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Thursday, October 24, 2019 04:13 PM
Book Report: Hyperion
 by Fëanor

I could have sworn I'd read Dan Simmons' Hyperion before and been disappointed by it, but maybe I was thinking of some other book. The overall story was vaguely familiar, especially "The Priest's Tale," but most of it was entirely new to me. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I did read the whole thing, and now I want to read the sequel, so I certainly didn't hate it. It's a really interesting book, with some fascinating ideas and moving stories. Plus it ends on a damn cliffhanger, and I have to know what happens next!! But for a famous entry in a genre that is meant to be so forward-looking, it's an oddly backward-looking book.

I should note, I was going to try to leave spoilers out of my write-up, but I ended up... not doing that. So beware!

Hyperion is a sci-fi version of The Canterbury Tales, set in a future when humanity has left its dead home behind and formed an interstellar web of societies known as The Hegemony of Man ("Man"? Really?). Like The Canterbury Tales, it's about a small group of pilgrims on a religious journey who spend their travel time each telling a tale of how they came to be on the pilgrimage. The tales are used to critique modern society and religion. There's a twist, though: we're informed at the beginning that one of the pilgrims is a spy and a traitor to the Hegemony. Which is it?

Taken together, the tales also tell an over-arching story about a mysterious, monstrous, and possibly wish-fulfilling Lord of Pain (also known as the Shrike) that lives among time-travelling tombs on a haunted, alien world. That world, Hyperion, is the destination of the pilgrimage, and it's also become the center of an interstellar conflict that may very well flare up into a war that will end humanity. The combatants in the conflict include Hegemony military forces, a nomadic space-bound group known as the Ousters (sort of outerspace Vikings), and a group of artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore. Each of the pilgrims has their own secrets - most of them quite horrific - and their own perspectives on the Shrike.

"The Priest's Tale: The Man Who Cried God" is first, and is unabashedly a horror story, even making use of the epistolary format that Stoker leverages so effectively in Dracula. The horror of "The Priest's Tale" is religious, existential, and physical. Unfortunately, it also relies a bit on ableism. The story is told at a remove, as our narrator is presenting the journal of another character who he knew only slightly years ago, although he does eventually become caught up in the tale himself. The journal slowly reveals the horrific details of an awful parody of Catholicism that exists in secret on Hyperion, and which seems to have some distant connection to the Shrike (although the nature of that connection remains unclear). This tale is the least connected and the most unnecessary to the overarching story of the novel, but it is disturbing and effective. What it's trying to say about religion I'm not totally sure. In the face of this twisted mimicry of his religion, one character actually finds his faith is restored. But he also ends up crucified on an electrified tree, dying over and over again in horrible agony, so maybe that changes his mind.

Next is "The Soldier's Tale: The War Lovers." That title can be taken in two ways, and both are accurate to the story: it is about those who love war, but also about those who love each other in the midst of war. An infamous colonel tells the secret history of his love affair with a dream woman, and her connection to the Shrike, and to his own transformation from a military man to a man who fights for peace. The sex scenes are graphic and pretty gross. This book is very much a straight white man's book; even the one story told from the perspective of a woman (which we'll get to in a bit) feels weighted with a male outlook. For a book about cultures on alien worlds in the far future, it's also stubbornly heteronormative and really rather conservative in its descriptions of culture, gender, and sex. I don't think the existence of gay people is even mentioned in its entire length. The woman in this story is a kind of succubus; a feminine embodiment of war. Violence and sex are blended together until one final act of love looks likely to bring about a galactic apocalypse. How exactly, it's unclear. Although this is science fiction, a lot of what happens in it feels more in the fantasy vein, with monsters and magic and maidens struck down by terrible curses. But more of the overarching story is revealed in this tale: the Shrike appears to be seeking the end of the universe through some ultimate conflict, and is trying to use the Colonel as its instrument.

