For a weekly writing exercise cranked out through a blog, Hotel Flamingo is a terrific work. Comprising twenty-two short-short vignettes about a host of loners, losers, monsters and quite a few janitorial workers whose strange paths intersect at the eponymous hotel, this is a creepy and imaginative piece of weird urban fantasy.
Tracing a hurried, almost desperate path from one haunted, ruined or just plain odd character to the next, these interconnected anecdotes recall the oppressive weirdness of Johnathon Tweet’s Over The Edge roleplaying game or Grant Morrison’s groundbreaking surrealist run on the Doom Patrol comic. The Hotel Flamingo would not be remotely out of place in either work, which I hope comes across as the high praise intended.
Author Patrick O’Duffy has a breezy, assured narrative voice that’s as effective describing a character’s crushing loneliness, his deranged inspirations and her existential befuddlement as it is at suggesting the horrific alien architecture lurking just behind the curtains (most of the time) in the story. That he has also constructed an intricate and complex tale from just a few slivers of detail is remarkable. If I have one complaint, it’s that this collection is too easy to consume in a single serving, and I have an appetite for more. I don’t imagine that O’Duffy intends to revisit this setting, but I would happily accept another fat slice of Flamingo.
Review – “The Silence of Medair” by Andrea K. Höst
Medair an Rynstar has to be counted among the least fortunate heroes in all fantasy fiction. After a small error of judgment on the eve of an epic triumph over an overwhelming enemy, she is robbed of the chance to save her beloved Empire. Thrust into a homeland transformed by the hated invaders, she wants nothing more than to hide away in exile and nurse her grief. But after she escapes an unexplained kidnapping attempt, she finds herself in the service of her most reviled enemy. Now she is forced to choose between her oath of loyalty to a dead emperor and the realities of her new world.
Medair is an unusual fantasy heroine. She is a strong woman of conviction without a place in the world, a diplomat left with nobody to speak for and an unremarkable mage in possession of the magical equivalent of a tactical nuke, a weapon too powerful to be of any use. Her decisions – to keep secrets and serve nobody – draw her back to the centre of world affairs, the last place she wants to be.
Andrea Höst’s evocative prose paints rich landscapes, whether she is dealing with her sumptuous world of world-breaking magic, the tenuous social fabric of a conquered empire or the inner torment of Medair herself. And it is with her compelling and complex protagonist that Höst’s work excels: Medair is a complex and compelling protagonist. She is guarded and resourceful, clever and insightful, secretive and tenacious. She is loyal to her values yet unable to completely surrender to justified hatred for her enemies and wearied by a cruel misfortune which carries with it more than a hint of predestination.
"The Silence of Medair" is on the one hand stirring and emotional high fantasy, with the requisite invasions by sorceror-armies, magical shenanigans, political intrigues and scenes of apocalyptic destruction. But it is also a tense emotional drama, a subtle and elegant romance, a haunting meditation on survivor guilt and a frank exploration of the political and emotional underpinnings of racism. It’s a lot to live up to, but Höst handles it with aplomb. I can’t recommend it enough.
What’s more, it ends on a cracking cliffhanger. I’m glad the sequel’s out already.
Godheads is a collection of six short stories by Australian author Patrick O’Duffy. It’s a mixed bunch of mostly dark urban fantasy ladled with varying quantities of surrealism. A couple of them - ‘Metatext Otis’ and ‘The Salbine Incident’ - are essentially literary jokes (referencing Kafka and Conan Doyle respectively), which if a touch indulgent are also funny, so all is forgiven. ‘On the Redeye Express’ is like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ set to loud techno, if Rod Serling were an angry junkie in a bad relationship. ‘Meanwhile at the End of Days’ is a melancholy and beautiful Rapture tale about the intrusion of the extraordinary into a very ordinary day. In the grim and fast-paced ‘Objects in Hindsight May be Deader than They Appear’ an occultist society haze their newest member by making him deal with something weirder than a ghost.
