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Magic and Loss by Nancy A Collins

December 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Magic-and-Loss

Magic and Loss by Nancy Collins (Roc, 2013) is the third book in the Golgotham series and, since the spells which underpin the creation of these stories come in trilogies, this seems to draw all the threads together. Not that the series could not continue, of course. But, for now, we seem to have disposed of the major villain and his cohorts. So for those of you who have not previously encountered this series, a brief summary. Tate is the talented daughter of an immensely rich New York family but, as is required to set the romance ball rolling, she’s at odds with her parents. She wants to be a sculptor — not the common or garden worker of rock and stone — that would be so common. She’s into bending metal bars with her teeth and welding the results together into interesting shapes. This is not quite the type of activity up with which neighbours will put so she moves into Golgotham. This is the not quite ghetto where all the magic folk live. Here she can literally do her Vulcan act and no-one gives a rat’s ass. Naturally she establishes her studio in a house owned by Hexe, a member of the Kymerian royal family and master of right-hand magic — that’s the good variety. Sparks fly. As we come into this third book, Tate is now pregnant so this is the trigger for the final assault on the royal family’s hold on power.

Boss Marz, the local gang kingpin who was jailed in the last book, has now been released from jail on a technicality and is now back in Golgotham to reclaim his turf and take revenge on Tate and Hexe. If I was to jot down the plot outline on he back of an envelope, you would think it had potential. Naturally, Boss is just a front and, when a devious plan springs into action, Hexe is possessed and Tate, somewhat surprisingly, takes off back to her parents — obviously her hormones are affecting her ability to think straight. In the first two books, she was inseparable from her wizard man. Yet just because he attacks her, she runs away. I find this less than credible. Even more surprising is the reaction in the parental household. Her mother actually admits how she came to marry her father which is not very flattering, and the butler who has spent a lifetime in service, hands in his notice and comes back to Golgotham with his mistress. Except he turns out to have a thing for underground oracles and those rather loud shirts men wear to look cool on Hawaii’s beaches.

Nancy Collins with a dominant right eye

Nancy Collins with a dominant right eye

So the potential of the plot in enabling the possession of Hexe and doing all the usual dire things people do when they are bent on revenge starts off reasonably well. But it slowly breaks down as we get into both the relationship problems of Tate and Hexe, and the relationships of our lovers’ parents. Indeed, the family history is enlarged upon to include grandparents and a significant backstory based on a coincidental meeting between the two mothers before they respectively produced Tate and Hexe. It’s one of these small world plots where everyone either knows everyone or turns out to be related in some unexpected way. There’s also altogether too much information about Golgotham, its culture and its celebratory festival. Far be it for me to suggest this is mere padding. I suppose there are gangs of fans out there who suck up detail and admire the comprehensive way in which this “world” has been constructed. Sadly, I just got bored. In the earlier books, I was prepared to tolerate the romance which has been driving Tate’s evolution from a mere artist with a hammer and oxyacetylene welding kit, into a magician in her own right, able to animate her creations. This is actually quite a cool metaphor. Artists invest their creations with their love so it’s only right they should literally be able to bring them to life. Except, apart from an early flicker and a late rally, very little is made of her magical abilities in this book. She’s much more passive and less confident. It doesn’t feel right given what she’s been through. I would have expected her to show more grit when she’s actually got a lot of power to draw on.

The result is, I’m sad to say, a damp squib. I think this could have been a dark and tense novel, full of thriller potential and several set-piece fights or small battles. Instead, it allows the romance to slow everything down and lighten the tone. I know the urban fantasy subgenre is not supposed to stray into dark territory. It’s the equivalent of the cozy mystery as the opposite of noir or the hardboiled. So all the potential is dissipated with too much exposition and not enough sense of danger for our parents-to-be and, after a quick birth, the baby boy. This is a major disappointment. Although the first in the series was uninspiring, the second managed to produce a genuinely interesting plot idea. Magic and Loss slides back into the genuinely bad end of the fantasy market and, unless you are a fan of the first two, you should not trouble the bookseller to sell it to you.