The third story is "The Poet's Tale: Hyperion Cantos." This story would seem to be particularly important, as the series of which this novel is the first entry shares its name (Hyperion Cantos). It's meta in more than just that way, too; the main character here is a famous poet who has come to believe he wrote the Shrike into existence and is in some sense responsible for the death and destruction it's caused. He even seems to believe that as he continues to write his Hyperion Cantos, he is writing the future - creating reality. It's possible we're meant to think of him as the author of this book - as if he has somehow written the story he's a character in. But again, for a character in a book about the future, he is very traditional, to the point of being almost antiquated. He's a bawdy, grossly male and heterosexual hedonist. He's constantly compared to a satyr, and most of his references and quotations (in fact most of the references and quotations in the book) are to very old works of art. Admittedly, references to made-up future works that the reader doesn't know about wouldn't have as much of an impact, but this book was published in 1989. Why have your poet quote Shakespeare, the Bible, and John Keats? Why is the only movie referenced The Wizard of Oz? Other art was made in between The Wizard of Oz and 1989! Our poet does admit he is very backward-looking, and his most famous work, The Dying Earth (which shares its title with a famous series by Jack Vance, a fact which Simmons slyly mentions in the book) is an elegy to "Old Earth," humanity's now dead (murdered, in fact, by an event known as "The Big Mistake") home planet. And later in the book, a character decries this civilization's increasingly desperate and violent attempts to hold onto old ways. But is that just lampshading, or is the backward nature of these characters and their society a legitimate theme of the novel? I'm not sure. I know I really disliked the Poet's Tale until its narrator's mind is destroyed by cheap suspended animation, and he has to rebuild his vocabulary from nine words (most scatological profanity). This section is poignant and funny. I was also fascinated by the idea of the poet writing the Shrike into existence, and the drama and romance of him haunting the ruins of the Poet's City on Hyperion, and his fiery confrontation with Sad King Billy and his Muse.

The most effective and moving story is definitely "The Scholar's Tale: The River Lethe's Taste Is Bitter." As you might have guessed from the ancient reference in the title, it also features some of the most traditional, conservative characters and societies that we've yet seen in the book. It's hard to believe a family unit and small town this traditional could exist in the future; it wouldn't be out of place in '50s America. The husband calls his wife "Mother," and the wife calls her husband "Father," and they bought their little girl a bike for her birthday, and the couple met at a college party where the man spilled something on the woman. The man is a scholar and researcher, but his research topics are things like a story in the Bible, and a writer who would be even more ancient in his time than he is already in ours. The scholar's name is also an extremely traditional Jewish name: Sol Weintraub. He is even dubbed The Wandering Jew in the tale. Why is this future so old?

Still, maybe it's partly because this setting and cast are so familiar that this story is so effective. Weintraub's daughter (who also has an incredibly traditional name: Rachel Sarah Weintraub) ends up traveling to Hyperion to perform research there for her graduate dissertation. While she's alone one night in one of the mysterious structures called the Time Tombs (structures that are somehow moving backward through time, and that appear to be connected somehow to the Shrike), she experiences a paranormal-like event that infects her with a unique disease: Merlin syndrome. She begins living backwards, becoming younger and younger each day, and each time she sleeps, her memories reset to what they were when she was originally that age, and she forgets everything she experienced since then. What follows is a brutal, heart-rending tale, as her parents try desperately to help their daughter while she fades slowly and inexorably away from them. Weintraub begins to have a dream where he is ordered by a God-like figure (possibly the Shrike) to bring his daughter to Hyperion and sacrifice her, and he becomes obsessed with the story in the Bible where Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Weintraub ultimately decides that any God who demands obedience before all else, any God who would expect a worshiper to be willing to execute his own family member, is an evil God that does not deserve worship. This is a deep and powerful story and probably the best in the book.

The next story is "The Detective's Tale: The Long Good-bye." Yes, it's really called that! And indeed it's very much in the format of an old-school film noir murder mystery/detective story, complete with a rough-and-tumble private dick armed with her father's automatic (his death by "suicide" inspired her to become a detective, natch), a mysterious femme fatale client who becomes a romantic interest for the detective, and a labyrinthine case that ultimately uncovers a gigantic conspiracy and brings to light the evils of society. The interesting bit (as you might have guessed from the pronouns used above) is that the two main characters are gender-swapped: the detective and narrator is a woman, and the femme fatale is a man. Well, "man" is a bit misleading; he's actually a male avatar for an artificial intelligence modeled on the poet John Keats. Oh, and the detective's name is Lamia. Yeah.

This one is rough. I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at all the detective story tropes, even though I actually like a good film noir. We also get some cyberpunk tropes thrown in for good measure, as this story explores the seedy underside of the equivalent of the internet that's envisioned by the novel. There are definitely some fascinating ideas here, though: the warring factions of AIs, their Ultimate Intelligence project, their attempts to fully predict the future by taking into account all possible variables (that reminded me a little bit of Asimov's Foundation novels), and the way the inexplicable, incalculable variable of Hyperion and the Shrike keeps frustrating their efforts. There's another weird religious thing going on in this story, as our detective ends up being revered by the Church of the Shrike as the future mother of some kind of messianic figure. (Yes, somehow she is having the John Keats cyborg's baby, like you do.) I haven't mentioned the Church of the Shrike before, but they're an interesting bunch who show up again and again throughout the novel. Adherents of the religion are often broken, suicidal people, but not all of them are. There's definitely something creepy and mystical going on with them. What it is exactly is - like so many other things - not explained in the novel.