All five are striking stories. Great ideas, well told. ‘Meanwhile’ actually makes me a little sad. Which makes the title piece ‘Godheads’ a bit of a disappointment. The tale of clubbers getting high on the rendered essence of dead gods, the narrator of ‘Godheads’ is a little too repulsive for sympathy. This is the longest story in the collection and suffers by comparison to the sparkling brevity of some of the others. By the end it has worn out its welcome - but even so, the ideas are brilliant and the storytelling is commanding. O’Duffy has a great sense of rhythm and his prose flows smoothly off the page. This is an author I’m keen to see more from.
‘Stray’ is the first volume of the three-part diary of high school student Cassandra Devlin, who stepped through a wormhole to an alien world and became friends with psychic ninjas saving the universe from interdimensional ghosts. That’s the gist of it anyway, though a short synopsis does no service whatsoever to this charming science fiction adventure. YA reader-friendly, ‘Stray’ is partly an exploration of the tribulations of the refugee and partly a good old-fashioned superhero story, albeit told from the point of view of the underpowered kid sidekick.
Cazsandra, as the aliens call her, proves herself more useful than expected to the youthful Setari (the psychic science-ninjas with cybernetic telepathy). Cass is a clever and resourceful protagonist, but she’s also lazy, often homesick and occasionally lacking in common sense (The cat! The cat!). Her struggles - to adapt to her new surroundings, to learn the local language and customs and to cope with being cooped up and monitored for science - are fascinating. Her realisation of what it will cost her to get back home is tragic.
‘Stray’ is written as a series of diary entries covering the first five months of Cassandra’s journey. The diary format may not work for some but I found it helped to have the complexity of the setting and the small army of supporting characters parcelled out into digestible chunks. As a narrative device it also provides some distance for both Cass and the reader from the more traumatic aspects of her plight, making it a lighter and more accessible read than the homesickness misery trap other stranger-in-a-strange-land stories sometimes fall into. Highly recommended.
Patrick O'Duffy's smart little crime novella 'The Obituarist' started from a cool character idea: someone who makes a living from methodically closing down the online presence of the recently deceased on behalf of their technologically-challenged bereaved, setting up memorials on their social media sites, removing their personal information and subscriptions and shutting down opportunities for the theft of their identities. O'Duffy could have gone almost anywhere with so solid a concept. He plumped for a tight yarn of a week or so in the life of Kendall Barber, the obituarist in question, whose attempts to unravel the fate of his client's dead brother run afoul of violent bikers, slovenly cops and ambitious gangsters.
This is a wise-cracking, confident story that twists like a cracking whip and runs hot on a fuel of lies, secrets and hammer beatings. It's not too long that the pace starts to stretch believability, and at 20K words it's all too easy to inhale in a sitting. In a way that's good though, because I got to the end and immediately wanted to start it again. It's a different meal the second time through, but it tastes just as good.
Stained Glass Monsters is a pearler, a romantic fantasy with a welcome sense of restraint, for all that the fate of the world is at stake. Initially the story is told from the perspective of resourceful orphan Kendall, who is rescued from an unexpected magical disaster by a mysterious stranger who knew it was going to happen. Kendall, now homeless, is more or less dragged into the wake of the secretive mage, Rennyn, as the authorities appear on the scene and the scope of the threat becomes clear.
From there Stained Glass Monsters becomes a two-hander, switching between Kendall, who is sent off to learn the principles of her latent magical abilities, and Rennyn Claire who, along with her younger brother, is a member of clandestine magical conspiracy dedicated to saving the world. Kendall knows almost nothing about politics or magic, so the reader shares her crash course in world affairs. Rennyn, meanwhile, rushes about from one disaster to the next, walking a fine line between guarding terrible secrets and sharing enough information not to get everyone else killed. Both characters develop relationships with members of the Kellian race, glowing golems-turned-human with supernatural prowess and a mysterious past. If that makes them sound like Twilight vampires, I apologise; the Kellian are cool and awesome, but they also unexpectedly provide the emotional core of the story. A wrenching one it is, too.