For reviews of the other books in the series, see:
Left Hand Magic
Right Hand Magic

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova

October 31, 2013 2 comments

Box Office Poison

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova (a pseudonym of Melinda Snodgrass) (Tor, 2013) is the second urban fantasy to feature Linnet Ellery, a human lawyer employed by a vampire firm. Looking at that last sentence gives me a warm feeling. It’s always therapeutic to suggest firms of lawyers are blood-sucking vampires but, with this book having the urban fantasy label plastered on the shingle hung outside their office, this is meant literally. Werewolves and elves, who call themselves the Álfar, are also “real” and are, to a significant degree, integrated into human affairs. This takes us a step further than the Left Hand/Right Hand Magic by Nancy Collins in which a range of supernatural creatures are living among humans but their existence is largely ghettoised. Here some of the leading celebrities on the big screen are Álfar, their agents are werewolves and vampires draw up the contracts. To a great extent, this is life in the mainstream, but it’s not without its complications.

In our world, America has been built out of successive waves of immigration, but the pace has dwindled of late. Indeed, it would be fair to say America is less welcoming than it used to be and, in some quarters, actively hostile to newcomers. This is most obviously apparent in the failure of the so-called Dream Act to gain traction on Capitol Hill. Common sense says America should embrace the people already in the country, often doing the work local people refuse to do, paying taxes and sending their children to school. So this book has three different groups who live and work in human America. Obviously both vampires and werewolves used to be human. No-one is entirely sure who or what the Álfar are. But one thing is clear. These people are taking work from the “humans” and it’s time they were sent back where they came from. As a first step, a Humans First organisation is arguing for a racial law to prevent a marriage from being valid between a human and one of these “others”, cf the miscegenation laws in some US states, Nazi Germany, South Africa, etc. In other words, this book is actually a good vehicle for exploring attitudes between different groups and the pressures for positive discrimination laws to impose greater equality than the more extreme elements in human society prefers.

Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass

On the way to solving some interesting mystery puzzles about two Álfar accused of murder, we’ve got a formal arbitration which plays the legal niceties rather well. The question is pleasingly simple. When it comes to the process of casting a film, everyone puts on a show. They all want to impress during the audition. So if one group of actors can use a glamour to make themselves more attractive in face-to-face meetings with directors and producers, how qualitatively different is this from others having cosmetic surgery or corrective dentistry to make themselves look better? And then there’s the not so mythological use of the casting couch — exploitation, yes, but a price some are prepared to pay in their search for stardom and celebrity. Who’s to say what “tricks” people may play when the outcomes to the individuals involved are so important.

This is a book written by someone who has experience in Hollywood. It has a knowing quality about some of the descriptions of the characters and the places where “work” is done. So this is me reaching a fairly radical conclusion given all the dismissive things I’ve said about most of the urban fantasies I’ve read over the last couple of years. Looks around nervously and mops a brow suddenly beaded with sweat. This is highly enjoyable! There, I’ve said it. “But why?” you wail, having legitimately expected me to rip this to shreds? Well this is not your common or garden urban fantasy with a kick-ass female first-person narrator who dispatches supernatural beasties with a flick of her manicured hand while lusting platonically after some hunky male (of whatever race or species happens to be available). Box Office Poison is an excellent legal thriller that involves a range of supernatural and human people all working together to arrive at a just outcome, the American way. Ignore the crass label stuck on by the marketers. This is a superior book no matter what the cover art or blurb might otherwise suggest.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

To say Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling (Roc, 2013) Shadowspawn 3 is tedious is an understatement. It all starts to go wrong with the prose which is formulaic and wooden. In some hands, functionalism is a virtue because the words are the least barrier between the reader and the meaning. There’s no ornament or distraction. The author just gets on and tells the story. Unfortunately that’s not what we have here. Everything feels padded out with lots of detail about where everyone is or what everyone is wearing or eating or enjoying as art. None of it is terribly interesting in itself and cumulatively it’s just boring. I have the sense the author started off with a particular word count in mind and that’s what he wrote. What also makes the text less appealing is the S&M theme. Although we don’t quite get into the realm of soft porn, the descriptions of Monica’s domination flirt around the edges of good taste. We’ve also got a fair bit of history to wade through explaining the origin of the species and how the Shadow folk have evolved, particularly since they latched on to the Mendel and Darwin guys to go in for selective breeding.

