Category Archives: Netgalley

The-Wizards-Promise

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format – The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

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

sharcano

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

falstaff island

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games - har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

grim

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

pac-man-ghosts

The Pentrals by Crystal Mack

I received my copy from NetGalley.

The Pentrals starts credibly enough, with a strange first person narration of a girl watching another girl. The vantage is odd and disorienting, and it’s only when you realize that the narrator is the girl’s shadow that the angles lock, and you can finally orient yourself in both space and understanding. The narrator, Antares, is the shadow of Violet, a denizen of the futuristic city of Talline, which gleams from a thousand mirrored surfaces in a canyon in the desert. The Pentrals of the title refers to beings of shadows or reflections, which in the supernatural architecture of the novel, are sentient beings enacting penance for something done in another life.

As a set up, this is neat stuff: the brightness of the future city juxtaposed against the Gothic shadow, the doppelganger reading and commenting on the bright lived life through its negative image. Unfortunately, this tense imagery is squandered, and quickly. Not only does The Pentrals deny the reader much in the way of resolution, but the basic mechanics of both the supernatural world of the Pentrals and the society of Talline are so confused (or, often, downright stupid) that any resolution is close to meaningless. Altogether, this was one of the more frustrating novels I’ve read in a while.

[From here on out, what I talk about might be considered spoilers, though much of it occurs in the first half of the book. I’ll note more clearly when I’m talking about end-of-the-book situations. The marketing materials are so vague, though, that really anything beyond the basic concept might be considered spoilers.]

I would first like to grouse about the taxonomy of the Pentrals. Antares tells us pretty early on that Pentrals are split into four classes. Class one is for immobile objects, like buildings, and we are informed this stationary changelessness drives the class one Pentral insane. Class two is for living things, like people (and presumably animals, but this isn’t made explicit). Antares, as a class two, considers herself an artist, watching closely and mirroring her Person with pride and experience. Class three is *cough cough* and class fours are in charge of the whole business somehow. This is all well and good, and I’m willing to ignore questions like, “How does Antares know this if she had her memory wiped when becoming a shadow?” or even deeper issues like, “Why is Antares so surprised when she’s told her existence is a kind of afterlife late in the book, when she told us the very same thing at the very beginning?”

My real issue is this: what kind of moral system requires the cruel, unending servitude of sentient creatures to literally stand in for natural processes in numbers that are both fixed and arbitrary? Class one is a punishment. Does that mean the number of people to be punished are always pegged to the number of indivisible things in the world? If I tear a sheet of paper in half, does a soul previously unpunished pop into servitude? That’s a shitty moral system, and I thought the unconditional election of Calvinism was bad. Moreover, is a teapot with a lid one shadow or two? A drop of the ocean divisible from the ocean? What about the shadows of rain? (Zen has some things to say about this.) In addition to being morally dodgy, this system is physically unworkable, calling up questions of the very ontology of thing-ness.

There’s also what I would like to call the Thomas the Tank Engine Effect. (I have just now coined this term for all of literary criticism. You’re welcome.) In addition to having a whole mess of Anglican guilt tripping over productivity, the Thomas the Train stories always drove me crazy because of the concept of sentient trains who also often appeared to have drivers. The class four Pentrals sidestep much of the guilt tripping by having Antares not even know what she is performing penance for – which, why would this be effective, morally speaking? whatever – but the problem of sentient trains with drivers continues.

Antares is lonely and in some ways miserable at the start of the novel, her actions completely determined by another being. Even though she has agency – she can pop out at night and party with the neighbors – she’s not allowed to use it due to inexplicable reasons. Her lifeless life is nothing compared to the inhuman misery of shadowing a building or a coma patient. So, why is it again that the class ones do not rebel and squirt off into the void like a set of troublesome trucks? Sure, we are told by our somewhat unreliable narrator that there would be consequences, but I gotta say, oblivion sounds better than the unending torture of being a class one. Leaving natural processes in the hands of tortured creatures who do not know the meaning of their torture seems a sad way to run a physical universe, to put it mildly.

Either shadows are the voids in the transmissions of the particle/wave of light or they are not. General relativity and Einstein’s light theory are referenced in the text, so scientific rationalism is a thing, as they say. So what we have here is a sentient train run on tracks with a driver, who is somehow still responsible for both the tracks and the decisions of the driver. And all this in a system where the class fours seem even more ineffective and bureaucratic than Sir Topham Hatt, which is saying something. He at least knew how to shame with consummate Englishness. The class fours are just inscrutable assholes.

