Monthly Archives: April 2013

Strange Attractors by Charles Soule

My husband and I were talking recently about the aphorisms that people dish at you and then act like they’re revelatory or meaningful. The one that we heaped the most scorn on was, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” O, rilly? Pretty much the opposite of any emotional state is the lack of an emotional state, from a certain observational angle, so you might as well say, “The opposite of hate is being in a coma” or, “The opposite of feeling itchy is being dead.” True enough, as far as it goes, but not helpful. I mean, I know that this proverb is mostly deployed in situations when love’s gone wrong, but it’s just so freaking dumb and unhelpful. The opposite of irritation is slumber! 

Anyway, somewhat wobbly point being, I had classed the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, we can get an hurricane in another,” as one of those stupid aphorisms: something someone says to you when a tree flattens your garage or something. Oh those damn butterflies! Add in the fact that since Ray Bradbury‘s A Sound of Thunder, where time travelers squash a butterfly in the Jurassic, leading to Planet of the Apes-style changes in the hear-and-now, the whole butterfly thing has become something of a hoary old chestnut in sff. 

Marge from the Simpsons tells Lisa that it's raining again, as doughnuts fall from the sky
What happens when Homer squashed a butterfly. Donuts!

But, turns out, it’s an actual mathematical thing! From the wikis:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.


Oh look! Attractors! Maybe some of them will be strange.

So the story starts with grad student Heller Wilson bopping around New York, complaining about the soulless thesis topic he was given by his adviser, and just generally having the pre-graduate crisis. The art is sepia realism with bright punctuations of color, and the scientific-y drawings are wonderful, crossing a sort of biological feel with more airless, computer-generated structures. The image I found of one of these complexity maps has decided not to work, so you’ll have to take my word for it, sadly. I’m just saying I liked the art. 

In order to kick-start his thesis, he goes to meet the old math department crank, Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who is a cross between a hobo and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but less sexy than the latter. Brownfield’s been working on something called “complexity theory” for the last 30 years – a mix of Asimov’s psychohistory and the Butterfly Effect – and believes himself to be the guardian of New York. He’s forever doing these inexplicable “adjustments” – things like setting a rat loose in a restaurant or subtly driving people towards a different subway entrance – which he believes keeps New York’s “immune system” robust. 

Which is my segue to talk about New York. First and foremost, Strange Attractorsis a love letter to the cityest of American cities, a place with infrastructure so unbelievably barnacled, complex, and jury-rigged that it’s astonishing that it works at all, let alone that it weathers the shocks of terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and various NY mayors. One of the many facts that blew my mind in The World Without Us was that, without the pumps working every minute of every day, the subway system would revert to the underground rivers that every inch of the underground strains to become. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent destruction were just a hairsbreadth from knocking out these pumps and flooding the system. This could be repaired after months and months of work, but. Soule and Co do an excellent job of capturing the vibrancy, texture, and fragility of life in NY, as Heller gets more and more caught up in Dr. Brownfield’s crazy theories and such. 

The plot is pretty perfunctory. Heller thinks Dr. Brownfield is a loon, but a brilliant one; he gets more caught up in Brownfield’s ideas; Heller gets in trouble with The Powers That Be over Brownfield’s influence; Brownfield asks for more than Heller is willing to give, etc, etc. The crisis and resolution is a little dorkily cheerful, with a whole pay it forward vibe that makes me gag just a little. But! Just a little. I am not immune to feel-good stories about majestic, chaotic cities repairing themselves in the wake of disaster, or in the forefront of it. I <3 cities. They might even <3 me back. Awww. 

Also, way back in the day we had a bird named Boolean, and Dr. Brownfield has a dog with the same name. Nerd pet names represent!

I received my copy from NetGalley.com.

The Land of the Painted Caves and Paleo Sue

Good lord. This was paiiiiinful. So painful that I couldn’t get through more than 200 pages of The Land of Painted Cavesby Jean M. Auel, and only that while skimming pretty heavily. Oh, Ayla, I am disappoint. 

You don’t get to book 6 of a long, decreasingly satisfactory book series without being a partisan, and I was devoted to the cause. I have enough self-awareness in my dotage to know I should never revisit The Clan of the Cave Bearlest I crush a happy adolescent experience with my weary cynicism, but I also know that book was freaking badass. Setting aside for the moment that many of the attributes of the Neanderthals have been since proven inaccurate – it’s more than likely they could speak, for example – the story of a human girl taken in by a band of another hominid species is absolutely compelling. 

