We're still a couple of months out from Hallowe'en, but for this edition of the Mini Reviews, I've decided to post some thoughts on books that deal — to varying degrees — with monsters. Both the inhuman and the human kind.
Here's the lineup:
The Night Lies Bleeding by MD Lachlan
The Dinosaur Princess by Victor Milan
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The short version? These books are all awesome and you should buy and read them immediately.
Now for the longer (but still mini) reviews. As always: SPOILERS AHEAD. And if you don't like spoilers, you can just go back to working on that Yor: The Hunter from the Future fanzine you've been trying to put together for the last 35 years.
What could possibly be worse than the old Norse god/monster wolf Fenrir coming to Earth in human form to reincarnate again and again over the ages, each time transforming into a gigantic werewolf that chews through everyone around him like a chainsaw ripping through a box of baby bunnies? Nazis, of course.
In The Night Lies Bleeding, the final instalment in MD Lachlan's superbly unsettling Wolfsangel series, Fenrir's latest avatar is living as a British aristocrat and museum curator, trying to stay detached from humanity as the UK is hammered by the German Blitz in the Second World War. But there's a difference from his previous lives, one that's more important than his social status or wealth: Previously, as a Viking, a would-be Byzantine courtier, a priest, or someone caught up in the Norman Harrying of the North, he'd only lived a single lifetime (and generally not very long at that). He'd been confined and died after each transformation and rampage. This time, however, the avatar of the wolf, currently known as Endamon Craw, has been living the same life for a few hundred years — there was no death after the transformations of the recent centuries. And while Craw has been trying to lead a quiet life, to keep away from things that might make him lose control, he's now drawn back into the inescapable fate laid out by the Norns when he's brought in as a consultant on a police investigation into a series of mutilations and murders. It seems someone else is trying to use some of the ancient runes to become a werewolf himself. Every day Craw assists with the case, he's confronted with things that increasingly prod the wolf inside him, bringing it closer to waking. Meanwhile, in Germany, a lazy doctor who doesn't support the Nazis or the war submits a research proposal to the SS as a joke, only to have it taken seriously by the occult-crazed High Command. Dr Max Voller is ordered to report — with his wife, Gertie — to Wewelsburg, otherwise known as The Black Vatican, a castle where the SS carries out abominable experiments on concentration camp prisoners as it attempts to access arcane power to win the war. Once there, he's forced to carry out his research, committing atrocities on prisoners lest he face punishment or execution, and for fear that his wife might be taken by superior officers who have their eyes on her nordic beauty. For her part, Gertie soon finds herself facing an otherworldly place of horrors as she attracts the attention of an ancient entity. And lurking in the background, the god Odin manipulates the situation to try to outmaneuver his fated encounter with the wolf.
The Night Lies Bleeding marks a departure from the rest of the series in a number of ways. On the surface, there's the basic movement of setting out from the Middle Ages to the more familiar terrain of the early-mid Twentieth Century (while probably not personally familiar to most readers, it is a time that we would have heard about from parents or grandparents who experienced the War, and its effects are still visible upon the world stage and our cultural dialogue, even more than 70 years on).
As noted previously, there's also the change in the existence and perspective of Fenrir's avatar. Not having died in several centuries, Craw carries the detachment, aloofness, and vague melancholy that we've come to associate with immortals in speculative fiction, but — and here's where the author shows his skill — Craw is more interesting than his counterparts in literature and film in that he's not just aware of how different he is from normal humans because of his long life and extensive experiences, he's not just comparing everything to the good old days (though he does indulge in these things), more interestingly, he's constantly re-evaluating himself and his own behaviour in the world that normal humans have created. When another character says something or behaves in a certain modern way (let's say not showing deference to Craw as a person of higher social/economic status), Craw's immediate internal reaction is to feel insult or anger at the breach of protocol by an uppity peasant, but he then reminds himself that times have changed, reflects on the nature of those changes, and makes an effort to adapt. And not just to adapt his clothes or mannerisms — he's not simply engaging in a masquerade to be camouflaged among the humans — instead, he goes even further, reminding himself to change his beliefs and feelings, in essence, to change a part of who he is, because this kind of evolution of the self is the only way he can survive and remain sane (aside from periodic outbursts from the wolf). You never see Connor Macleod from Highlander, or the Greek gods of Peter S Beagle's Summerlong, or the various deities of Neil Gaiman's American Gods instigating that kind of internal change of self — they remain who they are. Lachlan's Fenrir, on the other hand, despite being a monster, has that capacity (which, perhaps in the eyes of other gods — though this perspective isn't given in this book — might be part of what makes him monstrous).
