Thursday, March 26, 2009

Retribution Falls - Chris Wooding

At the risk of injuring my geek credentials, I have to confess that I only got round to watching Firefly for the first time a few weeks ago. Bewailing the abrupt ending (curse you, studio execs!), it seemed serendipitous that my latest review book to come through appeared to be, well, a Firefly ripoff, and I was looking forward to more of the same. Captain Darian Frey takes on a job of light piracy only to find himself framed for a dastardly crime; skulduggery and murder is afoot among the nobles; with bounty hunters and law enforcement on their tail, the only hope for Frey and his crew (all with Mysterious Pasts) could lie within the legendary pirate lair of Retribution Falls... it's a group of smugglers, outlaws and general ne'er-do-wells, outwitting the Alliance Coalition! A roguishly handsome captain obsessed with freedom! A cavalier disregard for the practical realities of space travel, made up for by snappy dialogue and black humour! All aboard the Ketty Jay for heists, piracy, evasion of the Evil Authorities and daring escapades galore!

Alas, it was not to be. If the concept had been "Just Like Firefly!" then we'd have had some fine (if derivative) fun; sadly, it turned out to actually be "Just Like Firefly, But Shit", and the settings are so similar that comparison is inevitable. In place of Joss Whedon's excellent female cast, we have instead one navigator, Jez, who could best be (and is) described as "feisty", and a whole bucketload of lazy, default misogyny. The crew is intentionally nastier than Firefly's, meaning we lose the friendly team dynamic, and the snappy dialogue is replaced with a kind of mundane British blokiness, which may be amusing enough down the pub but isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The one main original idea is the presence of "daemons" (sort of semi-sentient spirits) - the Posh Bloke On The Run character is a daemonist who has dabbled in this forbidden art - however, it sits oddly alongside the book's jumble of technology and inadequately-described backdrop. What with one thing and another, it was quite some time before I realised that all the action took place on the same (fairly low-tech) world, where cutlasses and bayonets sit alongside electric power, revolvers, afterburners and aircraft powered by "aerium" - none of the pieces seemed to quite fit together.

The writing style doesn't help matters any, as it's generally rather poor. The viewpoint discipline is extremely sloppy, the exposition is clumsy and forced, and there's more than one instance of "as you know, Bob" infodump conversation. This became a real drag on the story; every time I'd start getting interested in the progress of the fast-paced plot, I'd suddenly be brought up short by another badly-written passage, or some Thesaurus Dialogue (she swooned, he demanded, he pondered...), or yet another golden nugget of the pervasive sexism. If you can overlook these flaws, then you'd probably find this a decent enough read, but for me they are dealbreakers, and I didn't enjoy this book very much at all - in fact, if this hadn't been a review copy, I'd probably have given up halfway through. Not impressed.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Foundling - D M Cornish

Rossamünd Bookchild, a boy with a girl's name. Abandoned as an infant at Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls (a surprisingly non-evil orphanage), he has grown up hoping to one day join the Navy, or maybe even become a heroic chemist, brewing explosive concoctions to protect humanity from the monsters. The world outside the human cities is teeming with beasts and bogles of all kinds, who lurk in the woods and wastes and prey on unwary travellers. However, when he is finally apprenticed, it is for neither of these jobs - he is hired as a trainee lamplighter, a prospect that promises a lifetime of tedium. Travelling downriver to his new place of employment, he somehow goes astray, and quickly finds that it's not just the monsters he needs to beware of...

Pitched at young adults and older children, the world of Foundling is almost absurdly rich and detailed. Writer and illustrator Cornish has taken the Tolkien route with his creation, plotting out maps and histories and technologies long before coming up with a story to use them in, and the world is entirely believable but full of intriguing strangeness. The distant sea, for example, is not salt but caustic vinegar; the fantasy-Victorian setting teems with steampunky contraptions of wood and brass; there are hints of a centuries-old battle against the monsters that is not as black-and-white as it first seems. Even the monster-fightin' basics have an original twist - no heroes with swords here; humanity's champions are the scientists who brew the monster-repellents, and other, stranger humans who have altered their body chemistry to (for example) emit lightning. Rossamünd's journey only covers a small fraction of the world, but you can just tell that there's a whole lot more of it out there, from barricaded cities to monster-haunted wastes.