Because that’s the thing: the fact that humans overlapped with another hominid species for thousands of years is somewhere close to the coolest fucking thing ever. Forget the hundreds of species created by science fiction; we shared the globe with at least one – and possibly more – species that the Prime Directive would call sentient. Tool-making, at least nominal burial of the dead, clothing and other ornamentation: Neanderthals, you has it. Seriously, you guys, COOLEST THING EVER. (Followed, in a close second, by the fact of dinosaurs. Think about it: dinosaurs were real.

Neanderthals have always been used in fiction as a foil to our humanity – you know, like aliens have – and a lot of those depictions have tinged with the false Darwinian concept of “progress”. Auel sidesteps much of this by making her Neanderthals complex, intelligent people with distinct personalities, and she grounds the tale in some hard core paleolithic research. Creb, for example, was based on an actual skeleton of a Neanderthal man, who was born with various physical deformities and lived to the unthinkably old age of 40. The physical evidence of his long existence suggests a society willing and able to care for him. I can absolutely do without her Lysenkoism - the very concept of heritable racial memories is difficult to use without being racist (literally) – but godamn did she make the myriad uses for the cattail or the migratory patterns of the ptarmigan or flint freaking knapping page-turningly awesome. A family friend got a higher degree in archaeology pretty much because of The Clan of the Cave Bear, a field where she works to this day. That’s inspirational.  

And at the beginning of the series, Ayla is a a pretty wonderful protagonist. A smart girl, and competent, but living within a system that doesn’t credit her gifts or respect her. I loved how brutal she was, but also kind and caring, and I loooooved her Clan family – her adopted mother, Iza, the scarred mog-ur Creb. I was recently talking about some assigned reading book, something important, that I know I read in high school, and how I can’t remember a single thing about it. (Maybe A Separate Peace?) I could probably tell you all of the major and some of the minor plot points in the first two Ayla books, despite the fact that I only read them once. Maybe if touching war dramas had more awkwardly phrased sex scenes and mammoths, I’d remember them better. Pro-tip, writers. 

I admit I’m nattering at this point, because I kind of don’t even want to talk about how bad this book is. Things have been declining steadily since The Mammoth Hunters(and if I’m going to be honest, since The Valley of Horses, because Jondalar is, and always has been, the worst ever.) The Mammoth Huntershas a stupid jealousy plot. The Plains of Passagehas a thinly veiled dig on the more extreme feminist archaeology of the late-80s – you know, like the Starhawk feminist utopia stuff – which in some ways deserves the dig, but feels rich from someone who is using discredited Soviet genetic theory as the basis for her Neanderthals. The Shelters of Stonemanages to invoke some seriously painful class superiority bullshit, but at least it had a plot. 

Ayla has certainly been leveling up through these novels, but in The Land of Painted Caves, now her domination of the paleolithic world is complete! Heretofore, she’s invented the bra, the needle, the atlatl, and domesticated both horses and wolves. But as hokey as all that was, she was still a person. From the second freaking page:

Ayla, too, had extraordinarily sharp vision. She could also pick up sounds above the range of normal hearing and feel the deep tones of those that were below. Her sense of smell and taste were also keen, but she had never compared herself with anyone, and didn’t realize how extraordinary her perceptions were. She was born with heightened acuity in all her senses…”

This isn’t the Ayla I knew, who was smart and cunning, but totally had to work on her skills like the rest of us humans, whose talents were the product of work and determination, not some magical superhuman powers. It keeps being noted that she cannot sing, but this isn’t a character flaw in exactly the same way that Bella Swann being clumsy is not a character flaw. It’s dumb and lazy characterization. I don’t really mind Paleo Sue in the other books though, because all of Ayla’s inventions were neat little thought experiments about how those items came to be, what kind of conditions and experiences would have created innovation. That’s badass, and more importantly, it makes the dry archaeology personal and engaging. 


This book, however, is about Ayla visiting ALL THE CAVES, and, get this: she doesn’t even paint them herself. They were painted generations before, and I threw down this book when Ayla and the Zelandoni medicine woman wonder why they were painted and then shrug and have some dinner and the baby passes water. Seriously, this is about as interesting as listening to someone narrate their visit to a museum, a narration with an unhealthy focus on where the dog is and who’s going to check on the car, in case it got eaten by lions. Seriously, Ayla, go large or go home. They should have been painted as part of the narrative – you know, like how Ayla is the Venus of Willendorf - and there should be something more than speculation about what they mean. Ground the story in the physical, and then make the leap. You’ve done it before, Ayla, do it again.

