Defenders

Defenders by Will McInstoshReview: Defenders by Will McIntosh (Orbit, 2014)

The invasion has begun. The Luytens, starfish-esque alien creatures, have arrived, initially sequestering themselves in remote rural locations but now mustering their forces and attacking our infrastructure. The battle is… not going well. The Luytens have one secret weapon, in addition to their deadly heat and lightning rays, which all but assures their victory: telepathy, If you’re within 8km of a Luyten, it knows all about it – and so do all of its comrades within range. Pop up from behind cover to sneak a quick shot at one and it’s already aiming for the precise spot you’re thinking of putting your head. Game over man, game over.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Having studied one injured Luyten, held in isolated captivity aboard a ship, far from its communication network, we discover that the telepathy depends on one crucial ingredient, the serotonin in our brains. No serotonin, no mind-reading. And so a team of scientists begin work on mankind’s last hope, a genetically-engineered breed of super-soldiers, the Defenders; towering, three-legged giants, designed to fight and hate the Luytens and utterly free of serotonin. Of course this renders them also bereft of emotions, creativity and everything else we take for granted, everything which makes us human. But they can fight. Oh boy, can they fight. And that might just pose a problem…

The above synopsis pretty much just takes up the first third of Defenders. Yes, the whole alien invasion, near-defeat of humanity and the epic battles resulting therefrom are merely setting the scene for what turns out to be a massively thoughtful and addicting read. Will McIntosh peppers his latest novel with a cast of conflicted characters who, over the span of several decades, must deal with not only the problem of contact with a technologically superior race, but also the consequences of our rash actions in defending ourselves. From Kai Zhou, the young boy who discovered and saved the injured Luyten known as Five, saved the world and yet became The Boy Who Betrayed The World, to Dominique Wiewall, head designer of the race who saved us and potentially architect of our downfall, there are no clear-cut heroes in this book. Everyone has their flaws and more importantly they all know it. As much of the book is dedicated to people wrestling their own demons as it is to the alien menace.

What’s more, McIntosh takes a very George RR Martin approach to character development. There’s no time for sentimentality here, this is a military sci-fi novel first ad foremost and he does not patronise his audience. War is brutal. People die. If it serves to move the story forward then heads must go on the chopping block, hero and villain alike.  So don’t be surprised when you see someone you have grown to love chatting happily in one scene, only to learn of their death in a throwaway line five pages later. Nobody in Defenders has a magical Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Behind all the explosions and gunfire there is a lot of serious work going on. Defenders raises some big questions along the way, mostly relating to responsibility and facing up to the consequences of our actions. Whether on a personal scale or at the level where our choices could lead to extinction, McIntosh wants us to think about thinking, about weighing up alternatives carefully. And given the three races clashing throughout the novel – humans, Luytens and Defenders – you’ll find yourself pondering the old adage, is the enemy of my enemy really my friend. At every turn we find divisions between races which were once united and unity where once division reigned. This is not a clear-cut, black and white war like War Of The Worlds (to which the opening of the book seems to be a sincere homage). Race relations in Defenders are subtle, ambiguous and ever-shifting, much as they are in our own world.

I’ll admit that when I picked up Defenders, based on mentions on a couple of websites I frequent, I was expecting something of a pulpy, sci-fi invasion story. I’m very happy to report that what I experienced blew my expectations out of the water. This is a tale which very much deserves to join the likes of HG Wells’ aforementioned classic and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in the canon of man vs aliens literature, managing to perfectly blend a compelling war story with a thoughtful examinations of the choices which arise in our darkest hours.

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Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted ChiangReview: Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang (Small Beer Press, 2010)

“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”

Finding an author like Ted Chiang is a rare occurrence. A writer who speaks not only to you personally but also serves to illuminate the works of others, revealing hidden depths you would never have stumbled across in works you’ve cherished for years. Chiang’s almost miserly output – a mere 14 short stories and novellas over more than two decades – cuts right to the core of the sci-fi genre, revealing its beating heart in all its imaginative glory and adding a shot of adrenaline for good measure. To have only discovered him now pains me. To realise that in finishing this collection I have depleted over half of his catalogue is unbearable. But at least I can do my best to tempt you to join me in the ecstasy.

