Reimagining the New Testament

Title: Children of God

Author: Lars Petter Sveen

Translator: Guy Puzey

Publisher: Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, 2018)

ISBN: 978 1 55597 820 4

Three soldiers sent by King Herod to massacre innocent babies experience a moment of doubt, only to have their resolve strengthened (and hearts hardened) by the words of a sinister old man. An urchin boy styling himself King David sacrifices everything to keep his subjects safe. A rich man seeks out healers and prophets, desperate to cure his first-born son of a debilitating stutter. A prostitute searches for the man she loves and finds acceptance and community with a group of strangers. This baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Swedish writer Lars Petter Sveen reimagines the Bible as a work of speculative fiction, freshened up with contemporary prose. Featuring an overlapping cast of lepers, prostitutes, orphans, murderers, and thieves – these stories remind us that Jesus’ followers were often society’s outcasts. Sveen gives voices to the men, women and, children who are mentioned, but not considered important enough to name, in the Christian Gospels.

Children of God is told in the straightforward, character-driven style of a genre novel. There’s a substantial amount of dialogue. The prose does the job, but Sveen is not a stylist and Guy Puzey’s translation (from the original Norwegian) reflects that reality. But if you like fantasy-style novels, and aren’t quick to cry BLASPHEME!, this isn’t a bad read. In “I Smell of the Earth” a dead woman seeks to escape her demon lover. The demon is defined only by his voice, there is no physical description. We recognize him by the sibilants of his speech patterns. The way he hisses out the “s” in Ssssssarah, appearing suddenly out of the darkness, is chilling.

In “Martha’s Story” a young girl plays a game with an old man in which they both must tell stories to Martha’s little brothers and sisters. This old, blind man “stays in the shadows while light falls elsewhere” and connects the material world to the spiritual. He appears throughout the book. More Saruman than Satan (though, of course, we’re meant to recognize him as the latter) he plants doubt and corruption wherever he goes. He will tell the children a story to make them cry. Martha must make them smile or laugh again, or he will take her as a forfeit (one guesses to suffer Sarah’s fate). “Martha’s Story” is formatted differently from the others in the book – surrounded by wide margins which compress the text, giving it the appearance of a children’s book. It’s the second to last story. In my opinion, it should have closed the book out. Without spoiling too much, when it’s Martha’s turn she pulls a character we’ve met before into her tale, allowing him a chance at redemption. It’s a surprising, metafiction moment that had me thinking of another Graywolf book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, which touches on the same idea: the performance of author as a god. A strange and unexpected connection.

Discovering how the stories overlap and tracing the connections between the individual characters is a large part of the fun. For that reason, I recommend reading in order. There’s very little world-building otherwise, either historical or genre, and there appears to be the implicit (if unspoken) understanding that the reader brings at least a superficial knowledge of the Bible to the page. Eight years of Catholic school, after which I lapsed hard, stood me well. While probably not necessary, having that foundation did make things more interesting.

Children of God is Sveen’s English language debut. An entertaining, occasionally formulaic collection based on New Testament stories by an author who recognizes that the foundational themes/tenets of Christianity, in which the forces of good and evil battle for the hearts and souls of mankind, lend themselves handily to the genre of speculative fiction.

Mad About Moers! – A Review of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

Summer is over, but no one says we need to back away from the escapist fiction!  There’s no shame in losing yourself between the covers of a good book.  Just don’t confuse this kind of escape with the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you were reading on the beach.    Save those for next year’s daiquiri.  Instead, we advise walking proudly into the Sci-Fi / Fantasy aisle of your local bookshop.  Shove past the pallid guy with the stack of Forgotten Realms paperbacks and the teenage girls with dark circles under their eyes surrounding the Twilight feature table.  Hold your head high!  We’re about to let you in on a little secret.  You see,  there are fantasy novels and then there are Fantasy novels.

In the latter category are Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  Books so cleverly conceived and brilliantly written that they can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike.  Their authors don’t tell stories, they create worlds.  Worlds that are intriguing, exciting, and a little bit frightening.  Unfortunately, everyone has read those stories (or should have).  You’re looking for something a little more BookSexy, a little more cutting edge – a book that hasn’t gone viral…at least not yet.

Moers.Statue

Enter Walter Moers’ Zamonia novels, published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and cartoonist who has had five books translated into English (four of which are set in Zamonia).  The most recent being The Alchemaster’s Apprentice.  These books can be read in any order, so don’t worry about starting with the newest book first.  What Moers has done is set about exploring Zamonia – so while characters may make cameos in eachothers’ stories, this is not a chronologically told tale.  You will not be following the continuing saga of one single character or event through a series of books.  Instead, with each story the reader is allowed to pop in and out of different sections and cities of Zamonia.  You learn about Wolpertings and Crats, Lindworms and Blue Bears, Shark Grubs and more.  You’ll visit Bookholm, the Netherworld and, in this newest adventure, Malaisea.

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia!  A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag.  A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.

Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent.  Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’.  Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction.  Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing.  Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.

And the cause of all this sickness is Ghoolion the Terrible, the Alchemaster of the book’s title and resident of the creepy-looking castle.

Echo, a Crat (looks like a cat, but can speak any language and has two livers), is our hero.  After his mistress’ death he  is left to starve on the streets of Malaisea.  Ghoolion finds Echo and offers him a Faustian bargain.  Until the full moon he will feed Echo the most delicious foods the Crat has ever eaten and teach Echo all his alchemical secrets.  Then, at month’s end, Ghoolion will render Echo down for his fat to use in experiments (Crat fat being extremely rare).  Seeing no other option other than starvation, Echo agrees.

