Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Faerie is a dark mirror. Every vision of faerie, from every writer, is a twist or inversion or direct translation of something that writer wants to explore. Time, aristocracy, cruelty, connection, bargains, mortality, morality.

Michael Swanwick's faerie hews much closer to the "real world" than most writers' visions. Over twenty-five years and three novels, he's returned to an industrialized, aristocratic, deeply corrupt version of our world, ruled by fear and velvet-gloved iron fists and the straitjacket of social structures and expectations. His faerielands are not mapped, but their geography seems to be very close to our own. The people who live there are diverse, made up of the mythic creatures of a hundred lands -- but most of them are wage-slaves, trapped in the bottom rungs of a punishing and constricting society. And there's a core militarism that will be familiar to all Americans -- and many others -- embodied in the central image of the titles of all three novels.

Dragons. Dragons as once-living weapons. Fighter planes as dragons as fighter planes. Transformed into machines that are still dragons, unable to move or act on their own. Inherently cruel and destructive. Accepting the most horrible bondage imaginable for their kind just to have the opportunity to rage and burn and kill, even if that opportunity is tightly bounded and utterly controlled by their half-fae pilots.

Swanwick introduced that dark faerie in 1993's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, about a changeling trapped in that world and caught up in a long plot by one of those nihilistic dragons to destroy it all. He returned a decade and a half later in a series of linked novellas, collected as The Dragons of Babel, about another young person caught up in the schemes of a dragon. And the third book was The Iron Dragon's Mother, from 2019.

It opens in our world. A woman named Helen V. is dying, slowly, in some facility. She was powerful -- some kind of Hollywood producer -- and is still acerbic and cutting and clear-headed, but is now powerless and weak and entirely at the mercy of her distracted, young nurses who understand nothing about her and can't engage with her intellectually. She knows she is dying. She has a plan, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to leap forth at the moment of her death, break off the wheel of rebirth, and find...something else.

Maybe that works. Maybe something else happens. But she ends up in the back of the mind of Caitlin of House Sans Merci, one of the first squadron of female dragon pilots, as Caitlin and the rest return from a flight over the human world, harvesting children's souls for industrial changelings. Caitlin is half-human, as all dragon pilots must be: they have to touch cold iron to fly, and no full-blood fae can do that.

Caitlin's life has gone reasonably well: her mother (well, the wife of her father -- there was clearly a human female somewhere in the mix, but that is deeply obscure for much of the book) is cruel and distant and her father merely distant, which is about as good as it gets for aristocratic fae families. Her older brother Fingolfinrhod is reasonably friendly, and will inherit before long. She has succeeded at the first step in what should be an illustrious and respected career. She is part of a team and accepted.

It all goes to hell soon after she's called home to see her dying father. Her father does die. Something more puzzling happens to her brother. And, soon after her return to the air base, she's arrested on trumped-up but airtight charges. It's clear she's on the fast track to immediate execution, and no protests of innocence -- she is, of course, entirely innocent -- can possibly help.

So she blows it all up and goes on the run. Looking to get away, to find her brother, to prove the case against her is false, to get back what she lost.

For a long time she doesn't realize she can never get it back, even as everyone she meets tells her that, bluntly. She travels across this dark faerie mirror, through something like a crueler, nastier EU, one step ahead of pursuers and usually several steps behind what she eventually learns is a Conspiracy. (With a capital C and a home office and a large clerical staff.)

Helen is in her head the whole time. Usually quiet -- the reader can almost forget Helen is there for chapters at a time. But Caitlin will only make it through with Helen's help, and the end of the story is as much Helen's as it is Caitlin's.

Swanwick's prose is as brilliant and precise as always: he's one of our finest writers, and this series brings out the best in his work. The episodic structure also suits his strengths, as a master of short fiction. Each moment in Caitlin's journey propels her a little farther and makes her understand a little more about the true shape of her world and how she can live in it.

This is fantasy at the top of its register: not a secondary world disconnected from our own, but that direct, immediate mirror. Swanwick has always moved backwards and forwards from SF to Fantasy, bringing the same concerns to both and mixing their tropes to tell his current story. Iron Dragon's Mother is another triumph in that tradition: a novel about death and mortality and inevitability and wisdom and corruption and, in the end, about letting go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Threesome by Lawrence Block as Jill Emerson

Lots of writers have written under pseudonyms, particularly when working in new genres (Robert Galbraith) or trying something new in the same one (Richard Bachman, Richard Stark). And pretty much everyone wrote smutty books under pseudonyms, for the twenty or so years that "smutty books" were a genre in North America -- who would want their own names on that crap?

