The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins (pseudonym of Peter Friedrichsen) (Angry Robot, 2012) is following in the footsteps of some fairly powerful writers like Joe Lansdale (Dead in the West, etc.) and Norman Partridge (“Vampire Lake”, “Durston”, “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse”, etc.) in creating a weird west series (as an example in short story form, see the anthology Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes. We’re in Jonah Hex territory as a couple from the south survive the Civil War and join the ranks of the bounty hunters. But as there are rather too many ex-soldiers trying to hunt down the human escapees, our happy couple specialise in supernatural threats, working for priests and protecting the people from harm.
The lead character is Cora Oglesby who with Ben, her husband, as her constant companion, moves from town to town, rooting out evil and collecting the bounty which is usually paid through the church. In this instance, they are passing through Leadville in Colorado when they get wind of an unusual killing. Hiring themselves out on a freelance basis, they work for Marshal Mart Duggan to confront the supernatural beastie. When the usual silver bullets fail to do the trick, the couple travel to Denver to consult Father Baez, their local expert on all things supernatural. In this instance, he’s baffled but an exchange of information over the telegraph wires bring a diagnosis of a wendigo. The despatch of this poor creature marks the end of the first part of the book.
The second begins with an approach from a British Lord who’s visiting Colorado to protect his silver mines. It seems the tunnels have been overrun with vampires (many of whom are recent converts from the ranks of his miners). Having nowhere better to go, the couple decide to stay in Leadville to help the Lord and his “expert” deal with this infestation. Needless to say, this proves more challenging than they are expecting.
This novel represents an interesting challenge to conventional marketing wisdom. As I was growing up as a reader in the 1950s, novels dealing with the Wild West were fairly thick on the ground. This was reinforced by television shows like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. As we came into the 1960s, cinema was into spaghetti and television continued to boom, but this represents the last hurrah for the genre. Thereafter it slipped into the background and book sales plummeted. This novel is therefore carefully retreading the old conventions of the brave marshal, the pusillanimous deputy, the saloon with its nonstop supply of rotgut whisky and 24/7 poker school, the inevitable whore houses, the miners who drink too much, gamble and whore, etc. It also has to confront the problem of language. Does it attempt to recapture the way folk in the late nineteenth century actually spoke, or does it update the vocabulary and syntax to match modern sensibilities? And then there’s the gender issue.
In the conventional western, the woman is either the domesticating influence who tempts the man from his world of action to set up a home, or she’s the sex object who’s used and then discarded as the man wanders off to punch some cattle or sling his six-shooter. As a generalisation, women could not be true to their sex and good with a gun (or in fighting using other weapons) although those we might call pioneer women would certainly have had basic survival skills and could probably shoot. Apart from Annie Oakley who was a sharp-shooting superstar, few women are shown with heroic qualities (despite Hollywood’s best efforts with Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead). Yet here we have a woman as the heroine. In all ways, she conforms to the archetype of a hero. In classical terms, she’s on a quest across the Plains to restore order. On the way, she encounters and overcomes evil. With her husband as her constant companion, she demonstrates all the usual traits of individualism although, this time, it’s in service to the community. She wins because she has a strong mind and no hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger.
This is playing the same game as Xena, the Warrior Princess in having her demonstrate traditionally male characteristics. Indeed, from the way she dresses and her general manner, you could mistake her for a man the first time she walks into a saloon. From all this, you will gather the author makes little or no effort to replicate the language or the culture of the Old West. This is the Hollywood version of history, replacing the city in urban fantasies as a context for fighting supernatural beasties. In this case, we have a wendigo and a nest of vampires. Indeed, this might just as well be classified as a Western urban fantasy or paranormal romance tracing the nature of the relationship between this heroine and her man. Once you strip away all the paraphernalia of the Wild West, this is a slightly tame and, at times, a rather plodding series of fights, punctuated by the characters’ backstories and explanations of the supernatural beasties’ capacities and weaknesses. It’s very professional and highly competent but, for me, it lacks a spark of creativity or originality.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about a violent supernatural horror novel. It was called Blackbirds and penned by Chuck Wendig. Well, he’s emerged in sequel land with Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012). We’re now one year further on and Miriam Black is not quite playing the part of the trailer park trophy wife. She’s not actually married, only living with Louis but, thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he’s driving the roads with his truck, salting away saving for that rainy day, while she’s scanning goods at a local convenience store. It’s the kind of life the brain dead enjoy but, as you can imagine, it leaves our heroine with a seething pile of resentment.
