Review: Ahab’s Return: The Last Voyage

Ahab’s Return: The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford. William Morrow, 2018, 259pp.

 

In the mid19th century, a man named George Harrow works as a fabulist for a penny dreadful called The Gorgon’s Mirror, making up absurd stories for a willingly gullible readership. It’s hard work making up the right kind of nonsense and he’s going through a bit of a dry spell, so it seems a stroke of luck that brings a one-legged sea captain to his office, claiming to be ‘the’ Ahab from Moby Dick. Which, of course, was actually written by Ishmael, a former writer/copy editor at the Mirror, and not that Melville fellow.

Ahab, it seems, did not drown attached to the great white whale after all, and is now returned, looking for his wife and son who believed him dead. Harrow, of course, sees the possibility of a series of stories based on Ahab’s experiences and his search for his family, and offers his help in exchange and we are off and running.

Ahab’s wife has long since passed away and his son, Gabriel, is one of many young men in the thrall of a Fagin-like criminal boss called Malbaster, who keeps the so-called Jolly Host in line with opium and appeals to bigotry and racism. There’s also a sad zombie(ish) assassin named Bartleby, and a manticore who eats people and recites poetry. Ahab and Harrow assemble their own team: Arabella, an apparent opium fiend who is much more than she seems. Mavis, a courier for the Mirror and genuine badass, and Madi, a former harpooner and fellow survivor of the Pequod. Many alarms and excursions as the group attempts to rescue Gabriel from Malbaster’s clutches and put a stop to Malbaster.

All of which is and is not what the book is about. Malbaster himself drops a hint at what’s really at stake:

“…Love generates great energy with which to form the world. But Fear and Ignorance aren’t bad themselves, producing their own grim yet powerful magic. The secret, Harrow, is e pluribus unum.”

I don’t think I’m giving away too much by stating that a great deal of the book revolves around Malbaster’s true nature, and true danger. Any reader well in is going to pick up on that, and plainly see the correlation to certain events taking place in this country now. If you’re not into subtext, you’re still left with a rousing magical adventure taking place in the New York of 1853, including references to and plot points depending on: changing street names, Seneca Village, and John Jacob Astor’s secret stash of opium.

Reading over the above, I have to say that it just doesn’t do the book justice. Ford is at the top of his game here, and there isn’t anyone better (or at all) doing what he does. Read the book yourself and you’ll understand what I mean.

 

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The Long Look Redux

The first thing you may or may not notice about the new US paperback edition of The Long Look is that the cover is slightly different from the original hardcover and ebook editions. That’s because the original design was too close to the “bleed” limits of the pod cover specs. The jacket had to be redesigned from scratch, starting with Steve Gilberts’ original artwork. It took four attempts to get it right, and the final cover was just approved yesterday.

Revising the text was a breeze by comparison. And yes, there were changes. Not major, but changes nonetheless. Mostly a few embarrassing usage and context errors. I’ll be updating the ebook edition with the same changes in a few days, or at least I hope I will. It’s shaping up to be a very busy week.

Regardless, the UK edition is available here. If anyone anywhere else is interested, let me know. For now I had to go with limited distribution to keep the price of the book down, but it will be available in a few more countries.

I’ve been reading and loving Jeffrey Ford’s newest, Ahab’s Return. As the title suggests, it’s about what happens after the events of Moby Dick, when Captain Ahab turns up alive. Once I’ve finished I’ll do a review, if I think I have anything worth saying about it. Don’t wait for me, though. The book is already out there.

Awards and Local News

This year’s World Fantasy Convention just wrapped up in San Antonio, TX. I wasn’t there this year but I do remember San Antonio from the 55th World Science Fiction Convention I attended back in 1997. I remember the Riverwalk and I remember (yes) the Alamo. It’s a beautiful, diverse city and I’m a little bummed I couldn’t make it this year, even if my convention going has been less than sporadic lately. The World Fantasy Awards were given out on Sunday and congratulations to all the winners. I do want to give a special shout-out to Kij Johnson for her win for best long story, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe and to Jeffrey Ford, winner for best collection, A Natural History of Hell, which I reviewed last November here.

On the local front, on Sunday, even as the awards were being given out, I finished the submission draft of the third story in my Daoist series, “An Account of the Madness of the Magistrate, Chengdhu Village,” which is the longest title I’ve ever used, beating out the previous record by two whole  words. Once I have a publication date and venue I’ll post it here. In the meantime you could do a lot worse than checking out the works  and writers above.

 

Review: Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory, Penguin Books, 2017

I picked up Tales of Falling and Flying on the recommendation of Jeffrey Ford. Since I’d also discovered the weird and wonderful Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio from the same source, I was more than inclined to give this one a try, and was definitely not disappointed, especially in the weird and wonderful department. Tales of Falling and Flying excels in both categories.