For those of you who’ve missed the first two in this series, the Shadowspawn are an amalgam of the different supernatural beasties we’re identified as preying on us over the centuries. So think of them as predominantly vampires but with mind-control, shape-shifting and other attributes bred into the different blood lines. The other interesting feature is that they can live on beyond one body and inhabit others. Although they can be killed, most manage to endure for centuries.

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

As to the plot, it couldn’t be easier to describe. All the interested parties touch base in Paris. Principally that’s Adrian Brézé and his wife, Ellen, and the antagonist sister Adrienne Brézé. The children, Leila and Leon, are in the care of Eric and Chiba in Santa Fe, and all four have to get from America to Europe, joining up with Peter Boase en route. Harvey Ledbetter, his atomic bomb and his two pursuers (or not), Anjali Guha and Jack Farmer, are moving across Turkey. . . and then everyone converges on Tbilisi where The Shadow Council will decide how they are going to thin the ranks of the humans. The choice is between letting off EMPs to knock out all the modern technology and releasing one of these tailored plagues. Using bombs to destroy the technological infrastructure is messy. Worse, it’s going to leave the planet pretty irradiated which won’t kill the Shadowspawn, but it will make their lives less comfortable. There’s also the risk of atomic power stations melting down and causing all kind of other problems. The disease option keeps the technology and all the comforts it brings without the number of humans getting in the way. The problem in leaving scientific knowledge workable is that humanity is getting far too interested in trying to identify and defeat the Shadowspawn. Anticipating this growing risk, the mood is to strike first and ask questions later. Just to add a little spice to the mix, Harvey’s bomb has been factored into Adrienne’s plan. She thinks it will kill most of her competitors and leave her in charge.

So the book inches everyone forward towards the big bang (or not). People are chasing the children but who and why is not clear. This is what other people call a twisty plot, i.e. no-one has any idea what’s going on, but the author keeps giving contradictory signals as to who might be responsible. If you’re interested in guessing, you’re a real fan and will no doubt love this book. If like me, you think any plot run along these lines is as exciting as watching a car-wreck in slow-motion, you look away after the first ten seconds of the impact has taken half an hour to view and flick through to the end to see how bad the damage was. There’s fighting in different bodies including a quick rerun of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Moby Dick, followed by explosions of different magnitudes and something approaching a novelty to set things up for the next book should the publisher offer enough money to buy it. Personally, I would let Shadows of the Falling Night be the final book in a trilogy and hope he goes on to write something better, but there may be an army of fans out there demanding more.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
The Council of Shadows
The Tears of the Sun.

The Holders by Julianna Scott

June 24, 2013 4 comments

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

The Shape Stealer

There are times I wish I was an expert in everything. That way, when I come across something unexpected in a work of fiction, I would know just how fictional it is. In this case, I’m happily reading an uncomfortable blend of science fiction and fantasy, and come across a plan to destabilise the world’s economy by creating a bubble in the value of gold and then puncturing it. The book describes this as a pump and dump plan but, if my understanding is correct, it would be almost impossible to apply this to a commodity such as gold. In the real world, the early months of 2009 saw the price of gold at $800 per ounce, but once we came to the autumn of 2011, it had risen to more than $1,900. This was a bubble, i.e. the price did not reflect the economic law of supply and demand. Consequently, optimistic investors were saying there was no upward limit for the price. Trying to pump a commodity trending upward is never going to have a major effect. If there’s an unexpected spike, there will be a price correction and then the underlying trend will resume. Now we’re heading back down in value, i.e. the bubble is deflating and, so far, the world’s economy has not collapsed. So it seems to me that the plan to wreck the world being advocated by the forces of evil in this book is doomed to fail without any action being required from the forces of good. They could just sit back and laugh as evil’s plan failed.