But, then, who would think people would be still reading "that crap" forty years later, and trying to find all of the books by a particular author or pseudonym?

So the writers that did write smutty books, if they were still around a few decades later, still writing whatever else they turned to writing, and not completely turned to hatred of their old smut, tended to bring it all back, under their own names, because at least some of their fans were interested in those books. (Whether the interest was due to the author, due to it being smut, due to the age, due to the particular kind of smut, or some combination thereof was much more individual.)

Most of them were not precious about that republication. This is stuff they wrote quickly, generally when quite young, for a very specific market. But some pseudonyms feel more "real" to their authors than others. And so when Lawrence Block came to bring back his old smutty books -- and he had a lot of them, close to fifty under names like Sheldon Lord, Jill Emerson, and Andrew Shaw -- most of them were just republished as by Block.

But the books originally credited to Jill Emerson kept that byline, with Block added in. Even odder, a new book "by" Jill Emerson, Getting Off, appeared in 2011, in the middle of that burst of republication. And Block has said that Emerson was something of an alter ego -- a female persona that he saw in some ways distinct from his other, male, writing voices. So it's a little odd, but it does make sense -- writers create new people in their heads for a living, after all, and once in a while those people will write their own books.

I haven't read most of Block's old smutty books -- I vaguely intend to, but I vaguely intend to read a lot of things, and I don't own any of the Lord or Shaw books, which makes them pretty low on the pile. I did track down and read Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, the kiss-off to the smut-book business published under Block's name in the early '70s. And I did read Getting Off. I'm more interested in the Emerson books, maybe because they seem to still be a part of a current "career" and maybe because Block sees them as something distinct. Anyway, Threesome looked like the most "writerly" of the old Emerson books -- it's the story of what we now call a "stable triad," written round-robin by all three parties in their own voices -- so that was my next Emerson book.

The three are cartoonist Harry Kapp, his wife Priscilla (Pris) Kapp, and Pris's old college roommate Rhoda Muir. It's the late '60s, Harry is in his mid-thirties while the two women are a year or two shy of the big three-oh. Harry and Pris live in a house out in the woods in western Massachusetts -- close enough for Harry to get to NYC once a week to sell cartoons, far enough away to be quiet and, presumably, cheap. Pris and Rhoda were lovers in college, and Harry knows this, from the usual who-else-have-you-fucked-in-your-life pillow talk with his wife.

The curtain comes up with Rhoda typing -- the whole book is very much typed by the characters, and they comment on each other's revelations and opinions in what they say is their main current method of feedback -- as she explains how they came to start on the project of the book. (They saw that Naked Came the Stranger was a huge bestseller, and thought they could do at least as well with just three of them and a "true" story.)

The story itself is unsurprising and fairly generic: Rhoda was fleeing a bad Las Vegas divorce, came to stray with Pris for rest, and ended up sleeping with both Harry and Pris within a couple of days. There are some complications, and some other sex, both before and after the threesome got established -- got to keep things spicy! -- but that's basically it. They all got together, they started fucking, they're basically happy as the book ends.

It's not a whole lot of plot, even for a short novel, but it was enough for a paperback where the sex was the main draw, and shocking sex (which threesomes were, I guess) was even better. I am eliding some actual plot points here, of course -- "some complications" in the last paragraph basically yadda-yaddas the entire story, and much of the story takes place during the writing of the chapters, which is a nice device -- but it was always thin, and it's part of a genre of thin stories.

Block doesn't entirely give them completely different voices, though they are somewhat distinct in their tics and concerns. Again, he probably wrote this in a month to hit a publishing slot. No one ever expected fine literature from smut books. The sex is very much in a '60s context, and I thought it was clear the whole thing was written by a man, despite the "Jill Emerson" name on it originally. (For one example, the two women have a moment where they declare, semi-randomly, that of course their having sex together is sexy for Harry to contemplate or watch, but two men having sex together could never, ever be sexy for women. That's a man talking in the 1960s to an audience of other 1960s men.)