The story itself is pretty straightforward - Foundling is the first part of the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy, the remaining parts of which are Lamplighter and Factotum, so it looks likely that Rossamünd's career will be detailed out from start to finish as the series progresses. There are a few hints that Our Hero is somehow Speshul (like all other fantasy orphans, especially those of unknown parentage) which is a little disappointing, but the odd plot cliché is certainly not enough to detract from the world's original character and the nice moral ambiguity of the setting. Lamplighter comes out in paperback this May, and I'll certainly be picking it up.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie

As the title suggests, this is a tale of Revenge! - where Abercrombie's First Law trilogy had an almost Hanseatic League setting, the backdrop for Best Served Cold is the fantasy equivalent of some Mediterranean city-states, where warring dukes hire treacherous mercenaries, and bloody vengeance is the order of the day. Duke Orso's campaign of conquest is almost complete, largely thanks to mercenary general Monza Murcatto, so it is an unwelcome surprise for Monza when the Duke tries to have her murdered, and almost succeeds. Battered, broken and on the run, Monza's only aim now is to take her revenge; gathering a mismatched crew of assorted murderers and rogues, she plots the deaths of the people responsible. But seven deaths across seven cities takes time and planning, and before long Duke Orso has dispatched agents of his own to take care of the problem - not to mention the fact that mismatched murderers and rogues are not known for getting along well together...

So far, so cheesy; with the prim poisoner, optimistic barbarian, drunken mercenary and tick-list of revenge victims, in the hands of a lesser author this could have turned out as a rather jolly vengeance romp, like Kill Bill with Sicilians in place of ninjas. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but as it turns out, the story here is a lot more interesting. Abercrombie is a master at twisting expectations, and the familiar setup soon heads towards some very uncomfortable territory. There's violence enough for all, and some battle and siege setpieces to rival anything in the trilogy, but as usual, it's the character interactions that are the highlight. A surprising number of minor characters from The First Law turn up (more than I was expecting), and they are all nicely fleshed-out with human motivations and colourful backstories - even if that colour is often a dark, sticky red. Notable is the Northman Shivers, fresh from the battle of Adua and seeking a new life; at first he looked rather like another Logan, but his journey goes somewhere quite different. Cosca the mercenary is also back, with a sharp sense of humour and a raging thirst, and the new addition of convict Friendly shows that even institutionalised and obsessive multiple murderers can be sympathetic. Monza, while not quite a Glokta, is still well-realised and complex, and one of the most interesting female characters I've read in a while - and yes, this time the book is entirely Bechdel compliant.

Technically, this is not a direct sequel to the First Law trilogy, but considering the number of familiar characters here and the references to events of the trilogy, I'd still recommend reading the other books first. The world is expanded on and there are many hints about the broader struggle between the Bank and the Prophet, but in general the lack of magic and tight focus on the Styrian conflicts gives the book a closer and less epic feel, almost like a real bit of historical fiction. I imagine that Best Served Cold is on a lot of people's Most Wanted lists for 2009 - well, you've not long to wait now, and you're in for a real treat.


Friday, March 06, 2009

House of Leaves - Mark Z Danielewski

Hum, well, where to begin? This is a horror tale masquerading as an academic treatise, with so many layers that even a cursory summation will be complicated to write. The simplest way I can describe the plot is as follows:
Will Navidson, a photo-journalist, moves into a house where the angles and dimensions don't seem quite right, the inside seems inexplicably larger than the outside, and eventually a door opens up to a cold and impossible labyrinth. He films his explorations in a groundbreaking documentary called "The Navidson Report", which garners reams of analysis by film critics, philosophers, psychologists and anyone else with an opinion. We see none of this directly, however, as it is all presented via the work of old man Zampanò, who has written his own scholarly text collating the stories of and reactions to the Navidson Report. But Zampanò is no more; he died in Mysterious Circumstances, found unmarked but face-down between two long gouges in the floorboards, in a house that was once surrounded by feral cats, before they all started disappearing. His writings, scrawled on napkins, notepaper or anything he could find, are collected and annotated by Johnny Truant, the itinerant tattoo artist who found the body; in between telling us about his own troubled past, Johnny finds out that the Navidson Report apparently never existed outside Zampanò's imagination... but soon his days start to fill up with paranoia and nightmares...

The horror is all the more effective for being understated, as most of the eerie uneasiness comes from the characters' reactions to unseen (or imaginary?) terrors, or even just the subtle discomfort of alien geometry. The passages describing the Navidson tapes, as well as Johnny Truant's descriptions of his own fears, make for a chilling read - however, the actual story content of the book is all too sparse, and a whole lot of other space is taken up with stylistic experiments. Footnotes mutate and multiply, squeezing the regular text off the page. The theme of echoes and reflections is mirrored in backwards and reflected text; the warped space of Navidson's labyrinth is emphasized by the skewing and scattering of the layout as we go deeper into the maze. Unfortunately, this is a lot less interesting in practice than it is in theory. The line between Daring Literary Experiment and Pointless Pretentious Wankiness is a narrow one, and this book crosses it a few too many times for my liking. I'm all in favour of the concept, the style reflecting the contents - for example, my favourite Shakespeare is Troilus and Cressida, where the breakdown in social order is really cleverly illustrated by the decaying structure of the acts - but I do have to question the wisdom of, for example, satirising academic footnoting conventions by filling three whole pages with a random list of names, or constantly interrupting an otherwise decent horror story with pages of dry analyses of the cultural meanings of echoes.

