Sunday, June 10, 2007

Prime Codex - Review

Personally, I like reprint anthologies. I don't subscribe to too many print zines (currently just Fantasy, Apex Digest, and Analog), which makes it hard to read everything that's out there. Luckily, Paper Golem's debut book Prime Codex brings together a plethora of stories by "neo-pros" that have appeared in both small press and the Big Three (er, Four, if you count Realms of Fantasy in there).

An introduction by Luc Reid explains what exactly Codex is and is about, and offers some insight into writing groups. Considering that writing is 9.9 times out of 10 a solitary act, it's interesting to read about why such critique groups exist and what they're specifically good at doing.

James Maxey's "To the East, a Bright Star," which first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, opens Prime Codex with an unequivocal bang. More specifically, the end of the world via a string of scientifically predicted and unstoppable comets. For Tony, this is something he's been preparing for since it became public knowledge, and with only so much time remaining, he means to go out on his terms. That is until, while climbing the stairs of the old and abandoned Dixie Hotel, he finds a girl crying. Their interaction, while sparse, is fascinatingly captivating, so much so that just as Tony forgets about some of the things he'd been wanting to do during his last minutes alive, I too forgot where I truly was, and afterwards I glanced up at the sky, a little more curious about what I might've done in such a situation. A marvelous opening, Maxey's exploration of the choices of two people knowing just how finite life really is will certainly resonate with the reader for quite some time.

Time and time again, I find myself drawn to robot stories. Generally, I'm always pleased by what I've read, and "Ticktock Girl" by Cat Rambo is both creepy and enjoyable. It's told from a collection of memories from the titular protagonist, Athena, and through these we learn the how and why of her existence. Soon, very soon, we see what she can do as the hands of a self-proclaimed do-gooder. Sometimes it's hard to sympathize with robots, which is what secondary characters are for. Here, Athena's creatrix, Lady Sybil, is mainly an oppressive background voice, which makes it hard to relate to anyone in the story at all. Still, for its brevity and pace, the story works well and is even worth a second read right after to pick up on those little things missed the first time 'round.

Next up is a pristine piece of alternative history, originally found in an issue of Talebones. "The Man with Great Despair Behind his Eyes" by Ken Scholes follows Meriwether Lewis on a trek to explore the territories of the Louisiana Purchase after a piece of monetary paper from the future is placed in his hand. He soon discovers the Man-from-the-River who will take Lewis on a surreal and drug-laden trip (no pun intended) through the future. It's a touching tale, offering insight into Lewis and even the Man-from-the-River, who the reader learns is more than he says he is. Scholes has crafted a memorable twist here, one that neither offers up easy answers nor allows the characters to change their outcomes.

I enjoyed "Wizards' Encore" by Geoffrey Girard for the same reason that I liked The Prestige by Christopher Priest—the relentless and sometimes over-the-top rivalry that seems to exist between magicians. The Frenchman Jean Robert-Houdin has just conquered Kabir's father's kingdom, but Kabir means to show him a thing or two about true magic. There's some lovely imagery here, especially when the showmanship of Robert-Houdin takes full form. Plus, you know, bugs are pretty creepy in general but Girard takes them to a whole new level. Very engaging, and definitely one worth checking out.

"The Disenchantment of Kivron Ox-master" by Elaine Isaak is a fun story. Sometimes it feels very lighthearted, and towards the end more heavyhearted. Kivron is an Enchanter of sorts; he can makes animals more human, so much that his ox sings him songs and his camel complains to no end. He's on his way to the Conjerum to maybe find his place in the world. Unfortunately, a much more difficult task awaits him there, one that will never allow his name to die. There's a lot to like about Isaak's story, mostly having to do with the skeletal dragon. If anything, the story could've benefited from being longer, maybe to add more credibility to the rather subdued plot surprise there at the end. Still, the worldbuilding is intriguing, and Kivron and company make for enjoyable adventuring.

I originally read "Sister of the Hedge" by Jim C. Hines in Realms of Fantasy. Talia seeks safety at the Church of the Iron Cross, a haven surrounded by the Accursed Hedge. In the hedge, strewn up and pierced by a sea of thorns and vines, are the princes. It falls onto Talia's shoulders to decide if the Accursed Hedge is really just that, a sour gift from the Devil, a work of true and pernicious evil. I was pleasantly surprised by the story on its second read, and recommend it to those that like their fantasy a wee bit darker than their coffee. Wait, that doesn't really make any sense. Scratch that—just read it, and I'd like to assume that this is a glimpse of what's to come from Hines in his forthcoming novel The Stepsister Scheme from DAW Books, but I'm probably wrong. Personally, I'd like to see more of his sullen work than that of the light-natured.

A short piece that is positively sure to get you to mutter "a-ha!" at its cruelly twisted reveal, "Rampion" by Mary Robinette Kowal is the sort of story that is most enjoyable on its first read. Read it without distractions, and enjoy.

"Salt of Judas" by Eric James Stone tells the story of a painter, his obsession with an unobtainable woman, and that ol' finger-wagging warning of being careful of what one wishes for. A new apothecary has taken up residence and offers landscape-connoisseur Osbert the chance to bring his art to life. On the side, Osbert has been churning out portraits of "her," and is more than eager to hear her speak to him. Though it's a bit slow in the beginning—and a tad irking when Osbert and the apothecary carry out a rather exposition-heavy bit of dialogue early on—Stone makes it all worth it. The ending didn't actually happen like I'd suspected it might, and it's clear he writes very well. The prose itself was like a painting, swirling with color and texture, even some soul-paint as it came to life as Obsert began to realize his errors.

