a teenager living in Northern Spain some 24,000 years ago. Her problems include hunting for food and brutish thugs from a competing family in her own tribe who threaten to rape her when she rescues a hapless crippled Neanderthal from their clutches. Leoni is a modern teenager who lives in LA. Her problems are brutish parents, including a father who has raped her in the past, and drug addiction, which threatens to kill her in the present. A near-death vision takes her into a world that is neither past nor present, but shockingly real. Ria finds herself there soon enough, and both soon realize that their lives are ... entangled.

Graham Hancock is famous — and in some circles, infamous — for his non-fiction, which posits all sorts of history not included in the textbooks. His first novel is 'Entangled' (The Disinformation Company ; October 19, 2010 ; $16.95), and it's likely to evoke the same sort of dual reaction.

Hancock's story of mingled times and supernatural threats that span the ages is certainly a compelling novel on a variety of levels. It's a fast-paced story with lots of action and adventure, and more cliffs than the Grand Canyon. The plot flips back and forth between Ria and Leoni, as they realize that they are being brought together by one supernatural entity to fight another that threatens humanity. As noted above, the book does include some unpleasantly graphic scenes of rape, incest and violence that could easily alienate readers. Be warned; and as well that each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, which means you either stay up all night or get really annoyed. I expected the latter but experienced the former. Sure, it's a cheesy device, but it's also effective.

Hancock's heroines are young women who discover a steel-like inner strength, but find they need all they have and more to deal with the perils that face them. I rather liked that Leoni was something of an unlikeable, spoiled brat whom you might hope to see get arrested in shopping mall for bad behaviour. Ria is more obviously heroic, but certainly not perfect either. To Hancock's credit there's a fair amount of gray here, and some men in lesser roles who are neither purely evil nor perfectly good. On the other hand, you will find some examples of knights in shining armor, but since they are in full-charge on white steeds (or bearing life-saving medicine, as it were), they tend to get caught up in the action, along with the reader.

What makes Hancock's work quite different from that of dozens of action-packed fantasy and horror authors is the informed nature of his speculation. When Hancock describes an out-of-body experience, it rings true. He's had one. And when he explores a wildly imaginative and new-age-ish vision of Neanderthal society — in which our insurance-advertising friends are telepathic healers — the world-building is unexpectedly strong. Hancock's surreal interzone is entertainingly filled with peculiar critters that have just the right feel for a supernatural netherworld. Hancock is well-steeped in all the arcane notions he brings to his fiction. For all the wild thrills and cliff-hanger chapter-endings, 'Entangled' has a certain air of authority.

The ARC I had in my hand claims that the novel is the first part of a trilogy, but the author told me in person that this is the first of two books. Though the novel comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion, there's clearly a lot of problems left unsolved.

'Entangled' is both refreshingly free of the usual stuff of supernatural horror or fantasy adventure fiction. Hancock does follow a well-trod thriller formula with regards to his plotting and pacing; there's nothing literarily revolutionary about 'Entangled.' But he clearly wants — and knows how to — let his readers have a good time. 'Entangled' has something in common with the drugs that transport its characters to other realms; if you can take it and survive, you're quite likely to have an out-of-body (reading) experience.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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