The final story is "The Consul's Tale: Remembering Siri," and it's definitely one of my least favorite. Like "The Priest's Tale," it's also told at a remove, with a grandson presenting the journal of his grandfather, and then adding his own story onto the end. The journal jumps back and forth through time in a confusing fashion. This is probably an attempt to mirror the time-fractured nature of the relationship that is at the center of the story. The author of the journal is a "shipman" named Merin Aspic (Aspic? Really?) who, as part of his work to build the farcaster portal that will bring the Maui Covenant colony into the Hegemony, is constantly traveling between the stars at relativistic speeds, and so incurring enormous amounts of "time debt." Against orders, and in search of "nookie" (ugh), he mingles with the natives while on shore leave and ends up in a relationship with a (criminally young!!) girl who is unfortunately named Siri. (Constantly being reminded of Apple's voice-activated AI assistant made it hard to take her seriously as a character, although that's hardly Simmons' fault.) She's only 16! I mean, he's only 19 at the time, but still. It is very hard to like Merin, and very hard to understand what Siri sees in him, especially after he ends up murdering her cousin (!) at the end of their first meeting. But their time-fractured romance becomes legendary among her people. Each time he returns to meet her again, he's aged maybe a year or two, while she's aged decades. She has kids by him and raises them into men while he's off working on his spaceship. It's pretty gross. The tale very much follows in the tired vein of the "civilized white man is converted to the side of the primitive natives by their charming culture as personified by a sexy young girl" story (although in this case she doesn't remain young for long). The most recent example of this genre is probably John Cameron's Avatar, but there's also Dances With Wolves (which came out only a year after Hyperion), and I'm sure plenty more, much older examples. What we come to realize, as we jump back and forth through Siri and Merin's very strange relationship, is that the culture of Maui Covenant, and many of the people and animals that live there, will be utterly destroyed by the Hegemony when it takes over. It's old school Imperialism in its purest form. Which, okay. But the way the native culture is exoticized and romanticized, while we are given almost no details about it, is clumsy. And, again, it's hard to understand how a culture so traditional, archaic, and without technology would exist in this future universe. I appreciate that you're telling a story about how Hegemonic Imperialism is bad and destroying aboriginal societies is bad. But why does it have to be from the perspective of one of the White Imperialists, a dumb young jerk who's having lots of sex with the young native woman?

At the end of this story, the Consul - grandson to Merin and Siri, and high ranking official in the Hegemony government - reveals that the way the Hegemony treated Maui Covenant is the way it treats pretty much all colony worlds. It shows up, wipes out the natives, and takes control. The Hegemony, in other words, is pretty awful. We have learned almost nothing about the Hegemony's enemy, the Ousters, in the rest of the book; they're just kind of a barbarian boogey man banging at the gates. The Consul now gives us a rough sketch of the beauty of their culture, and reveals that he is the spy and the traitor. However, he is also a traitor to the Ousters. A kind of triple agent. His goal seems to be to eliminate everyone, to end the conflict by letting the combatants destroy each other. To let the Shrike loose on the universe to wreak whatever retribution it sees necessary on all of humanity.

Interestingly, his fellow pilgrims react by hugging him and absolving him. Then they all walk together down to the Shrike and the Time Tombs, hand in hand, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." And that's how the book ends.

I'm not even kidding!

I've almost talked myself into hating the book by writing about it here. It's got a lot of ridiculous tropey bits. And I find it hard to take a book seriously anymore that is so stubbornly traditional and stereotypical and heteronormative. It definitely made me think a lot about my own novel and its own flaws, and how I should probably revise it again to include more minorities and more queerness. White hetero male stories are pretty dull and old anymore.

All that being said, the book is well written, with some great ideas, and I really would like to know what the Shrike does when the pilgrims show up, and who lives and who dies, and what the deal is with the Time Tombs. So I'll probably read the next one eventually.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)
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Thursday, July 25, 2019 07:57 PM
On the Viewer - Unemployment Cinema
 by Fëanor

A benefit of being unemployed: I watched four (4) movies today. And most of them were good!

Shazam! - This was great. A ton of fun, with a moving character arc, and a wonderful message. Also, funny! Always nice to see an actually really good movie from DC that isn't unrelentingly grimdark.