But, okay, let’s just say that I’m overthinking this, as usual, and set this pseudo-philosophical wingeing off on a shelf. Very rapidly, it becomes apparent that Talline, in addition to having sentient shadows, is also a classic dystopia. While everything gleams and there doesn’t appear to be strife, the citizenry of Talline are unhappy and demoralized. Violet’s mother doesn’t appear from her room for days, and the teachers at the high school are similarly wan and drear. Everyone scarfs down Lifts! - the exclamation point is standard – a mood-altering drug which affects even the shadow of the person taking it. (When the shadow Antares manages to shake off the effects of the drug through willpower, I was deeply frustrated. So here’s a drug that can affect even the sentient shadow of a person – nevermind how – and then that drug can be overcome through thinking? Whatever.)

Children appear to be immune to whatever dystopic machinations, and even our deeply blythe and irrational main character can sort out the depression begins affecting people on their seventeenth birthdays. An assorted number of people also appear to be immune, which marks them in Scooby Doo style as either The Bad Guy or Stool Pigeons. The relationship between the dystopia and the Pentrals is both annoyingly vague and drearily obvious, and then ultimately pushed off to the next book like so much else. This is some tissue thin plotting, friends, and it still cannot be contained in one novel.

I’m not going to get into the exact mechanism for the dystopia, even though it seems blindingly obvious to anyone with even an ounce of sense – cough evil pharmaceutical company cough –  but that mechanism is so ridiculously contrived, superficial and fragile that its laughable. The rule for dystopia has to be that on some level it’s believable, even if that belief is based on irrational societal fear more than, like, strict plausibility. This one could be picked apart by dozens of things – photography, human curiousness, dark sunglasses, a visit to the doctor, not being a superficial git, a well-placed blanket, to name a few – and is based on such a low level and superficial human fear, that I don’t even know what to say.

Which brings me to another thing, namely, where (or possibly when) in the hell are we? I couldn’t tell you with any force of conviction whether Talline is even on planet Earth, or instead some kind of dystopia planet. It was well late in the book where I even figured out that Talline refers not to the country (or possibly planet, who knows?) but to a single city that can be gotten to by people outside the city, even if it is somewhat onerous, maybe. What do these people do for a living? How even do the evil overlords enforce whatever magical/physical parameters of the dystopia? Why is everyone so damn dumb?

And then there’s a love triangle. Don’t even get me started.

I don’t know, guys. I’m willing to give a lot of latitude to young adult dystopias slash paranormals, because metaphor is often more important than mechanics when dealing with the metamorphosis of adolescence.The Pentrals managed to botch both of those genres, piling up dubious imagery on top of a shaky scaffold and watching queasily while the whole thing shakes. Neither Antares nor Violet are interesting characters, and the few characters with flashes of liveliness – Sam, the evil queen – have just moments of screen time. For a narrative that seems to warn about the dangers of superficiality, The Pentrals managed not even to scratch the surface.

In your shitty, obvious metaphor department.

Boom.

 

 

 

 

secret collect

Backwards Compatible: A Geek Love Story

Backwards Compatible reads like a cross between The Guild and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, though the comedy isn’t as sophisticated as the former (which, you know), nor the central relationship as affecting as the latter (which, also.) George and Katie meet cute at a midnight event for the sale of the newest version of a World of Warcraft-ish game. After a tousle over the last copy of the game is won by George, Katie guilts him into giving it to her because boobs and tears. The plot details a growing group of gamers, high school friends, losers and little sisters playing video games, hanging out at the mall, and learning a little something about friendship.

Both Katie and George are on winter break from college, back in their somewhat dire sounding small town, and the novel invokes that loose, awkward, timeless sense of the winter vacation like crazy. Though their college lives aren’t even detailed too closely (or at all), you can kind of see them in the negative of too much unstructured time and the growing disconnects with high school friends. No one has any money; rides must be scammed or jumped; younger siblings are suddenly giving out (extremely questionable) romantic advice. No one sleeps or showers. I’m maybe making this sound grim, but the grimness is really more in my recollection of those times, not in the novel itself. As usual, I need to lighten up.

As a comedy, Backwards Compatible relies on an incredible amount of trash talk and roughly eleventy million pop culture references. I found the trash talk tiresome, but then that’s an aspect of gamer culture that puts me off.  And as far as the eleventy million references go, some worked, and some didn’t, which is per usual with that kind of humor. The geeking is so constant throughout that you’re bound to find something funny, and there’s a really great gag executed near the end involving George’s Christmas traditions. The sequence at the second Hobbit movie, which certainly wasn’t out when this was written, was alarmingly prescient. Don’t even get me started on those movies.