I’ve been skipping the sex scenes in Ayla books since I became sexually active – they’re pretty much cut-and-paste – but I have been all in on anything having to do with harvesting plants and whatnot. Auel had me with her paleontology porn. There are flashes of that here – like a scene where Ayla skins and guts a wolverine, which was pretty cool – but so much of the archaeology stuff is badly stitched in. I can’t bring myself to care about the hundred scenes where Ayla smells some tea (instinctively, whatever that’s supposed to mean) and then identifies its herbal contents. 

Ayla and Jondalar meet up with several thousand people who appear, we are reminded of their back story from another book, and then they wander off. Ayla hands Jondalar the baby several hundred times. The baby, being perfect, somehow manages to be potty trained at several months. (And speaking of Bella Swann, the baby is named Jonayla, which is also the worst name ever.) They visit several caves, describe them in excruciating detail, and then move on. People are worried about Wolf, but then it turns out he’s awesome so they stop worrying. Ayle has a strange accent. Something vaguely approaching an event happens, and then someone wanders in, having missed it, and they recount the entire fucking scene you just read arg omg you would think Auel had never written a fucking novel, let along one that hugely captured my adolescent imagination. 

Jiminy Christmas, I can’t go on with this. I’m bummed, because I’ve hugely spoiled myself on all the plot points and kind of want to see the infidelity plot that shows up in the latter quarter, and the comeuppance that happens with all of Ayla’s yelling about how sex creates babies not magical spirits or whatever. I want to see it play out because Auel’s ideas appear to be simultaneously a feminist caricature and anti-feminist, which is a neat trick, if she can pull it off. The concept that men would, en masse, become patriarchal assholes when they learn they have something to do with procreation – and it is deeply stupid that any hunter-gatherer society would not know this anyhow – is so, so offensive, suggesting it’s logical for men to be brutish assholes. Ayla destroys an egalitarian society through observational science. Think about it. Yuck. 

Also, she managed to make cattails boring again. Sigh.


Review: Walking Dead: Welcome to the Tombs

Man, I’ve really blown it posting the review for the third season Walking Dead finale, Welcome to the Tombs in a timely manner. Sorry. Here it is now!

I’ve never been much of a gamer, and I think some of this was the clumsiness of some of the earliest video games in their storytelling. I freely admit I haven’t engaged in the newer, more complex narratives – the barrier to entry in cost of platform and the games themselves is too high – so I’m going off of the oldschool stuff like LucasArts games from waaaay back in the day, Myst, and Mortal Kombat. I wanted to set my 386 on fire when, in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I had to pilot a fucking balloon over some fucking thing, and my clumsy letter-punching resulted in that balloon being on fire. Which, good. You be on fire, asshole.

The real problem was that, before the burning dirigible section of the game, Fate of Atlantis wasn’t really about flying a godamn balloon, but about poking around and having conversations and solving puzzles. Or take Mortal Kombat. I loved fighting my sister or my bff Suzy (who is a very serious gamer) through the game, trash-talking and trying to figure out the fatality sequence that would make that one dude suck your near defeated enemy’s bones out. That was fresh. I even went so far as to play against the computer, and made it all the way to the big boss.

The problem with the big boss (which may or may not be pictured above, as my googling skills are not great) was that he was so much unbelievably harder to beat than anyone ever. Johnny Cage? Girly-man. Sonja? Take that. Boss man? OMIGOD YOU HAVE SIX ARMS AND NOW I’M ON FIRE. There was no steady escalation of skills, no smooth leveling up, but fighting a bunch of people and then getting murdered. I never did beat that jerk, and I ended up resenting having to go back through a bunch of drudgery just to get to him and get murdered over and over again.
This season on Walking Dead has been a fair amount of drudgery and then getting murdered. On some level, I respect it. When the Governor turned his gun on his own people, absolutely destroying the possibility that the big conflict between Woodbury and the prison was ever going to take place, I did admire the balls it took to screw my expectations that hard. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor?) But I also felt like I was in that godamn balloon again, with it in on fire, wondering why a narrative that has been setting up this big boss conflict between two dudes would then make it about whatever that shit was about.
You could put it in the bank that Walking Dead would have an explosive finale, so I don’t even know what’s going on. Which is not to say I didn’t like aspects of the episode. Despite being frustrated by Andrea’s complete inability to multi-task – seriously, you can try to pick up that damn pliers while talking – the locked room conversation between Andrea and Milton redeemed her character some, and ended with a phyrrhic sadness that represents the best of the downbeat possibilities. They are all infected. We kill or we die. Or we die, then we kill.
I am still busy hating some characters though, like Hershel, who is, as my friend Rachel pointed out, the reincarnation of Dale. I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to view him as the moral center of the group, what with all the bible-readin’, but he’s a narc and dork. I didn’t read Carl shooting that kid in the face as a cut-and-dried murder at all. He told the guy to drop the gun. Reaching closer with the gun is not dropping the gun, and could switch to shooting you in the face in less than a moment. I also get the impression we’re supposed to see this as a counterpoint to the Governor’s zombie daughter – if I’d been like this, she’d still be alive, etc.
I also think the scene where Michonne openly forgives Rick for selling her to the Governor is serious white dude wish fulfillment bullshit.
However, the episode gave me some shocks, confounded a lot of my expectations, and sets up a much more interesting mix for next season. Now that all the fighter-types are dead, how are they going to manage the prison community? Much about the Walking Dead – end of the world and zombies aside – is really very conventional storytelling, with very conventional plots. Surprising me beyond the mechanical – omg, they’re killing Lori in episode four?? – takes something, and this episode was a surprise. Boo!
I am still mad about the flaming balloon though.
Sonja wins.
assasin's curse