Hellboy (2019) - This was disappointing. Some cool ideas, a few cool moments, but poor writing and execution. Usually I love Ian McShane, but I hated him in this for some reason. His character was just poorly written I think. There was also an undercurrent of misogyny that grossed me out.

Alita: Battle Angel - I didn't expect much out of this one. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi action thriller with lots of cyborgs and a CG main character with weird bug eyes. But I actually really enjoyed it. Cool effects and action, and an engaging story. Not the most imaginative plot, but I liked it anyway.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy - I'd been craving a bad-ass, old school, period martial arts film, and this was that film. So great. Jin Zhang! Dave Bautista! Michelle Yeoh! And even a cameo from Tony Jaa! Fantastic fighting, and a good story with a character arc and everything. Man, I really need to watch more martial arts movies.
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Friday, July 5, 2019 06:34 PM
Book Report - Middlemarch
 by Fëanor

I really enjoyed Middlemarch. A tragicomedy of the human experience. A romantic drama that's often laugh-out-loud funny, with many wonderfully realized portraits of very memorable, very real characters.

My favorite character: Mrs. Cadwallader. She's hilarious. I wish there'd been more of her. Most likable character: Caleb Garth. Runner-up: Mr. Farebrother. Both just really nice, decent guys. Most unlikable character: Rosamond Vincy. John Raffles is also awful, but ugh, Rosamond just drove me nuts.

Fred Vincy is kind of a self-absorbed ass, and, as everyone agrees (even Fred!), Mary Garth (who is awesome) could have done so much better than him, but they end up happy together, so it's all good. I also really enjoyed Celia and Mr. Brooke (up to a point, of course, only up to a point, as he would say), and of course I was happy to see Dorothea and Will end up together in the end.

Looks like there was a well-received BBC miniseries adaptation in 1994, so I'll have to check that out some time.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)
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Friday, February 3, 2017 09:06 AM
(Last updated on Monday, February 6, 2017 03:34 PM)
I Wrote a Book!
 by Fëanor

Well, I wrote the book a while ago. And then my brother drew and colored pictures to go with. And then he made a couple of physical copies just for us. But now! You can go and buy it yourself! On Amazon! It's only an eBook for now, but we're going to look into making it possible to buy a physical, printed copy, too. Anyway, here it is!

Ballyhoo, and Mom's Other Tigers

It's a children's book, in verse, about tigers, sort of. If you do purchase it, and like it, please leave a review on Amazon! I understand good reviews are a great way to help us generate further interest and more sales. Thanks much!

UPDATE: And now it's also available in paperback!
Tagged (?): Animals (Not), Books (Not), Children (Not), Personal (Not), Poetry (Not)
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Wednesday, May 4, 2016 12:59 PM
Book Report - Lovecraft Country
 by Fëanor

This audio book I just listened to was so great I thought I'd swipe the mothballs off the old blog to write it up.

The popularity of weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft only seems to increase as the years go by. But so does scrutiny of his racist politics and beliefs, which were so often given such lurid life in his writing. One of the things Lovecraft found most horrifying, for instance, was miscegenation. For many years a bust of Lovecraft was presented to the winner of the World Fantasy Award, but just last year the bust was retired due to Lovecraft's history of racism.

I love Lovecraft's work, but had of course always been deeply uncomfortable with his racism. I hadn't heard of a modern interpretation of Lovecraft's horror universe that dealt in any meaningful way with this topic - until I read about Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft Country not only deals with the topic, but makes it its central theme. The book's purpose, in fact, is to wrest ownership of Lovecraft's universe away from its racist beginnings and place it firmly in the hands of people of color. (I'm a little disappointed, therefore, to have discovered after the fact that the author, Matt Ruff, is white. It seems like this story was for a person of color to tell. But there you are.)

The novel is set in America in 1954, and is told as a series of short stories, each an episode in a larger, over-arching story, each with a different narrator, with the final chapter bringing all the narrators and stories together in an exciting climax. All the narrators are members of, or close friends with, the Turner family. The novel opens with the story of Atticus Turner, a young black man still trying to find his place in American society after returning from serving in the Korean War. He receives an odd letter from his estranged father, Montrose, about a secret birthright that he's entitled to, and he decides to head home to Chicago to see what it's all about.