The dual perspective is an excellent device for showing the audience the world, though in the latter stages of the book Kendall gets squeezed out a little. I thought that was a shame, though there is no doubt that Rennyn – the cool magical secret agent weighed down by self-doubt and staggering levels of responsibility – is the more interesting character of the two. Not that Kendall doesn’t get her cool moments to shine, but it’s not on her to save the world from astral-dimensional evil.
Stained Glass Monsters is a romantic fantasy, and both heroines develop strong, believable relationships. I thought perhaps too little of the early growth of Rennyn’s romance happened on-screen. It came a little out of nowhere for me (though I concede that as a reader I tend to focus on plot before character, so it’s quite possible there were cues I just missed). Whatever the buildup, Host absolutely nailed the romance itself, which is not only tender and affecting but is also crucial to everything that follows. The stakes in the dramatic climax work on every level.
This story has it all: swashbuckling adventure, magical explosions, monster fighting, kind-of-ancient evils from beyond space, noble sparkling supernatural creatures (who don’t make you want to vomit) and a heroine who would very much like to settle down with a good book and a piece of cake, but only once the world is saved, thank you very much. Highly recommended.
Alan Baxter is a writer and a kung fu instructor, and if that sounds like a handy combination, it is. Write the Fight Right (WtFR) draws on his experiences in the dojo and the odd real-life street confrontation to help writers bring a touch of reality to their fight scenes.
Baxter helpfully breaks the book into several sections, broadly starting with how fights actually unfold in real life, and in particular showing which factors are the most important in determining the outcome (footwork, reach, training, size and – crucially – the ability to not be where the other guy is throwing a punch). The second set of chapters describe the physiological elements of a chaotic punchup – adrenaline rushes, the effects of pain, getting knocked out – and the mental side of things - how fear and anger matter, what a fighter might see and hear, the psychological benefits of training and so on. The final part deals briefly with weapons, with the take-home message that pulling a knife or a club or a sword out is an orders-of-magnitude escalation of a violent situation, to be avoided at all costs by anyone with a shred of sanity. The book is rounded out with a helpful checklist, summarising the things a writer could consider in putting together a fight scene.
Throughout the book Baxter keeps his eyes firmly on bringing these elements out in tight, well-focused writing. There’s a lot to consider but his advice is not to overegg an action scene: “Don’t try to use everything , but pick and choose things that suit the kind of fight you’re writing or the kind of environment you’re setting the fight in. Also think hard about your characters and what kind of experience they have and what sort of personality they have, which will affect their reactions and perceptions of fighting.”
Baxter has a good nose for the sorts of clichés used by writers with little to no experience of physical altercations (me included) and exhorts the reader to get rid of them. It’s all good, sound advice written in a practical and no-nonsense style. Baxter comes across as a natural teacher; his explanations are clear and his conversational language gives the whole piece the air of a convivial bar conversation. WtFR isn’t a long book – more like a longish essay – but it is a readable and useful reference work for writers whose genre fiction includes a good splash of biffo.
Hunting is a standalone young adult fantasy novel by Andrea K. Höst. Ash Lenthard is the street-smart young heroine who has disguised herself as a (slightly younger) boy and apprenticed herself to a herbalist in order to escape from an unfortunate previous life. When her guardian is murdered, she finds her desire to return to life on the streets thwarted when she is warded to the Investigator appointed by the king to look into the serial killing of herbalists. With no choice but to maintain her identity as a young boy, Ash finds herself cornered into becoming a seruilis (squire) to the foreign noble and a key part of his murder investigation.
A summary of the first couple of chapters makes Hunting sound like a bit of a fantasy version of a grim investigative procedural, and to an extent it is. The more that Ash and the nobleman, Thornaster, poke around, the more vicious and bleak the conspiracy they uncover becomes. Beneath the witty banter, romantic interplay and the flirtation with cross-dressing farce, the world of Hunting has a more nihilistic streak than most of Host's work. But she does an excellent job of keeping the action moving so that the story never threatens to wallow in its own darkness.