Stories Of Your Lives And Others covers a bewildering variety of styles, subjects and eras. The collection’s opener for instance, Tower Of Babylon, thrusts us not into the future but the Biblical past. We join a team of miners on their journey up the mythical tower, learning the secrets of its constructions from fellow labourers as they go. Why would miners of all trades be required at the peak of this greatest of all monoliths? Because the vault of Heaven has finally been reached and mankind is ready to break through to the world of gods. The action takes place at a meditative pace, steadily ascending as the mechanics of this universe slowly reveal themselves. However, the gods of whom they are in pursuit seems mightily conspicuous by his absence. The story’s twist ending is pitched perfectly and will have you smiling and contemplatively stroking your beard (where applicable) for a time afterwards.

And so it is with the remainder of the stories. There’s a wonderfully novel mash-up of the time travel genre with the Arabian Nights style of story-telling, multiple story-lines and time-frames wrapping around each other to dizzying effect. I lifted the quote at the start of this review from a remarkably touching tale of a robot making the momentous discovery that his universe is approaching the equivalent of the entropic heat death which awaits our own. There’s the incredibly poignant and moving tale of a loving partnership in the process of disintegration, told through the lens of a terrifying mathematical discovery in Division By Zero. Yes, maths can be terrifying, trust me. Hell Is The Absence Of God drops us into a world where it’s taken for granted that Heaven, Hell and angels all exist – they’re there to be empirically verified by whoever cares to look. Given this premise, Chiang embarks on a study of blind faith versus rational investigation, managing to avoid appearing condescending to believers while still wielding his scientific skepticism like a scalpel.

And there’s the titular Story Of Your Life, of particular interest to the language teachers among us. Here Chiang grants us a unique twist on the first contact story, with alien lifeforms arriving on our doorstep and calmly awaiting communication. However, unlike other tales of this ilk, there is no universal translator available. Instead we join a linguist tasked with learning an alien language from scratch, painfully aware that we have not evolved to discern the sounds made by our visitors’ physiology and with an almost entirely unrelated written language to contend with. All the while the story is framed by an apparent series of letters to her daughter, speaking of events past as though they yet awaited in the future and leading us towards the time-twisting conclusion.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get into a detailed discussion of each and every tale within these pages. They all merit extensive examination and there’s barely a wasted word anywhere. However I’ll simply leave it to you to find out, for the pleasure will be all the greater when you get there. I will say this though; if you care at all about science fiction, creativity, intellect and masterful writing then you would do yourself an enormous disservice by ignoring Ted Chiang.

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Filed under Anthology, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Wolf In White Van

Wolf In White Van by John DarnielleReview: Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014)

John Darnielle is, according to the blurb accompanying Wolf In White Van, a member of some musical combo called The Mountain Goats and one of the most accomplished lyricists of his generation. News to me. I get the impression that his band are probably the kind of group whose entire fanbase knew them before they were famous, if you get my drift.  Random hipster-sniping aside, Mr Darnielle has been awarded the honour of joining the unexpectedly sizable ranks of musicians-cum-authors lurking at the top of my reading list. Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond (KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp) has long been my favourite novel/travelogue of all time and it has always had Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel sniffing at its heels. Add to that list Drummond’s solo works plus the likes of Woody Guthrie and Henry Rollins – music and literature can make a pretty good team. Unlike the others mentioned I was totally unaware of John Darnielle’s musical musings prior to reading Wolf In White Van so my opinion couldn’t be tainted by prior fanboy droolings. So, what does he bring to the table with his debut novel?

The action is told from the standpoint of the protagonist Sean. Horribly disfigured by an initially undisclosed accident, Sean’s life is one of isolation both self-inflicted and enforced by the disgusted reactions of those around him. While recovering in the hospital from the incident which left him barely alive, Sean crafts the idea for Trace Italian, an old-school play-by-mail adventure game in which players find themselves stranded in a post-apocalyptic America. Their only hope is to make their way towards the Trace Italian, a quasi-mythical fortress of safety in whose arms they will be protected from the marauding gangs of mutants and roving clouds of poison gas. A far cry from modern video gaming, the action is intensely personal and happens at a glacial pace, one handwritten letter at a time between Sean and those who found his advert lurking in the back of a dusty old comic.

As Sean’s tragic story unfolds in a series of fits and starts through flashbacks to his hospital days we become aware of a further tragedy in his universe, this time one emerging from Trace Italian itself. It’s long been a clarion call of the concern-troll arbiters of the PC brigade that video games are bad for you, turning innocent children into soulless killing machines. We’re a far cry from that but Darnielle plays out a case of taking a game too seriously, even when played at a rate of a move per week. The more details we glean about the exact nature of the event, the more we appreciate the parallels between it and Sean’s own life, both paths converging in the game he goes on to create.

