Tag Archives: personal book review

Review: The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. She’s smart, a genius, really. She enjoys her lessons, especially those given by her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s polite. And she likes the taste of human flesh. Melanie, M. R. Carey’s brainchild, is The Girl With All the Gifts (Hachette, June 10, 2014).

The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

The Girl With All the Gifts opens in an indeterminate time and place, from Melanie’s sheltered, childish perspective. Melanie and her classmates spend their days in school. Sargent Parks and his soldiers escort the children to and from class, restraining them in wheelchairs, one soldier tightening the restraints while the other covers him with his gun. “I won’t bite,” Melanie jokes, but no one laughs. Something is very wrong.

Carey creates suspense by establishing the setting gradually, over the first few chapters. “What the hell is going on?” the reader wonders. (And will continue reading.) This is England, circa the mid-twenty-first century. Civilization has collapsed in the wake of environmental catastrophe. A strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps evolved that was capable of infecting humans, hijacking them to serve as vectors for spreading the parasite. Infection is rapid, irreversible, and turns the host into a mindless cannibal. Carey’s characters call them “hungries”; we’d call them “zombies.”

This isn’t a new scenario, of course. The zombie trope made a comeback in the 2000s. Readers of The Girl With All the Gifts will compare the book to the film 28 Days Later, both of which feature zombie pandemics set in England. The comparisons end there, though. Melanie, herself a “hungry,” is a point of interest. In addition to its horror elements and survival aspects, The Girl With All the Gifts is, in some ways, a distorted coming of age story, as Melanie learns the truth about herself, explores the world, and investigates the mystery of Ophiocordyceps.

Melanie, Miss Justineau, Sargent Parks, Private Gallagher, and Dr. Caldwell travel south through a stricken England, aiming for “Beacon,” the fortress that serves as the last vestige of English government and society. There is tension in the group. Parks would rather dispatch Melanie, herself infected, than travel with her, but is opposed by Justineau, the girl’s teacher, and Caldwell, the nominal leader. Justineau and Caldwell, civilians, are at loggerheads, too, the former treating Melanie as a human being, the latter considering her a future test subject. After saving Miss Justineau (with her teeth), Melanie has acquired a taste for flesh, which she must resist. And, in addition to the hungries, the group must avoid “junkers,” survivalists who roam the countryside, living off of what they can scavenge. (The junkers reminded me of scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Carey combines horror, survivalism, and elements of psychological thrillers to great effect.

Carey’s prose is simple and straightforward, ideal for the story he tells. One sentence leads seamlessly to the next, a brisk pace that will hook readers and drag them along. I found myself trying to read faster than I’m able to, almost skipping ahead in my impatience to find out what would happen next, what new misfortune would befall the group. I suspect readers will have a similar experience. You’re in Carey’s hell, and he sets the pace.

London, of course, plays an inevitable role in The Girl With All the Gifts, serving as the setting for the last third of the story. The reader feels the characters’ dread as they enter the ruins of the world’s great cities. “No,” you think, “don’t go through London!” But of course they have to, and, of course, you want them to. The city is empty not only of people, but also, oddly, of hungries. In London, the fungus is taking a turn unobserved elsewhere, and which will feature, ultimately, in the outcome of the story. London is the crucible in which the characters’ fates are decided.

The Girl With All the Gifts takes its title from Melanie’s favorite story, the myth of Pandora, whose name translates as “all gifts.” Carey, of course, is hinting at Melanie’s role in his story. Action-packed, suspenseful, haunting, The Girl With All the Gifts is highly recommended.

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Review: The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

There is a moment in The Buried Life in which the protagonist, Inspector Liesl Malone, stumbles upon a ruined library. Carrie Patel describes the building, the jumbled stacks and scattered books, with reverence. Here is the repository of civilization: People, like Malone, and societies, like that which built the library, come and go, but by recording and storing our knowledge, humanity endures. Fittingly, the next scene involves gunshots. The pen and the sword, both sources of power. This is one of the many strange juxtapositions in a strange novel, The Buried Life (Angry Robot, July 29, 2014).