If there's a story in Prime Codex that just did nothing for me, unfortunately, this is it. "Button by Button" by E. Catherine Tobler is tale of companionship. Alice spies a mysterious man in her garden, and quickly learns that he is different for a most certain reason. Still, she finds herself drawn to him and his obscure ways. This piece felt very slow, and while the reveal of Edward O'Brien's true identity definitely grabbed my attention, everything still felt underdeveloped. Or maybe I just didn't really care about the characters, making their actions and emotions flat in my eyes. Others might see it in a different light though.

Jeremy Aldrich is taking on the case of proving suspected killer Sable innocent in "Black Boxes" by Matthew S. Rotundo. Unfortunately for him, the evidence against his client is far from dismissible. Memory-storing boxes in people's heads allow for picture-perfect playbacks of events, yet Sable mutilated the bodies of his victims, stealing away their black boxes, leading many to believe the acts were both cruel and pre-meditated. Aldrich can't point his finger on it, but something about the way his client's muttering tells him this case isn't so simply put. Having a plot akin to that of Primal Fear, "Black Boxes" plays out a bit too predictable for my tastes. I did, however, like a lot of the futurizing (Paolo Bacigalupi's word, not mine) though I can't confidently say I understood the ending; maybe it moved too fast to reach its resolution, or maybe I don't necessarily understand how a court system works. Yeah, it's probably the latter.

"Tides" by Tobias S. Buckell takes us to a tall-village where Siana's sister Miasia, long thought to be dead, has returned from the Coastal War. At first, Siana is skeptical, seeing just how much older Miasia is than her (and her mother!), but when she loses the bedroom that was promised to her she does what any little girl angry at the world might. She leaves, dangerous as it might be with the tides of the Roranraka sea forever changing. Miasia goes after her, forcing Siana into a situation where she sees the true meaning of being unselfish. The worldbuilding is phenomenal here, and despite the terrors of battle looming in the background it never becomes a preachy war story. "Tides" is a moving coming-of-age tale full of magic and emotion, and certainly a standout in Prime Codex.

The Old Woman in a Shoe is trying to be evicted by many sinuous governmental types in "Urban Renewal" by Tom Pendergrass. Told through my least favorite of narrative devices—a series of letters—we learn of the plans put into action and how much they fall apart when up against the resilient geriatric. I actually enjoyed this short piece much more than I'd expected to, and each letter's style is different enough that they can stand as characters themselves. It's fun, but not overly deep.

In "As the Stars of the Sky" by Mike Shultz, Dave must learn to communicate effectively with a living ship in order to survive. It's a game of questions and answers, and though at first it might seem as Dave's figured out a way to have the ship, called Panel, bring him water and food, that is not it at all. In fact, the ship most certainly has other ideas in store. Told in first person, it's easy to understand Dave's frustration with Panel. It reminded me briefly of "Painwise" by James Tiptree, Jr. The story hints at many things, such as an alien species called the Trill, but mostly stays focused on the stressful relationship of Dave and Panel. It's well-written, clever, and engrossing.

"Rainmakers" by Ruth Nestvold takes place on the planet Chepanek, where colonization hasn't been going perfectly. An axial tilt forces the planet's inhabitants to constantly migrate from one hemisphere to the other. This is done based on the decision of "rainmakers," but when a technologically-advanced colonization force begins using its tools to allow for permanent settlement, an ultimatum is given. Rekaya, an agent for the Foreign Worlds Service, is sent in to negotiate. I really enjoyed this story; it's smart, beautifully written, and brimming with difficult yet grabbing subjects. First, there's colonization and how when it's forced upon a people it can be far more bad than good. Second is Rekaya and her sexuality, a clear no-no to the people of Chepanek, which already puts her at a disadvantage. And third, the difficulty in understanding a foreign culture firsthand. It ends somewhat abruptly, but with just enough resolved. The story originally ran in Asimov's Science Fiction.

There's a talking otter in "Radical Acceptance" by David W. Goldman, which is more than enough reason for me to give it two thumbs up. Well, not an otter per say, but a six-legged otter-like species from outer space. They've come to Earth to study humans, but as Jack Karolev is invited to a private meeting with one of them in a bubbling hot tub he stumbles upon the truth of their arrival. The otter is a silly thing, and while it tries to be deep and philosophical I couldn't help but be put off a bit by some of its subject matters. Sci-fi television shows, DVDs, classic novels. It all seemed a bit too fannish, mostly things that maybe Goldman liked and wanted to talk about without seeming like a big floating head of opinions. Still, the lengthy discussion between Jack and the otter has its moments, and while the otter's fascination with angels mystified me I couldn't help not reading from start to finish. If anything, it ends Prime Codex on a whimsical note.

This anthology contains a strong selection of stories by names that are positively to remain staples in the field for years to come. Prime Codex has a bit of everything as well: from crisp offerings of science fiction to haunting tales of pure, magical fantasy, everything within is worthwhile. An excellent debut from Paper Golem, with smart choices from Lawrence M. Schoen and Michael Livingston. Come on, order your copy.

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