Wolf In White Van is a book all about choices, about freedom. Why did Sean choose the option which led to his disfigurement and isolation? What led the participants in Trace Italian to their eventual predicament? To ask those questions is to miss the point. There were choices. They were free. They chose. In the game itself, lavishly described scenarios are boiled down to a shortlist of simple options: Go North. Examine weeds. Hide in dumpster. Yet however constraining these choices may seem they are all open and Sean takes great pains not to influence his anonymous participants, no matter how much he may come to like them. He’s a Sartre-esque dungeon master, dispassionately observing the players writing their own destinies.

But what really holds the entire book together is Darnielle’s almost uncanny grasp of language. While I’ve never heard any of his musical works I’m already inclined to believe that his reputation as a master lyricist is well deserved. Each paragraph is loaded down with incredibly rich imagery and a truly wonderful knack for creative metaphor. What marks him aside from many similar novelists is the way he doesn’t lean on this to carry his work. It remains at the same time unmissable and subtle, slipped in effortlessly, almost like an afterthought. Writing in this manner all too often comes off as pretentious or egotistical whereas Darnielle manages to make it seem almost as if he’s lurking in the background, barely wiling to commit his words to paper let alone bask in the praise of others.

And what on earth does Wolf In White Van mean as a phrase? Well that’s for you to find out. When the reveal comes it’s almost incidental but nonetheless haunting, a motif you’ll carry with you for the rest of the book and beyond.

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Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie PriestReview: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Roc Trade, 2014)

Apparently Lizzie Borden took an ax (it was missing an ‘e’, I’m trying to track it down) and gave her mother forty whacks. Really? Whacks with an axe (hey, the ‘e’ came back!)? Surely one chops with an axe? You whack someone with a blunt instrument like a club or the lid of a piano. Or did she do it with the axe handle? Or the flat of the blade? Anyway, she went on to give her dad much the same treatment, with an extra whack/chop for measure. Daddy issues. To be honest that was about the extent of my knowledge of Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden and her alleged pursuits. While a staple of American legend it always seemed a bit ho-hum to a European. I mean, who needs the Bordens when you already have the Borgias? Well thankfully Cherie Priest’s latest novel, Maplecroft, has set me straight on the history of America’s most notoriously (allegedly) wayward woman.

Well, only for exceedingly twisted values of ‘straight’. The story opens with Lizzie (hereon known as Lisbeth) caring for her sickly sister Emma in Maplecroft, the mansion they procured for themselves following the deaths of their parents. Being mostly unaware of the details behind the Borden story I did a little research into the affair prior to reading. Priest has done an amazing job of gathering up all the strands of the real-life incident and investigation and weaving them into her re-telling: a violent sickness had befallen the household for a few days; the maid was alerted by cries from Lisbeth; the bodies of the parents, Abby and Andrew were discovered, bearing 19 and 11 axe wounds respectively (40 and 41? Pfft…). Lizzie was the chief suspect but later acquitted by a jury, the real killer remaining undiscovered.

And it’s here that Maplecroft begins its delightful divergence from reality. For you see, Lisbeth did indeed take the axe to her parents. But she did it to protect not only herself and frail Emma but to save her town and perhaps the world.  Dark, nameless horrors lurk in the shadows of Fall River, slimy boneless fiends, denizens of the deep and disciples of the dark gods which lurk beneath the roiling waves. Yes folks, we’re deep in Lovecraft territory here and it’s one of the most enjoyable excursions I’ve had there in a good long time. Starting with an innocent mailing of a slime mold sample to a distant professor, Maplecroft slowly builds the tension until all and sundry are losing their minds and their lives and the world is on the brink of disaster.

On the one hand we have an awakening god making its murderous way across America to find the woman who unwittingly brought him to life. And back at the ranch we have Lisbeth struggling to contain her wildly intelligent sibling while dealing with her increasingly curious girlfriend and the unwanted attentions of a private investigator. Juggling these two strands together, Cherie Priest turns Maplecroft into an unexpected winner on a number of levels. The narrative voice she adopts is utterly beautiful, telling the story primarily through the eyes of Lisbeth and Emma yet doing so in a manner very firmly rooted in the period. Such is the thickness of the nineteenth century atmosphere that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were indeed reading an undiscovered Lovecraft novel. Priest has had plenty of practice with her forays into steampunk and now it just feels so natural, not at all forced, unlike the caricatures of older literary styles which usually crop up when an author attempts to imitate literature of an earlier era.