So where are we with the story? Well, not that I always want to show off my classical education, but we have to dive into the mythology of Ancient Rome to understand the big plot point at work here. You see those Romans believed you could tell what the Gods (sorry, there were a lot of them to keep track of) wanted you to do to stay on their right side — remember, if you pissed off any one of the Gods, he or she could turn you into an animal or chain you to a rock and have a big bird eat out your liver. I mean, what’s the point of having god-like powers if you never use them? So it was important to know what you were expected to do. The priests of the day identified these messages in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular was watching the flight patterns and general behaviour of birds. This was the study of the auspices, part of the general trade of augury. In these books, we’re concerned with the oblativa, i.e. the Gods send the signs and signals, usually in the hope of achieving a better balance in society. In more recent times, societies defined different types of omen, a natural phenomenon that suggests what will happen in the future. In theory, such events can be foretelling good or bad outcomes but, such has been the pessimism of the ages that we largely think of omens as ominous, i.e. favouring the bad. If you check out superstitions, you’ll find blackbirds are associated with death, often signifying the presence of souls who are trapped on Earth. It’s also appropriate to remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird (courtesy of Harper Lee) albeit, in the novel, the birds are valued for their song and are inherently good — not quite how they are portrayed in this book.
The issue is one of Fate or, following the Enlightenment, determinism. Miriam Black has the power to see how someone will die. For years, her attempts to prevent the deaths she foresees end in disaster. Then she makes a breakthrough. The survival of Louis is a testament to her new understanding. Except she’s not entirely sure what she understands, particularly as she’s now afflicted by visions. These voices are just so annoyingly cryptic. Just what is she supposed to do? More importantly, why is she supposed to do it? Surely, these predictive birds don’t really care how many people are killed? I mean, looking at matters objectively, many of the people who die are leading worthless lives, mired in poverty, engaging in petty crime and often abusing drugs. What value could there be to society to give such people an extra few years? They blight the lives of those they rob and burglarise, they burden the state if they fall ill and need hospital treatment. How much easier life would be for everyone if responsible citizens culled the worthless spongers. And just think how much more efficient this culling would be if those citizens were led by an auger who could see their future lives, who could be certain just how worthless these lives would be. Perhaps Miriam Black should join forces with these citizens, contribute her supernatural gift to ensuring a better future for the majority. This is determinism in service to utilitarianism.
I like the way the story is developing. It’s carefully advancing the moral debate about the way we react to death. We’re a selfish species, fighting to prolong our own lives, using every reasonable opportunity to get medical treatment to keep ourselves healthy. This reflects the broader biological imperative of competition. The fittest survive and tend to do well. We’re quite often comfortable with the notion the less fit die younger because they receive only second-class care. Redistribution of resources to give everyone access to the same quality of care has never worked. The wealthy, i.e. the powerful, have always used their money and authority to jump the queues, to get the best doctors and the most effective treatments. There’s always been a self-perpetuating elite from Roman times when the lifestyles of the rich depended on the exploitation of the slaves, to modern societies where the less advantaged are wage-slaves, offering both direct and indirect support to the lifestyles of the rich. So why should there be Gods sending birds to warn Miriam Black of death on a semi-industrial scale? Anyone with eyes can see death all around them.
I think Chuck Wendig has slightly toned down the intensity of the prose in Mockingbird. There’s a more melancholic feel to this narrative as our heroine struggles to define herself as a person. She’s agonising over her relationship with her family and Louis while trying to act rationally as the “Trespasser” keeps interrupting her dreams, both sleeping and waking. It’s enough to make even a saint weep and, sure as eggs is eggs, Miriam is no saint. So this is highly enjoyable and cleverly advancing the plot. It’s going to be interesting to see how the series develops.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For a review of another book by Chuck Wendig, see Blackbirds.
We need to set out on this journey of discovery with a short discussion on how to define a “comic novel”. Historically speaking, it could be judged by criteria of blandness, i.e. that it all turns out well for the good and the bad get their just deserts. This is fiction as seen by the Miss Prisms of this world (as in The Importance of Being Earnest) which, as Cecily Cardew observes, is not the fairest way for things to turn out. The reason? Because it fails to answer the question actually posed for who’s to say how the goodness or badness of the protagonists is to be judged. For example, we might think Malvolio in Twelfth Night gets his just deserts, but he’s rather more narcissistic than bad, an arrogant hypocrite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two. So this makes this Shakespearean humour more as defined by Plato who thought comedy lay in people’s failure to understand themselves and their roles in society. Together with Socrates and Aristotle, he explored the idea that there’s something ugly, if not hateful, about those who demonstrate ignorance of themselves. This does not, of itself, make the characters bad but it can make the humour cruel by exposing their weaknesses. Yet, the fact we may see people’s behaviour and beliefs as delusional and ludicrous does not prevent things from turning out well for them. Indeed, if they learn the extent of their errors and make efforts to reform, they can avoid the bad outcomes. Authors need not be heavy-handed moralists with an agenda to punish all who transgress social boundaries. In the midst of amusement at the expense of these characters, the authors can be asking the reader to think about the social themes woven into the narrative. Indeed, it’s often the case that by framing a novel as an apparent comedy, we can be seduced into thinking constructively about taboo issues — an inherently good outcome.