At first glance, this looks like a collection of short stories. Once you’re into it, that perception gets stretched a bit, or at least mine did. Not that the tales within ran roughshod over classic definitions of a short story. I mean, they were about something. They had a beginning, middle, and end in the sense that they started somewhere, went somewhere, ended somewhere. It’s those “somewheres” that need a bit of a mental adjustment.

Take for example, the very first piece in the book, “The Dodo.” I’m just going to quote the opening line: “Once there was a dodo, and he died with the rest, but then he suddenly got back up again.” So what does a dodo who should be dead but isn’t do? If you guessed “Get forced into an identity crisis because he’s alive but all the dodos are dead, therefore everyone says he can’t possibly be one,” then you have the idea. Or consider “The Sloth,” which features, yes, a sloth, one who decides he doesn’t really want to hang around the jungle eating leaves and decides to go to the city and get a job.  What sort of job is there for a sloth in the big city? It takes the sloth a while to find out, but the answer follows very reasonably from what the sloth discovers in his search along the way. Or “Death and the Lady” where a woman goes to church and discovers Death sitting next to her, and if you think you might know where that particular story is headed, you’re both right and very wrong. If I had to pick one, I’d likely say that was my favorite, which is silly because you don’t have to pick one. The very idea is limiting.

One thing I can confirm is that there will be tales of “falling and flying.” Along the way the reader could be forgiven for thinking she was reading a book of special kinds of stories called parables, deep into double meanings and lessons and metaphors and whatnot. But then you hit a story like “The Ostrich and the Aliens” which, in its own metafictional way, pokes fun at the very idea. So maybe they’re not parables, or perhaps they are, or some of them, and I found myself thinking about each one even while I was reading it. Normally that sort of thing kicks me right out of a story, but not in this case. The stories invite a bit of consideration. Invite? Say rather they demand it. As for classification, well, I can’t speak for other readers, but after a while I stopped worrying about that and just gladly went wherever Loory was going. Plenty of time later to think about where that was. No conclusions yet, but I’m still thinking.

Which is just about the highest compliment I have to give.

 

 

Review: A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford

A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, Small Beer Press, 2016

 

It’s more than a bit awkward at this point, wanting to get on with the review and wondering if I should first introduce the author, Jeffrey Ford, knowing all the while I shouldn’t have to do anything of the sort. Ford is, no exaggeration, one of the finest writers working in the field he’s chosen to be associated with. Or the field that chose him, since in our culture the kind of thing he tends to do has no real framework outside that of the fabulist. If he’d been born in South America he’d probably be considered a magical realist instead. No matter. It’s all pigeonholes and ways of talking about a thing, rather than the thing itself.

Did I just say all that? My apologies. But that’s what Ford’s work tends to do—send the reader off on tangents of thought and realms hitherto unexplored. After the story ends, of course. Until that moment, the story pretty much has you where it wants you.

There are thirteen stories in this collection, and all of recent vintage. Here you will find modern fairy tales, metafictions where a character named Jeff Ford is part of the story, biting commentaries on modern politics and insanity—lately almost one and the same thing–, observations on wealth and class, and none of the above. What you will really find, excusing the short-hand descriptive phrases attempting to categorize them, are stories. That’s what they are, first and foremost. The words attempting to categorize them above are cheerful failures. The stories are not. Nor are they cheerful.

Seriously. With a title like “A Natural History of Hell,” you were expecting sweetness and light? Oh, you’ll get that, too, but sparingly. There’s a dark, unflinching heart at the center of these stories. It looks in humanity’s mirror and describes what it sees, with neither fear nor pity to hinder it. There’s “The Thyme Fiend,” where only a cup of tea brewed from the herb of the title keeps the horrors at bay, until the time comes when they simply must be let in. Or “Blood Drive,” when an insane premise is logically followed to its insane conclusion and the world turns merrily on. One of my personal favorites, “The Angel Seems,” where common sense humanity shows that it has learned the proper way to treat a god.

Quibbles? Okay, fine. One or two of the endings did not quite come together for me. I only mention this at all because those cases were one of the few times I was forced out of the story into a consideration of plot, which normally you don’t even notice in a Ford story, even though it’s always there. Whatever strangeness is going on, you just go with it. If, for an instant, you can’t, it is noticeable. Fortunately, it is also very rare.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I do confess to being slightly put out by one story. We tend to get that way when we read a story someone else has written and sigh, “Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?” This happened in the centerpiece story, “A Terror,” where Emily Dickinson takes that famed carriage ride with Death. That line from HS English –“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me” is all it takes to set it off. Not that my complaint matters. If I had written a story on this premise, it would not have been like this. Ford did it his own way, which now seems to me the only way, and he owns it.

He owns all of it. Thirteen stories only Jeffrey Ford could have written. Fortunately for us, he was around to do it. May he write many more.