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

assasin's curse

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I have a challenge question if you send me a friend request on Goodreads, which is, “What is the best book you read in the last year and why?” There are no right answers – in the sense that if your best book is something I loathe I won’t hold it against you – and I don’t really care what your definition of “best” is. Best can be a lot of different things. Pretty regularly, friend requesters turn it around on me, and makes me throw up my hands. What kind of jerk question is that? Gosh, how can I be expected to answer that? 

According to the stats, I have rated 36 books since the beginning of the year, and of them, eight I gave five stars. (I admit I’ve become soft in my ratings, but then I do read less dross.) But of that eight, I’d call Cassandra Rose Clarke‘s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter the best. She managed to punch through my rib cage and strangle me with that one, with the kind of science fiction that uses technology as folklore in the long, unsaid tides of lived lives. Just, oh my god. I knew Clarke had a YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, but I have to be in a very specific mood for YA fantasy. But then the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, came up on NetGalley, I freaked right out and requested it. And then I read both books – which constitute a duology – in one huge freak-out sitting. (I would like to thank the ugly head cold I got for giving me the time prone to do that.)

Ananna of the Tanarau is a pirate’s daughter betrothed to a semi-landlocked idiot at the start of the action. She manages to mess that up fairly spectacularly, and ends up on the lam, chased by magical assassins set after her by her would-be-husband’s family. Ananna reminded me a little of Saba from Blood Red Road, both with her clueless competence and her near-dialect, but both her character and the dialect was more restrained, and for the better. She ends up tied to one of the assassins through magical weirdness, and she and the assassin, Naji, end up scrambling all over this world in an attempt to untether their destinies and break the curse.

Which, gotta say, written out like that, this book sounds a little trite, and certainly The Assassin’s Curseisn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of young adult or magical systems. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this elsewhere, but originality doesn’t necessarily factor for me in young adult slash fantasy fiction; whether I like a book of this nature comes down to whether I like the protagonist. I like Ananna a lot. She’s got ambition, and a mind, and she’s both emotionally reactive and measured. She factors the angles and leaps, or she leaps and then factors the angles, and she’s neither always making the right choice nor being overcome by hard choices. 

Maybe it’s all the sailing, but The Assassin’s Curse reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Especially the odd, inhuman character of the manticore, whose brutal predation was both funny and scary – not unlike Le Guin’s dragons. There’s a lot of action in The Assassin’s Curse, and often really strange action, occurring in magical locales with weird physics, and Clarke manages this all well. (And I think physical scenes can be deceptively hard to write.) The magical systems aren’t really tightly defined, but I didn’t mind. This isn’t some wank about how the world works, but about how people work within the world, and that Ananna knows what she knows but doesn’t know everything made perfect sense to me. 

The ending kind of dot-dot-dots in a way that is not the best, if you’re into self-contained fictions, but I had the sequel in my hot little hands, so it was okay for me. Not to start reviewing the sequel, but The Pirate’s Wish didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of this novel, but it still wasn’t a bad conclusion. For what it’s worth.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

If I had read Blood Red Road by younger, I would have loved this. People say stuff like this all the time, and sometimes it’s a dig. You know, the old saw about how teens are stupid and they cannot differentiate good writing from bad so we as older readers should either a) not read books directed at the teen market or b) not judge it according to the literary standards of books aimed at adults. A pox on both ideas. I don’t think we should just hang out in our little genre marketing ghettos: I only read YA, you only read sewious literary fiction, she only reads mysteries, etc. I don’t think we should let marketing labels dictate our reading choices. 