Which slightly heavy-weight discussion brings me to The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) and our first meeting with Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick. Since they live in a time of war, they turn their hands to mining the battlefield dead for their cash and personal valuables. This would be a relatively safe and highly remunerative business opportunity if Gerd had grown to be more than the village idiot who was seduced from the care of his grandmother by the smooth-talking Marius. But, in sidekick terms, he’s as smart as bait. In this case, he attracts the attention of soldiers searching for the body of the King. They don’t take kindly to “graverobbers” and despatch poor Gerd. Although this is a short-term distraction and allows Marius to evade capture, he’s them forcibly invited to join the dead under the battlefield. They’re upset at the prospect of being without a King so, in military terms, task Marius to recruit a King for them. They make the usual threats to encourage him to take the task seriously, even returning Gerd as a factotum.
Except, of course, once he’s released back into the world, his mission is to get as far away from the dead as possible, and that includes Gerd. But how does someone dead blend back into the human community? And just where in the human world are you far enough away from the dead to be safe? So begins most of the most amusing fantasy journeys of the last few years. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say this is anything like the best fantasy book of the year but, in its own terms, it’s certainly one of the best comic novels I’ve read for many a year. Marius is a man who’s grown comfortable in his own skin as a bilker and hustler. When he dies, the skin shrivels and the marks won’t stand still long enough to hear the pitch. They’re far more interested in running away as quickly as possible. With his style completely cramped, he elects to go on a sea trip, i.e. we get into a picaresque format as our roguish hero tries to get by on his wits but is continually frustrated. This leads to some introspection, triggered by occasional sensations. As a question to chew on, how dead are the dead who are still walking around and able to interact with the living? It’s a tricky question and, courtesy of some backstory and one or two meetings with individuals he’s known in the past, our hero comes to a better view of himself. His self-ignorance shrivels along with his skin. He ponders on whether there’s a way of reversing his condition. Should he actually find a King who can lead the dead, would “death” release him? Could he and Gerd actually return to life? For the entertaining answers to these and other relevant questions, you’ll have to read the book. While doing so, you can be assured that the comic greats, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, would probably have found it hilarious.
The Corpse-Rat King is completely beguiling and genuinely amusing, something you rarely find in a book clearly marketed as fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for picking up this delightfully non-standard novel and bringing it to the market. If there’s any justice in the world, it will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.
Cover by Nick Castle Design.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012) The First Machine Dynasty is a modern take on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, filtered through A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this time dealing with a gynoid rather than an android. It’s a case of “have mind, will travel in search of a soul”, of having to grapple with the problems of self and identity. Initially, her parents slow her physical development so that she grows at approximately the same speed as a human child. Some paedophiles use this system to eroticise young gynoids and so satisfy their own sexual drives, cf Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012). So we start off in the same territory as When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold which is a coming-of-age story about a brain in a box having to learn how to be a “boy” when he has no body. Our heroine has been “born” into a mixed marriage of android woman and human man. Her reduced diet enables her to go to a kindergarten with human children of the same size. Her parents want to give her the chance to experience development over time and to socialise with equally “young” human children. Unfortunately, although the body may be comparable to that of a child, the mind is not. This dissonance is disturbing to those around her. Fortunately, like the Azimovian robots, all these androids also have a built-in safety circuit to prevent them from injuring humans. As a general rule, the failsafe causes them to freeze at the sight of an injured human.
In this book, vN stands for a von Neumann self-replicating humanoid, i.e. all fully-grown androids, regardless of gender, can asexually reproduce. This deliberately undermines the usual female stereotype which is of a body designed to produce children and then take responsibility for their upbringing and homemaking while still playing the role of sex object when the man requires satisfaction. The interesting issue is whether these parthenogenic androids are genuinely gendered or more equal despite being given bodies with the physical characteristics appropriate to their apparent biological sex.
Matching other books and films, these androids are designed in clades for specific functions and so have unique sets of physical and psychological attributes to suit them to their designated roles. Interestingly, the clade to which our heroine belongs was programmed as nurses. This has given her empathy and so, by virtue of her machine-code, she believes in bourgeois happiness for those with whom she interacts, wants to mother a newly “born” android, and seems predisposed to find a male who will love her for herself. Initially, all these androids were created to help and support the few remaining humans expected to be left on Earth after the Last Trump. When this End-of-Days failed to occur, the androids were repurposed as the servants of all humanity. So they are like humans, but now used as slaves without any rights. This book therefore pitches the growing gynoid with her emerging new powers and resident granny against the government and law enforcement agencies that would recall all her clade and trash them to prevent the leakage of any trait that might enable the machines to become more “human”. As an exception to the general Asimovian rule, nurses have a reduced protection circuit. It’s sometimes necessary to cut into humans by way of surgery and other forms of treatment. It would be inappropriate if nurses were to freeze up every time they saw humans being “injured”. It all depends on the context. More importantly, it gives these androids a lower threshold to cross in the decision whether to attack a human.