If you're expecting magic and monsters in the first few pages, you'll be disappointed. Ruff takes his time getting to that, first introducing you to the surreal insanity and horror that is the Jim Crow South. On his way home, Atticus is assaulted, harassed, and stolen from by a policeman for the crime of being black. As the story goes on, and incidents like this are repeated again and again, we come to realize that threats to your life and property from white men with power are just a part of everyday life for black people in America. And yes, sure, we should all already know that. But being a white guy, I need constant reminders, and Ruff forces you to really examine and internalize what it must be like to live like that: in constant fear, in constant danger of death, with little or no recourse to the law, the whole world against you, hating you and suspecting you on sight.

And that's just the baseline of horror in Atticus' world! As his story progresses, things get even more dangerous, and way more weird. A mysterious, untouchable, silver car with tinted windows seems to follow him everywhere as his search for his father takes him through a maze-like forest - where unseen things lurk in the shadows - to a tiny, insular town called Ardham. Ardham isn't Lovecraft's Arkham - not quite - but it is in "Lovecraft Country" (New England). And it is the home of a Manor House on a hill, where the Braithwhite family lives, leaders of a sect of a secret cult called The Order of the Ancient Dawn.

I won't tell you any more about the plot, because experiencing it for yourself will be fun as hell. But it includes intrigue, theft, espionage, double-dealing, murder, magic, devil dolls, ghosts, potions, curses, body-switching, and man-eating aliens. And still, even among all this weirdness and horror, we never lose sight of the novel's real focus: the real-life horror of being black in America. So not only is it a rollicking read - a brilliant, thrilling, enthralling, bone-chilling story - it's also a very important and powerful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Lovecraft (Not)
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Saturday, February 14, 2015 05:12 PM
Book Report - The Shadow Police series
 by Fëanor

So far, Paul Cornell's Shadow Police series consists of two books - London Falling and Severed Streets - but I'm hoping there are many more to come because I love these stories, the characters, and the world they inhabit.

The series is an interesting combination of genres: police procedural and supernatural horror/fantasy. Although, Cornell takes his time introducing the supernatural aspects in the first book, so for the first few chapters you might think you're reading a standard cop novel. London Falling follows the story of Detective Inspector Quill; his boss, detective superintendent Lofthouse; his two undercover agents, Costain and Sefton; and analyst Ross, as they attempt to take down drug lord Rob Toshack. There are only hints that something deeper and stranger is going on - until they get Toshack into an interrogation room. Then everything blows up, rather literally. Faced with something inexplicable, the odd little team of investigators soldiers on, following a lead that takes them to a creepy house owned by a strange old woman who just might be a serial killer. And that's when things get even weirder. Quill, Sefton, Costain, and Ross all acquire (via a process that remains mysterious) a gift or a curse called the Sight, a brand new sense that makes them aware of the horrifying supernatural forces that lie underneath the London they thought they knew, and that plunges them into a world and a war that they are completely unprepared for.

The first book sees our team facing off against a powerful and ancient witch. In the second they must deal with the return of Jack the Ripper. Behind the individual evils they face in each case, they discover a larger evil, quietly seizing control of London and its forces and bending them to his will: a mysterious, silent, smiling man who may be the devil himself.

Besides the thrilling, suspenseful stories, the books are filled with fascinating characters, relationships, and magical concepts. Each of the members of the team has their own strengths, complexities, and ways of dealing with the insanity. Quill stubbornly continues to apply standard police techniques and procedure even to the most awful horrors of hell (his uncover of the true identity of the Ripper is a great moment that throws a big wrench into all the crazy conspiracy theories). Ross turns everything into graphs and spreadsheets and charts. Costain was the bad boy cop who got a little too deep into his undercover role as a gangster. When he comes to believe he's destined for hell, he tries to clean up his act, but it's just another role he's playing, another mask he's trying to wear. (In the second book a bit of a thing develops between the character who analyzes everything to death and the character who's nothing but layers of artifice, leading to one of the more complex relationships I've ever read.) Sefton, meanwhile, throws himself completely into the world of the Sight, trying to become the team's expert in, for lack of a better word, magic.

The way magic and the power of London works, however, is something that has to be learned slowly and carefully, with a lot of really dangerous trial and error. The team are beginners in this world and they blunder into it like blindfolded babies toddling into a minefield. We get to learn along with them, and it's a fascinating ride. Cornell has created a complex world with many mysteries, and even by the end of the second book there's the strong feeling that we've only scratched the surface. It's not a frustrating feeling, though - it's thrilling knowing there's so much more to come.