The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

The setting for The Buried Life is unique: The underground city of Recoletta, approximately 300 years from the present. The ambiguous “Cataclysm” destroyed modern civilization. Whatever was involved, which may include war, given characters’ use of “antebellum” to describe the pre-Cataclysm era, it provoked in survivors an intense desire for privacy and security. Cities moved underground, and civilization reverted to Victorian technology. (Patel, perhaps unwittingly, outs herself as a historical materialist, as her society’s mode of production, Victorian, appears to dictate vaguely Victorian mores.) Patel borrows her title, of course, from the nineteenth century British poet Matthew Arnold.

The plot involves Inspector Malone’s investigation into the murders of several members of the Council, the oligarchy that rules Recoletta. Deprived of her official sanction to investigate by the secretive Council, Malone acts independently, with her new partner, Sundar, providing backup. Jane Lin, laundress to the ruling class, becomes involved when she stumbles upon the murderer. And all three are brought face-to-face with Roman Arnault, the elite’s “fixer.” Suffice it to say that their paths cross and their fates are intertwined; more cannot be said without giving away the entire plot.

Readers will be drawn to The Buried Life because of the setting. The “Cataclysm” is mysterious; we want to know what happened. Patel provides readers a taste of the back story throughout the book, just enough to whet their appetites. The underground setting is intriguing, too. I expected a lot of slinking through dark tunnels but, while my skulking quota was satisfied (2.5 incidents of skulking per page), the underground element is not fully realized. Given that the surface world is habitable and that citizens choose to live underground, it should not be surprising that Recoletta is a homey enough place. Indeed, it’s downright pleasant, with skylights that permit sunshine to reach the streets and enable Recolettans to keep up the day/night schedule “surface dwellers” enjoy. In other words, readers curious about Recoletta will find that it’s not much different from their own, albeit underground.

Patel’s characters are serviceable. Malone, the flinty detective, has a soul; a flashback to her years in the orphanage provides some insight into her character. Malone’s partner, Sundar, a former actor, serves as a handy foil. Patel uses Sundar as a recipient of Malone’s wisdom, thus shrouding explanations intended for the reader. Arnault is a puzzle, as he is meant to be, and Jane’s journalist friend, Frederick, provides some comic relief. Jane is the most interesting character, an entrepreneur of sorts whose place in the thick of things is a result not only of who she knows–Frederick, Malone, Arnault–but also a result of a filial connection to the larger plot. Patel nicely leaves the characters in a situation that demands a sequel and will have readers demanding to know what happens next.

The Buried Life, Patel’s first novel, is enjoyable, if not quite everything a reader might want. My hope is that Patel will go for greater (metaphorical) depth as she continues the series, both with her characters and especially the setting, which has potential. Patel picks up the pace in the second half of the book, and readers will find themselves wanting to know what’s going on behind the murders. Vaguely steampunk-ish but not quite classifiable, The Buried Life is recommended for readers comfortable straddling the border of fantasy and sci-fi; dedicated fantasists and hard sci-fi fans may want to go down another hole.

Review: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

There are novels in which place is a character unto itself, when tone and setting are so artfully evoked that the reader is practically standing alongside the story’s protagonists. A skilled writer transports readers by drawing on the generalities with we’re all familiar–nature, in its grandeur or grotesqueness; city life, with its commotion and loneliness–and then situating them within the unique context–the setting–of the story. Philip Meyer’s American Rust comes to mind, as do Cormac McCarthy’s novels. With a touch less darkness and a pinch of magic, we may add add Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (February 2014, Penguin) to that list.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Huran

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun

The story is set in an isolated town in British Columbia. As with many small towns, this one is less an idyllic hamlet than it is a hopeless blip in the wilderness. Harun masterfully conveys the desolation with references to an apparently hostile natural world and the rot characteristic at humanity’s attempts to defy it. Gerald Flacker, the local meth dealer, and his cronies, the Nagle brothers, treat the town as their personal fiefdom. Harun immediately establishes a sense of creeping dread: The town is adjacent to Highway 16, the so-called “Highway of Tears,” along which women, mostly aboriginal, have been disappearing for decades. In short, this is not a friendly place.