But it’s the attention to detail which really grabbed me. There’s not a single element of Lisbeth’s world which goes unexamined and it serves to pull you right in and keep a hold of you, immersing you in the antiquated horror all around. From the trusty axe with which she dispatches her unwordly foes to the wonderful acid bath under the floorboards of her basement, this is a world painted in deep, rich colours. You’re going to hear the creatures scratching against the door, you’ll see the stress take its toll on beleaguered Lisbeth and you will smell, the unimaginable stench of the elder gods at work. In marked contrast to the master whose works inspired Maplecroft, Cherie Priest has no qualms at all when it comes to describing the indescribable and it simply works.

I’d venture so far as to say that if you have no experience of HP Lovecraft then Maplecroft would actually be a wonderful place to commence your addiction. It’s not truly related to his works but the similarities in tone and subject are simply incredible and Priest’s work is a great deal more accessible. If you’re already a fan of unnameable horrors then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s Lovecraft for a new generation, written with an obvious love for the source material and doesn’t sully the name in the slightest. Cthulhu would be proud.

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Newsflesh Trilogy

Feed by Mira GrantReview: Newsflesh Trilogy (Feed, Deadline, Blackout) by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2011-2012)

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you wish the entire rest of the world would just disappear and leave you to get on with the important business of reading. A book that you’re picking up in your breaks between teaching classes, caring not one whit that you’re already a couple of minutes into class time and still haven’t left the teachers’ room. One which has you cursing every pedestrian distraction which takes you away from it’s pages – “Dinner??? Who needs food these days?”. Mira Grant’s Feed is one such book, one I had dismissed as a potential rainy day time-passer and left neglected on the bottom of the virtual pile. I am so, so glad I randomly decided to give it a shot. So glad.

Let’s get this out of the way first; Feed and it’s sequels are, ostensibly at least, zombie novels. I know that’s going to put some people off but bear with me. There’s a whole hell of a lot more going on in these pages. Set a couple of decades following the event known as The Rising (eerily close to current day), the world is dealing with the aftermath of a series of unfortunate events. A combination of scientific curiosity, medical genius and well-intentioned yet idiotic do-goodery have unleashed a plague upon mankind. The dead walk. And they hunger. I’ll leave the details – and there are many – for when you pick up the book, but suffice to say that the zombie origin story in play here is one of the most plausible (in the loose, fictional sense) and original I’ve stumbled across. In fact the depth and knowledge with which is is suffused carries across every aspect of the book, from character to background to, well, everything.

This post-Rising world has given rise to a new form of information distribution. It transpires that old media really dropped the ball during the disaster, toeing he government line and assuring everyone there’s nothing to see here, even as the undead are breaking down the door. The only ones getting the truth out there were bloggers, not beholden to any corporate or political interests and full of Romero-based advice for dealing with the recently deceased. While newspapers and TV stations remain in business, blogging is suddenly moved far up the pecking order with the best content providers netting hefty salaries, wide audiences and lucrative sponsorship deals. One such blogging team comprises adopted brother and sister Georgia (named for Mr Romero, very common post-Rising) and Shaun as well as a host of accomplices. Opportunity comes knocking in a chance to cover the upcoming US presidential elections, the first time a new media team has ever been invited to accompany a candidate on his tour. It seems like a dream come true but before long the body count starts rising and it’s hard to know whether zombies or humans pose the greater threat.

Now here’s where the genius of Feed, Deadline and Blackout lie. They’re zombie books, right? But there is almost no zombie action. What we are treated to comes in the form of the occasional large-scale set-piece rather than a continuous gruelling onslaught of the undead. Instead the bulk of the books comprise two far more important aspects. The first is the political and cultural, dealing with the campaign trail and the media following it. The analysis of the future of blogging is just wonderful to behold, especially the fracturing of bloggers into Newsies, Irwins and Fictionals (as well as subgroups such as Stewarts), all co-existing with and dependent on the others. Mira Grant sharply picks apart the flaws of old media and the potential benefits of the new, while being careful not to fall victim to her own hype. Her blogosphere is intensely detailed and believable, a world within a world which is all too easy and comfortable to slip into.

And then there are the politics. My god, she totally nails it with her depiction of a society ruled by fear to the extent that the fear is almost welcomed for the security measures it provides. They say the very best science-fiction depicts not the future but our own present and this is no exception. The security theatre surrounding our day-to-day existence in the post-9/11 world is brought to life perfectly by Newsflesh‘s blood testing kits. Not only do they serve to build suspense in a truly beautiful way but they cut right to the heart of the shackles we ignore, if not gladly wear, in real life.