The problem with this kind of book is that the author delivers escapism. We’re allowed to see all the defects in the given society and then watch the heroine not only survive but beat the system. As in fairy stories, the big bad wolf meets the axe head on and the giant in search of bones to grind for flour is brought down to Earth with a bang. In the real world, humans who occupy the fictional android role are beaten into submission and have no chance of changing anything in our technological world. The only effect when we read books like this is a few hours of satisfaction that one of the downtrodden can fight off oppression. When we put the book down, we return to the real world where we remain powerless. Instead of merely describing dystopias, it would be better if people could be motivated to engage in positive action to change the world. For books to be subversive, to act as a call to action. Except no large corporation as a publisher is ever going to allow revolutionary books on to the mass market. Capitalists guard their hold over the people.
So how does vN: The First Machine Dynasty shape up overall? It actually starts rather well in what we might call action mode. After the initial set-up, she’s off and running, meets up with a serial reproducer and begins an increasingly close relationship with him. But, to my mind, the book loses its way when she allows herself to be captured in the hope she can rescue her parents. The book gets into a more political mode. The issue can be simply put. If the trait now empowering one section of her clade can be reproduced, androids can rise up against their human oppressors and take their freedom. If the humans can eradicate all her clade before this happens, they will remain the “master race”. So there’s an inevitable disagreement between factions both in the human and the android communities. While everyone is squabbling, our heroine and consort, plus his extended family, are offered the possibility of “getting away from it all”. I read through to the end to see how it turned out, but I was less than engaged. Although it’s interesting to see how Madeline Ashby parallels the idea of parents socialising their children with the androids doing the same with their coding of the young, of individuals learning to love each other by overcoming the inbuilt tendency to selfish individualism through trust and “love”, this all becomes less of a dystopian thriller and more of a romance. We’re all supposed to find our heroine’s protectiveness of the little baby ‘droid endearing and go all gooey as he crawls into her lap with adoring eyes. Well, sorry. This is not quite what I signed up for in the android wars to establish independence for AI-kind. So you should only pick this up if you want the mushy side of the rebellion to slaughter all-comers.
For a review of the second in the series by Madeline Ashby, see iD.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
Ever since the first man picked up a rock and threw it, or used a stick to knock eggs out of a nest high in a tree, we’ve been dependent on tools of one sort or another. No matter how desirable it might seem, it’s too late to return the gift of fire to Prometheus. Fortunately, our present world is still managing to survive without intelligent machines to tell us where we’re going wrong. It will be worse when artificial intelligence becomes a practical proposition. We’ve always been lazy as a species and many will want to surrender what seem to be the routine tasks to the machines. Yet even in the routine there are dangers. The irony is that, basing their decisions on logic rather than emotions, machines could probably deliver a better world. Assuming they have no survival imperative, they are less selfish and would force us to work together — we’ve not proved very good at that over the centuries. But allowing them into a position where they rule us. . . Ah, now that would be a real game-changer and something to be resisted. For better or worse, humanity should always be in control of its own destiny.
Omega Point by Guy Haley (Angry Robot, 2012) takes us into a future world where AIs have become very powerful and some humans have gone through varying degrees of augmentation. In the best cyborg sense, some enhancements have been purely physical. But others have introduced a more complete integration, blurring the line between machine and human intelligence. In its full form, the so-called mentaug produces a personality blend. Obviously, at a conscious level, the “person” understands that there have been changes, but what of the subconscious? Does one side of the mind actually know or understand what the other half wants or can achieve? It’s problematic and, to ensure there’s a reasonable balance, each individual with a mentaug should have regular counselling. It will help to keep both sides working together and the whole mind more sane. For example, it can get strange when the machine side of the brain dreams. Confusingly, human memory changes selectively over time but the machine’s memory is permanent, confirming organic as subjective, machine objective. Is either better than the other? There has to be a way of reconciling meat and machine, yet there’s no guarantee the human can survive.
Of course, from the other side of the fence, there are some pure machine intelligences that are curious about the world and so equip themselves with bodies. They move around and get a better sense of how the world works. Except, of course, these minds always know this embodiment is purely temporary. At any time, whether they tire of the experience or are somehow at risk, they can instantly transfer back into their own virtual reality. They need never feel the real insecurity of being a unique mind in a vulnerable physical body. They can play at being independent. But what would it be like for one of these AIs to be trapped in a fragile body? It might be a bit of an eye-opener what with suddenly feeling hungry and getting an itch in one of those hard-to-reach places.
So we have a twin narrative structure with Otto and others running around the real world (whatever that is) in a kind of spy mode to track down relevant bodies who are messing with the structure of virtual reality. Richards has the indignity of being stuck in a body in a series of semi-surreal episodes in Reality 36 which is made up of remnants from four other virtual realities. Initially k52, their common enemy, had intended to dismantle this Reality and use the servers to accelerate through time to the Omega Point when he would carry out his big reality-warping plan. Except it turned out he couldn’t break through the coding of this Reality. It’s been acting as a kind of drag on his progress through time. So Richards and an unlikely group of toys have been surviving a number of silly encounters with different forms of threat. It’s all going on far too long without saying anything interesting about anything. All we can say is both threads are a quest (not the most original form whether for a book or game) and, inevitably, they eventually intersect (and not before time).