That’s not to say that Leo Kreutzer, on whom Harun focuses, is without friends. Poor and marginalized–Leo is half-white, half-aboriginal–Leo and his friends cling all the more fiercely to one another. Family, too, is important: Leo’s mother takes in her brother-in-law, the dying Uncle Lud, despite her husband’s absence. Brother and sister Bryan and Ursie, orphans, maintain a semblance of family in their parents’ decaying house. Tessa, on whom Leo has a crush, and Jackie, who works at the logging camp, round out the crew.

What plot there is unravels messily and without tidy resolution, which, in that respect, mirrors real life. The novel opens with the group engaged in a favorite pastime, as they linger at the town dump, shooting rats and birds. Jackie introduces her friends to Hana Swann, a charismatic itinerant who also works in the logging camp’s cafeteria. Swann, in contrast to Leo and his friends, is extremely pale, and her presence at once alluring and repellent: She shoots a marmot (a protected species). She challenges the friends to do something about Flacker, a notion that possesses Bryan and sets the plot in motion. Upon learning of Swann, Uncle Lud insists that Leo has met the “Snow Queen,” a troublesome character known to Leo from the many folktales his uncle unspools. Readers may wonder at Swann’s subsequent disappearance from the story, but she is like the “devil’s hopscotch” to which Harun refers, a stray stone thrown in that scatters players in a variety of unexpected directions.

A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is really a story about stories, the ways in which we construct meaning by imposing a narrative on events. Indeed, much of the book consists of Leo’s recollections after the fact, but related as present tense, a method that keeps the reader on his (and Harun’s) hook. Leo receives e-mails from the instructor of the correspondence physics class his mother forced him into. The notes are strangely personal, as Leo’s instructor explains that she attempted to study poetry at the graduate level but failed, and later turned to, and excelled at, science. Still, she quotes Leonard Cohen to Leo even as she analyzes his personality (with little to go on, as he is disengaged and sends her just one equation in which he proposes how one might quantify love). Science improves our lives, it provides us answers, but it can’t generate meaning. Uncle Lud knows this intuitively, spinning folktales about a devil in which he doesn’t really believe. Uncle Lud believes in stories, Leo tells readers.

Of course, we readers believe in stories, too, or we wouldn’t spend so many hours shushing our loved ones while we turn page after page. We may not take to heart the superstitious Catholic-aboriginal mishmash Leo’s mom practices, but we understand her reasons. Like Uncle Lud, we know that there are very real devils in the world, and that sometimes only the context of fiction can make them real. A haunting novel with folkloric and magical realist elements, A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is a debut not to be missed.

Review: Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

It left a bad taste in my mouth, like toothpaste and orange juice, when I learned that Joe Abercrombie was writing a series for young adults. Lord Grimdark is pandering to the kiddies? Gross. I needn’t have worried. From the moment I got my clammy, fanboy hands on Abercrombie’s latest book, I was hooked. Abercrombie and YA is like peanut butter and chocolate. Come, fantasy fans and Abercrombie aficionados, and gorge upon the bounty that is Half a King (Del Rey, July 3 2014).

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

The story opens when Prince Yarvi of Gettland, intended for the ministry (in this case, a brotherhood of advisers and diplomats who work toward peace) learns that his father, King Uthrik, is dead, killed by the Gettlanders’ neighbors and foes, the Vanstermen. Yarvi was not meant to be a king: His left hand is deformed, rendering him unsuitable for the throne. But with his older brother dead, too, Yarvi is the only heir, and he swears an oath to avenge his father. Yarvi leads a raid against Vansterland, only to be betrayed. Armed with only one good hand, years of resentment, and the cunning he learned as an initiate of the ministry, Yarvi sets out to fulfill his oath.