One result of this is the enormous size and weight of the book, which is frankly a real disadvantage when it comes to my reading habits. I mean, I don't sit at home in my green baize reading room with my Tiffany lamp and glass of port; I have to carry this bastard thing to work and back every day, so it's less than amusing to find so many pages containing only one paragraph, or one line, or one word, or one letter... think of the trees, not to mention my aching shoulders! It was also somewhat annoying to find the last 150 pages or so taken up with appendices, only some of which were really relevant to the story, including a good 50 pages of an index that listed pretty much every word in the book, including (for example) every instance of the words "for" and "can". In the end, the actual substance would have fit nicely into a novella (or even a short story), and the rest was just the trimmings. This may well work for some people, but I found that the extraneous nonsense detracted from the story rather than adding to it; in the end, the effort outweighed the reward. I probably wouldn't read anything else by Danielewski.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Three books by Jan Mark

The Ennead
Divide and Rule
Enough Is Too Much Already

Orpheus was rendered uninhabitable at a speed that surprised even those who remembered Earth. It seemed to the sick and bewildered settlers that they saw their land through a shattered prism. The yellow sun turned to rust in an indigo sky. The grass grew in a wonderful variety of new colours, then stopped growing altogether. One year the leaves turned brown in the autumn and when they came again in spring they were still brown. They were the last leaves ever to unfurl on Orpheus, but by now there was no-one left to see them; except for a feral child with red hair and attenuated limbs who walked among the dead wearing a puzzled scowl, wondering why he had been left behind. He ate whatever he could lay his hands on, first poisoning, then immunising himself, since there was no-one to tear the tainted food from his fingers. He had always been a recalcitrant child, and he refused to die.
- The Ennead

The one who came to conduct him to the Robing Room was Egil. It appeared that he and Dow were never on duty at the same time.
Never alone. Hanno wrenched his face into a smile.
"Are we going to the Robing Room?"
"Why are you so eager, all of a sudden?" said Egil.
"Once I've put on the Vestments, it will all seem so much Easier." It's not so difficult to talk like them, he thought. Can I keep it up?
"It's not meant to be easy," said Egil. "You aren't on holiday."
"Easier to Understand." This is the one I have to watch. I don't trust him and he doesn't trust me. "Shall we go?"
- Divide and Rule

"Anyway," Nina said, "when we found poor old Jaws floating about we went and fetched Miss Lovell and she comes out and says, 'It's all right, children, he's just having a little sleep.' So we said, "No, Miss, he's dead," but she wouldn't have it. "He's just sleeping," she says. Well, then someone noticed his head had been bitten off - it was probably the caretaker's cat, but we didn't want to upset old Miss Lovell, I mean, that's why little kids don't like death. It's embarrassing. So Lisa-Marie Hodges says 'I expect Jesus came for him, Miss.'"
"You'd think Jesus would have something better to do than hang around school ponds biting the heads off fish," Maurice remarked.
- Enough Is Too Much Already

Jan Mark was an author amply stocked by my local library when I was growing up, so her books were a prominent feature of my mid-teenage reading habits. While idly Googling a few things recently, I was quite appalled to find that three of my favourites were out of print; this is probably one of the perils of being a YA author rather than someone who writes for grownups, though many of Mark's books teeter right on the brink between Young- and Actual-Adult; certainly her SF ones are dark and intelligent enough to appeal outside the main target age-group. It was imperative that I bought all of them at once (yay for the Amazon marketplace!), and even more imperative that I got a review up to at least temporarily halt their slide into obscurity.

While the shorter shelf-life is a hazard for YA writers, their choice of audience does seem to allow a lot more freedom in their subject matter. Of the three books reviewed here, one is straight sci-fi, another sits somewhere between low fantasy and historical fiction, and the last focuses on a bunch of mid-80s A-Level students. Mark's versatility is impressive, as she switches effortlessly between genres, the only common thread being the sharp dialogue and dry humour which crops up even in her darker works. Enough Is Too Much Already, the only one of the three that I already owned, is in fact entirely written in dialogue; the book is structured as almost a set of short stories, where our three characters tell each other amusing anecdotes about what they've been up to. It's extremely funny in places, and hasn't dated much at all despite the 20-year-old setting.

The other two books are rather darker affairs altogether. Both have themes of desperate rebellion against an oppressive social order - in The Ennead it's a cod-libertarian planetary colony with terrible penalties for the jobless; in Divide and Rule, a reluctant unbeliever is pitted against the might of a corrupt church. The settings are impeccably realised and the writing quality is a cut above your usual YA fare. It's all good subversive stuff, full of grey areas and no easy answers, and certainly no jolly happy ending. You won't find any of these titles in bookshops, more's the pity, but second-hand copies are much easier to get hold of nowadays, so if you can be bothered then I'd strongly recommend trying to track these down.