The trilogy’s second beating heart is the characterisation. It’s a long time since I’ve found myself so heavily invested in people within the pages of a novel, found myself feeling so keenly in tune with them, so familiar. And of course, so beaten and bruised when Grant deals one of the literary body-blows at which she seems so adept. The team of Georgia and Shaun are near-perfect protagonists – edgy without seeming arrogant, colourful without being over the top and imbued with some mystical energy which seems to bleed off the page and infect your day-to-day life. The supporting cast is fleshed out (haha) equally well, from secondary players like Becks and Mahir down to bit parts like the wonderfully unhinged Dr Abbey. Hell, even her dog has more personality than a ot of leading fictional characters.

I can do nothing but heartily endorse these books and urge you to get reading right now. A word of warning though – it’s Feed, then Deadline, then Blackout. I steamrolled though Feed at an incredible pace and found myself slavering for more. Unfortunately I was using ebook versions. So I started the next book and wondered why there was so much discussion of seemingly major events following the first installment which were given little more than cursory treatment; disaster, deaths, betrayals, all dealt with in passing sentences. It wasn’t till 300 pages in that I checked. Yup, I was reading book three. Exit stage left, back to Deadline, charge through it then finish Blackout. And it was still one of the best reading experiences I had in 2014. That says it all really.

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Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelReview: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Knopf, 2014)

“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

There’s been something of a blog hiatus for the past few weeks due to my repeatedly attempting to cough up my entire respiratory system. I love this island but sweet mother of smog-induced asphyxiation is the pollution ever terrible. Anyway, it seems fitting that in the middle of my annual month-long malady I should start reading Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic bestseller from Emily St John Mandel. There’s nothing quite like hacking up glob after glob of revoltingly-coloured phlegm while the cast of the book you’re reading is doing exactly the same and dying by their billions.

Station Eleven is another of the recently feted literary genre releases which have seen the grimy, bleak portrayal of life after the fall elevated to the review sections of highbrow magazines and the bookshelves of those who would normally sneer at anything resembling sci-fi. It kicks off in an open-air theatre in Toronto with a production of King Lear under way. The aging star suddenly begins acting strangely. Within minutes he’s on the deck with a doctor emerging from the audience, trying in vain to revive him. A phone call to a colleague reveals that the stricken thespian is not the only one. And with that, civilisation is gone.

Almost frustratingly the action jumps ahead to a couple of decades in the future. Emily St John Mandel isn’t too concerned with portraying the collapse itself. She forgoes the gory details – smartly it turns out – and examines the aftermath as seen through a series of flashbacks from a small selection of survivors. The flu variant which swept the globe at an alarming speed left almost nothing in its wake and the world has become a hostile place. The majority of the action unfolds from the viewpoint of Kirsten Raymonde, proud member of the Travelling Symphony. Even at the twilight of mankind there is still a need for the arts and she braves the roads and settlements of the Great lakes area with her troupe, bringing Shakespeare to the dishevelled remnants. Little by little we learn more about how the world she inhabits came into being through the stories of those whose lives became intertwined with her own.

Station Eleven elicited in me almost entirely the opposite reaction from California which I reviewed previously.  From start to finish it was utterly gripping. The dystopia which Mandel crafted was horrific yet entirely believable, and fully fleshed out without delving too much into the kind of gruesome minutiae which may please hardcore post-apoc fans but could alienate a wider readership. The story of the collapse of the system of the world as we know it is beautifully mirrored in the more personal tale of a man slowly losing his soul as he almost inadvertently betrays and disappoints those around him.

In conjunction with the flashbacks is a tense plot thread set in the grim future as the Travelling Symphony, a work of beautiful creative genius in itself, comes face to face with the harsh reality of mankind minus the civilisation. I’ll admit I had a couple of issues with the plausibility of the story behind our villain, known simply as The Prophet, but he was a wonderfully menacing creation. Despite being described as a young-ish man, his character and the sense of brooding evil behind him bizarrely had my mind conjuring up images of the demonic preacher Kane from Poltergeist 2 & 3 whenever he was mentioned.

Station Eleven is a most welcome addition to the recent canon of, shall we say, socially acceptable sci-fi. It’s a book I would not hesitate to recommend to friends who have never picked up a post-apocalyptic novel before, much as I would A Canticle For Leibowitz or The Dog Stars. It’s at the same time a thoughtful, engaging read which you want to savour as long as possible and a tense page-turner which will be over before you know it. We need more books like this.

 

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Filed under Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

California

California by Edan LepuckiReview: California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

The year is, well, sometime in the middle of the 21st century. The forces of nature have, as per the warnings of damn near every scientist on the planet, wreaked untold damage across our world. Temperatures are soaring, rendering enormous swathes of land uninhabitable. What’s left is wracked by storms on a biblical scale and starved of the resources we once took for granted. That’s right folks, we’re back in post-apocalypse territory.