The world of Half a King is separate of that from Abercrombie’s previous fiction. Although still within the vaguely medieval consensus that defines traditional fantasy settings, there is a definite Norse, particularly Icelandic, flavor here. Gettland, Vansterland, among other kingdoms unified under the “High King” border the Shattered Sea, a roiling, storm battered mass traversed by longboat. Much of the middle of the book is set in northern ice fields and, subsequently, land rent by hot springs. And then there are the elves. Not to worry: Abercrombie’s focus is decidedly human, and his elves are long extinct. Only their ruins and artifacts remain, hinting at a curious back story. For instance, the woman who wears around her neck “an elf-tablet, the green card studded with black jewels, scrawled with incomprehensible markings, riddled with intricate golden lines.” The millennium-old ruins, untouched by time, are reminiscent of the Eldren constructions of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, haunting the scenery with an implicit threat.

Is this an "elf-tablet"?

Is this an “elf-tablet”?

If the setting is different, the tone is the same. This is a broken world: Yarvi has a “crippled” hand; the characters sail on the Shattered Sea; and even the gods are broken, the elves having waged war on the One God, shattering her into many. Perhaps writing for young adults has mellowed Abercrombie. Half a King may not be upbeat, but neither is it the cynical Ouroboros that characterizes Abercrombie’s previous novels: Here the backstabbing has an end. The camaraderie of Yarvi and his fellows is refreshingly authentic, free of the edges apparent in The First Law trilogy and its successors.

That’s not to say that violence is absent from Half a King. I lost count of noses broken with a “crunch” after a half a dozen. Abercrombie continues his fascination with the grotesque; he knows that, however much violence sickens us, it draws us in, too. We cannot look away. Abercrombie has always been sophisticated in his attitude toward violence: He portrays it with gusto, knowing that we’re attracted to it despite our denials (and thus making us complicit). But he has always portrayed its consequences, too, perhaps to greater effect in Yarvi, who is no warrior: “And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.”

If Half a King has a weakness, it is the plot, which is predictable. Perhaps that’s because I’m older than the intended audience, or maybe, having read Abercrombie’s other novels, I am able to intuit when he’s preparing to spring a trap on his readers. That the twists and turns of the story are unsurprising in no way diminish the reader’s pleasure, a testament to Abercrombie’s storytelling skills. Indeed, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, impatient to see what travails would next befall Yarvi.

Abercrombie, if not the anti-Tolkien, is a contrarian, turning on its head the tropes of high fantasy. He lays aside that ideological jihad in Half a King, instead telling the story of one character’s quest, and a very grounded one at that, motivated by revenge and gold. The only magic here is the depth of the world and the propulsive story, all of which Abercrombie manages in less than 300 pages. The only disappointing thing about Half a King is how soon it ends, and how long we have to wait for the sequel. Highly recommended.

 

Review: The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

People require meaning. Indeed, we so crave meaning that we devote much of the human enterprise to generating it, whether in the form of religion, or politics, or (and especially) fiction. What can fiction tell us? In the case of Wesley Chu’s 2013 sci-fi novel The Lives of Tao, we learn that individual happiness can only be achieved by having a cause. And possibly by mastering a martial art.

The Lives of Tao tells the story of Roen Tan, a schlubby, unhappy, Chicago-based engineer. After a lonely night at a club, and while vomiting out of the door of his car, Roen is unwittingly inducted into a worldwide extraterrestrial war. Humanity is not alone: Quasings, a gaseous alien race, have been stranded on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Unable to exist for long in Earth’s atmosphere, Quasings are able to survive by entering a living “host,” be it rodent, chimpanzee, or sad, chubby human. Unfortunately for Tao, the recently-evicted Quasing who takes refuge in Roen, his new host is a mess. But there’s a war on, so Tao gets to work. Extraterrestrial symbiotic buddy dramedy!