Threesome is modern enough that you could draw a through-line from it to newer books, but dated enough that it clearly takes place in a different world. I find books like that can be really interesting, as if they're circling some historical event horizon: still accessible but getting further and further away. It's not a major book in any way, but it's fun and professionally written and sexy in the ways it wants to be, so I'd say it's still a success, fifty years later.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/23/21

This week, all of the books came in the mail, and they were all things I bought. I got some money out of the couch cushions from That Hegemonic Internet Retailer (back in the fat days of this blog, I'd get a few affiliate bucks every month, but now it only hits their threshold every two years, if that), and spent that on these things:

Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker -- I think we all know by now that Parker is the same writer as Tom Holt, but it was secret for a long time. (I liked the rumors that Parker was female, one strand of which actually attached to Holt's wife, but they did not turn out to be true.) The Holt books have been mostly humorous fantasy -- I think his first two, way back, were myth-flavored fantasy of a different sort -- but the Parker books are darker fantasy. I really liked the Scavenger trilogy, which I bought for the SFBC early in Parker's career, but haven't read much of his work since. (I do have two Parker novels on the shelf, along with so much else.) This one is a novella and it looks to be strongly driven by voice, so I think I can get to it much faster. No promises, though.

Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails is a random nonfiction collection written and published by Lawrence Block, best-known for writing mysteries and thrillers. As his intro explains it, he assembled one book of all of his writings about crime fiction, and another book of all of his writings about philately (we all have our hobbies) and then this book was every else he had left over. That sounds sufficiently random for me -- a whole bunch of short pieces by a writer I like on things that are neither stamps nor writing.

Giant Days, Vol. 12 by John Allison, Max Sarin and Whitney Cogar -- My library system has all of the Giant Days books...except this one. They have 1-6, which I didn't need. They have 7-10, which I've already requested, received, and read. They have 11 and 13 and 14, which I'll be asking for soon. But they did not have this one, because libraries -- like so many things in the USA, to its detriment -- are organized and run entirely at the lowest possible governmental level, with the barest minimum of oversight and planning, so that no one actually ever keeps track of things like that across what should be a unified, useful system.

(On the other hand, that messy uncontrolled system is getting me seven books of Giant Days that I don't have to buy myself. It's not bad, it's just another example of ways Americans refuse to work together whenever given an option, because something something socialism.)

Trese, Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo -- I read and reviewed this, a decade ago, and loved it then. It's now actually generally available on my side of the Pacific, so I'm going to read it again -- and, I hope, buy and read the rest of the series as they're all republished by US-based Ablaze. It's the first in an urban fantasy series of graphic novels, about Alexandra Trese, a paranormal investigator in Manila. The art is dark and lush and enveloping, and the world is equally so: this is an urban fantasy set in a specific place, using Filipino myth and folklore to tell its stories in a rich and resonant way. (So much urban fantasy is a thin soup of fifth-hand random European tropes -- all the same werewolves and vampires and maybe a banshee for spice.)

Also, this is being turned into a TV series for Netflix, so read it now and you can be one of the annoying hipsters once everyone else loves it.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Quote of the Week: Relationships

Arada and Overse were back to getting along after spending time together in an unused bunkroom while we were traveling to the dock. I hadn't bothered to monitor them on ART's cameras or try to slip a drone in; the chances that they were having sex and/or a relationship discussion (either of which I would prefer to stab myself in the face than see) were far higher than the chance that they were saying anything I needed to know about.
(I mean, they might have been plotting against me, but, you know, probably not.)
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, p.230

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Frogcatchers by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire is at least two different comics creators -- metaphorically if not in reality. (Maybe in reality, too, since otherwise I wonder how he finds time to sleep.)

There's the Big Two Lemire, who writes punch-em-up comics for other people to draw. He's pretty well regarded for that, but I wandered off from the Big Two around the beginning of this century, so I have no personal experience with that side of his work.

The original Jeff Lemire, though, who started his career with the Xeric-winning Lost Dogs and broke out soon afterward with the three books that make up Essex County, was and is a indy-graphic-novel guy, who makes book-length stories all by himself and shoves them out into the world.

That Jeff Lemire also works in comics issues, sometimes -- yesterday I wrote about the third volume of  Royal City, which is indy-Lemire but originally a fourteen issue series from Image -- but what he mostly does is make stories about Canadian blue-collar men (sometimes women) with various problems, usually at a moment when they're being beaten by life more than usual.

(And the Schroedinger Lemire is the one in the middle: who writes books that usually come out as issues, who works with other artists, but doesn't do superhero stuff. Think Descender and Plutona; books like that. Again, it makes me wonder when the man sleeps.)

Frogcatchers is very much in indy-Lemire mode, following on previous solo books like The Nobody, The Underwater Welder, Trillium, and Roughneck. Lemire draws it very loosely, like his earliest work, giving this atmospheric, surrealistic story a jolt of immediacy and energy. It feels like he drew it almost as quickly as you can read it: that's obviously not true (there's a lot of hidden work in a comics page), but it gives a story with few characters and big transcendent themes a a strong sense of velocity and vector.