The only sour patch for me was the date Katie went on a date with a gamer asshole, which, in another kind of book, would have ended in a sexual assault. It was too triggery in a way that was supposed to be funny, and George’s reactions were kind of the worst. Again, not to be too dour, and you know, haha that pushy dudes don’t know that cosplay isn’t consent. I guess. But mostly this was fun and diverting, not really trying to do too much and succeeded at what it attempted. Katie and George are likable dorks, even if they read a little younger than I would expect from college juniors. (The big THERE’S NO SEX IN THIS BOOK warning I could do without in the marketing too, but then given the state of most New Adult titles – which often read like a gyno exam – maybe a little warning is in order.)

Oh, and big points for having George drive a Geo Metro named Crimson Lightning. Geo Metros are the best. Mine was named The Flying Pickle before it got cracked up in an extremely low impact accident many moons ago. RIP The Flying Pickle, and my lost youth.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

Sow by Tim Curran

Tim Curran writes such wonderfully juicy tactile horror prose that it makes me wish Sow bit off more than it chewed. Sow starts with Richard realizing his pregnant wife, Holly, is not just pregnant with their unborn child, but with an unspeakable, nameless horror. Richard is only hastily sketched – he’s described as the kind of guy who bores the census takers – and Holly even less so – we get not much more than wistful descriptions of her summery smell before the possession turns her into a stinking baby bag. 

Curran captures a lot of the male anxiety around pregnancy, which, as you might have noticed, has become an absolute political nightmare in the US of A. Richard’s wobbly mental state, and the ways he shifts between seeing Holly as Holly, and Holly as this fecund sow-witch that he vividly imagines murdering reminded me of the factoid I learned when I was pregnant myself with my first: American women are more likely to be murdered (usually by the father) when they are pregnant than to die from any other pregnancy-related condition. Spousal (or partner) abuse is more likely to start at pregnancy than any other time. But Curran’s not really interested in such psychological jibber-jabber, and Sow is instead a sticky, straightforward witch-possession story with a lot of gross-out fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Maybe this is just a gendered response on my part. I’m not even kidding when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is absolutely the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever read. It’s freaky for a lot of reasons, but one being the way it broke the mother’s terror into all these perspectives, all bearing down on her, this cacophony of people expressing all the things she cannot about how fucking gross and wrong the whole thing is, leaving her, the mother, smiling beatifically at a baby covered in blood with a full set of teeth. That’s possession, for me, but I admit I have my girl bias. This may work perfectly for dudes as an expression of procreative terror. 

I did really like the almost off-handed descriptions of rotting, rural Midwest. I just drove through 200 miles of the Minnesota outback, and the half-caved farmhouse just klicks down the road from a sign for some shitty office-park in development (“Ask us about our signing bonus!” “Think Barnum for your headquarters!”) spoke to the bleeding rural landscape and its metastasizing suburbanization. There’s a land war out there, fought over the most fertile farmland in the world. That the abandoned piggery would spit forth horror into the mushrooming condos spoke to me. 

So, a fun little thing, shot down in a sitting. I don’t think this is novel length, though I find it hard to determine length in the ebook format. The brevity is a selling point, as there isn’t enough here, in what Curran has decided to take on, for many more pages. More’s the pity, because I think there’s more here.




Thank you to Netgalley and DarkFuse for the ARC. Their novella series is just aces for horror shorts. 

tao

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

I don’t feel great about this, but I’m going to abandon The Lives of Tao at the halfway mark. I don’t think it’s bad; I just think it’s not for me. The set-up is fun: it’s a man who knew too little slash buddy cop scenario involving the origin myth for Scientology. Millions of years ago, aliens called Xenu the Quasing crash landed on earth. Being sort of nebulous light-blob beings, they can only exist in the bodies of Earth creatures, kind of like the aliens from The Host. Unlike The Host, there isn’t a love triangle…no wait, just kidding, there totally is. It doesn’t involve the alien though, so phew. The Quasing been busy little alien beavers interfering in the cultural evolution of the human race, and have since split into white hat and black hat factions at war over some philosophical differences that I honestly didn’t track. 

Which is where we are when the novel starts bangingly with a jaded, hunky secret agent dude, who has a white hat alien symbiote called Tao inside him, gets into a big freaking shoot-out and chase scene with the black hats. Hunky agent is killed, and Tao must find another host, and fast. He ends up inside Roen Tan, a chubby IT drone with no real ambition. I was rubbing my hands here, because I can totally dig the whole arguing in your head angle of the symbiote relationship – like in Deep Space Nine when Dax ends up in a symbiote unprepared for such a thing. (It can also be dumb, like the Big Bad from Buffy’s season 5. I get that Glory wasn’t exactly a symbiote, but it’s in the ballpark, and it was mostly used as a goof when Glory’s host dude wakes up in a red dress. Waa waa waa waaaaaa.) 