All of which brings me to this quite extraordinary collision between science fiction and fantasy. The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll (pseudonymous team of Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky) (Tor, 2013) is the third in the Black Swan Rising trilogy dealing with the “love” between Garet and Will. As in all books now posing under the urban fantasy label, this must be one of these agonising relationships. She’s one of these protector figures (save the Earth!) and he’s a vampire (save me from myself!). Obviously they are made for each other but, as is always the case, there are problems (no! really? well, do tell). This problem is certainly different.

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

In the last book, our happy couple travelled back in time and met up with his younger self (two vampires to love are better than one). When two returned to our time, she came back with the “young” version and not the “old” one she loves (Holy cow, Batman, that’s some mistake coming back with the lusty “young” one rather than the jaded tired “old” one). This left the “old” one the chance to carry on “living” so, for the second time of asking, he exists through the four-hundred plus years to the present so the two versions of himself can be together again with the woman they love. Notice the potential for paradox here. If the “young” one travels forward in time and so doesn’t do everything he previously did as he lived through time, that rather changes the past in a big way. Indeed, when reliving the four-hundred years, the old vampire in love dedicates his existence to good, avoiding the feasting on humans as much as possible, and generally being a nice guy (Garet has really been working her mojo on this vampire). This means absolutely everything about the past gets messed up by all that good.

Sitting in the middle of all this absurdity are different interested parties. There’s a group of temporal guardians whose job it is to keep the cause and effect sufficiently in check so that any changes to the past make only minor changes to the present (ignoring the butterfly effect for these purposes). To achieve this, they sit outside current time with exhaustive records of their “past”. Whenever anything changes, one of the ledgers drops off its shelf in the library and they can quickly see what’s changed and decide whether to fix it. This temporal limbo is also used by the fey as they pass through from Earth to their “home” land (and back which is why there’s a time loss when they take humans for a visit). There’s also a dissident group of time travellers who are called Malefactors (kinda mediaeval name for the bad guys) and generally make a nuisance of themselves by squeezing themselves through the dimensions into our time like toothpaste out of a tube. All these time guardians and warring Malefactors have some very nifty technology including some advanced weaponry (presumably brought back from the future). And, finally, there’s Dr John Dee and a shapeshifting “monster” from ancient Babylon who just want to take over the world and run it their way. So, summing this up, Dr Dee and the fairies (led by Oberon) travel through time by using magic. The chrononauts have time portals and can use clockwork devices built into watches (how original) to move through time and also space (TARDIS watches are cool).

Now there are times when absurdity is a good thing, e.g. using reductio ad absurdum in a philosophical debate or as a form of mocking mirror to reality. In electing to write about time travel, authors should be applying the established rules so, through its failure, this book is what we must politely call a time fantasy where none of it makes any sense as mathematics, physics, philosophy or logic would require. This could have been a good mechanism for mocking the trope of time travel. Once you get into the question of paradox and then have to address the possibility of paraconsistency where a proposition may be simultaneously true and false, there’s great potential for humour. But this book is plodding and dull. It’s intended as a soppy romance where our heroine gets to love two versions of her imperfect man in a world dominated by magic, i.e. a world where events are completely arbitrary and fairies can teach the vampire how to rearrange his molecules in real time to avoid being injured when bullets pass through him (sorry, I mean the vampire can rearrange his molecules so that the bullets pass through him without injuring him). Instant self-repair would be absurd, right? Particularly if he was shot in the head and had to stop thinking for a moment.

So if you’re heavily into urban fantasy and have absolutely no interest in anything that makes any sense, The Shape Stealer is for you. But if, like me, you prefer there to be an underlying logic and order to a plot, you should wave your wand in a way that will send all the copies of this book back in time so it was never written and cannot now be purchased from secondhand book dealers around the world (paradoxes rule!).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig

June 14, 2013 1 comment

unclean-spirits-chuck-wendig

As an old and physically decrepit man whose mind frequently wanders as it flirts with the idea of dementia, I find it deeply disturbing to read books like Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig (Abaddon Books). Now for those of you not yet clued into this publishing house, it specialises in creating series of books as shared universes for their stable of authors to write in. This is a new universe called Gods & Monsters. When I set off, I adopted my usual casual approach which is to pick the next book off the top of the pile and start reading. I never bother looking at any of the PR material sent with the books and don’t start browsing around the internet until after I’ve finished. I prefer to approach each new book with an open mind — I have enough trouble with thoughts of my own without worrying about what other people think. So picture the scene, if you can. I put on my reading glasses, plumped up the cushion in the small of my back and began to turn the pages. Those of you who know me might have noticed the creasing in my forehead growing more pronounced as the years weighed me down.