It opens with a boy catching frogs under an overpass, somewhere. Then a man wakes up in a hotel bed -- maybe the same man, dreaming of his youth? But he soon finds the hotel is locked and empty, except for that boy -- who still looks a lot like him -- and the boy tells him the story of this world: they're trying to escape the hotel, to get away from The Frog King, who lives in a locked room across from where the man woke up. A room the man has a key to, in fact -- the only key to any of the rooms in this hotel. Monstrous frog-like Agents of the King chase them -- the boy is right, at least in some way.

But the man may be right about other things. And escape might not be what it seems.

Frogcatchers is deeply metaphorical, obviously. I'm not going to spoil the metaphor here: it's a good one, though the focus on frogs is quirky and specific. (I suspect Lemire himself caught frogs as a kid; I never did or even thought of it as a thing people did in the modern world.) I think this is a book most resonant for those of us in middle age or later: you need to have done things to look back on (with regret, or nostalgia, or whatever) to get the most out of it. Maybe not catching frogs, but something. We all have something.

If it resonates for you, if there something in your past or present that connects to Lemire's metaphor -- and there probably will be -- this is a fine, resonant, deep book about the meanings of a life and the decisions we all make and regret.

The thing about frogs is that they're slippery: hard to catch, hard to keep. And what do you do after you catch them: what happens next?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Royal City, Vol. 3: We All Float On by Jeff Lemire

Somehow I'm over two years late on this Jeff Lemire comic, despite reading the first two (see my posts on volumes one and two) right when they came out and liking the series a lot. What can I say? There are too many good books in the world, and keeping up with them all can sometimes be challenging. But I made it to the end eventually.

Royal City is a family story, and Vol. 3: We All Float On is where it all comes together. The first volume brought brother Patrick back to town, to join his siblings Richie and Tara and parents Patti and Peter -- and, most importantly, brother Tommy, who died in 1993 but has been haunting the entire family, in very different ways, ever since. The second volume went back to '93 to show the week of Tommy's death, and now the conclusion brings in a new, unexpected family member and brings everything to the final crisis.

(No, not the usual comics kind of Final Crisis. The real people living in a real world -- well, mostly real, since they're all seeing Dead Tommy all the time -- kind of crisis, where all of the problems peak at once.)

This is an ending, so I don't want to talk much about the plot -- but I will say that it does all end, and it does end well. Lemire is, as always, good at stories about people, especially damaged people, and the Pike family are all damaged in different ways. It does all center on Tommy, as it must, even though he has been dead for over twenty years.

I see that Royal City is now available as a single spiffy hardcover, and that's probably the best way to read this going forward -- it is a single story that happened to be published as individual comics issues and then three trade paperbacks for market reasons, but it would work best as a single book, since it tells a single story.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

I think I owned this book before the flood, and didn't read it. (My personal flood, in 2011, I mean, not the Biblical one. I'm pretty sure I didn't own any books before the Biblical flood.) The US cover is familiar, once I googled it to start preparing to write this post -- what I read, somewhat appropriately for a book about books, was the UK first edition.

As far as I can tell, I never read that first copy of A Pound of Paper: the words here, and the story of John Baxter's life told in those words, were new to me. So it's another one of those odd fragments of a reading life: the book that's partly familiar and partly unfamiliar, and you can't quite remember why. Sometimes those are books you almost read -- poked through in a store, glanced at during a boring party. Some are just books you heard about a lot -- read a few reviews and got enough knowledge that ten years later it feels like you forgot the rest. And some are like this: books you never did read, but had around for a while and probably picked up several times.

A Pound of Paper is somewhere between a general memoir of Baxter's life and an examination of the world of bookselling and his life in that world in the '60s through the '90s. It was published in 2002, and was Baxter's first foray into memoir, though it was followed not long after by the more specific We'll Always Have Paris, largely about how he married a Frenchwoman in midlife and moved to Paris. (That story, in miniature, is told here, with the focus mostly on how French bookdealers, like all French shopkeepers, are more like friendly neighbors than commerce-driven capitalists, and that causes friction with folks used to the norms of the Anglosphere.)