I also predict that this book is going to be compared to Hunger Games a lot, and some of those comparisons are going to be in the “this is a rip-off” strain. No. The Hunger Gamesis many good things, but it did not invent the post-apocalyptic landscape. When The Hunger Games came out, lots of people pointed a Japanese manga book I had never heard of called Battle Royale. I thought they were talking about Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the short story that comes out of it, called “Battle Royal”. (Which, now that I think of it, would make an interesting compare/contrast with The Hunger Games.) I had been out of reading YA long enough that I had no idea what these critics were talking about, because I thought of an Ice-T movie from the early-90s? called Surviving the Gamewhere suckas try to hunt Ice-T on an island, and he totally hands them their asses, because he is Ice-T. Then there’s other stuff like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Lord of the Fliesor, well, you see where this is going. And also, just recently a friend of mine pointed out the connection between The Hunger Games and the Theseus story, what with the tributes and the fighting. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whatever genre commonalities this has with The Hunger Games, or The Road, or whatever else I just mentioned, this book is its own thing in terms of narrative voice and landscape, and that is all there is to it. 

 Blood Red Roadstarts incredibly strong, written in dialect that took me maybe 3 pages to get over. I am no fan of dialect, except in some notable cases, but I thought it completely worked here. The language was stripped down, conversational, without the ornament of apostrophes and other punctuation; just the unhatched thoughts of an unhatched person. Wonderful, really. And the description of landscape, be still my beating heart. Much of what I love about post-apocalit is the landscapes it writes into being, all this prosperity and functionality of our modern world run to dust and a lone chimney standing up out of the ruin of nature run its course. I don’t even want to speculate on why I find this appealing, because there is something self-annihilating, society-annihilating in my affections. The patchwork houses, the patchwork clothes, an anecdote about a bit of an airplane used to patch the roof that flew away because it remembered its function, despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t really believe in airplanes, all this was wonderful to me. 

Anyway, there’s sequence very early on with our protagonist walking through dunes that keep shifting to reveal a ruined settlement, or the bones of an airport, and the shift and dusty beauty of that knocked me over. And the set up leaves me breathless too: a set of twins, a sister, a lost mother, a physically present but absent father, all living out their familial trauma in the bare edge of land with no one but themselves for company. One of the twins is taken, and his twin sister goes to get him back. She is twitchy and weird, as those raised in that kind of claustrophobic environment would be, and I really enjoyed her single-mindedness and social ineptness. 

But, and I’m really sorry to say this, I think Blood Red Roadblows off course at about mid-point. The sequences in the ugly city; the human-trafficking; the brittle, painful conversations whispered between prisoners in an unfair system that values human life only in the taking of it: this is what I loved about this book. By mid-point these things had been wrapped, and we start in on a love story and a continuing chase that I had very little interest in. I know, I know, some of this is age on my part. The plot still moves pretty quickly, despite several needless interactions between our heroine and her love interest that are repetitive and cliche. But there was something compelling to me in how isolated her upbringing was, something weird and unknowable about it, and I didn’t think she would behave in these broad tough-girl mannerisms that she does, especially later in the book. She would not want to ditch her younger sister as often as she does, because her younger sister would be one of the few human she understands. I feel like maybe the characterization lost its moorings in the reality of the environment, instead drawing on the character traits of the imagined readership. 

Frankly, I have no idea if this is a bad thing entirely, even though I think it weakens the character. Just to refer to a) and b) in my first paragraph. Much as I grumble about genre distinctions that divide readerships, I understand that I may not be included in the intended readership of this book. The concerns of the protagonist felt like they drift into the formula for teen romance. While I do not enjoy this formula, it might ring true for other readers. Additionally, I thought the denouement was swift, cheap, and hackneyed, and the set-up for the next book contrived and obvious. Sssst. 

I don’t want to end on a bad note, because this is still a strong and worthy book. The language is impressive; the landscape dangerously beautiful. Clunky though the ending was, I do look forward to more walks within this world, with its shifting sand dunes that reveal and conceal, the chimneys of our modern world standing mute in the green growing and the red dust. I look forward to where this story might go, given how strong the voice is now. Let’s hope it only gets stronger. 

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3

Nebula Nominees: Glamour in Glass


I would never have read Glamour in Glassby Mary Robinette Kowal on the strength of the first of the Gamourist Histories novels, Shades of Milk and Honey, but I had assigned myself the homework of reading the Nebula nominees in the novel category, and this is book two and the nominee. After the insult of Ironskin - the first Nebula nominee I read – the restraint and the attention to detail in Shades of Milk and Honey felt good, and I did like the book. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t say anything and it doesn’t really matter. Fine as a diversion, and well written in the strictest, most sentence-level sense, but not actually interesting.