I’m now going to follow in a style of writing adjacent to that adopted by Chuck Wendig so please forgive the occasional expletive undeleted. This is the story of Cason Cole, his wife Alison and son Barney but, as the pages turn, I’ve no fucking idea what the story is about. This bitch of a wife tries to kill her husband the moment she sets eyes on him (perhaps a not unrealistic scenario). He thinks she cursed (a not unnatural reaction). There’s no knowing what she’s thinking (sexist thoughts deleted). So, fuck it, he runs away and Tundu, his new cab-driving acquaintance, carries him away to temporary safety. And I’m completely lost as we come to the quarter-way-through mark. It’s only when we get to about one-third of the way through that vague understanding begins to dawn. It shouldn’t be like this. I don’t care what the genre. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re more than one-hundred pages into a novel to begin finding out what a book is about. When I could not understand, I was genuinely worried my mind had quit on me and the dementia had arrived.

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

I suppose I have to classify this as urban fantasy but, to put it mildly, it strikes off the scale on the weirdometer as the usual expectations are submerged in a pile of surrealist bullshit (or if it’s not from a bull, pick your own damn animal of choice). The best way to think about this situation is that, about fifty years before this story starts, all the supernatural powers-that-be got kicked out of their quiet backwater niches. Some might be considered heavens or hells, others might be Mount Olympus or the forests where Bigfoot roamed. You see all the shades and varieties of gods (whole blood, half-blood and risen from the ranks of the human), all the monsters, creatures, spirits, demons, and then the heroes and other wannabes, have been displaced to the mundane Earth we all know and love so well. In the good old days when gods could come and go as they pleased, mixing with the humans was a holiday adventure type of experience. Now they’re stuck here with diminished powers, they’re somewhat disgruntled and tend to take it out on the humans to hand. Like Eros (aka Cupid), the god of love, is one of the primordials, i.e. arrived on the scene before the humans. His power is to collect a small group of worshippers in a nice quiet place and then fuck them until he tires of them, i.e. like most of the others, he’s not a pleasant god to be around. In fact, when you come right down to it, there’s very little to chose between the gods and the monsters when it comes to pleasantness.

In the midst of all this chaos, our hero Cason is constantly propelled forward, never entirely sure where he’s going, but always convinced he’s going to get there. In a way, it’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz on steroids because whoever it is behind the curtains pulling the strings, we know our hero will finally end up in whatever passes for Kansas and pull the curtain aside. When you get to the end, you can see the plot does all hang together rather well. It’s just such an effort to get through all the confusion of the first part of the book to finally arrive at the sprint to the big reveal and the resolution of all this family’s troubles. I guess I’m slightly equivocal about the book. Conceptually it’s got tremendous scope for exploring the nature of the supernatural powers the different gods and types of being exercise which is what you want for a shared universe concept. But there are two things wrong with this result. The first is the answers end up remarkably conservative. When I finally worked out what was going on, my interest was maintained by the hope the resolution would be pretty radical. . . Sadly, it reflects the religious forms we Westerners are most familiar with. It’s a major opportunity not taken. The second problem is that the focus of the book completely ignores how this version of Earth has been affected by the sudden arrival of all these “divine” and monstrous beings. It’s inconceivable that the history of the world has remained the same. These beings have been interfering with the ordinary flow of human life and there would have been consequences. Perhaps the intention is to explore this alternate Earth in the next books.

So there you have it. I still quite like Chuck Wendig’s writing style and the concept has great potential. I just feel punches have been pulled which is a shame because, in previous books, the one thing the author has not done is to pull his punches. Assuming you’re not offended by books dealing with different religions, Unclean Spirits is interesting.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
The Cormorant
Mockingbird.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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