But it takes six chapters to get Roen and Tao talking, during which I was watching my nails dry for the most part. They have pretty funny conversations, when they have them, and I enjoyed that. But it turns into Roen leveling up, complaining about wanting to eat pizza, and waaaay more confusing backstory than I’m interested in. I’m going to admit right here that I can be a really lazy reader, in that I will ignore complicated mythoses…mythos’s…what is the plural of mythos?…in books, assuming I’ll either get it when I have to, or not get it at all and just enjoy some ass-kicking. There was precious little ass-kicking to divert me from the nail-drying and mythology. 

I get the sense that The Lives of Tao is supposed to be comedy-action – comaction? worst portmanteau ever - but it was light on both, for me anyway. Again, I think a lot of this is me, in that a tech geek getting set up into a love triangle with two hotties doesn’t really ping my reader insert buttons. Also, I just read Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, which also had an unambitious slob finding miraculous powers, but I felt like that owned some things about slobs and their wish-fulfillment that this didn’t? I may just have slob fatigue. I mean, I am a slob, don’t get me wrong, I just couldn’t find an entrance point here that I felt. It was too long cutting to the chase for me.

But, I did dig Tao’s (somewhat sloppily relayed) musings about Great Men in history, especially because he hits a lot of historical figures that I rarely see in SFFnal stuff. Everyone goes for the Greeks or the Romans, or possibly Persians if they’re feeling expansive, but here Tao hits Genghis Khan pretty hard, and some other foundational figures of various martial arts that I don’t know the names of right now, sorry. (Did I mention I’ve been drinking on this fine evening? Gosh, it is so beautiful out right now. I wish summer would last forever.) Also, and this is not related to the book in any way, but did you know Genghis Khan is a common ancestor for one out of 200 men? Whoa. I could do without some of the historiography, which felt sophomoric and silly, but whatevs. That’s not uncommon to have SFFnal views of history bug me – it can’t be as simple as whether “conflict breeds innovation” because seriously. 

And this is totally my problem, and I don’t expect anyone else to have this problem, but the names didn’t work for me. I get that there are a limited number of phonemes that can be arranged into a limited number of word-sounds that don’t already have meaning, but every.single.time I read the word Quasing, my brain turned it into quisling. And I didn’t read far enough along to get to where this might be thing, but Tao – in that exact spelling – has a meaning already. If it is a thing in the book, where Tao explains that he was inside Lao Tzu, I would freak the fuck right out. Alien symbiote fight-show is awesome, but it has zero to do with Taoism, and any shoehorn job making them relate would displease me. Again, problem with the DNF review is that I didn’t finish, so this might not be an issue. I’m just worried enough to stop before I freak out. 

So, this is one of those unfortunate things where I might have dug this book at another time, or been in more of a mood for it, or a different kind of reader, or something. It’s got back porch read all over it for me, but alas, not this time.


I received my copy from Angry Robot and Netgalley. 

Tankborn by Karen Sadler: A World More Interesting Than Its Plot

When my Grandma was a girl, she was told by a Catholic priest that Protestants had tails hidden under their clothes. Maybe they had cloven hooves too, or that might have been Jews, but either way, Protestants weren’t rightly human. I don’t think my Grandma ever went so far as to believe this, so I can’t tell some fun story about how she was surprised by my Protestant grandfather’s tail-free posterior when they married. Plus, obviously, she married my Protestant grandfather. (And Grandma was raised in Homestead, PA, which was very pluralistic, not a priest-run village in County Clare or whatever, just to note how easy it was to debunk such information, yet how such disinformation persisted within her Catholic community.) So when I went to roll my eyes when Kayla in Tankborn by Karen Sadler is told that if she, as a Genetically Engineered Non-human, touches a trueborn, her skin will bruise and bubble, I checked myself. Of course that is an incredibly stupid idea with zero basis in reality, but humans regularly believe such things. And while Homestead in the 1920s had a caste system like any other American city, it was no where near as rigidly enforced as the one in this novel. 