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

As Roen and the reader learn, Quasings have been trapped on earth for millions of years, using animal life as hosts. When the first hominids appeared, Quasings saw their opportunity, and stepped in to direct evolution. One can only imagine the rictus of fear on the face of the first australopithecus to be inhabited by a wise and ancient cloud of sentient gas.

With the development of modern man, the Quasing realized that they now had a being capable of devising ever more advanced technologies, which presented them the (very) long-term possibility of finding a way home. Convinced that conflict drove human technological advancement, Quasings meddled with abandon, fostering discord throughout human history. In the wake of the Black Death, a small group of Quasing, calling themselves Prophus, determined that they should coexist with their human hosts and promote peace. The Prophus oppose the Genjix, those Quasings who believe that humanity is a mere means to their end. Roen is a bit player on a drama the timescale of which he can’t even imagine.

Chu does an admirable job of presenting his scenario to readers without overwhelming them. The Lives of Tao opens with an action-oriented prologue that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces Tao, who is clearly not a familiar life form. Tao’s decision to wait to introduce himself to Roen serves to further ease the reader into the plot: The reader learns about Roen (and his many weaknesses), and Chu uses the opportunity to explain the back story to the reader by positioning it as Tao speaking to his new host. It’s a very clean and clever way to orient the reader.

The book’s structure is its weakest point. The Lives of Tao is an action-oriented story with dashes of humor. It is not comedic: The sobriety of the climax and ending belie that. Still, Chu writes the first third of the book from a comedic viewpoint. The joke is on Roen, to whom Tao serves as drill sergeant and counselor. Readers will enjoy Roen and Tao’s exchanges as the latter harangues the former about getting shape, standing up for himself at his job, and so on. This portion of the novel is more lighthearted. Chu also shares extensive background about the Quasing sojourn on Earth. Readers will want more.

Unfortunately, Chu treads more traditional territory in the remainder of the book, which is mostly action. Finally trained, Roen begins to go on Prophus missions, one of which leads to some soul searching before he returns to the fold. Chu ends The Lives of Tao with an extensive action sequence and neatly positions it for a sequel.

Quibbles about structure aside, Chu poses interesting questions about human agency at both the individual and collective levels. Roen won’t quit the job he hates. His colleague tells him to do something about it, to go to law school. Roen balks. It’s only later, with Tao on board, that Roen finds the willpower necessary to improve his life. He eats right and works out. He stands up to his boss. He asks out his cute coworker. In the book, of course, Tao is an intelligent alien life form giving Roen a kick in the pants. But perhaps Tao is really that part of the mind that tells you to try something different. Chu seems to be saying to the reader that, if you don’t like something, it’s up to you to do something about it. For those of us who aren’t locked into impossible circumstances, there are choices to be made. You can take the safe route, like Roen, or you can change things. It might not be pleasant, it might not be easy, but it’s probably better than suffering in silence. Diagnosing Roen’s unhappiness, Tao tells him, “You are causeless.”

Those existential questions occur at the “species” level, too. What is the human enterprise all about? Is human history really just the story of war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of peace? Is there a common narrative to our history? The Genjix position, that war is necessary for evolution, seems almost to mirror certain theories that humans evolved only to better perpetuate the “virus” of DNA, or the assertions of some neuroscientists that humans lack free will, that we are simply acting out, based on received stimuli, the actions programmed into us.

This is all to say that there is more going on in The Lives of Tao than it would first appear. The Lives of Tao isn’t a “big idea” book. It is light on science-fiction; don’t read it expecting a serious exploration of the implications of this or that science. Chu, a martial artist (and former stuntman!) is firmly focused on telling an action-oriented story. There are guns. There are explosions. Still, The Lives of Tao is far from shallow in its examination of human motivation and agency. Recommended for casual sci-fi readers who enjoy action and a touch of comedy.