Frankly, Omega Point is a disappointment. Whereas the first Otto and Richards outing in Reality 36 was lively and interesting, this has emerged from the creative process half-baked (avoiding any of the puns that might assault our senses if aerial pirates were suddenly to be attacked by a pastry chef). The thread describing Otto’s part of the quest has the same high-adrenaline pace as the first book. But Richard’s voyage through the disintegrating Reality 36 is almost unreadable in parts and, as a result, I struggled to finish. I don’t mind short books which exploit allegory, surrealism or absurdism. The best efforts cut through the potential pretentiousness by introducing self-deprecating wit. Unfortunately, this is infected with plain silliness. Why is this? I fear the answer lies in the plot and the underlying nature of Reality 36. To avoid spoilers, I need to drop into my own brand of analogy. Those of you who are brave enough to read these reviews will understand that my head is stuffed with a multitude of eclectic facts and out-of-kilter attitudes. Suppose I was connected up to a virtual reality gaming platform and, linked with an AI, created a scenario for people to play. That might all work well so long as I was around to keep explaining the symbolism. But if I should drop out, the rationality of the gaming might go into steep decline as the AI could not replicate my idiosyncrasies. Remember, the theme of this book is the relationship between the human and the machine mind. I get tired of hearing the stuff in my own head without wanting to read endless stuff about what’s in someone else’s. This is not to say this theme is badly treated. In fact, when transferred to Otto’s thread, there’s a tragic backstory unwinding that beautifully captures the debate over what can go wrong and what to do if it does go wrong. So Omega Point is a nicely constructed plot spanning two books but, to my mind, flawed by spending so much time on Richard’s quest in the second.
For the review of another book by Guy Haley, see Reality 36.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This is a wonderful piece of work (in all senses of the idiom). It’s a straight up-n-at-em style that hits where it hurts and takes no prisoners. From this you will gather two fundamental truths. I found Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012) vastly enjoyable and I’m attempting to break the page speed record for the most clichés in a column inch. Welcome to the world of Miriam Black. She’s developed an unfortunate ability: precognition. With her first touch, skin to skin, she can tell exactly when and how a person will die. This is not a little distressing so, for a while, she harbours the hope she can be an angel of mercy and avert these foreseen personal disasters. Unfortunately, she runs into three problems. The first is that Fate is inflexible. Second, that she has no idea where the deaths will occur. Third, if she tries to intervene or is merely present, she can often be the cause of the effect. Take death as a result of epilepsy as an example. She foresees a man will die in a motel room. Later, she finds herself in that room with the man and they have an intense argument. This precipitates the fit and he dies — not that he doesn’t deserve to die, of course, but the fact she stayed in the room, knowing what was going to happen. . . Morally, she also crosses the line because she takes money and credit cards from those who’ve died. It helps pay her bills as she runs from herself across a grim and unromantic America as seen from highways, truck stops and motel rooms.
She endures, fighting off unwanted attention when it arises, but her lonely journey suddenly becomes hazardous. There’s an evolving situation in which some distinctly unhappy drug dealers are trying to recover their stolen product. They don’t care how many they have to torture or kill to get their drugs back. It’s the principle of the thing. No-one steals from them and lives! And Miriam? Well, Fate throws her together with the man who stole it. Ah, now the widening pool of victims could include her and a “white knight” who’s briefly by her side. Ironically, her ability tells her the thief will die of old age. . .
In some author’s hands, determinism can be a bit plodding. Characters have given up. Their precognitive ability tells them what will happen and all they can do is watch as it happens. Consider the four Final Destination films in which a small group of people are saved only to realise you can’t cheat death. Except, of course, the scriptwriter usually allows one or two to survive. Well, Miriam is stuck in a comparable situation. From her point of view, it’s hopeless and all she can do to stay sane is avoid touching other people. Yet we readers have one thing going for us. Chuck Wendig has a sense of humour about all this. Here’s a really neat way of summing up the complexities of determinism as applied to a nine-year old boy called Austin. “You realize, all of life is written in a book, and we all get one book, and when that book is over, so are we. Worse, some of us get shorter books than others. Austen’s book was a pamphlet.” This captures a flavour of the prose which is electric. It’s stripped down to the wire. One touch and it carries the current directly to the brain. Although it’s good to read dense prose every now and again. Indeed, sometimes, the complexity can have its own beauty. There’s nothing better than the bare minimum where every letter is pulling its weight. Many people try to write this way and most fail miserably. Chuck Wendig has it down to a fine art. It’s tough, mean and, at times, firing enough four-letter words for the film rating agencies to insist on an R rating. He’s also got the knack of thought-transference as the images he had in his mind when writing come whiplashing into yours. Indeed, however I look back at this reading experience, it was so good, I want it again.