Suddenly it seems that the end of the world is the new zombie outbreak, which was in its own turn the new vampire drama. Everyone wants in on the act and from out of nowhere authors like Peter Heller, Colson Whitehead and now Edan Lepucki are bridging the gap between genre fiction and something which may appeal to the more literary types out there. Book snobs for want of a better epithet. This merging of worlds is certainly possible; indeed Heller’s The Dog Stars is hands-down one of the best post-apoc novels ever penned – insightful, thoughtful, moving and respectful to the genre from which it was birthed. Can the same be said for Lepucki’s debut, California? Well, nope. But read on, because just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it might not be worth your time.

Frida and Cal (the titular ‘California’, a university in-joke) are among the survivors of our planet’s steady and alarmingly rapid descent into unlivable chaos. The best chances for making a stand are either own one’s own wits or as part of one of the almost mythical Communities. Reservations for the super-rich, these gated islands of civilisation are self-contained biospheres, housing their paying inhabitants in the manner to which they have grown accustomed without a care for the steady degradation of the world around them. Cal and Frida are not rich. Packing all they can carry into a couple of bags, they head for the wilderness where they can use Cal’s agricultural know-how to build something resembling a life for themselves.

You just know a set-up like this is not going to last. Before long Frida is becoming bored of the isolation and going stir-crazy in their makeshift cabin. Forever brooding on the death of her brother Micah, a suicide bomber railing against the exclusionary actions of the Communities – not to mention the fact that she may be pregnant – it’s clear that something is going to snap. And before you know it there’s the triple whammy of a tragedy striking nearby, Frida revealing more than she planned to the mysterious travelling salesman August, and the revelation that their neck of the (literal) woods isn’t quite as deserted as they had once believed. Their lives are turned upside down in a matter of days and they are forced to come to terms with their respective pasts and figure out what their true desires for the future are.

Now that I write it down it seems like a truly promising set-up for an exploration of the post-apocalyptic world and the strains which it puts on relationships, communities and mental health. And okay, I’ll be fair, it actually does just that. California is a very accomplished piece of work, especially for a debut novel, and Edan Lepucki proves herself an adept at constructing both rich, substantial worlds and strong, believable characters. I found myself sucked in very quickly and by the time I was 100 pages in I was devouring the book at an unexpected rate. But then the last act happened.

I can’t pinpoint the precise chapter when it turned but suddenly I realised that I wasn’t reading a sci-fi dystopia any more. No, instead I was plodding through an old-fashioned mystery/drama with a ruined world lurking in the background as a McGuffin. The devastation was suddenly bereft of all purpose beyond that of window dressing. Instead of contemplating the wider issues of the politics, sociology and environment in the aftermath of the collapse I was getting mired down in a bout of finger-pointing, questions no grander than which specific character did what to whom and why.

Like I said at the start, your mileage may vary. I honestly don’t mind the human drama. It’s a driving force behind all the greatest works of fiction and a novel would be truly barren without them. However I do feel kind of cheated when a book spends its bulk hinting towards grander issues (the Group versus the Communities! An epic battle of ideologies!), only to abandon them by the wayside in favour of what boils down to a murder mystery and some family bickering. That said, if you’re not a die-hard genre fan and would like to get into the doomsday buzz then something like California could be the ideal introduction. Give it a blast, just be wary of what you’re getting into before you get your hopes up.

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The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly ThomsonReview: The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thomson (1979 Semi-Finalist Inc, 2012)

This review has been languishing in the ‘must-write’ pie for months and it’s a damn disgrace. The delay that is, not The Girl Who Would Be King which is bloody splendid. Kicking myself now for not having spread the word sooner. I think I heard about this one over at io9 and ended up downloading it as a spot of light reading for my summer holiday back to Scotland. Good choice yet bad choice – it had me utterly rapt from beginning to end but unfortunately was over in a flash as I devoured the majority of the pages on one sleepless flight. But anyway, before the praise I’d best go through the formalities.

Bonnie Braverman was orphaned by a fatal car accident, leaving her to spend much of her youth in a group home and pining for the return of her long-lost brother. Always the shy and retiring type it comes as something of a surprise when she finds herself rescuing one of her fellow inmates (for want of a better word) from the clutches of an imposing bully and her gang. Surely people aren’t normally able to hit that hard? And did she really just jump onto the roof of that building? Something has awoken inside Bonnie and it begins drawing her inexorably towards her ultimate fate.