This book meanders quite a bit -- it's organized more or less chronologically, but Baxter backtracks a lot and drops what seem to be major threads (like the whole I-bought-and-sold-books thing) for entire chapters at a time. For example, he opens with three chapters talking about bookselling, booksellers, and the world of first editions -- the profitable end of bookselling, then as always. But that then drops away for a more normal autobiography of his childhood for the next few chapters -- with notes on the books he read, some of which he notes he still owns -- and how he entered the literary world in general. He seems to want this to be the Sam Eagle of autobiographies, a salute to everything in his life but mostly bookselling.

He was born in Australia in 1939, grew up largely in a town way out in the middle of nowhere, with stints in Sydney before and after that. He left school in his mid-teens to work on the railroad -- apparently still a thing one could do in Australia in the '50s -- and meandered into literary society through Australian SF clubs.

(I'm amused that Baxter was a SF writer and anthologist -- had a novel published by Ace in the '60s and everything -- but I didn't discover his work through that connection, but because I randomly picked up I think, this book, and then slightly later read We'll Always Have Paris because it was partially about the grande horizontales of his new hometown. And from there I wandered over to his "encyclopedia of modern sex" Carnal Knowledge and a biography of J.G. Ballard called The Inner Man.)

From there, Pound of Paper stints on Baxter's literary career -- Wikipedia lists a bunch of publications in the '60s and '70s, novels and books about film, but Baxter doesn't mention any of them -- to talk about buying books instead of writing them. Again, it's pretty meandering, much like Baxter's life: he moved to London in the late '50s (I think), and there became the kind of guy who finds rare-ish books and resells them, which led to being something like a partner of the bookseller Martin Stone -- Baxter talks about deals rather than business arrangements, and I think that was the level of everything. He never had a storefront or a business entity; he just found books, collected books, and sometimes sold books, either individually or in job lots. From London, he moved to Los Angeles for a decade or two, when his career was mostly writing books about film, and then moved on to Paris for the aforementioned Parisian.

Baxter has not organized all of this terribly well, but he tells it well. It feels like a loose bag of party pieces -- "Have I told you about how I came to London and met Martin? Well, there's a tale..." -- spruced up and put into a plausible order than something actually conceived as a book-length manuscript to begin with. I've read better books about bookselling, certainly, but this is a fun and interesting one, and the bookselling stuff is mixed in with the general story of a life spent in the literary world, which is a nice combination. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/16/21

This week I have two books to mention: one that came in the traditional way (in the mail, from the company that published it), and one that I got in a completely new way.

In a park near my house is a Little Library -- a box with a glass door on a post with a bunch of books jammed into it. The idea is to take books or leave them, as you can. It's maintained by the local Girl Scouts, or at least was built and installed by them -- I'm not sure how much maintenance is necessary. I've dropped books off there a few times: mostly YA graphic novels and similarly inoffensive stuff, since it's in a public park very near the play equipment.

On a way last weekend, I dropped off three books -- it was tough to fit them in; the box was pretty full -- and something caught my eye. So I ended up, for the first time, taking something away.

But first, the publicity book!

Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel is exactly what it says it is: a comics adaptation of the mostly-live-action movie about the gigantic red dog beloved from the series of books by Norman Bridwell and (probably much more, these days) the animated series adapted from those books. The movie had a screenplay by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway, from a story by Justin Malen and Ellen Rapoport, and Georgia Ball adapted that into comics for Chi Ngo to draw. Seven writers (counting Bridwell, which I definitely do) is an awful lot for a story about a big lovable dog, but that's Hollywood for you.

Apparently, Clifford's growth spurt this time is "magical" and the source of hang-wringing villainy, because this is a movie and they can't just rely on Bridwell's original "well, he's just a really big dog, OK?" premise. But the kid is still named Emily Elizabeth, she still loves her dog, and Clifford looks to still have the same personality as ever, so I think I can allow that.

My kids are well past the Clifford years, but I read the Bridwell books as a kid and read them to my sons early this century, so I do have plenty of affection for the character. So I might just have to see what Scherick and Ronn and Hemingway and Malen and Rapoport have done to him, and if Ball was able to get that back to a decent story. (My sympathies are always on the side of the ink-slingers on paper, not the screenwriters.)

This book went on sale September 7th; I have no idea why I got it so late...or, indeed, why I got it at all. But, hey, free books! I am definitely not complaining.

And the book I plucked from a Little Library in bucolic Hirschfield Park in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey was a UK edition of Ray Davies' book of short stories, Waterloo Sunset. Davies is of course the singer and frontman of the Kinks -- or was, when the Kinks were an active band, which they don't seem to be these days -- and "Waterloo Sunset" is one of the Kinks' most famous songs. This book seems to be a linked collection, with some or all of the stories based (loosely? directly?) on Davies' songs -- titles include "Art Lover," "Celluloid Heroes," Mr Pleasant," "Afternoon Tea," and "Rock and Roll Fantasy."