But this story also marks a departure from the other Wolfsangel books in that the nature of its horror has shifted somewhat. What was most frightening in the other books was the idea of the helpless loss of self at the hands of others. The transformation of an unwitting and unwilling avatar into Fenrir, caused by the vicious magic and schemes of gods or witches — beings so incredibly more powerful than the avatars that there was nothing they could do to prevent what was happening to them, with the change being accelerated as they were thrown onto blood-soaked battlefields. The focus of the other books was also, ultimately, on the carnage inflicted by the wolf as it pursued the woman it loved, usually to their mutual destruction, with the monstrous alienness of the supernatural being front and centre. But here, the supernatural elements are almost incidental. Yes, Craw becomes Fenrir. Yes, there are people trying to use the ancient runes to create more werewolves or to gain power or the favour of the old gods. Yes, there are supernatural entities trying to control the situation. But with the story shifting into the setting of the Second World War, the real horror that takes centre stage is the very real monstrousness of facism — the monstrousness of people who became Nazis. Here, the story is moving into Dan Simmons country, where no supernatural god or monster can compare with the horror of what human beings do to each other due to hate, evil beliefs, or self interest. Yes, the previous books were set during times where human beings committed monstrous acts upon one-another, such as Viking raids, or witches confining people in caves, or the Norman Harrying of the North. But those were background elements to their stories, where TNLB presents Nazi atrocities, and the willingness of people to do them, as its central thrust. What's most terrifying in this story is not a loss of self at the hands of more powerful beings, or the transformation of a man into a supernatural monster, but rather the loss of self and the transformation of a good man into an all-too-human monster as a result of deliberate choices that man takes upon himself. It is the horror of watching a once good man becoming desensitized to the cruelty and evil around him, being too weak to refuse to be a part it, and willingly participating in it — and rationalizing this decision as the right choice — in order to protect his own life and that of his wife, but then ultimately to gain greater personal comforts and prestige. It's the horror of a person once sympathetic to the suffering of the human beings around him becoming one who indifferently sees them as disposable material. It is the all-too-real horror of a doctor transforming into a Nazi torturer. Fenrir, Odin's schemes to outwit Ragnarok, and the witch's possession all seem trivial compared to what human beings are doing to each other in World War II Europe. They seem trivial compared to what could be brewing in today's world of explosive nationalism and intolerance. It's a story that leaves the reader shaken, knowing that monsters can't be escaped just by closing the book.
Others have said it, and I'll gleefully hop on the bandwagon: Victor Milan's The Dinosaur Lords books should be adapted into a TV series (HBO or Netflix would be perfect). The reality though is that rather than listen to this excellent idea; or adapt another good, original story; or create something new, Hollywood will most likely continue to look inward and rehash old properties with modern twists. Instead of a lineup of top actors astride computer-generated hadrosaurs, T-Rexs and triceratops, we're more likely to be served something profoundly lame like a reboot of Barney Miller — except, rather than a half-hour, one set sitcom, it'd be an hour-long, gritty, gore-intensive, multi-location police procedural/crime drama where Wojciehowicz turns into a pacifist Buddhist to try to overcome crippling PTSD; Dietrich is now a woman and sidelined to desk duty amidst allegations of police brutality; Harris is a mom trying to advance in her career while raising three young kids, dealing with a husband who's a world-class chef who cheats on her, and supporting an elderly mother who wants to go back to school to become an archaeologist; Yemana talks to the ghosts of murder victims; Fish is a closet BDSM sex addict; and Barney himself may or may not be on the take from the mob. You know they're going to do it. Probably with a high-octane pilot episode featuring a gun battle in the streets (a-la Heat) where the squad tries to foil a bank job by Big Blast, the guy who likes to use a bazooka for robberies. Hey, that might actually be kinda cool... Wait! What did I say? No. Must... focus... on... quality... storytelling. Really, Milan's Dinosaur series needs to be adapted for TV or streaming services, and that includes the latest instalment, 2017's The Dinosaur Princess, because it's just so visual, and just so good.