The other half of that fate is Lola LeFever, a girl of similar years and verging on adulthood. Lola shares Bonnie’s orphanhood but with a slight difference – she murdered her mother herself in pursuit of a power she believed her to possess. A power which was Lola’s birthright and squandered by her useless, drug-addled mother. Before long she too is feeling the draw of the force inside her, leading her towards her opposite number, her nemesis.

The Girl Who Would Be King pitches a fairly classic good-vs-evil story put dresses it up with two post-adolescent American girls donning superhero costumes and trying to figure out just what they’re capable of. Woah, holy coming-of-age metaphor. You might guess from the subject matter that Kelly Thomson doesn’t take things too seriously but the book does actually have a fair amount of emotional heft and depth to it. While Lola’s story does provide some wonderfully over-the-top supervillain shenanigans there’s a whole lot more darkness and gravitas with Bonnie as she struggles to do the right thing while the world’s deck of cards seems stacked against her.

Actually, halfway through the novel I kind of expected a ground-shaking plot twist as a result of Bonnie’s trial by fire. I could smell it coming, it seemed like such a perfect way to throw expectations out of the window. When it didn’t happen I almost wanted to hunt down Thomson’s email address and just ask, “Why??? Why didn’t you go this way???” But in the end it didn’t matter because the way things unfold is just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just play it straight and keep piling up the tension until the grand finale and that’s the way it happens with The Girl Who Would Be King.

So yeah, maybe it missed a fantastic switcheroo but there’s still plenty to recommend this novel. An original plot despite borrowing heavily from the usual superhero tropes; two very strong characters in the form of Lola and Bonnie; and some action so ridiculously fun that Amazon had to print a disclaimer on their site that this is a prose novel, not a comic. It’s lightweight for sure but no less fun for that and noteworthy for the fact that its creation was funded by Kickstarter. Definitely one with which to while away the incoming winter nights.

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Horns

Horns by Joe HillReview: Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2011)

Check me out being all topical! Seeing as the big-screen adaptation of Horns starring Harry ‘Daniel Radcliffe’ Potter is released here this weekend – Halloween no less – I thought I’d best get the novel read so I could act all ‘the book is so much better’ on exiting the auditorium. Joe Hill’s horror debut, Heart-Shaped Box, took bookstores by storm  many moons ago and I was quietly impressed though not overwhelmed. He was a fresh, original voice in a slightly tired genre but wasn’t about to set the world on fire in my opinion. So how does Horns stack up? Was it worthy of the dollars the studio must have parted with? Read on…

Those of you who have read the blurb or seen the trailers will already be familiar with the central conceit of Horns; Ignatius Parrish awakes after a particularly drunken evening to a rude surprise. It seems he has sprouted a pair of horns from his head. Not just any old horns, proper devil horns. Actual horns. In his head. After initially dismissing them as the hallucinogenic detritus of an unusually toxic hangover he goes about his day. But of course, they’re real. And Ig’s problems are just beginning. The horns are visible to others but they tend to seem somewhat nonplussed by them and more concerned with confiding in Ig their darkest, vilest desires and most violent fantasies. And Ig, with a simple “Go for it” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” can set them on the path to damnation or salvation.

Now so far this is what I was expecting and settled back for a horror-comedic cavalcade of unsuspecting souls being tempted to their doom by demonic Ig. Bzzt, wrong. Horns is so much more than the pulpy joyride I was expecting and instead ventures far darker and meatier territory than I could have hoped for. It transpires that Ig is a man with his own demons stalking him. Just a year prior to the story’s opening his girlfriend, Merrin, was found raped and murdered following a loud and public break-up between the two of them. Needless to say Ig was the main suspect but also was not to blame. Unfortunately for him his own memory of the evening is an alcoholic haze and any evidence which could have either fingered him or cleared his name went up in smoke along with the rest of the locker, a cruel and suspicious twist of fate. Since that date he has lived in hell, guilty in the eyes of all around him and unable to even begin to find Merrin’s killer.

Now however, everyone who crosses his path seems to be revealing their innermost secrets. Skeletons are bounding out of closets and Ig is homing in on his nemesis. But those horns are getting hotter and the real Hell seems to be creeping ever closer.

