Paperback Summer is here (and running a little late) and I’m already knee deep in it, so let’s get right down to it after the cut…
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill (Vintage Books Edition, 2011. Originally published Hamish Hamilton, 1983) 164pp.
A short and sweet little book of gothic horror. Hill’s novel was adapted into a stage play much earlier in its life, and just this year was released in film form to enough success that it is already spawning some sort of sequel. The film is larger in scope and plays a little harder and faster with the rules that Hill establishes, but all in all it turned out to be a pretty solid adaptation and one of my favorite films so far this year.
The novel certainly has more in common with its story’s gothic roots, though. The volume is slim but deliberately paced and bears the frame structure, focus on the protagonist’s wavering mental state, and other trappings that one normally associates with the genre. There is little here to “scare” you, and the nature of the frame narrative removes any real sense of fear for protagonist Arthur Kips’s sanity and physical wellbeing, but the language and pacing are both effective enough to create an enduring sense of low-level dread.
Ultimately, The Woman in Black is a quick and pleasant read, and an interesting exercise in mimicking the form and function of a largely abandoned genre.
Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2011) 383pp.
A novel so Chandlerian it almost hurts. It’s the best kind of hurt, though, because even as it sort of makes me wish that there was a Philip Marlowe story about a mysterious magic that shackles the guilty to symbiotic animal companions, I’m also confident that Chandler couldn’t have done any better than Zoo City. Beukes’s second novel is—like Moxyland before it—a radical reinterpretation of a familiar genre (here, the Urban Fantasy mystery novel) run through a sharp, distinctly South African lens.
With a quick-witted protagonist equipped with an inexplicable magical ability, and a story centered on a magical community and the way in which magic alters/exacerbates criminal activity, the novel has a lot that ties itself to the Urban Fantasy genre in a very familiar way. But there’s a realism to it, a level of consideration given to the social impact that the sudden, public emergence of real magic would have, and the way in which these people would be perceived and dealt with, that really sets the world and the story apart. So far in her career, this seems to be something that Beukes excels at. It can probably be attributed to her roots as an investigative journalist…and it tends to lend an easy sense of grit and wear to the proceedings, which the genre often lacks.
As with Moxyland, there’s a tremendous amount going on in this novel, and it fires successfully on virtually all cylinders. Protagonist Zinzi December sometimes straddles too closely the line between the world-weary and abusive cynic you usually find in the Chandlerian detective novel and an outlook of true nastiness, but for the most part she comes out of things looking okay. Walking that line affords her some real room for positive growth as the story progresses, and it doesn’t hurt that almost everyone around her is an even more monumental asshole. It can also, situationally, be a deeply unpleasant book, but when you’re talking about murder and magic this dark then as far as I care that comes with the territory.
So is it quality? Undoubtedly. Is it good enough to make you kind feel bad about your own writing skills? It is if you ask me. Is it for everyone? Probably not. There’s a shortness and a cruelty to it that I can see turning off some readers, but nothing that I feel doesn’t fit or isn’t earned.
Hounded – The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book One – Kevin Hearne (Del Rey – Balantine, 2011) 304pp.
I’ve been almost overbearingly positive so far, so here’s my very own personal black sheep of June. Hounded, and the other Iron Druid Chronicles novels were recommended to me by a friend and fellow fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series of novels. She spoke very highly of the books and the concept was intriguing, so—despite it being in the category of Urban Fantasy novels with covers that would be more at home on harlequin romance novels—I picked up a copy of the first book in the series.
And how was it? Well. Uh. It’s complicated.
The series tells the ongoing story of Atticus O’Sullivan, an Irish druid with a lot of power, a pilfered magic sword, and a standing deal with a Celtic death figure…all of which has let him stay young and fit and breathing since the dawn of fuck-all forever. He lives in Arizona with his talking dog and runs a magic shop that allows him to have a relationship with the local magical beastie community that is not altogether different than what we saw in the middle seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s also got a pretty antagonistic relationship with a couple of old-world gods. It’s a pretty neat collection of elements which author Kevin Hearne approaches and compiles with obvious glee, and he’s got more than enough talent as a writer to keep the ride fast paced and mostly fun.
And while pacing and fun count for a lot, especially in this kind of book, there’s much to be said for balance and balance is something that Hounded desperately lacks. There’s a stretch in just about every Urban Fantasy series, where the protagonist comes into greater and greater power as the reader is slowly introduced to the rules and extent of the world. Oftentimes, the two learn at the same rate and this intertwines them…reinforcing the protagonist as a relatable character very early on and leaving his level of knowledge on par with that of the reader so that the reader is willing to stick by the protagonist as he becomes more and more powerful and—by association—less and less human.
