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Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

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Filed under Crime, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Urban Fantasy

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Harper Collins, 2014)

So far my exposure to Jeff VanderMeer has primarily been in his role as an anthologist, specifically curating mind-blowing collections of stories found lurking in the darker alleyways of weird fiction. What a joy then to discover that he is actually a wonderful author in his own right. Annihilation is the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, all to be released this year. I’ve just started on book two, Authority, and simply cannot wait for the arrival of Acceptance. What’s the big deal? Well…

The Southern Reach of the title is a government agency dedicated to discovering the truth behind Area X, a bizarre phenomenon located on a deserted stretch of America’s coastline. Some years ago a hazy border appeared out of the blue, surrounding an apparently arbitrary area. The border has unique qualities to say the least. Nobody knows how it got there or who created it. No modern technology will work once you cross it. Communication with the outside world is impossible. If you enter at any point other than the designated doorway you will never be seen again. If you enter through the door you may return but you are unlikely to be the same person who went in.

Annihilation follows the 12th Expedition into Area X. Comprised of four females, the team members do not share personal information with each other to the extent that they refer to themselves by job title rather than name. Thus we have the biologist, anthropologist, surveyor and psychologist, with the story unfolding from the biologist’s point of view. Barely armed and equipped only with basic research equipment and an unreliable map, their purpose is to find out as much as they can about what is happening within, and hopefully to come back alive. Given that the biologist’s husband died of an unknown cancer contracted during his stint in the 11th Expedition she is understandably on edge.

As they venture deeper into Area X the team make more and more strange discoveries. An abandoned village adds to the sense of creeping unease and when they stumble upon a tunnel leading down into the earth their group cohesion (aided by the psychologists armoury of pre-implanted hypnotic suggestions) is stretched to the limit. What they find within defies both explanation and sanity and finally fractures the group, leaving them to figure out what they’re doing there, what the next move and how, if at all, they can get out.

Annihilation is a thoroughly gripping book from the outset. Told from the pages of the biologist’s field journal it denies the reader any background information, limiting our knowledge to what she herself experiences. This lends a claustrophobic and unsettling edge to an already tense situation. Throughout the story there’s an overarching feeling of helplessness, as if events within Area X simply carry trespassers in their wake, denying them any real freedoms and channeling them towards their inevitable end.

There are some rather obvious influences at play in Annihilation, from modern masters of alienation such as JG Ballard to the obvious creeping, nameless horror of HP Lovecraft. Jeff VanderMeer has obviously soaked up a lot of the works he’s been filing away in his anthologies. However this doesn’t stop Annihilation from being an utterly unique read, on which will keep you on your toes (and probably with all the lights on) until the closing pages. And even then you’ll be desperate for more.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s well-written, original, engrossing and thoroughly strange in the best way imaginable. Go buy it and Authority right now and join me in waiting for the release of Acceptance in September.

 

(Oh, and a little plug for some Taiwan-based friends here. If you like your weirdness and need a good podcast to listen to, go check out The Society Of Arozea.)

 

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Filed under Science Fiction