Cornell also has a very dark, very odd sense of humor that often caught me by surprise. I didn't expect so much of the first book to be about football, or for our heroes to be texted by Hell, and then call it back later and tell it off. Some of the ghosts and ghouls they see so regularly that they wave at them on their way to work. When a real world celebrity made an appearance in the second book, I expected it to just be an amusing cameo, but then that character became an integral part of the story.

The books are also often deeply disturbing. There are images and events in here that will stick with you for a long time. It's great stuff.

These are real page turners, too. I burned my way through the second book too fast, in fact. I don't how long the wait will be for the third, but however long it ends up being, I'll stick it out. I want back in that world.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Shadow Police (Not)
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Friday, February 13, 2015 05:42 AM
(Last updated on Friday, February 13, 2015 05:45 AM)
Book Report - The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black
 by Fëanor

E. B. Hudspeth's The Resurrectionist is a horror novel in an unusual format. It's split into two parts. The first is a biography of Dr. Spencer Black, who lived during the late 19th and early 20th century. The second is a document supposedly written and illustrated by Black, with editorial commentary throughout. The whole is written as non-fiction, as if Black was a real person. The first section even includes quotes from various primary sources - letters, manuscripts, newspaper articles, etc.

Black starts out a promising and brilliant surgeon, but his choice of specialty - deformities and mutations - is frowned upon as a waste of his skills, and his studies, the theories he develops, and the wild rage with which he defends them make him less and less popular with the establishment until he is finally forced out completely and decides to take his theories and work on the road as a traveling circus or freak show. His controversial theory is that mutations and deformities in modern people and animals are actually nature's way of harkening back to other, ancestral forms of life. So, for instance, a person born without arms is just a failed attempt at a throwback to a time when people had wings instead of arms. He is utterly convinced of the truth of his theory, and so determined to find proof for it that he begins, horribly, to manufacture his own hideous hybrid creatures.

There's the suggestion that perhaps Black isn't entirely mistaken, or at least that he's been able to create some actual living, functioning hybrids, but the narrator remains unconvinced, and there isn't enough in the text to do more than vaguely creep out the reader.

I've always enjoyed the technique of creating story through letters and journal entries. It's a great way to build drama and horror. The most effective part of Bram Stoker's Dracula is the series of journal entries from the doomed ship. This book fails to take full advantage of the trope, however. There are definitely effective sequences, such as the description of the scene that occurs when Black brings his family out to his shed to show off the hideous progress he's made in his work. And I enjoy the matter-of-fact tone and the effective parody of a real biography. But Black's theories are never convincing or particularly frightening. The book comes close to achieving something really atmospheric and disturbing but doesn't quite make it.

Part of the problem might be the entirely disbelieving narrator. H.P. Lovecraft was fond of using educated, skeptical narrators, and having them only come to believe in the horror long after the reader was already convinced, thus making the horror that much more convincing, and the narrator's fall that much more dramatic. The problem here is that the narrator is never convinced, which just makes it harder for us to believe or to be really scared.

The second part of the book is a series of detailed illustrations of the anatomy of various mythological beasts (which, according to Black, are not mythological at all, but entirely real), accompanied by explanations of the beasts' behavior. The art is quite good, the drawings scientific looking, but if you're hoping for some continuation here of the story in the first part of the book, or some more deliciously creepy horror, you'll be disappointed. It's an oddly dull way to finish out the book. Scattering these drawings throughout the biographical portion of the book might have worked better. As it is, any sense of building horror that was created in the first part of the book just sort of peters out here.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. As it is, it's still rather entertaining, with some wonderful ideas and some effective sequences. It's just disappointing to feel like it could have been so much more.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)
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Monday, January 5, 2015 11:40 AM
Book Report - Perdido Street Station
 by Fëanor

I said in my review of The City and the City that I'd be seeking out more of China Miéville's work, and I finally got around to doing so. I'd heard a lot about Perdido Street Station, so it seemed the obvious next step.

After I got a dozen or so chapters in and realized there were still some 40 chapters left, I nearly gave up on the book. This is because the novel's world and its characters are aggressively unpleasant. Miéville seems to be deliberately attempting to turn the reader away. He opens with a first-person description of his setting (the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon on the planet Bas-Lag) from the perspective of someone who thinks of it as a filthy, awful hell - and it's hard to disagree! Miéville follows this up by switching over to third-person (the main perspective of the novel; only the short introductions to each major section are in first-person) and giving us a pretty disgusting introduction to our main character. We meet rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (I know) lying naked and fat in bed and picking bugs off himself. His girlfriend, Lin, is an artist who has a normal human body, but a head that is a giant beetle. She's a member of one of a number of alien species in the book, the khepri. She and Isaac eat a gross breakfast and have gross sex and Isaac reiterates his despicable desire to keep their relationship secret and just ugh.

