- Haiku Review: The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Volume 2by Sean Guynes
James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, editors. The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Volume 2. Valancourt, 2022.
- Genre tags: horror, world literature, short stories
A tome of terrors
gathered from around the world;
what more lurks out there?
This is the anticipated sequel to the first volume, which brought a broader range of previously untranslated global horror fiction to an anglophone audience than any previous publication. My full review is forthcoming in World Literature Today, but it’s worth noting that this volume is a major boon to us horror and world literature lovers, the kind of people who suddenly think on a Tuesday afternoon, “hmm, I wonder what the horror scene in Malta is like?” Apparently they’ve got their own Stephen King, Anton Grasso, though the chosen story from his oeuvre is an unimpressive play on folktales about a bug bite turning into a nest of eggs that birth forth a horde of insects one day.
I hope these volumes keep coming. I don’t find all the stories impressive; about half are forgettable, a handful are memorable and worth returning to (the Estonian, Swiss, Bulgarian, and Haitian ones, for example), and the rest are meh. But that’s OK, I think, because not all literature—and definitely not all horror—slaps the same with all readers, and in my book the more exposure to a broader range of world horror fiction, the better, more interesting, and richer our experience of horror and what it can do will be. So while few stories were personally enjoyable, I say, keep these volumes coming, Valancourt! (Already I’m dying to read the collection they are putting together of horror translated from endangered languages!)
- Haiku Review: Civilizations by Laurent Binetby Sean Guynes
Laurent Binet. Civilizations. Translated by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
- Genre tags: alternate history, colonization, Inca empire, early modern Europe
an alternate history;
Inca take the West.
French writer Laurent Binet’s newest novel, Civilizations, is the rare attempt to write alternate history as it happens, meticulously, day by day. It takes formal licenses by imitating literary styles contemporaneous to the time period in which it is set—between 1492 and the early 1600s—and follows a popular trend in alternate histories that sees the real-historical “losers” triumph over the “winners.” Binet is relatively new to the Anglophone literary scenes. A young French writer with two other novels under his belt, Binet has distinguished himself as an author who brings literary experimentation to popular genre forms: historical fiction in HHhH and the detective novel in The 7th Function of Language. Now, in Civilizations, Binet takes on alternate history and asks “What if the Inca had subjugated Europe in the 16th century?”
I’ve got a lot more to say about this novel and a full review is coming out in Strange Horizons. For now, suffice to say that this novel is stylistically experimental, written to read like a sixteenth-century historical chronicle of day-to-day events as history changes, which is quite impressive, but also can make for tedious reading. (The novel also has two preludes, one a Viking saga and the other a revised version of Columbus’s diary.) This book will I think appeal, truly, to only a small number of readers, but is nonetheless receiving wide attention in the press, likely because of Binet’s previous, and equally weird, novels.
- Haiku Review: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey by Gordon Dohertyby Sean Guynes
Gordon Doherty. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Ace, 2018.
- Genre tags: historical fantasy, ancient Greece, franchise novel
Why did I read this?
A novel of the worst kind;
play the game instead.
All readers come to novels with a purpose. One of the key values of franchise novels, whether film or game adaptations or continuations of those stories (as in the hundreds of Star Wars and Star Trek novels), is that they provide a new look at the world, characters, and stories that fans love. In some cases, adaptations and storyworld extensions can compete with the original and even surpass them (that’s how I’ve always felt about Star Wars novels/comics vs. the films). But franchise novels (and comics) have to compete not just with the quality of the original story(world), but also with the medium of the original and its affordances.
In a film, for example, you can use montages of images, cuts, and camera angles to create a mood or convey meaning that, in a novel, have to be described in different ways, and those ways depend on whether the novel is told in third or first person. And so on. Novels that adapt video games face particular challenges, not only because video games—especially open world RPGs that can take 75+ hours to play, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey—do things that just don’t make sense in novels, like spending hours clearing out Spartan forts, assassinating dozens of Cultists, or doing narratively facile fetch quests that add no value to Kassandra’s story but give her experience and loot. When you finally do something in a big game like Odyssey that progresses the main narrative, it usually feels like it has been paid off by all the hours in between. Kassandra did many things, she became significantly stronger, she grew and met people and built connections and changed the world one kill and quest at a time. But a novel can’t really do that…it would be dreadfully boring and take hundreds if not thousands of pages.
Authors who adapt video games to novels are thus trapped; they have to figure out how to get the story across while still retaining some sense of the game’s essence and the experience of its world and characters. And that’s really fucking hard.
Unfortunately, most of the authors who adapt video games into novels are also paid pretty poorly to do so, since their writing is seen as mere contract work by the publishing industry, and they are often given short deadlines. Franchise adaptation writing is an industrial mode of production: write write write, turn it in, let the editor clean it up, move onto the next contract. This is not a criticism of franchise novel authors; it’s a criticism of the way the transmedia industries treat franchise writing—not as an art, but as a quickly churned out creative curio. After all, people only buy franchise novels because they’re fans of the franchise. The downplayed significance on quality and the over emphasis on industrial-style production means that a great many franchise novels are, writing wise, of rather poor quality. Franchise authors rarely have the time to workshop and perfect their writing, and it often shows.
So I don’t know what I was expecting when reading an adaptation of my (second?) favorite Assassin’s Creed game, Odyssey, set during the Peloponnesian War (431-405 BCE) across Ancient Greece. As a game, the world is huge, beautiful, and the story somewhat compelling. The experience of hunting deer through the Arkadian forest, chatting with Sokrates in Athens, and wrestling in the original Olympics is unparalleled in video games (I might just like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, set in Ptolemaic Egypt, just a little better). It’s the kind of world that any reader of historical fiction with a love of the ancient world would want to explore, and so it makes sense to adapt it to a novel.
But the novelization not only makes very little sense, it’s awfully written. I couldn’t finish it, it was so distractably bad. It’s as if the author played the game and asked what it would be like if a character in a novel lived with life turned up to 11, everything the most beautiful, the most intense, the most violent, the most painful, the most everything. It’s a common trait in bad writing, that everything is always the most extreme emotion or experience; there’s no nuance, only Intensity. And maybe that’s what game are: characters don’t really sleep and shit and eat, they only do Bad Ass Things. So why not put that in a novel? Why? Because it’s fucking boring. It gets old fast, leaves no room for growth or introspection, and it makes the beats feel worthless when they all resound with the same timbre.
What’s more, the novel form is poorly suited to a 100-hour game for the reasons noted above. Kassandra’s story, if played straight through, with side quests to level you up appropriately, can take maybe 30 hours, but the world of Odyssey is so big that many play closer to 70-80 hours (I’ve put in 110 hours and have completed the main storyline and hundreds of side quests, but there’s still a good 25 hours of DLC, quests, and map points left before I could 100% the game). In this novel, Kassandra’s story moves at a whirlwind pace, with major plot points coming and going every couple of pages as Kassandra bops around the Aegean world simply because that’s what the bullet point plotting requires: get to the next thing, get to the next thing, and do. It. All. So. Hard. It’s boring, it’s rushed, there’s no emotional significance or storytelling quality to any of it.
And of course there’s the prose (some choice selections highlighted here), which is the worst symptom of the franchise novel industrial complex, which requires authors to turn in manuscripts at a certain length in a short period of time. How do authors get there? Not by spending time figuring out how to adapt a 100-hour game into a 300 page novel so that its narrative feels worthwhile (because that time isn’t given to them!), but by telling readers in excruciating detail how Kassandra swung her legs off of a bed and coaxed food down her dry throat and peeled open her eyes and let a grin rise on her face, or how her belly groans, reminding her of the many hours since she has eaten, and so on. At this point I’m wondering why we don’t hear about how
Kassandra flexes her ass muscles to squeeze the shit from her anus, clenching as it passes like a baby from her body, her sphincter cutting off the turd so it drops with a heavy, wet thud to the shit heap at the bottom of the public toilet, the stench nearly knocking Kassandra from her aching feet, which had traversed all of Greece with nary a minute of rest. She felt lighter after her shit, like Ikaros flying on wing in the scorching hot blazing fiery sun of the just-like-the-movie-300 world of ancient Greece.
I stopped a third of the way through the novel, so for all I know, that sentence is already there. And kudos, if so, because too few authors pause to let their character’s have a nice shit.
But this kind of writing infests the novel: it’s all about needless intensity, about writing sentence upon sentence of unnecessary description of common physical actions that take the place of what could be a greater emphasis on character, emotion, worldbuilding, and otherwise useful storytelling. It’s boring, it’s bad, and it’s not doing any good to anyone. Books like this serve to reemphasize the terrible quality of so many franchise novels, add nothing to the experience of the original, and waste everyone’s time: the author’s, the publisher’s, and most definitely the reader’s.
At least the author got paid, and to that I say, good for you! And to the publisher I say, seriously, do better. I know it’s a franchise novel and it’s easy to write them off. But I’d like to imagine we can have a world where Kassandra’s story is just as good, if not better, in a novel as it is in the game. She deserved better. So did I. So did Gordon Doherty.
- Haiku Review: The Captive by Skomantas (Tales from the Baltic 1)by Sean Guynes
Skomantas. The Captive. Translated by Mara Almenas. Tvermė, 1998. Tales from the Baltic 1.
- Genre tags: historical fiction, medieval, Baltic (Lithuania and Latvia), Northern Crusades
A pagan prince—caught
by Teutonic crusaders.
Enslaved in Riga.
Baltic fiction—literature from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—is not incredibly common in English translation. In fact, the Baltics have long been a “mystery” in the European world, like Albania: close to the major centers of power, and yet largely unknown outside of their people’s borders. In the past, I’ve jumped when given the chance to read Baltic fiction (e.g. my review of Latvian author Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk [Mātes piens]). I recently read Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2015) [Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu (2007)], a historical fantasy novel based on pre-Christian folkloric traditions of Estonia, with no doubt a touch of authorial invention. Few novels do what Kivirähk’s does by blending a little-told period and place in history with magical elements, critique of major ideological institutions (the Catholic church, Westernization, colonization), and sheer inventiveness (there are scenes of men hibernating through the winter in snake dens, ancient Neanderthals living into the Middle Ages and training giant fleas for fun, and a man who survives out of pure spite for his enemies by turning into a snake after his limbs are lopped off). So I wanted to know what other fantastical fictions might have come out of the Baltic and be available in English.
Not much, but I did discover a set of 5 novels called the Tales from the Baltic series, published in English, by a mysteriously mononymic Lithuanian author, “Skomantas.” It would appear that Skomantas is not a real author’s name, but potentially a pseudonym for a number of authors writing historical Lithuanian adventures for young adults. This website (a Lithuanian Encyclopedia Britannica, of sorts) claims that “Skomantas” is a series of books, rather than an author. But Skomantas is listed as the author on the front cover of all five books I have, as well as on their spines, title pages, and copyright pages; but, a blurb in the back of each book does refer to “the Skomantas series.” It’s possible there’s a translation issue at play, but at least the English editions, of which there were only five, are branded under the Tales from the Baltic series, written by a person named Skomantas (who may be many different authors). In any case, this confusion doesn’t surprise me, since the novel is filled with translation, spelling, and grammatical errors—and I do mean filled: they appear several times on every page (this didn’t detract from the novel; I’m sure if I published a Lithuanian translation of something in a country with few professional Lithuanian copyeditors just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it probably wouldn’t be error free).
For whatever reason, the first five Tales from the Baltic books were translated into and published in English in the 1990s by a Lithuanian publisher, Tvermė, but not circulated in the wider Anglophone market. My guess is that they were translated domestically for tourists (especially returning émigré) visiting Lithuania in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s transformation into a post-Soviet republic. Tvermė seems to have published a number of “learn about the Baltic” kind of books, including Of Gods and Holidays: The Baltic Heritage, for an Anglophone audience in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Having been published in Lithuania in the 1990s, the Tales from the Baltic series is not easy to find in the US. When I first looked, there were no copies in a reasonable price range (I can now see a few on Amazon for somewhat reasonable prices). I was able to find all of the books for cover price via Knygų Klubas, a Lithuanian bookseller, and used Google Translate to get through the order process. Unsure if they’d arrive, since the website didn’t charge me any significant shipping fees aside from what seemed like domestic prices, and I bought all five books and had them shipped to the US for less than $30, I totally forgot about the books until they arrived a month later to my happy surprise.
All of this major—and hopefully useful?—context aside, what’s The Captive about? And is it worthwhile?
The Tales from the Baltic novels all take place during the Northern Crusades, a Christian colonization and proselytization movement in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries led mostly by Germanic knights and their liegemen (i.e. the Teutons) after the Crusades in the Levant went to shit and the Catholic Pope needed someone else to fuck over and steal from. At the time, the lands that would become Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were largely pagan, and had managed to beat back the Vikings, Mongols, and Rus, while establishing occasional relations with Poland. Some urban centers had been Christianized around Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, but tribes of Baltic peoples like the Ziemgalian, Samogitians, Cuoronians, Prussians (not the same Prussians who would later be at the center of the German Empire and its elite, but a Baltic people speaking a now-extinct language related to Lithuanian and Latvian), and others resisted (see image below). These the Teutons came to kill, enslave, and “civilize” by force via the same process that would take place across the Global South in the centuries that followed.
The story begins with young Uvis and his teenage brother, Daubaras, crossing the Lielupe river in pursuit of a stag Uvis has shot; it’s his first hunt, a marker of his coming manhood, despite his young age. The brothers are sons of a Samogitian chieftain (Zaubartas son of Zvelgote), but they’ve strayed into another tribe’s territory, that of the Ziemgalians, who are both hostile to the Samogitians and at war with the Teutons. A happy, carefree pair, they kill their deer and bed down for the night, but are awakened and capture by a group of German soldiers. Daubaras is killed and Uvis enslaved. He is briefly present for the siege of a Ziemgalian fort called Mezotne, escapes, but is recaptured and brought to live as the slave of a candle-maker in Riga (modern Latvia). Uvis grows up, learns German, fights with a gang of bullies, helps his master’s daughter get free of her tyrant mother (a sexist caricature of a fat, greedy, unsatisfied hag) to become a nun, and is sold, to his happy surprise, to a circus troupe that he has been watching perform in Riga. He becomes a performer, an integral part of the family, but is still technically a slave. Eventually the troupe leaves Riga thanks to the father’s thieving, and they spent the last quarter of the book travelling the Latvian and Lithuanian countryside. The book ends on an obvious cliffhanger, with Uvis aware that he could easily escape back to his family some 5-6 years after his disappearance.
The prose is plain and unadorned, not really interested in the experience and senses of this medieval Baltic world; it focuses instead on plain action and doing. The novel is spare on historical details; there are a great deal scattered in the first 20 pages or so, to set up the characters and region, and also in the final chapter, when Uvis is travelling the countryside and getting in touch again with the Baltic peoples. In between, the novel could be set almost anywhere at any time prior to gunpowder invention, as if the frame of details at beginning and end is enough to sate a reader who has come for that. Only the name Riga and occasional reference to the Teutons and local tribes give the setting any further sense of place. It’s a great tactic to learn from, if someone wants to quickly set the scene for a historical fiction work, but it left me wanting so much more than “Skomantas” offered.
The plot is also simplistic: struggles with a mean mother, trying to gain favor in a household, dueling with street gang bullies, and so on. It is, in short, a nice little adventure that only gives a tiny taste of the medieval Baltic world, about as much as reading a Wikipedia entry on the Northern Crusades would give you (probably less), with some minor anecdotes about Baltic pagan beliefs (especially the goddess Medeina, similar to the Greek Artemis, but also the protectress of the forest and hearth).
For all the effort to acquire the novel, and for what it ultimately offers, I’m not sure it would be worth acquiring or reading for most readers. I have an interest in historical fiction and fantasy that goes to unlikely times and places and so I’ll continue with the next novels (they’re potentially written by different authors, so they might be better—or worse).
- Haiku Review: The Blue Fox by Sjónby Sean Guynes
Sjón. The Blue Fox. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013.
- Genre tags: historical fantasy, folklore, Iceland, disability history
is hunted, through the mountains.
Snow falls and both die.
Sjón is Iceland’s best known contemporary author, widely read in English translation and celebrated for his weird, fairy-tale-esque, and often experimental fiction that blends the concerns of global society with Icelandic history and folk culture. The Blue Fox (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013; trans. by Victoria Cribb), originally published as Skugga-Baldur in Icelandic, is a short novel just over a hundred pages that takes place in the snowy mountains of 19th century Iceland. It concerns a gruff, unkind reverend who goes off hunting a legendary skuggabaldur, lit. a “shadow baldur” but probably better translated as a “shadow cat,” a baldur being the offspring of a cat and a fox in Icelandic folklore. The skuggabaldur in turn hunts the reverend. Meanwhile, a farmer and amateur botanist living near the same village as the reverend is grieving the loss of his adopted daughter, a lady with Down’s syndrome who had previously been enslaved on a Dutch ship.
I don’t have much to say about that novel, which is one of the few I’ve read to depict a character with Down’s syndrome and to do so in a historical setting, diving into the treatment of disabled people in Icelandic history that makes the reader aware of just how complicit able-bodied society is in the creation of a the concept that certain lives aren’t “worth” living. Sjón does this with tact and historical realism, and does it well. I find the story of the farmer/botanist and his daughter ten times more interesting than that of the reverend and his hunt for the skuggabaldur, though the purpose of the hunt, when revealed at the end, makes the whole otherwise boring scenario worthwhile.
The Blue Fox is not a novel I’d necessarily recommend except to those interested in Iceland or in how a contemporary author weaves together historical fiction and folklore—at that, the novel succeeds very well and would be instructive for those looking to do similar work. The novel is also expertly translated and the manipulation of time and perspective are interesting in their own right for those who appreciate formal play.
- Haiku Review: Whisper by Chang Yu-Koby Sean Guynes
Chang Yu-Ko. Whisper. Translated by Roddy Flagg. Honford Star, 2021.
- Genre tags: horror (folk horror), East Asia (Taiwan, Japan, China), history (Japanese colonization), Indigenous peoples (Bunun)
Why, Minako, why?
The ghosts of history kill.
Horror from Taiwan.
Taiwanese doctor-turned-writer Chang Yu-Ko’s debut novel Whisper (trans. by Roddy Flagg and published in English by Honford Star, an indie publisher devoted to bringing Asian fiction to the Anglophone market) is a powerhouse ghost story that explores the complex, often violent layers of Taiwanese history from Chinese colonization of Indigenous Austronesian peoples like the Bunun, Japanese imperial control in the early twentieth century, and Taiwan’s rapid industrial and economic growth in the twenty-first century. Chang tracks the unfolding horror with a gritty sense of realism that pays equal attention to difficult emotion and the shittiness of poverty in urban Taiwan.
Whisper is eerie from the get go, occasionally terrifying in its use of horror tropes drawn largely from the J- and K-horror cinematic traditions (Chang expertly handles the transposition of filmic techniques to prose narrative), and illuminates a century of Taiwanese history and its social and economic struggles. I can’t recommend this novel enough for what it is, but also what it promises for Chang and the increasing number of East Asian horror novels entering the Anglophone market (see Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole or Mariko Koike’s The Graveyard Apartment for excellent recent examples).
A full review in World Literature Today (Jan. 2022).