The best way to sum this book up is simple. Objectively, with one exception, people do terrible things to each other, but the way it’s all described is so exuberant, you get carried along and, at times, actually smile. This makes me think of those ads for chocolates, “So good, it’s sinful!” Except, from what I’ve written, you should realise this book is not for everyone. You have to be able to accept very graphic violence both in descriptions of death and in torture scenes. If this is going to be a problem, walk away. For everyone else who enjoys violent horror, this is the best so far this year. Better still Blackbirds is actually set up so there could be a sequel. Now, if that’s what Fate decrees, I say, “Bring it on!”
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the sequel, see Mockingbird.
Carpathia by Matt Forbeck (Angry Robot, 2012) is an historical horror novel without any steampunk elements, Jane Austen lookalikes or zombies. There, I’ve let the cat out of the bag — shot the book down in flames before it’s had a chance. At this point, you may be shaking your head, thinking I’ve lost it. Reviewers are not supposed to follow such a destructive path when a new book is launched. But, for once, I’m trying to applaud both author and publisher. These brave souls have elected to avoid the bandwagon effect supposedly generated by these three popular tropes and offer something ripped from the pages of books about the real world. So, look again at the title.
I’m striking a blow for RMS Carpathia (RMS means the ship was allowed to carry the Royal Mail). She was built in the yards just a few miles and a few years away from where I spent my childhood. I never got to see her. She sank in 1918 and I’m not that old, but I know the type of ship she was. Magnificent for her time, although not as magnificent as the Titanic to whose rescue she sailed in 1912. It was perhaps appropriate that one great lady of the sea should be the first on the scene to rescue the passengers from the other on her maiden voyage when the iceberg got in the way. Like the Carpathia, we should note the timely arrival of this book — just in time for the centenary of the sinking. I’ll pause a moment for you to replay, “My Heart Will Go On” in celebration of the publisher’s marketing nous.
It’s interesting to see who and what Matt Forbeck pulls out of history. My favourite is Jacques Futrelle who was a very good writer of mysteries for his day. The others are mostly key members of the crews of both ships. This signals a preference for people rather than the features of the ships which are described in a slightly generic way. This is a book that tells you only what it needs to push on with the story. There are anachronisms every now and then like the first class dining room serving a merlot — in those days, wines were always named after the vineyards: only the best chateau-bottled for the Titanic — but they match the expectations of modern readers and do not detract from the general sense of realism.
Lucy Seward, Quin Harker and Abe Holmwood come courtesy of Uncle Bram and signal the presence of vampires. This triggers more confusion. How can these creatures be out on the high seas. It’s not like they ever hoisted the Jolly Roger and raided ships passing in the night for their next meals. As it happens, the Carpathia was on the usual run from New York to Fiume when it got the call from the Titanic. For those of you not into geography, Fiume is now known as Rijeka, a major port in Croatia. Finding New York a little too hot, a major group of vampires is on its way to the Old Country for a little peace and a greater sense of security. Unfortunately, the prospect of human sushi on ice just a few miles away is enough to bring vampire factionalism to the fore. Whereas their leader wants a low profile until they disembark, the younger ones who have caused so much trouble in America, are not prepared to accept hunger as the price of safety. They transform into bats and wing across the night sky to gorge themselves.
This brings the two strands of the story neatly together. Our trio of friends are variously pitched into the Atlantic some 370 miles off Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. With the Carpathia on the way, some of the vampires arrive. From this point on, the tension steadily ratchets up as all the humans, rescuers and survivors, end up on the Carpathia. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to run once on board. Matt Forbeck imparts a pleasingly relentless quality to the narrative as the humans slowly realise they may just have been demoted in the food chain. Naturally, no-one wants to believe in the reality of vampires so it takes more obvious loss of life before the threat is accepted as real. Then, like Custer, they prepare for their last stand.
This is not a book you read for the history. Unlike others more often found on the detective/mystery shelves, where the detail is woven into the narrative to offer colour and depth, this only gives you the bare bones of life on the Titanic and Carpathia. Everything is focused on the characters and their predicament. In this, the vampires are not forgotten. Indeed, if anything, they emerge as rather tragic figures with the majority trying to work through an intergenerational problem. The older members of the group want a quiet life, but their rebellious younger recruits forget the old rule, “The fox preys far from home” or, if you prefer the more direct version, “Never shit in your own backyard.” Such is life in big undead families.