But! I'm here to tell you, it does get better, though it takes quite a while. Part of the problem is that the story doesn't take on its shape and the plot doesn't start driving forward until quite a ways into the book. The perspective just wanders about and you meet various people and learn various odd details about New Crobuzon. Miéville's world is big and complicated, with steampunk technology and various schools of magic, or thaumaturgy, and he takes his time introducing you to its ins and outs. Some of the ideas he throws in (like the Torque) apparently just because he thinks they're cool, as they don't end up having anything to do with the story.

Eventually Isaac meets Yagharek who, besides being the first-person narrator from the beginning of the novel, is a wingless birdman from a race called the garuda. He wants his flight back, and commissions Isaac to give it to him. Isaac takes on the job, and eventually realizes he can tie it in with the subject he's most passionate about: crisis energy. It's Isaac's research into flight, and his not entirely legal requisition of various flying animals and insects as subjects for study, that finally kicks off the real action of the book. And it wasn't really until then - when the first Slake-Moth finally appeared - that I became really interested in the book. (And even then I didn't feel fully committed to finishing it until the scene where we meet the Ambassador of Hell. Because that scene is amazing.)

Miéville's thematic preoccupations are well stated by one of his own characters, the monstrous crime lord Mr. Motley. Motley, besides being a brutal drug dealer, is also an art lover, and commissions a sculpture from Lin. His interest, he tells her, is in nexus; the meeting points of opposites; borders and liminal spaces. He himself is such a thing: a hideous collection of eyes and mouths and appendages, as if a pile of creatures had been smashed together into one. And the great train station that sits at the center of New Crobuzon, and that gives the book its title, is another such thing: the meeting place of all the rail lines in the city, the way to all ways, the beating heart of everything. Many of our main characters also embody the meeting of opposites - living paradoxes. A flying man who cannot fly, banished by his own people. A beetle that is a woman, who rejects her own culture and people, who uses traditional art styles to create non-traditional works. Later we meet Constructed Intelligence, dead tools that somehow think and live - the undead, the living non-living. The Slake-Moths are the meeting of beauty and terror, of dream and waking, monsters that eat dreams and shit nightmares. And then there's crisis energy itself, sustained by paradox, by almost-not-being, by truths that are false.

Miéville had similar preoccupations in The City and the City, but here he delves into them in more detail. As it happens, I'm fascinated by the same themes, and Perdido Street Station is packed full of other interesting ideas and weird, fascinating creations. Miéville builds a big, bold, hideous world which, though ugly, ends up being pretty hard to look away from. It helps that the story he tells, once he finally gets around to telling it, is a thrilling one, and that his main characters grow and change and become more sympathetic as we get to know them better.

It looks like this is only the first book set on the planet of Bas-Lag, so I'll have to seek out the others eventually. I'm not done with Miéville yet.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), China Miéville (Not)
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Thursday, December 18, 2014 03:39 PM
Book Report - The Underland Chronicles
 by Fëanor

Most folks know Suzanne Collins from the Hunger Games books, but she also wrote a series of YA fantasy novels called The Underland Chronicles. I finished "reading" it (I actually listened to the audio books) quite a while ago, but I never got around to writing about it until now.

The main character of the books is a poor kid named Gregor whose father has mysteriously disappeared. One day, he and his baby sister tumble down a hole into a strange land under the Earth inhabited not only by a race of pale humans who haven't seen the sun in generations, but also by multiple species of gigantic, intelligent animals - rats, spiders, cockroaches, bats, ants. At first Gregor is focused on getting himself and his sister home as quickly as possible, but he quickly discovers that will not be as easy as he hopes. The Underland, it turns out, is a dangerous place with some pretty complex politics. The various creatures that live there are extremely dangerous and live in an almost constant state of war with each other. Plus, the founder of the human community in the Underland was a visionary who wrote a whole room full of prophecies, and Gregor seems to fit the characteristics of a person called The Warrior who looms large in said prophecies. And finally - and most tantalizing of all for Gregor - this place might just be where his father disappeared to.

A nobody from nowhere stumbling into a magic land and finding out he's a famous warrior out of prophecy might sound pretty darn familiar. But Collins doesn't stick to the well-trodden paths. The humans present themselves as the good guys and the rats as the bad guys, but Gregor quickly realizes things are more complicated than that, and spends most of the series wrestling with those complexities. When he's offered the sword of legend, he refuses it. When he's sent off to vanquish the most evil rat of all, he finds he cannot do it. He falls in love with the beautiful princess, but realizes he can't stay with her. And those prophecies that seem to guide everyone's lives in the Underland may just be a bunch of nonsense.