So, you know, second verse, same as the first. 

But actually, probably worse. 


Sorry.  

Shades of Milk and Honeyis very much what would Jane Austen have written if there was a half-assed little bit of magic in the mix. The half-assed magic is called glamour, and even though it’s understood as a woman’s art, Milk and Honey is very much about a growly, dickish artist-type dude who is nevertheless famous for performing the woman’s art of glamour, and how the plain-but-gifted gentry lady doesn’t even understand she loves him. (Spoiler alert, but not really, because c’mon.) 

The trouble with glamour is that it never feels like an integrated facet of this alt-Regency society, and therefore the story never feels very alt-Regency. However well-described the glamour is – and it is – glamour ends up seeming inconsequential and frivolous, which is an unfortunate way to write a magical woman’s art. I could see dozens of uses of glamour other than tarting up the gentry – including military applications – and it really didn’t make much sense that glamour was both a) a woman’s art and b) all the famous glamourists mentioned were men. The world seemed inconsistent. 

Glamour in Glass starts where Shades of Milk and Honey ends, with Jane and Vincent married and practicing glamour for a living, and as a couple. It’s interesting to see an alt-Regency story depict marriage, because so many of the period stories end at the wedding. (Certainly, all of Austen’s major novels end there, and she’s the obvious hat-tip in the first novel.) And Glamour in Glassseems to address some of the criticisms laid out above. Jane and Vincent go to Belgium during Napoleon’s brief sojourn on Elba before the he escapes and stirs shit up again. Again, the alt in the history is nonexistent for the most part, but we do see a lot more of the potential uses for glamour, and when Napoleon makes his escape and starts marching toward the coast (spoiler alert? srsly, no), you get to see a lot more action than your typical Austen novel, and the potential non-domestic uses for glamour are more fully explored. (Still, that glamour can record sound is never looked at once, and why?) 

Other problems are not addressed at all, or get worse; that glamour keeps being referred to as a “woman’s art” being the biggest one. Jane and Vincent are visiting a famous glamourist friend in Belgium, who is also running a school of sorts for glamourists. Most of these people are male. Vincent tells the story of how his earl father disowned him because he was a glamourist, and it’s implied that the earl thinks being a glamourist means you’re gay. This is understood to be a pretty common opinion. Then we briefly meet a “folk glamourist” – who is a woman – and her art is dismissed as crude. Isn’t glamour a folk art? Aren’t the folk in the this case explicitly said to be women? 

If we take glamour to be like music, then any woman of a certain class would be expected to know it, but certainly many or most professional musicians would be dudes, and that wouldn’t be a threat to their masculinity. A music analogy would work. But I think the best folk art analog is embroidery (or any textile craft, like dress-making) – practiced almost exclusively by women, and mostly anonymously (or commercially.) I simply do not understand these men – many from the upper classes – who are given accolades for something that is a “woman’s art”. Nice dress you made there, Vincent, are you going to wear it now? Accessorize with a sampler?
                               A sampler that reads 'you can't tell me what to do'


The real problem here is Jane. Boy, I really don’t like her, and I don’t like the things said through her. Now, I am completely cognizant that the opinions that a character espouses are not the same as the take-home message of the book, or of the author, blablah. I’m not expecting Jane to be all magically modern in her opinions, but I am getting sick to death of main character ladies who humble-brag about how plain-but-smart they are, and cut down every other woman around them. Apparently, every women in England is either a whore or vapid, and on the Continent, either a whore or a spy for Napoleon. Good job, Jane. You win the Girl Olympics, and get to take cigars with the men as a reward at the end, so’iz you don’t have to hang out with the ladies who are dumb and boring.

And then we get into a pregnancy plot which similarly makes me itch. Again, I get that this is Regency England, and their medical understandings are psuedo-scientific at best, but when it’s put forward that women can’t do glamour while pregnant because it might cause miscarriage, I really wanted to know if this was bullshit or not. I’ll totally accept it, but in this Regency setting, with all the leaches and women-can’t-ride-astride-while-pregnant (because why? whatever, Freud), I would like just a minute more of internal push against this idea. I can roll my eyes when Jane isn’t allowed up on a horse because I know that’s bs, but I can’t assess the truth of whether glamour really is a danger during pregnancy. Jane feels sick when she tries to perform glamour before she knows she’s up the duff, sure, but I absolutely couldn’t abide dairy in my first trimester, and that didn’t mean cheese was dangerous. It just meant it tripped off a very capricious morning sickness, which had vanished by the second trimester, where I absolutely stuffed myself with cheese to no ill effects.