Joe Hill manages to totally confound expectations by turning Horns into a seriously dark psychological-cum-theological thriller, a horrific tale of betrayal, anguish and revenge which seems increasingly biblical with every page turn. By the time the climax rolls around you swear you can feel the flames lapping at your feet, rooting for Ig every step of the way while becoming all too aware of the demon he is becoming. The structure of the book lends it a near-perfect sense of pace. With every encounter a little more of the fateful evening’s details are coloured in, each reveal becoming more painful and poignant, until the flood becomes almost too much. The fire-and-brimstone crescendo hits with exactly the right mix of tragedy and vengeance, providing an endpoint to the tale which satisfies without pandering to the reader’s expectations.

By the time you read this review you may have already caught the movie but don’t let that put you off. Horns is a twisted, vile little read and I mean that in the best possible way. Its darkness seeps through your skin and you’ll feel your own little horns sprouting before long. If that’s not a glowing recommendation I’m not sure what is.

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The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanReview: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking Press, 2009)

Okay, let me get this off my chest first – and trust me, the reference is almost obligatory when reviewing this book. It’s not that I dislike JK Rowling and Harry Potter per se. Despite her opposition to Scottish independence I’m sure she deserves some credit for enticing legions of kids to pick up books. And I’ve been assured that the later books in the series are rather ‘dark’, although having seen the final movies I can only assume this means dark in the same sense as a particularly upsetting episode of Scooby Doo. It’s just that something really irritated me about seeing hordes of adults with their noses buried in the latest of the Hogwarts chronicles, all buoyed up and pretending to be part of some kind of reliving-our-childhood club. Just stop. They’re kid’s books. Young Adult I can handle, and even enjoy, but these are for children. Little ‘uns. Proto-humans. By wasting weeks on them (yes, it boggles my mind that it could take so long), people blocked themselves off forever from works far more fulfilling, squandering time which would never be given back.

And I was a little jealous.

Because I loved magic. I grew up immersed in everything from Pratchett’s Discworld series to the futuristic scientific magic of Asimov. Secretly I wanted in on the act but my principles, better known to others as stubbornness, got in the way. The only direction was forward, I could not risk regress in my tastes for fear of missing something new, something shiny. The urge to be part of the water-cooler conversation wasn’t strong enough to overcome my literary snobbishness until, thankfully, Lev Grossman happened.

The Magicians has garnered a lot of praise and that has inevitably been garnished with generous helpings of Potter references. It’s easy to see why. The first act of the story follows a group of unassuming yet precociously intelligent teenagers who, upon applying to various universities, find themselves spirited away to Brakebills Academy, a hidden school of magic lurking behind alchemical camouflage in the Maine countryside. Quentin Coldwater is a withdrawn prodigy, previously unaware of the very real existence of magic and wrestling with an unfortunate combination of bewilderment at his new circumstances and the general malaise toted by every discerning late teen.

Soon Quentin allies himself with a cadre of fellow gifted rejects and they begin their rigorous training in the ways of the wand (although such relics are looked upon with condescending mirth by mystical sophisticates). What follows is a warm coming of age story as Quentin comes to terms with his abilities and failings while those around him struggle to do the same and, y’know, quests happen. The usual puberty stuff.

Key to the success of The Magicians is the fiction-within-a-fiction series of Fillory novels, a Narnia-esque children’s series with which all characters in the book are intimately familiar.  At first I found the books, a tale of children wandering through the looking glass to become kings and queens of a far-away realm, to be something of an irritatingly twee concept but as the plot progresses it becomes more tightly wound up with events and eventually part of The Magicians itself. Meta-fictions when done correctly can really add flavour to a story and this one is no exception, despite its saccharine ultra-Englishness feeling markedly out of step with the real novel’s more gritty consistency.

The writing itself is handled particularly well. Lev Grossman has a pretty wicked with and a wonderful way with language. His description of a “single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning” had me salivating at my work desk and desperately trying to identify the particular dram he was talking about. Another great surprise in The Magicians is the manner in which it effortlessly switches styles between sections. One minute you’re in pseudo-Hogwarts and the next it’s gone all Bret Easton Ellis meets Hubert Selby Jr in a magic shop. Then suddenly you’re playing D&D with Alsan. While this kind of transformation might unsettle some, I found it kept the pace up and made sure the story stayed fresh even during its inevitable periods of downtime.

With the following two books in the trilogy already loaded onto my ereader I’m totally sold on Grossman’s series. It’s the Harry Potter I never allowed myself to have but it’s also so much more. It’s a darker look at the fantasy kid-takes-on-the-world trope with the added bonus of containing an exceedingly honest, no-holds-barred look at the incredible rush and harsh dangers of young love. Whether you’re a Potter/Narnia fan, can’t stand them or just love good story-telling, go grab this one. Now.

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Filed under Fairytale, Fantasy