Moers is not only an inventive writer, he is also a very funny one.  As the story progresses, Ghoolion (not without a certain charisma) and Echo form a demented odd couple.  The Alchemaster more than keeps to his part of the bargain – and the two main characters seem to develop a mutual respect which borders on friendship.  Their interactions, evenMoers.Story moreso than Echo’s quest to break his contract, really propel the plot forward.  (In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole killing the Crat for his fat and torturing the citizens of Malaisea with fear and disease – we’d be rooting for team Ghoolian).

The subtitle of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is A Culinary Tale from Zamonia – and the Zamonian delicacies Ghoolion prepares for Echo are an important (as well as entertaining)  element of the story.

My dear Echo,

I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day.  However, the honey on the bread is very special.  It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.

Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy.  But be sure to chew with care.  It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed.  Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time.  The risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.

Bon Apetit!

Succubius Ghoolion

‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley.  Whatever.  After last  night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without it’s knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk.  The milk tasted odd – soapy, somehow – so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away – and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.

‘Ouch!’  he said, but that was as far as he got.  The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiraled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.

When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him…

(What comes next is one of the funniest scenes in the book, but we won’t ruin it for you).

Moers.5The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is a story that you lose yourself in – the very definition of escapist literature.  It has a cast of supporting characters and settings – all examples of Zamonian flora and fauna – that will fascinate and enchant you.  And when you finish, we promise you’ll want to get the rest of the series:  Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures; The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear, and The City of Dreaming Books.  You can pass them on to your friends or just wait for them to discover the books themselves.  “Oh… Moers?  Sweetie, I was reading him back in 2009. The movie just isn’t as good…”

Suggestions:  The Zamonia novels are perfect to share with the little people in your life.  Whether as a bedtime story that won’t put you to sleep,  or just to give you something to talk about on the car trip to the grandparents (nothing like discussing Leathermice philosophy with your favorite tween) – there’s something here for everyone.    Including illustrations.

*R.I.P. IV Challenge

Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders by Neil Gaiman (Audio Book)

Neil Gaiman made comic books cool before…well…. before comic books were cool.  Three years after DC Published The Watchmen, Gaiman’s The Sandman came out on the Vertigo imprint, and helped pull the medium out of adolescence and into the realm of serious literature.  (It was also one of the first comic books to attract a loyal female readership).  The 75 book series was different from the standard superhero and mutant fare.   It immersed its readers in fantasy, mythology & literary history, – overlapping an archetypal past onto the modern world.   William Shakespeare, Orpheus, Lucifer, and Cain & Abel were all recurring characters.  It was in many ways the introduction of the graphic novel to the “literary” world.

So it was no surprise that when Gaiman moved away from comic books and into writing novels that he stayed with the fantasy genre.  Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boyes , and of course Coraline, are all wonderful and I can’t recommend them enough.  But on a 5 hour trip to Pittsburgh I decided to purchase Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders from Audible.com.  I saw the collection of short stories, poems and prose as a return to Gaiman’s comic book roots; where each issue was  an installment in an overall story arc.  While I don’t regret my selection, I do have mixed feelings about it.

At 10 hours and 51 minutes long, read by the author, I didn’t finish the whole download during the round trip . I could have, but frankly it would have been a bit much.  These stories were much bloodier and heavier than I expected.  (There was also quite a bit of sex…  Not a bad thing – just unexpected).   They are on the whole haunting.  Days after reading one it will linger in your mind.  Frequently, even though you’re pretty sure you can read between the lines or predict what happens after the story ends – you realize that you can never really be sure, can you?  I mean, he never actually tells you… does he?  All this adds up to an unsettling collection with too little humor, and what humor there is being pitch black.  Gaiman creates a mood wonderfully, but in this case he has used his powers for evil.  After each sitting I turned off my ipod feeling rather bleak.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed Fragile Things.  A few stories are quite funny (I only wish there had been more).  I particularly liked one with a nice twist about an author’s struggle to write a terrible, and unintentionally hilarious, Gothic novel entitled Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire (also the title of the story). Another favorite was about a pair of boys crashing a party and attempting to pick-up girls, which has an interesting take on the Men are From Mars & Women from Venus phenomena – quite literally.   Two more stories which gave me chills (in a good,  ghost-story-told-around-the-campfire-with-a flashlight-under-your-face kind of way)  were about young boys meeting eerie playmates, featured the same red door knocker, and were both told using  frame stories. (Probably not a coincidence).  I’d strongly recommend skipping the story entitled Feeders & Eaters altogether if you have a delicate stomach.

These stories are probably more palatable read in a book, one at a time with long breaks between sittings… but I highly recommend the audiobook.  Gaiman’s readings are inspired – they transport you into the story.   His vocal expression may be what makes the experience so unsettling.  (He does the voices!)   For those of us who always loved Gaiman’s writing, its nice to know that he is a true storyteller in every sense.

Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that just because it feels like being read a bedtime story, these stories are suitable for young ears.  And I wouldn’t recommend them before bed.  I can’t imagine anything creepier than driving into Pittsburgh at 11PM listening to The Flints of Memory Lane, but hearing it right before attempting to go to sleep probably would make the cut.

Is it BookSexy?  Will it help to make you a more interesting person?  Well, yes… and no.  There is beautiful writing in Fragile Things, and beautiful stories.  You’ll find alot to talk about.  As a collection, though, it gets to be disturbing.   I suppose the same can be said about taxidermy.  One stuffed dead animal in a room can be an interesting conversation piece.  Twelve or fifteen is the Addams Family Mansion.

My advice:  It’s best to err on the side of moderation.  Parcel out these stories.  They’ll be easier to enjoy and the reading will last that much longer.

And should you ever come to a door with a scarlet door knocker in the shape of a demon’s face?…  Don’t knock.