If it is real, why has Kowal created this magical system which is understood to be for the ladies which is also stupidly impossible for women to work? While they are in a condition that literally only women can be in? Maybe this is a subtle check on the idea of gendered arts at all, but, no, I’m totally not feeling that given the general thrust of the text. (Remember: whores, spies, vapid or Jane are your options, if you are a woman, and you win if you get to hang with the boys.) Glamour ends up being one of those dumb fucking magical systems which exists to cause impediments for the main characters and not much else. Of course Jane is going to have to perform glamour at some point, and the results are similarly ambiguous. Wtf are you saying? Sloppy, sloppy. 

So, like Shades of Milk and Honey, I ended up with Glamour in Glasswondering what the point was. And if the point is what I think it is, I’m going to be piiiissed. Unlike Milk and Honey, the action of the plot and prose read more like The Scarlet Pimpernel than any Austen, and I have very limited success with Orczy. I think Georgette Heyer gets mentioned in the same breath as the Glamourist Histories, but I think that’s a bad comparison. Heyer is a lot more fun, to put it baldly, and while her plots and characters are often understood to be frivolous, there isn’t this Jane in the middle judging everyone for having a good time. Hell, even Austen, who was often barbarous to the ridiculous, shot her mockery through with kindness and understanding. 

This afternoon I forced my husband to turn off some stupid comedy about two supposedly lovable assholes who were mocking an ex-girlfriend while she was absolutely correctly telling them off. This movie is going to be about these dicks winning, I yelled. I don’t want to see them win. I don’t want to see Jane win either, and that’s my problem with this book, and this series. I don’t dislike her because she’s plain, or kind of a dishrag, or talented – I’m not jealous of her competence; take notes here, heroine writers – I dislike her because she’s a boring snob. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar, Jane, and that you’ll slut-shame everyone to take one with the guys doesn’t endear you. I’ll be over here with all the other vapid whore spies, because they are way more interesting and way less judgmental.

Worm by Tim Curran

an infographic of all the sandworms in fiction: the pit of Saarlac, the things from Beetlejuice, the sandworms from Dune, and the Tremors monsters
from DanMeth.com

Worm is a gross, nasty little smash-and-grab about toilet monsters, and absolutely as fun as that description implies. You know, if you like nasty body horror stuff with a queasy sexual overlay, which I do! Sometimes. Here, anyway. (Sheesh, this review is stupid so far.)

 One fine morning in a possibly Midwestern town, the streets all fill with black, disgusting sewage, like all the underground pipes have flushed onto the street. There’s not a lot of screwing around with characterization or motivations, because really, when you’re being attacked by a blubbery sludge-dripping razor-toothed worm, how much other motivation do you need? 

I wasn’t very into this at first because the first character you meet is one of those unemployed assholes who’s dealing with his (supposed) emasculation by being a total fuckwit about his wife and dog. If it’s such a chore to have someone feed and clothe you, then GTFO. But that’s before I realized that this story wasn’t going to be about whatever interpersonal gender blahblah, but ass-eating toilet monsters. The sludge in the streets starts bubbling up through the sinks and drains and (yay!) toilets. All the possible gross permutations of phallic sewage monsters with chainsaw-ish teeth killing people are explored, including a few that surprised me. Go toilet monsters! 

Unlike the various sandworms from fiction I can think of – and Tremors is probably the best comparison here, though that’s more intentionally campy – these are sewage worms, and as such, are pretty great. I almost always think that horror novels should be shorter than they are, unless they’re, like, psychological and shizz, so the brevity here is good: gross out, gross out, gross out, BIG BOSS, the end. Worm is apparently one in a series of horror novellas put out by Dark Fuse, and I have totally put in for a couple more of them from Netgalley (which is where I got this one.) 

I’m a sucker for pulp imprints, because while they put out a lot of dross, the experimental nature of the manifesto can result in some really electric stuff. This wasn’t one of the electric stuffs, for me anyway, but slogging through the sludge is part of the fun of pulp, and that’s made horribly manifest here. Toilet monsters’re gonna getchu!

Eleanor & Park: Alternate Histories

I kind of wanted to jump out of my skin the whole time reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – which I did in a single, compulsive sitting – because Eleanor is one of my best friends growing up. One of my best friends now, really, but I knew her back in 1986 too. There are differences. Amy wasn’t nearly as withdrawn, and got into a lot more fights. I don’t think she would ever voluntarily listen to the Smiths either – hair metal was much more the thing – but the fundamentals are all there: the home life, the poverty, the complete and total sense of being stuck and stuck forever. She had big sweaters and a lot of hair and mistrust, and pretty much everyone she knew had earned that mistrust twice. And then a third time, because that was the charm. So many of the details of Eleanor, just little things, made my throat strangle because I knew exactly what they meant, what they were covering for, even if Eleanor herself didn’t. Oh Lord. 