Kayla and Mishalla are GENs on the post-Earth planet Loka on the eves of their matriculation at the start of the novel, and the plot follows their assignments out of the GEN ghetto into the larger world. GENs are the bottom of the heap of a caste system, genetically engineered slaves who were introduced into society 75 years before when the lowborn – the children of the original indentured servants when the colony was being settled – revolted against continuing hereditary indenture (or what we like to call slavery.) The slaves revolted, so the highborn of Loka made a new class of slaves. The complex hierarchical social and economic system is very much the selling point of this novel, as this information I’ve parceled out in a couple of sentences is something I came to slowly, through (mostly) Kayla’s vantage point as she navigates her society. Loka is richly textured, with various competing homegrown religions and cultural norms, and Sandler doesn’t infodump or downtalk, assuming the reader can catch up to the barrage of new terminology and ideas. 

While I don’t think a dystopian society has to be entirely plausible to be effective - Divergent, for example, has a hugely stupid societal structure, but manages to resonate as a kind ofemotional experience of adolescence – it was enjoyable to see a fictional society that wasn’t just plausible, but grounded in (mostly not-junky) science fictional elements and attention to detail. Loka is pretty much the American colonies crossed with an Anglo-Indian caste system, but the culture itself isn’t leaning too hard on either of these places, culturally speaking, synthesizing them into something new and strange. This reminded me a little of God’s War - especially the weird indigenous life of the planet – but God’s Waris waaaay more hardcore in a number of ways. 

My reservations with Tankborn all stem from the plotting of this novel, which relies far too much on information withheld from the main characters (for no apparent reason) and stunning revelations that maybe only stun our protagonists. Kayla ends up in the employ of a cranky old Lokan scientist with seeekrets and a GEN-like tattoo on his check – gasp, why would any highborndo that – while Mishalla works at a crisis nursery for orphan lowborn children – but with seeekrets. Just about everything that happens appears to be engineered by the cranky old guy, down to the chance-looking meeting between Kayla and her eventual love interest (and his great-grandson) on the banks of the GEN ghetto river. And while he (and the seeekret organization you learn he belongs to) appear to be able to engineer the most frankly ridiculous coincidences, he chooses very convoluted and bizarre ways to parcel out information to Kayla and his great-grandson. While there are culturally cogent reasons for this not to happen, sorta, I frustrate with plots that could be solved with a simple phone call. 

The parallel love stories between the GEN girls and and their trueborn paramours was also not hugely successful. I’m not criticizing the dystopian love story – let us all remember that 1984in many ways hinges on the romance between Winston and Julia before we start snarling about YA dystopian romances and how girl readers are ruining fiction – it’s just that Kayla’s relationship seemed awful sudden, overcoming scads of cultural conditioning much more severe than someone telling Grandma Fran once that Protestants had horns. Mishalla’s whole plot line was much more truncated, and therefore that much more sudden. It would have been nice to see something other than a love relationship be the impetus for cultural revelations, is all, and the fact that there are two very similar trajectories for the GEN leads seems like a wasted opportunity. (Though, I will note I really liked the sequence where Mishalla spends an afternoon passing for trueborn, and the thrill, danger and disappointment that flows from that.) 

The book-ending revelations felt a little well, duh, though I do get that that they would be huge, game-changing ideas for the leads. It’s maybe tough to hide the football of the GENs origins to an SFFnal readership, and I appreciate that walking a tightrope between reader’s expectations and character’s more limited vantage is a thing. Some of the book-ending revelations also felt, as the saying goes, problematic. I’m not even kidding when I say the following information is a serious spoiler.

Turns out, both Kayla and Mishalla were lowborn children who were stolen while toddlers and implanted with the GEN technology to make them GENs. The science here starts to fall apart for me, because while we’re told the genetic stock for the GENs is degrading or something making child-theft a sensible solution, I don’t buy it. The evil scientist in me was like, you could totally buy eggs from lowborn women or just sneak them out of IVF clinics or something; they don’t need to resort to trafficking which is a huge logistical pain in the ass. There’s a whole ethical grey zone right now surrounding these technologies, not even getting into tanks gestating children and whatnot. That Kayla and Mishalla aren’t exactly GENs felt frustrating, because while the obvious take-home is that GENs are people too!, we’ve just imbued our GEN protagonists with a secret nobility – they are not actually tankborn, but trueborn. So should I continue to believe all the racist shit about GENs – it is explicitly stated that animal DNA is used in their creation – because our spunky heroines have not been tainted by that origin? Do the Protestants still have their tails? Obviously not, but, again, it just felt like a wasted opportunity, because one could be trueborn, and one tankborn, and then the point could have been much less ambiguous. People are people, etc.


So, all told, an interesting novel, one that in many ways avoids the occasionally sloppy societal construction of the contemporary young adult dystopia, but unfortunately fails to seize on the opportunities suggested by its carefully constructed society.  

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC.