Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins

One of the wonderful things about speculative fiction is the gradient of possible worlds its writers make available to readers. Rather than invent a planet nestled in a distant corner of the universe, or resort to the generic dragon and wizard haunted realms of fantasy, writers of speculative fiction can create inverted versions of our world. This is what Peter Higgins accomplishes in his diverting novel, Wolfhound Century (Orbit, February 4, 2014).

Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins

Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins

As the book’s cover makes clear, Wolfhound Century is set in the fictional equivalent of the Soviet Union. The resemblance is at once clear and ambiguous. Readers will recognize in the Vlast (the nation) Russian “motherland” ideology. The Novozhd, the Vlast’s selfless and noble leader, is George Orwell’s Big Brother (itself a stand-in for Stalin) made flesh. And the redundant security apparatuses described throughout the book evoke the paranoia of the national security state.

But Wolfhound Century is not merely a replica of the USSR. In the Vlast, nature is alive: Rain assaults the protagonist, quite literally, upon his arrival in the capital. Giants work alongside humans, and yet other folkloric creatures are known to, if still feared by, citizens. And “angels” fall from the sky, the rock from which they’re made used by humans in medical and military experiments, providing some of the “beneficiaries” incredible powers. (The angels appear to be sentient meteorites, a fair guess given Russia’s reputation for being struck by objects from space.)

Inspector Vissarion Lom, our hero, received as a child an implant of “angel flesh” into his forehead; the powers it provides him are negligible. At the opening of Wolfhound Century, Lom has frittered away his career as a provincial police officer by refusing to engage in the politics necessary for advancement. Despite his outsider status, or perhaps because of it, he is summoned to the capital, Mirgorod, to investigate the notorious terrorist Josef Kantor. The story, then, is straightforward: Lom seeks Kantor, and Kantor, at the behest of one of the fallen angels, plots against the Vlast. Their collision is as inevitable as the fall of angel stone to earth.

Higgins’ strengths are his setting and his writing, which work together to create a surreal, dreamlike quality that will either entrance or repel readers. Readers, confronted with a fun house image of the Soviet Union, are immediately disoriented. A giant participates in a terrorist raid. What is this place? Higgins wisely elaborates on his creation not with explication, but with detail: Just pages later, Higgins describes giants pulling wagons down a busy street, a scene of everyday life. The effect is surreal in the best possible way.

Higgins’ prose contributes groundedness to his fantastical setting. Higgins’ sentences are short and punchy, economical; they move the story forward. Higgins is particularly adept at describing landscapes, regardless of whether they’re urban or rural. The final third of the novel is set in the marshes outside of Mirgorod, and Higgins’ evocation of the swamps is especially successful.

Wolfhound Century has two issues that may put off some readers. The first half of the novel moves slowly as Higgins sets the scene for its more explosive second half. The story at times seems to wander, as adrift as Lom’s investigation. Still, patient readers will be rewarded: The payoff here is not merely the action that takes place nearer the end of the book, but also the opportunity to further explore Mirgorod and Higgins’ world. Readers begin to receive answers halfway through the book, but shouldn’t neglect to enjoy the questions they’re faced with as the story builds.

More problematic is the fact that Wolfhound Century is obviously intended as the first installment in a series. It becomes clear in the last quarter of the story that the action will not be resolved by the end of the book, and it’s only fair to warn readers that this is the case. (Indeed, the sequel, Truth and Fear, is slated to be published on March 25, 2014.) This comes down to a matter of taste: If you are a reader who isn’t bothered by cliffhangers, or if you’re willing to commit yourself to another series, Wolfhound Century’s ending won’t intimidate you. Other readers will wish there was a greater sense of resolution.

Wolfhound Century is a quiet, unassuming book that will sneak up on those readers who have the patience to permit themselves to be rewarded by it. It in some ways reminded me of Ian Tregillis’ recent novel, Something More Than Night. Recommended for readers of unconventional fantasy/sci-fi and those with an interest in Russian mythology and folk culture.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for providing me access to Wolfhound Century in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Waking Engine, David Edison

It is with great pleasure and misplaced pride that I anticipated David Edison’s use of “omphalos” in his debut novel, The Waking Engine. “Hey,” I thought, “the City Unspoken [the setting] is an omphalos!” Edison confirmed my suspicions just pages later, when a prophetess addressed Cooper, the protagonist, as “Omphale.” I know things! (For those readers unfamiliar with the term, an omphalos is a navel or focal point. For instance, the ancient rabbis assert that Jerusalem is the omphalos of the world.)

Omphalos: Jerusalem as navel of the world.

Omphalos: Jerusalem as navel of the world.

Omphalos. Got it? Because you’re going to need a primer in the metaphysics The Waking Engine before we begin. In short, when people die, their souls are reincarnated, possibly in another universe. These collective, but finite, worlds comprise the metaverse. Eventually, either through the obscure satisfaction of some karmic debt, or sheer weariness, souls “Die.” That is, they altogether cease to exist. In order to die, souls transmigrate to certain omphaloses (omphalii?), of which one is the City Unspoken, the novel’s setting.

The Waking Engine, David Edison

The Waking Engine, David Edison

The Waking Engine begins when Cooper, our hero, falls asleep in New York City and wakens on a hillside in the City Unspoken. If that weren’t disorienting enough, he’s immediately accosted by Asher, a mysterious gray man, and Sesstri, a pink-haired scholar of the metaverse. Asher and Sesstri are looking for someone special, and Cooper doesn’t appear to be it. They assault him, assist him, abandon him and finally befriend him. Then things start to get weird. That’s right: then things start to get weird.

If genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, this Edison must have been a sweaty beast whilst furiously tapping at his keyboard. Edison’s imagination was working overtime. The Waking Engine is a hodgepodge of ideas, from technologically enhanced fairies, to the bored children of nobility who “kill” their peers for fun, to the first victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, reincarnated as worshipers of the undead. Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? It’s more the latter than the former, but I’m still not certain. (You can get a taste by reading an excerpt at Tor.com.) Whatever genre it might belong to, The Waking Engine surprisingly, unexpectedly, works.

The Waking Engine‘s success may be attributed to Edison’s imagery and unexpected turns of phrase. Consider, for instance, one of Edison’s villains, the Cicatrix, a fairy queen who has sacrificed her fey nature to technology. The Cicatrix is a cyborg, a living machine taking the form of a centipede or serpent. Or the skylords, undead sorcerers intent on the overthrow of Death, who, when they assume a corporeal form, appear as etched metal skeletons dressed in rags and, perversely, fine wigs. Edison’s imagery is inspired. So, too, is his prose. Edison’s dialog may sometimes be stilted, but his description of events is successful and, at times, surprising.

The Waking Engine is not an unvarnished success. This reader had two major complaints. First, Cooper lacks agency; he is almost entirely reactive. That may be attributed to the fact that he was ripped from his reality into a different world, a circumstance that should, in theory, have shattered his mind. Cooper, though, seems at ease with everything that happens to him, which might be attributed to his “special” nature. (And it could be said that Cooper’s ease with events serves to better orient the reader.) It might be assumed that Cooper will take a more active role in future installments, but in The Waking Engine he is a passive protagonist.

Cooper’s flaws aside, The Waking Engine’s real problem is structural. As indicated above, readers will find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar world with only the orientation provided on a page-by-page basis. Indeed, the novel is 400 pages long, but it was only when this reader was 100 pages into the story that he had a command of the setting and the ways in which it operates. The learning curve is steep, and the reader must be prepared to be confused; all will be made clear in time, but that does little for readers as they try to find their place in Edison’s world.

What you need to know: Not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, The Waking Engine is a successful hodgepodge that draws on both and might be said to (vaguely) fall under the umbrella of urban fantasy. Hobbled by structural problems, The Waking Engine is not recommended for readers who lack patience. A strong debut novel that may be best appreciated by lovers of off-the-wall fantasy.

(Special thanks to NetGalley and MacMillan-Tor/Forge for providing me an ARC of The Waking Engine in return for an honest review.)

Philly Book Stores: Book Trader

Bookstores have personalities. They’re characters. If you can get past the smell of moldering books and, sometimes, cat urine, you’ll find that each bookstore is beautiful and unique in its own special way, much like the patients in movie lunatic asylums. (Fun fact: Did you know that the decay of books is really “burning,” albeit at a slow pace, as they release their carbon back into the atmosphere?)

Thus it’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to the Book Trader, which I would characterize as a slightly grumpy Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis iteration). Think Doc Brown meets Uncle Fester. Or not. Maybe I’m just confusing the Addams Family’s mansion with the bookstore.

Book Trader facade.

Book Trader facade.

Location and Hours

Book Trader has possibly the best location of all used bookstores in Philly. You’ll find the shop in Old City, right across the street from historic Christ Church. Book Trader is on 2nd Street just north of Market. Old City is a highly trafficked neighborhood, both during the day and at night. The district teems with restaurants and bars, and the nightlife is lively enough for visitors to feel safe well past Book Trader’s 10pm closing time. (Although looking for used books at 10pm seems…unwholesome.) The store opens at 10am daily.

Unwholesome: "Hello, mother..."

Unwholesome: “Hello, mother…”

Prices

Prepare to be mystified! Book Trader notes, using pencil, prices on upper right corner of the book’s first page. I can read Cyrillic, I can read Hebrew, but I can’t read the Book Trader’s handwriting. Most prices appear to me to be a lower case “g” followed by two zeros. That “g” could be a “9.” It could be a “4.” Frankly, I’m not convinced that the cashiers know, either, since their typical reaction is to pause and peer at the book before announcing its price. I imagine they’re doing quick mental calculations, futilely trying to divine the book’s price by comparing it to the hundreds of other tomes that have passed through their hands over the past few days.

I complained before about the price of used books. Perhaps I’m cheap or, to put a positive spin on it, “thrifty.” Book Trader’s books are on the expensive side. I know what you’re thinking. “Booksellers gotta feed their families, too!” Yeah, but Book Trader’s kids about to go on Social Security themselves, so that ain’t it. During my last visit, just this month (January 2013), the books I looked at averaged about $7 each, which is more than I’m willing to pay for most paperbacks, especially those that are battered.

The Book Trader makes some strange decisions. I once purchased there a copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic for $1.97. The store’s owner told me, “That’s a great book, but I can’t sell it for more than that because of the underlining!” I sold it on Half.com for $15. Indeed, I knew I could get that when I bought it. The economics of used bookstores is both mystifying and fascinating.

Precious + Useful.

Precious + Useful.

In theory, Book Trader will give you credit for any books you turn into him. I was told in 2008 that the exchange rate was approximately five to six of your books in order to earn one Book Trader book. Note: Book Trader doesn’t accept bestsellers.

Selection

Book Trader has an amazing, I would say overwhelming, selection of subjects. Nonfiction may be found on the ground floor. A store-length history section is abutted by shelves on politics, philosophy, psychology, film and the arts, the sciences, and religion. There’s also several shelves of VHS tapes for several dollars each, or 3 for $4. So enjoy that. I’ve had particular success in the American history and religion sections.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Fiction may be found on the second floor. And there is a lot of fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Think of the second floor as a big “U”: Mainstream fiction or “literature” comprises the “U,” inside of which are shelves holding genre fiction. Mysteries/thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy comprise the bulk of the genre shelves.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

I like Book Trader’s sci-fi section, which is one of the largest of all the bookstores I’ve been to in Philly. I was pleased during my last visit to find to two Catherynne M. Valente books, including Deathless, a favorite of mine. You might not find exactly the author you’re looking for, but you’re bound to find something, and that sense of discovery is one of the reasons we visit used bookstores, right?

Character

Book Trader is a little kooky, like your uncle who insists he has definitive evidence that Jesus had an older brother. Can I see it, Uncle Bob? Of course not.

Book Trader is an experience; my pictures don’t do it justice. Just a few years ago, the store underwent a major renovation, “major” to be understood as a relative term, that involved improving the lighting. Prior to said renovation, the store was incredibly dark, in part due to the monolithic shelves and cramped aisles. I expected to have to use my phone as a flashlight in the sci-fi section, but was pleased to discover that I was able to read titles and authors without any difficulty.

That’s not to say that Book Trader’s “improvements” have all panned out. I enter Book Trader with dreams of browsing for hours, but am forced to flee after about an hour due to a sense of claustrophobia as the cramped conditions take their toll on my already too-fragile psyche. Piles of books on the floor contribute to the sense of walls closing in. Hold me.

Do they ever move?

Do they ever move?