The Underland Chronicles gets into some pretty deep territory - loss, fear of death, the horrors of war. It even includes an allegory of the Holocaust. But at the heart of it all is the realization that all living things are worthy of respect; that there's almost always a solution that does not involve violence if we work hard enough to find it; and that it's possible that maybe, some day, our children or our children's children will live in a world without war.

On one level, The Underland Chronicles are a fun and engaging fantasy adventure, but on a deeper level, they are a tough, unflinching examination of the worst and the best of humanity; a reminder that life is hard, that nothing is black and white, but there are things worth hanging around for. It's quite lovely.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Suzanne Collins (Not), Underland Chronicles (Not)
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Monday, September 29, 2014 10:33 AM
(Last updated on Monday, September 29, 2014 10:36 AM)
Book Report - Horrorstör
 by Fëanor

If you took a quick glance at the cover of Grady Hendrix's new horror novel, you could easily mistake it for the latest Ikea catalog. It's about the same size, the text is written in the same font, and the photo is of the same kind of clean room and simple, stylish, modern furniture you always see in the Swedish superstore, labeled with the same foreign names and reasonable prices. But if you look a bit closer, you'll see a mouthless, pupiless face staring out from the picture frame on the wall, and dark silhouettes of hands pressed against the nearby frames, as if something is trying to get out. The back cover is the same picture, but now obviously transformed into a horrific, decaying torture prison, cracked and rotting, infested with rats, hung with hooks and chains, blood-stained hands reaching out at you.

Setting a horror novel in an Ikea knock-off and designing the book to look like an Ikea catalog (complete with blue and white maps, seductive product descriptions, and fake ads full of brain-numbingly meaningless slogans and buzzwords) is a brilliant premise. There is, after all, something inherently creepy about the sameness of each Ikea; about Ikea's windowless, labyrinthine interior, with its confusing shortcuts and secret passageways, in which we've all gotten briefly lost; about its faux rooms in which no one lives, but which have been carefully furnished with cardboard televisions and false doors all the same. Hendrix takes full advantage of our familiarity and unease with this setting, executing skillfully on his premise.

The book opens by introducing us simultaneously to our protagonist, the perpetually down-on-her-luck, one-step-away-from-bankruptcy-and-disaster Amy, and her hated workplace, Orsk, which promises "a better life for the everyone." Amy has few hopes or dreams, except to be transferred away from this particular Orsk and its irritating deputy store manager, Basil, a passionate Orsk zealot who has had it in for her from her first day on the job. All she has to do is make it through one more shift, and she'll be out. But strange things are happening at this Orsk. For some reason, it's just not meeting its sales projections. And merchandise keeps turning up broken in the morning, or covered in mysterious, stinking waste. Corporate is on its way down to investigate, but before they get there, Basil is determined to have the mystery cleared up and everything ship-shape. He singles out Amy and her beloved-by-all coworker Ruth Anne for a special mission: stay in the store overnight with him to catch the intruder that's causing the trouble, and hopefully remove him/her with a minimum of fuss. It's the last thing Amy wants to do, but she desperately needs Basil's approval for her transfer to go through successfully, not to mention the double overtime he's offering to make her rent. And after all, it's just one night, right?

Right?

Horrorstör is a quick, fun, creepy read that is made doubly entertaining by the brilliant design by Andie Reid and wonderful illustrations by Michael Rogalski. It's alternately funny, clever, and deeply disturbing. I particularly like the little touches and references - that the passageway that customers are meant to follow through the store is called the Bright and Shining Path; that the store sells bunk beds called Magog, a name associated with the Biblical apocalypse (I wonder how many of the furniture names are similar allusions that I didn't recognize); that the fact that Orsk's most popular closet is maddeningly difficult to assemble and constantly falls apart ends up being an important plot point. In one surreal sequence, Amy and a friend find themselves traveling in circles in the store's eerily warped geography, unable to trust their senses to find their way, and ultimately forced to rely instead on the view through a video camera's lens.

But I won't give away any more of the book's surprises. You should check this out for yourself. The ending gives the suggestion that a sequel might be in the offing, and I hope that's the case. I'd love to visit Planet Baby!

(By the way, here's the book trailer for Horrorstör, if you're into that kind of thing.)
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)
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