The idea of skipping over this process and going straight to a super-powered protagonist is kind of appealing. At the very least it lets the writer do something a little different with his series. But it doesn’t really work out, or at least it doesn’t here. Atticus is so immensely powerful, wise, and removed from the concepts and morals of mortality that he’s only a few followers removed from being one of the Tuatha Dé Danann that he spends the novel railing against. He’s barely a human being, and it makes him incredibly hard to relate to. He’s just a super cool, super handsome, super smart guy with a couple of millennia of experience under his belt and a sword that can cut through anything which he uses to fight gods. Once you get beyond the collection of neat ideas and elements, there’s nothing much to him as a character, and that simple fact leads to a cascade of issues that remove all sense of balance in the novel.
There’s no struggle in Atticus’s ongoing struggle against Aenghus Óg. He breezes through things; killing gods and bedding goddesses and cracking wise. The big climax where he fights Aenghus, a coven of ancient witches, and a horde of slavering Hell-Things goes off with so little issue that he only (temporarily) loses an ear, and gains a second all-powerful magic sword and a sexy apprentice. This is supposed to be the culmination of a feud that’s been going on for thousands of years, a feud that has kept our protagonist on the run and hiding in the most isolated places on earth, and…he just kind of walks through it.
The whole book plays like this. Things happen and Atticus triumphs and everything is presented with sufficient levels of pomp and flash, but not a single scrap of it feels earned. Ultimately it all boils down to a halfway exciting read cut through with the frustrating, low-grade disappointment that you get out of something that is far, far too easy.
Caliban’s War – The Expanse, Book Two – James S.A. Corey (Orbit Books, 2012) 624pp.
The first novel of two-man pseudonym James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, made an early case for my favorite book of 2011 and was never knocked off of that pedestal. It’s clever mix of strong characters, old-school Space Opera, and genre-blending story came together in a fierce mix that was more fun and fast paced than any other SO novel in recent memory. It also managed to set the stage for larger and larger adventures without hinging on cliff-hanger endings or losing its sense of cohesion and narrative closure.
Well, the sequel does have a bit of a cliff-hanger ending. Two of them in as many chapters, really. But I can’t hold that against it, because Calliban’s War is, all in all, just about as good as Leviathan Wakes.
I’ll admit that as things got rolling, I was a bit leery. There’s a pretty distinct similarity between the openings of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War: the prologue introduces us to a missing girl and some Proto-Molecule nastiness, a character goes looking for the missing girl, and continuing protagonist Jim Holden and his crew are about to get into a tussle which will launch them into a larger world. There’s some other stuff going on, of course, (since we have four disparate viewpoint characters that have to come together this time rather than the previous novel’s two) but it led me to pause and consider that maybe this would have the sort of “Middle-Book Syndrome” that I’ve run into far too often, where the series starts strong and then enters a sort of holding pattern of repetitive padding until the final volume. And to some extent this proved true, but not without sufficient twists to avoid it being an actual problem.
Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck pare back the conspiracy aspects of the plot this time out in the interest of scaling up some of the action set-pieces and widening the readers’ view of the world that the characters inhabit. The larger number of viewpoint characters proves a smart move in that they give us an easy conduit through which to receive and process this new scope of setting, and the variety that exists in their personalities and occupations gives us a bit more diversity than we got with the duo of similarly skilled, but differently embittered, Holden and Miller in Leviathan Wakes. It also provides the reader with a much more comprehensive knowledge set once all of the characters are together aboard the Rocinante. It saves a fair amount of political and scientific conjecture when there are a scientist and a UN Assistant Undersecratary around to just fill in the gaps, and it leads to a speedier and more action-driven back half without ever feeling too convenient or unnatural.
The plot specifics I won’t say much about, because books this fun lend themselves well to the joy of discovery. But I will say that I really enjoyed getting to know the setting better (it’s nice to spend time with some science fiction that isn’t as dystopian as all that) and I’m very much looking forward to the ever-larger, more cosmic direction that the series seems to be heading in with Abaddon’s Gate next year…Even if I do still think that the original title of Dandelion Sky is way, way better.
Please consider this a continuation of my recommending the series.
Total Novels: 4
Total Pages: 1,475
Paperback Summer continues through July (and that article should be up shortly, since it’s August tomorrow) with a franchise near and dear to me, and one that may drive my reviews into a decaying orbit of nit-picking nerdrant. Take it or leave it at your own leisure, because I certainly won’t blame you. It’s…
…Star Wars Month. Aw, yeah.