Service at Book Trader is…different. Or perhaps typical of used bookstores? I’ve had a few giggles as inexperienced customers approach the cashier and ask if they have a specific book in stock, only to be answered with “I don’t know” or “If we did, it would be in the [insert subject] section…” Which is really only a slightly more polite way of saying “I don’t know.” That said, the store’s attendants are otherwise friendly and more than willing to talk about books. Just don’t expect them to be able to help you find anything. You’ll understand if you ever visit. (I did not take pictures of the box fans sitting atop bookshelves, extension cords dangling in the spaces between the shelves.)

Art in the sci-fi section.

Art in the sci-fi section.

There’s always music playing, usually bombastic classic tunes that are in no way conducive to browsing, but are perhaps better suited to storming the gates of Valhalla. It was a rainy Saturday when I last visited, and an Everly Brothers compilation was playing, a nice change of pace. The story is never “busy,” per se; you’ll be joined at most by two or three fellow browsers.

Conclusion

Book Trader is an institution, and, like an institution, has the prerogative to indulge its quirks. You don’t like it? Too bad. I suspect Book Trader doesn’t care.

If you’ve never been to Book Trader, you need to go at least once, just for the experience. I’ve enjoyed taking virgins to the store only to see them gawp in horror at the labyrinth with which they’re confronted. Then I drink their tears. Book Trader virgin tears help keep my skin looking young.

I try to visit every few months, but it never pans out the way I imagine. I assume I’m going to find books x, y, and z, but I don’t, and my patience for browsing wears thin as the shelves begin closing in on me. I’m pretty sure that, if I died on the second floor, my body wouldn’t be discovered for weeks.

Book Trader isn’t the best used bookstore in Philly, but it’s one of the biggest, and you really should visit.

Review: Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

If Annihilation is any indication, 2014 will be a good year for fiction.

Written by Jeff Vandermeer, promoter of the new weird (see also: Jagannath), Annihilation is a tour de force, a slow burn of wonder and dread the culmination of which leaves the reader demanding more. Happily, Annihilation is the first entry in The Southern Reach TrilogyAuthority will be published in June, and Acceptance in September. (Fun fact: Whilst Googling, I discovered that the books are slated to be made into movies.)

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation begins with the entry of an expedition into Area X. Area X is a contaminated environment, abandoned by human life decades ago. The Southern Reach, a government or institution responsible for Area X, organizes expeditions to study the region. Annihilation relates the story of the twelfth expedition, comprised of the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the biologist, who is also the narrator. It is not giving anything away to say that the expedition goes horribly wrong.

Area X is in many ways a pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands, save those of the expeditions, for decades. Vandermeer, via the biologist, lavishes detail on the landscape, establishing for the reader a setting both familiar and “uncanny”: The wetlands, the trees, the bright blue skies, but also large, unidentified reptiles, a low “moaning” phenomenon that occurs only at dusk, and, especially, the fungal life. Vandermeer’s descriptions of the environment are vivid, appropriate not only to the character of the biologist, but also serving to simultaneously orient and unbalance the reader.

The shifting relationships of the characters, all known only according to their function in regards to the expedition, contributes to the readers’ unease. It soon becomes evident to the biologist (and, thus, the reader) that all is not as it seems. The psychologist, the leader of the expedition, appears to know more than she is saying, and is armed with phrases that provide her influence over the other team members, even to the point of subverting their independence. This knowledge complicates the biologist’s relationship with the surveyor, who becomes suspicious of both her and the psychologist. Who can be trusted?

The focus of the story is the exploration of two local landmarks, the lighthouse, which appears on the team’s maps and appears to have been the scene of vicious assaults, and the “Tower,” a strange inversion of the lighthouse, really, that tunnels downward into the earth and in which the surveyor and the biologist discover words written with luminescent fungi: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…” Needless to say, the discovery of the words unnerves the team, and the Tower is the scene of some of the expedition’s most horrific moments.

It’s impossible to provide more detail about the story without giving away elements that should be discovered by individual readers. Suffice it to say that Annihilation lives up to the appellations of “thriller” and “new weird.” The revelations are as disorienting as the mysteries.

Annihilation is a page turner, a masterfully crafted novel that demands readers’ attention. Vandermeer’s storytelling skills are on full display here, using setting, character and plotting to create in the reader not only a growing sense of dread, but also the need to confront the source of that dread. This readers’ only regret is that Annihilation, at 200 pages, wasn’t longer, and that Authority and Acceptance aren’t immediately available. Highly recommended.

Find more Annihilation resources here.

(Special thanks to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the opportunity to read an advance copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review.)