Which is funny, because tonally, this story is a little dopey. I don’t mean that dismissively, more with affection towards my younger self. Eleanor is the new kid in an Omaha high school, and on the first ugly day on the bus, she ends up sitting next to Park. Park’s not an outcast exactly. He’s from the neighborhood, and has those weird, long relationships that neighborhood kids have with even the popular jerks. (When my bff Alicia got into a fight with Olivia, another neighborhood girl, Olivia pulled some dirty shit on me later. But I knew Olivia’s house and her mom, and we’d hang out occasionally if no one else was on the street. Because it’s neighborhood, you know? It’s not like you’re getting out until you figure out how to use the bus system, and even then.) But Park’s mom’s Korean, so even though he’s neighborhood, and his dad is neighborhood, and his grandparents are neighborhood, people look at him and see the only Asian kid for miles. “That’s not even the right kind of racist,” Park deadpans when his friend says something stupid. 

Eleanor and Park fall into a strange, wordless courtship (sorry, hugely dorky word choice there) predicated on comics and mix tapes and never looking each other in the eye. I know, gag. Double gag. But it totally works, because Rowell knows how weird you are, and what a spaz, and how it’s all so embarrassing you’re going to die. How you think that everyone can see that your brain is absolutely covered in ants. And she knows how to write a hand-holding scene that makes me want to freak out. There was this one time, sitting in this boy’s car, where I knew if he didn’t kiss me I was going to die. I was also going to die if he kissed me, and then he did, and the ants escaped my brain and ran all over my skin. Shee-it. 

The middle of Eleanor & Park goes a little slack, I think because the book has an almost claustrophobic focus on the two of them. It’s not that the supporting cast is weak – I think Rowell can pull off some very concise character work when she does it – but, as I said, the focus is pretty tight. I can dig why in some ways – the novel is called Eleanor & Park, and the claustrophobia mirrors the ant-covered feelings of young love – but I think it weakens the motivations. Eleanor’s siblings could be better fleshed out, especially the brother closest to her age. They would have had more of a thing, I think. Her school friends also don’t factor like they should. Also, if you hate eye-gazing and romantic love, you should probably steer clear of this novel. Both those things make me itch, but I didn’t mind them here, fwiw. 

Two things: I don’t know if I would have loved this story if I didn’t love an Eleanor, and if I hadn’t been a kiddo in the late 80s. I don’t know if any of this 80s stuff would figure to someone born in 1986. (Who would be the young adult in the target audience, if my math isn’t disastrous.) Which is not to say that Rowell lays on the 80s with a trowel, not like a lot of half-assed fictions which use referents in lieu of character (cf.The Wedding Singer, et al.) Even then, I don’t know that this difference between the Smiths and Sex Pistols (who Eleanor hates) would mean anything at all. My musical understandings of the era are completely weak – I recently, embarrassingly identified the Guns N Roses album “Appetite for Destruction” as “Welcome to the Jungle” (I know, right?) – but I had enough cousins, ex-boyfriends, older brothers and ambient whatever to know precisely what that all meant, even if I’m shit for titles.

But I did have an Eleanor, and even a Park less so. I had a mid-80s upbringing in a Midwestern town with the same stupid racial and class divisions, with the same stupid neighborhood ins-and-outs. I totally get Eleanor and Park and everyone they know. As a first novel, I don’t think that Rowell is speaking to anything but the choir though; she isn’t explaining the neighborhood lingo to the outsiders. Which is fine in some ways: fuck you assholes for not getting it. But it narrows the audience for sure, and I want to gesture to other book by Ms Rowell, Attachments, which runs this Midwestern claustrophobia with more adroitness and expansion. 

My Eleanor did not have her story work out like this Eleanor at all. My Amy’s young life was hard and unsparing and cruel. So it both hurt and staunched the wound a bit to see an Eleanor find someone like Park. It was like watching an alternate history, one where the neighborhood wasn’t a barrel of crabs who would drag you under just because they were drowning as well. I kind of want to send a carefully folded letter to Ms Rowell (can I call you Rainbow?) with a sloppy, earnest entreaty for her to be my friend? Check this box. Please. I am in love with her for giving my Eleanor a Park. Maybe it’s hopelessly romantic, but it’s absolutely the sweetest thing, and I thank her for it with all my heart. <3