The author has mentioned that Hunting was written at least partly in response to her frustration with the heroines of Georgette Heyer's Regency novels, who despite their deep reserves of pluck and spirit often fall just short of being proactive. Some guy always comes along to make all their decisions for them. Ash is every bit as strong-willed as any Heyer heroine, but she's only likely to go along with a would-be white knight if it happens to suit her purposes. She's a fun character, even if she herself is not often having much fun.
I have to confess that I didn't fully understand the magical elements of the story, which are integral to the plot's resolution, but it certainly didn't keep me from enjoying them. Apart from that, it's an adventurous romp with plenty of derring-do, peril and romance, flavoured with the odd splashes of darkness to settle the froth.
I like flash fiction, even though it's not always done well. By my lights, good flash fiction gets in with one shining idea, fleshes it out with humour or at least sparkling prose, and gets out before anyone notices how thin the concept is. One thousand words or less, all boom.
I like weird fiction. The more off the wall, creepy and surreal the ideas presented, the better as far as I'm concerned. It's one of the few areas in fiction where I'll give ground on decent characters and something resembling a plot, if the weirdness is weird enough, or fun enough, or simply something I haven't seen or thought of before.
Nine Flash Nine, Patrick O'Duffy's collection of nine flash fiction pieces are mostly a bit weird, even if not all of it could be defined as weird fiction. Or at least very weird mutations of the rather traditional story types they are emulating.
There's the touring band rocked by murder but more rocked by internal dimness.
There's a 'Dear Penthouse Forum' letter which is epically explicit and hilarious, but decidely unusual.
There's an invasion by impossibly giant monsters who don't give a rat's arse that physics forbids their existence.
There's one about a ghost moustache.
There's five other stories. One simple idea per story, executed well. O'Duffy's a writer who has fun with his language. These stories gleam with his trademark wit and insight and the occasional moment of well-directed snark. Like all good flash fiction, they're gone way too soon.
Patrick O’Duffy’s followup to his wildly entertaining 2012 crime novella The Obituarist opens with the attention-grabbing line “ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR”, then immediately subverts that declaration of delirious intent with a snarky deconstruction of its own cynicism and deceptiveness.
The book holds the same mirror up to its protagonist. Kendall Barber returns as Port Virtue’s resident social media undertaker, a systems analyst specialising in discretely closing down the online presence of the recently deceased on behalf of grieving relatives who may not want to know what their loved ones got up to online.
As before, Barber is a study in contradictions – a cynical, shifty smartarse with the cracking skills of a Russian spammer playing the part of a sensitive online undertaker. He's a beaten-down has-been with a shaky assumed identity and a driving sense of justice undermined by a fluid ethical framework. Considering the rough treatment he collected in the previous story – beaten up, run over with a car, etc – he also has a surprisingly undeveloped sense of self-preservation when it comes to keeping his mouth shut.
Basically, he’s a perfect modern noir anti-hero. This time around he’s caught between an investigation of his racist demagogue client’s affairs, fending off a hot but nosy investigative journalist, getting the snot beaten out of him by the usual collection of brutal low-rent criminals and playing a game of cat and mouse with Port Virtue’s corrupt, violent police department. Oh, and being mauled by unexpected wildlife.
The setting of Port Virtue gets a little more flesh on its bones with this installment – Barber’s client is the local eccentric scrap merchant king, with a notorious private zoo and an off-the-book business as a right-wing crank-for-profit. The discovery of a collection of body parts looms over the story like a winter cloud. And Kendall Barber clearly has a love-hate relationship with the town where nobody knows he’s a native.
Dead Men’s Data is coarse, violent and awash with the weary bitterness of optimism dashed one too many times. And that’s a terrible description, because this book is also hilarious and brimming with righteous (and yeah, sometime self-righteous) anger. Kendall Barber is more devil than saint, and he knows it, but he’s determined to do as much good as possible before Port Virtue grinds him up for good. He just doesn’t plan to walk a righteous path to do it, not when tricks and lies will do the job just as well. (Spoiler: they don’t).
It’s short, it’s wild and contains even more creative swearing, grotesque thuggery and cautions against lazy password administration than the previous book. If nothing else, after reading this you will almost certainly want to tighten up your online security habits.