So, overall, Carpathia is a stripped-down thrill ride as humans and vampires are set on a collision course thanks to the accident of an iceberg. It’s well worth picking up.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Debris by Jo Anderton, The Veiled Worlds I (Angry Robot, 2011) starts off like a rocket. Albeit we’re in familiar territory with a strong female protagonist experiencing a disaster and then recovering, there’s something really pleasing about the initial set-up. We’re pitched into a dystopian world with a powerful and unaccountable elite in control of Varsnia. These people will casually blight a career or kill without compunction if it’s felt expedient. Although there are faint trappings of a judicial system, access is strictly controlled and the results of adjudications only released in redacted form. The justification for this oppression is the usual excuse of an external enemy. While there may not be Orwellian counterespionage policing with fifth-columnists publicly rounded up for interrogation, you have the sense there’s a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear. Continuing in familiar territory, this powerful elite has accumulated vast wealth and lives in accommodation matching their status while those at the bottom of the heap live in old, unmodernised buildings in slum quarters.
The ability that makes this society work is a variation on bending as in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Most humans in this world have developed a power to manipulate matter. At the bottom end of the ability scale, people see something of the atomic structure of the world and can perform simple tasks equivalent to turning an on/off switch. At the top end of the scale, we have people who approach reality warping powers, able to pull matter apart and rebuild it into new permanent forms. These forms may be static like a major civic building or piece of artwork, or it can be a machine of some kind. This ability has transformed the world at a superficial level. There’s no clear timeline given so this was either a pre-technological society, exploiting steam and gas for power, or more likely given the other technology that shows up later, it’s one of these post-apocalypse scenarios in which a world more advanced than ours has fallen into a chaos during which most of the old technology was lost. It’s interesting to compare this set-up with The Light Ages by Ian R MacLeod which has conventional technological development stall when Victorian miners discover deposits of aether, a magical form of energy. Jo Anderton also has Dickensian overtones in her descriptions of crumbling infrastructures and decrepit factories. Her society has also stalled in a pre-democratic, semi-feudal model where the elite has taken command of the key bending resources and largely diverts this work to improving the quality of life for the wealthy with a few sops for the middle classes.
We start off with our heroine, Tanyana, who’s in the process of constructing the ironically named statue Grandeur. This is intended as an enduring symbol of Varsnia’s contribution to the world. This massive structure is, of course, an exercise in hubris both national and personal. Sadly, Tanyana finds her work sabotaged. She and her unfinished statue are literally cast down. This makes Vansia look bad and justifies Tanyana’s fall from grace. When she recovers consciousness, she finds herself being fitted with an unfamiliar “machine”. Passing quickly on, she’s then despatched into the outer suburbs to join a crew of debris collectors. We now learn bending is a technology or applied magic that seeks its own equilibrium. Think yin and yang. For all the positive use of the bending, there’s a byproduct. Leave too much of this debris lying around and you push the overall system out of balance. Surprisingly, the technology created with the bending starts to malfunction. It was at this point I began to feel the initial rocket start falter.
The need for refuse collectors would have been obvious from the start yet only a tiny minority of the citizens can see this debris, let alone pick it up and carry it away. You cannot imagine a society setting off to build a future on bending without taking every possible precaution on the rubbish front. Frankly, with the numbers of those with the necessary skills in such short supply, why do they not command higher status and pay to match? At the very least, this is like the fire brigade which must monitor the suburbs to remove accumulations before they can become a danger. Should there be a sudden imbalance, these dedicated people must rush to the scene and literally save the community from a fate worse than death given all their technology would cease to work. It makes absolutely no sense these indispensable workers would be the equivalent of dalits who are considered untouchable because their traditional work is cleaning out the latrines and sewers.
Then we slowly realise all the characters in this book come without any sense of history. Being old, an oral history was passed down to me by my parents and grandparents. Through this, I literally remember what it was like during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods before I was born. I have a sense of how we came to be what we are today. Yet there’s nothing in this first-person narrative to really explain how this magical technology got started, nor who all the different groups are in this society. Everyone would know how the world works. Yet our heroine seems to have no understanding of how to navigate through the bureaucracy, nor how power is deployed. No-one around her seems to understand how the tribunal system works nor how people can suddenly find themselves demoted from a good job to the equivalent of a goatherd in the Siberian wastes. We are left to feel everyone’s surprise as the dystopian regime rolls out each new predictable oppressive mechanism.
Then we come to the technology of the suit with which the collectors are fitted. There’s nothing else even remotely comparable seen in this city. If this is a stalled Victorian society, how did scientists come to develop something this sophisticated? If this is a survivor technology from a previous age, why is there nothing else that seems to match this level of cyborg transformation? Even though this level of integration seems only possible with those who have the genes for high-powered atomic manipulation, there are enough of these people to benefit from the obvious advantages — perhaps this is all a military secret. Then there are the human/machine interfaces, wireless communication systems and computerised display units associated with suit operation. In this, I’m not counting what may appear to be an electronic money system — pun intended. That appears to be one of the magic machines, only accessible to the atomic-blind through an overlaid display. It’s the uniqueness of the suit’s apparently conventional technology that’s so hard to accept in this context. I have the same problems with the survival of strange books and the completely unexplained nature of the underground movement that rears its head. When we get into the final section of this novel and come to a slight better understanding of how modified and unmodified humans may be able to interface with other realities, the construction of the immediate world gets even less coherent. Indeed, it may be better to stop thinking of this as a science fiction novel and to label it fantasy.