The Dinosaur Princess picks up just after the events of The Dinosaur Knights, with the people of the Empire of Nuevaropa on the world of Paradise regrouping after their defeat of the Grey Angel Raguel and its horde of mindless humans (along with some fully-aware knights and nobles who followed the angel willingly out of self-interest). The emperor returns with his court to the capital, but the victory is hollow. Apart from the appalling loss of life and the fear that another Grey Angel may come to launch a follow-up crusade against mankind, the court is creaking under the intrigue of rival factions. On one side, there's Princess Melodia, who finds herself sidelined at court, back to being daddy's girl, despite her success as a light cavalry (which means horse cavalry on a world where heavy mounts are usually duck-billed dinosaurs, but can also include ceratopsians and the big carnivores) commander during the war. But even worse, Duke Falk — the man who imprisoned and raped her while scheming to take control of the empire — has also survived the battle, and due to his bravery defending the her father, the emperor, he's hailed as a hero and keeps a senior position in the government. Worst of all, Melodia knows that if she calls Falk out, the political chaos could cause a civil war (if anyone believed her) and Falk, knowing this, takes every opportunity to cast glances and verbally needle her, savouring her inability to respond. But Melodia has a powerful ally: her many-times-great grandmother, who returns to the capital to school the princess in the castle's hidden secrets, arranges for her to learn to fight astride dinosaurs, and helps her learn palace intrigue and prepare to take revenge, because no-one goes after the old lady's family and lives to tell the tale. But Falk isn't alone either: his scheming mother has arrived and made a bee-line for the emperor's bed to cement her family's control. Meanwhile, the renegade noble Karyl has been welcomed back into the fold after leading the attack against the angel (and, specifically, after his allosaurus, Shiraa, ate it), along with his sidekick, Rob the dinosaur trainer. But the good times don't last for the pair when Karyl is visited by the queen of the supernatural fae, who has her own designs against humanity. And if that isn't enough, the emperor's youngest daughter, Princess Montse is kidnapped, with another country seemingly to blame, and Melodia's fiance Jaume and his squad of knights have to try to rescue her before war breaks out.
As with its predecessors, The Dinosaur Princess is one hell of a fun ride, treating readers to knight-on-dinosaur mashup action; court intrigue; well-rounded, believable characters; and a lush world combining elements of Medieval warfare, the style of ancient Mexican and South American empires, and, of course, dinosaurs. It's rewarding to see Melodia continue to develop as a character as she picks up skills with new tools to survive both dinosaur combat and life-and-death plots against rival families within the castle walls. Karyl and Rob are also characters that I couldn't wait to see more of from chapter to chapter as the noble tries to hold up under the political and seemingly supernatural pressures piled on top of him while coming to terms with his new lease on life, and his salt-of-the-earth sidekick thrives under new responsibilities, even as he longs for his old carefree days. As always, I also have to take my hat off to artist Richard Anderson for the wonderful sketches at the head of each chapter, and especially the cover art, which just explodes off of the book and into your brain.
And while I can't find any flaws within the story of The Dinosaur Princess itself, the overall series may be weakened by the possibility that it will remain incomplete. Tragically, Victor Milan died this past winter. The man had real talent that will be missed from the genre (his contributions to the Wildcards mosaic novels were great, and I'm sure others can sing the praises of his other novels), and his death leaves The Dinosaur Lords series hanging. That's because The Dinosaur Princess is only half a book. Just like The Dinosaur Lords was half a story, and needed The Dinosaur Knights to complete the tale of the battle against the Grey Angel's crusade, there needs to be more to tie-off the plot threads The Dinosaur Princess leaves dangling, and to give the reader a sense of completeness, or, at least, wholeness to the story. George RR Martin, a friend of Milan's, has speculated that Milan "may have another book or two in his DINOSAUR LORDS [sic] sequence coming out, but I am not sure of that." As fans of the series, we can hope that's the case, and that capable editors at Tor, possibly with the help of other writers (as we saw with Kevin J Anderson finishing The Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan), will be able to work with whatever drafts and/or notes Milan left behind to wrap things up.
If that's not the case, and there is insufficient material to work with, or an unwillingness from the publishing house or the author's estate to continue the project, then the question becomes how should someone new to the series approach it? Is it even worth reading, in the absence of an end to The Dinosaur Princess' storyline, never mind the overall plot of the series? I know some readers who are completists, and won't touch a series if the author hasn't seen it to its end. But these stories, this world, and these characters are just too good to not experience. If there's nothing further, I'd be tempted to suggest that someone new to the series could just read The Dinosaur Lords and The Dinosaur Knights. There's enough closure with the success of the battle against the Grey Angel to satisfy a completist. Does that mean that The Dinosaur Princess should then be ignored? Not necessarily. I think that anyone who really enjoys the first two books should definitely read TDP. Sure, they might be left hanging, but even if things are left open, does that matter? The Dinosaur Princess is a sufficiently good, if incomplete, story on its own to be worth reading. And, let's not forget what Emperor Londo Mollari admonished his young audience in Babylon 5: In the Beginning: "The story... is not over yet. The story is never over." So enjoy The Dinosaur Princess for what it is, as a single moment in time. More story left untold, perhaps, but more open trails for dinosaurs to tread in your imagination.
What if you had a chance to meet your gods? What if they didn't live up to your expectations? What if the story they told, and the values they held, were different than what you believed?