I say "linked" since there seems to be a Davies-esque character, the aging popstar Les Mulligan, threaded throughout the book, though I'm not sure if he's telling the stories or experiencing them. I guess I'll find out when I read it, huh?

This was not Davies' first foray into long-form prose (and of course he wrote a hell of a lot of really good songs for thirty-plus years) -- he wrote a weird, baroque memoir called X-Ray in the mid-90s, a few years before this collection, and a second (seemingly more straightforward) memoir called Americana a few years later. I've read X-Ray and haven't gotten to Americana yet.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Quote of the Week: Just So

There comes a time in a man's life when he realises stories are lies. Things do not end neatly. The enforced narratives a human impinges on the chaotic mess that is life become empty labels, like the dried husks of corn such as are thrown down in the summer months from the adaptoplant dwellings, to litter the streets below.

 - Lavie Tidhar, Central Station, pp.162-163

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Brontes: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary

In our timeline, the Bronte siblings created several fictional worlds -- they started with Glass Town, which grew (mostly from Charlotte and Branwell) into the somewhat separate Angria, while younger siblings Emily and Anne invented the entirely separate land of Gondal. All of those were explicitly set in odd, "exotic" corners of the real world they were familiar with, and peopled with various lords and adventurers and such. And, of course, the three sisters all published novels set in the real England of their day, all beginning with debuts in 1847.

The Brontes: Infernal Angria simplifies this, as fiction often does. There is one land: Angria. It is real, somewhere other than Earth, and accessed, wainscot-style, from the playroom of their childhood house in Haworth. Time works differently there; visitors from England can enter Angria, have any number of adventures, and return at the moment they left...but time can also pass in Angria between visits. (If the reader suspects this is entirely for storytelling convenience, he can hardly be blamed.)

Craig Hurd-Kenney makes the origin of Angria specifically in the children's isolation and grief, starting in 1825 when their two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died. (And a few years after their mother also died.) But he actually begins this graphic novel with a prologue set in 1861, years after all four of the younger Bronte siblings were dead, in which Charlotte's widower attends the death of her father, Patrick, and then destroys all references to Angria in the house. This seems to be setting up a later conflict, but it really doesn't pay off in the current version of Infernal Angria -- I suspect Hurd-McKenney originally had a much longer, more dramatic story in mind, and the current 90-page version is what he and artist Rick Geary were able to actually get done in the twenty-ish years they were working on it.

So Infernal Angria is one part secret history -- this is what the Bronte children were really up to -- and one part unfinished drama. We see the Brontes enter Angria and have adventures and interactions there, but it's all fairly thin and quick and melodramatic, as one might expect of plot points based on the stories told by a bunch of nineteen century pre-teens -- it's almost a distraction to the real concerns, back in England, which center on whether going to Angria at all is a good thing. The core tension is between the nature of Angria, that time-stopping power which is health-reviving for English travelers, and their father's religion. Hurd-McKenney is not always clear why these things should be in tension, unless he's implying Angria is an alternative afterlife. (My understanding is that the Brontes' fictional worlds were not pagan, so they should be as close to their god in Angria as in England. Hurd-McKinney, or his characters, seem to have different ideas but don't quite make them clear.)

I think this is Hurd-McKenney trying to construct a plausible secret history based on real history, and not quite succeeding, to my mind. It's also possible that the original conception of a longer, fuller story would have had more room to make that conflict clearer and stronger. But, as it is, it feel like the Brontes, as they each sicken and get near death in turn, make random choices about who they feel about Angria and Heaven without quite saying what those choices are and what the stakes are.

So I can't find Infernal Angria entirely successful. It's interesting, and knotty, and a thoughtful weaving of secret history. but everything didn't quite come together the way I would have liked. I should admit that I came to it as a fan of Rick Geary, the artist, rather than as a Bronte scholar or knowing anything about Hurd-McKenney -- so the fact that I think the pictures are more successful than the framework they support might just be what was to be expected. Either way, it's quirky and specific: fans of the Brontes, of secret history, of 19th century literature in general, and of vague religious conflicts will find things of interest here.

(Note: this book is not available from the usual hegemonic Internet retailer, nor from B&N or IndieBound -- finding it might be a problem. ISBN is 9781532386244, if you want to do some searching.)