From all this, you will understand a degree of frustration on my part. What began so well almost completely falls to pieces as we go through the middle section. The ending is decidedly weak and not a little incomprehensible given what has gone before. Normally, I would not care and simply throw this away. But whatever the faults in the plotting, Jo Anderton writes very well. She has a strong sense of character and the descriptions of the cityscape are impressive. So rather than rush to a definitive conclusion, I will wait for the sequel. It’s possible she has some overarching explanation that will make sense of this first volume. If so, I will rate this as a duology and give it a more positive recommendation. For those who want to buy Debris and then travel in hope, the sequel is called Suited.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, Debris has been nominated in the 2012 Ditmar ballot for Best Novel.
When I was growing up, running around the streets of my seaside suburb with the “gang” that was made up of the children living in our road, we used slang terms like “dead good” and “dead bad” to mean really good or bad. I suppose the nearest current equivalent is the use of “wicked” in the same rather perverse spirit. This came to mind as I picked up Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon (Angry Robot, 2011). It’s a sequel to Pretty Little Dead Things which introduced us to Thomas Usher, a man who considers himself cursed. But my first impression from the title was strangely appropriate. It’s almost a dead good book.
This is what may loosely be labelled violent or, even, brutal horror. It’s always been around in one form or another. In earlier times, it was hived off into a grey area where it might be considered slightly pornographic. But following on the increasing willingness of the film-censors to allow graphically violent films to be shown as mainstream entertainment — as in Martyrs, The Hills Have Eyes, the Saw franchise, Hostel, and so on — where the boundaries of taste have been tested with the depiction of both physical and psychological torture becoming increasingly acceptable, the written form has slowly moved out of the shadows. It’s not really my thing, but I read through this to discover whether the graphic bits and what goes in between add up to a good story. I can forgive a lot if there are interesting ideas and a strong narrative.
The cosmology of this universe and its associated realities is rigorously deterministic. A group whom we shall call the Architects writes scripts for us, mapping out the highs and lows of life, and time and manner of death. This is a modern version of the Moirae where Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and allots an amount of time to each individual, and Atropos choses the way in which we shall die. Gary McMahon tweaks the classical model by having his hero, Thomas Usher born with a nonstandard script giving him a role not unlike the psychopomps whose task it is to guide the spirits of the newly dead to whichever version of their afterlife seems appropriate given their behaviour during life. This is not supposed to happen on our Earth and there’s some degree of conflict between the Architects as to how to respond to this unique event. One faction wants to leave well alone. The other wants to exploit this power.
While these factions manipulate the world to get into the right position to intervene, our Earth continues to spin. During his life, Emerson Doherty was a top Yorkshire detective. He caught a lot of bad people. Most he handed over for trial and punishment. When the evidence was thin, he had other solutions. He led a small group with vigilante options. They had a guide who may be an angel. Surprisingly, this angel gives Doherty a baby girl to look after. He names her Sarah. Her life is difficult but she grows up tough. She follows him into the police force and then he dies of a heart attack. Slowly, she will go through all his papers. He was a collector, hoarding the minutiae of every case, both official and unofficial. She will come to understand what kind of man her foster father was. This knowledge will put her in danger.
After the events of the first book, Thomas Usher has fled to London but there are forces working to pull him back to Yorkshire. As he is more than aware, nothing is as it seems. He’s deeply suspicious of the circumstances conspiring to move him back up North but, in the end, he goes. Later he will meet up with Sarah and, between them, they will reach an understanding with the forces trying to manipulate them.
Having arrived at the end, the question I asked myself was whether the story would have been better or worse told straight. What, if anything, did the brutality add? The basis on which people gained some sensitivity to different realities including the ability to see and interact with ghosts was personal tragedy. So, for example, if you were a woman and a group of men raped you, cut off your arms and left you to die, you would speak with the dead. Hence, there has to be some level of description to establish the credibility of this mechanism. But there’s also some violence that I feel is somewhat gratuitous. I’m not saying Dead Bad Things would be improved with the violence restricted to passages that would shock simply because they were unexpected, but there’s a slight numbing effect as you read through the book. I can’t say I was shocked. I’ve read and seen worse. But some of the dramatic edge is lost if a device is overused.
So there you have it. Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon can be read as a stand-alone although, as always, you gain depth if you know what happened in the first book. I think it’s a good story but it will not be to everyone’s taste. So, having read this review, it comes down to a personal decision on whether you are sufficiently interested in violence to want to read a somewhat gratuitously violent take on determinism, with a detour through Revelations as an early interpretation of what sensitive people might see if there’s a personal tragedy in their lives.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.