I read this in response to a request from its author, James Hutchings. The book is self-published, I think, and can be obtained through Amazon or from James’s blog, Teleli, where the second post down explains the giveaway. I’m a nice chap, so I bought it at Amazon.
The New Death and Others is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in the city of Telleli or perhaps in its associated world. The world of Telleli is a slightly bizarre or carnivalesque version of a swords and sorcery setting, like a kind of irreverent Lankhmar, and the gods feature prominently in Telleli life. Many of the short stories in this book feature those gods, or humans or other beings of Telleli attempting to communicate with or challenge those gods. The gods are clearly capricious and not entirely intelligent, and not particularly interested in the affairs of humans – they seem to be caught up often in their own silly little dramas, and the consequences of these dramas for humans do not really get much consideration. There are also a few stories in other fantasy or near-fantasy settings, and at times the stories cross from fantasy into a vaguely fantasy-realism kind of setting. The stories are often irreverent about both the fantasy genre and the gods they describe, and a few of them are straight-out comedy, with humorous footnotes and a punchline. Examples of the kinds of stories in the book are:
- How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name: A story about a sorceress in the town of Telelee who has learnt all the magic known to humans, and begins to seek out the secret knowledge of the gods. This puts her into a collision course with the cats of Telelee, and the results are unexpected for both sorceress and reader alike. This is a well-constructed short story, combining two stories (the sorceress and the cats) in a very concise and tightly-worked structure. Weaving the plot and characters from two separate storylines into a single arc, with a twist, in the space of a couple of pages is no mean feat; making the story work and evoking a sense of the town that the tale is set in, the mythology of its world, and the particular character of both the cats and the sorceress deserves, in my opinion, a fair bit of respect. This is a nicely done story
- The Face in the Hill: This is an extremely short story about a politician seeking answers to a significant quandary his society is facing, and manages to fit a neat moral message into a very small space, delivering a powerful ending and a nice description of the key conflicts facing the society in question all within the context of the politician’s journey to consult a particular oracle. In this same five pages we also find out the ultimate results of his decision. It’s a well-balanced and entertaining tale, though perhaps a little heavy-handed.
- Everlasting Fire: one of the directly comedic stories, this story tells the tale of a demon named Lily, working in hell, and her tragic love affair with one of her underlings. It includes several bad puns, footnotes that add to the self-referential humour, and a lot of cute jokes about hell. It’s also stuffed full of management speech and bullshit bingo, so successfully conjures the image of hell as just another workplace. The ending of the love affair is a little bit 1984, and the asides describing hell are just exactly what it would be like in a really cheap christian morality play (the sort that we all poke fun at, but that has never really been written). This kind of humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but it’s well done and funny.
A lot of the short stories in this collection are good examples of the craft of short story writing: pithy, quick to establish characterization and setting without falling back on cheap stereotypes, and often delivering an unexpected ending that keeps you guessing and engaged right through the book. If I have any complaint about them, it’s a complaint common to Australian art: the continuous irreverence and refusal to take the work seriously can, in my opinion, undermine fantasy and sci-fi settings, and I wish Australians would do it less. It’s like Australians are scared to just sit down and write a serious genre novel, or create a serious genre film; this is why Buffy or Star Wars would never be made in Australia. But on the flipside, this kind of irreverence is refreshing if you don’t read too much of it, and I don’t, so I can’t complain specifically about this book. It’s a general gripe about the production of culture in Australia. My main gripe about this book is that it contained quite a bit of poetry and most of it I didn’t like (If My Life Was Filmed and untitled I really liked). I skipped most of the other poems after a couple of verses. But I don’t know if that’s a commentary on the quality of the poetry or on me – I’m pretty tough on poetry generally, and even tougher on theatre (which is, in general, shit).
One other minor complaint I had about this book is that in many of the stories I got the sense that the author was constructing a certain atmosphere and level of irreverence, but sometimes let down the story by overdoing the irreverence or overdoing the setting. This is a hard line to tread in writing semi-humourous or irreverent genre stuff: you need to be sure that your jokes don’t cross a certain poorly defined line, and you also need to make sure that your setting has the right level of seriousness and authenticity to match the tone of the tale. I found that occasionally Hutchings would fall afoul of these traps, and a joke would be out of place or the setting would suddenly become too heavy. I guess that this is a common problem for a new writer, and given the difficulty of maintaining tone and style in an endeavour like this I can’t really fault him.
Overall, I think this work is an excellent first book, a fine contribution to a small field of irreverent-but-serious genre writing, and a collection of tightly-constructed and entertaining short stories. For $0.99 it’s a bargain! In fact, my main question is how work like this can be not picked up by a serious publisher, while the book I read afterwards (review to come) was. But there’s no point in dwelling on injustices: buy the book and give James Hutchings less than his just reward for the work.