As much as Daughter of Eden features civilizations coming to terms with the reality of their gods and the durability of their beliefs and identity, this final book in Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy is about the little people. Where Dark Eden focussed on John Redlantern, a combination Cain and Moses figure, inventor, and breaker and builder of civilizations; and Mother of Eden was about Starlight, a messianic figure and one of the great beauties of Eden, who tries to bring compassion to a people; Daughter of Eden is about Angie, a regular peasant who's just trying to get by. When her island community is taken over by the hard-line religious culture of the mainland (or Mainground, as it's known), Angie's people disperse and in order to survive she has to fall in with a small forest tribe of a different faith; marry (after a fashion) and have kids with a simple-minded man; occasionally allow his brother, the one-handed chief (who's a bit of a bully stuck in the memory of his glory days with the army), to have sex with her; and endure prejudice from the others for being a foreigner from a religious/political/cultural minority and because she's a "batface" (a person with an extreme form of harelip, one of the conditions common among the population of Eden due to extensive inbreeding). But Angie is intelligent and practical, and does what she has to in order to live and provide for her children. The story alternates between this present and her youth, just after the dissolution of her home community, when she took to the road as the assistant to a priestess (the people of Eden worship the policewoman/astronaut/castaway who was the mother of their race), criss-crossing Mainground from the towns and villages on the coast to the original settlement in a valley beyond the mountains where their astronaut forebears were stranded. In that past, Angie sees the importance of religious belief to the Maingrounders' self-image and ability to deal with the hardships of life, and she learns what can happen when an intelligent person questions those beliefs and is honest enough to admit a life among the faithful may not be for her. Meanwhile, in the present, Angie witnesses the arrival of an invasion fleet from New Earth (a nation with a similar but somewhat different religion — think Protestants as opposed to Catholics — founded by John after he and his followers fled Mainground generations before). As the New Earth soldiers with their superior weaponry begin their brutal conquest, Angie and her people flee across the mountains to humanity's original home on Eden, arriving, coincidentally, just before a scientific expedition from Earth. After hundreds of years, humanity has decided to find the planet its first experimental starship went to when it was stolen, and to see if there are any traces of the rogue astronauts or the police who tried to bring them home. When the Earthlings introduce themselves, first to Angie, then to their other local cousins, the people of Eden — Maingrounders and New Earthers alike, as well as other, smaller civilizations — must come to grips with the reality of meeting gods whose stories and worldview don't match up with their own.
Daughter of Eden is a smart, intelligent, and absorbing page-turner of a book. It's strength is in Beckett's shifting of gears to focus on the life and perspective of a normal person who's generally at the mercy of the more powerful people around her, and her culture, but who ultimately is important (as the regular people of the world usually are, despite credit usually going to the great) to how events play out. Angie is important not just for being the first one to spot the New Earth invasion fleet, or to make first contact with the astronauts and act as a cultural liaison to them, or discover a long-lost holy relic, but because she (again, a normal person, not one of the leaders) is the one who is telling this story, a story that will be heard by many of the communities on her world as she assumes a new role at the end of the novel. She has a voice. Despite being one of the typically downtrodden, she is a person with agency. Despite being one of the little people, she matters.
Moreover, once we meet the new astronauts and they begin to share history about the original incident involving the starship and information about the Edenites' progenitor/goddess Gela, and when they begin to share recordings left by her, we begin to see that she was a regular person too. One with flaws and worries and no grand schemes about creating a holy legacy. As Angie (and the others) learn all of this, she realizes that even gods can be little people too. That little people can be important. That they can build new, lasting things and shape the world around them.
We also see (through Angie's eyes) the new astronauts having to change their worldview too. At first, they have to get their heads around an entire world full of humans descended from just two people, not just surviving, but thriving in spite of the genetic problems from massive inbreeding, lack of modern technology or contact with Earth, and having to adapt to an alien lifestyle under the dim light of glowing trees in the darkness of a rogue, starless planet orbiting the galaxy. They have to get past their initial pity and revulsion for a people who (due to their genetic abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, and environmental conditions) look different from Earthlings and who live in violent, technologically primitive, religious fundamentalist cultures. They have to deal with the disappointment of being confronted by a people who are disappointed that the astronauts' statement of facts has challenged accepted dogmas on Eden. And they have to see the potential in some of Eden's inhabitants to become more than they are.
A few years ago, I stumbled on Dark Eden by accident and picked it up on the strength of it's win of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award, and, most of all, because of its back cover description of descendants of interstellar castaways living in the biological lamplight of trees on a planet of darkness. I was glad I did, and I'm just as glad now that Daughter of Eden has wrapped things up as strongly as the series began. Buy this book.