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The Reapers Are the Angels: A Novel

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Zombies. They're the in thing right now next to glittering non-vampires. They're what really goes bump in the night, because they don't have the motor function or brain activity to avoid objects. They're hungry for your flesh, and filling up our bookshelves and movie screens. And they're scary as hell.Alden Bell's (a.k.a. Joshua Gaylord) debut genre novel does for zombie fiction what Cormac McCarthy's The Road did for dystopian fiction, or John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In did for vampires: use the clichés of the form to tell a deeply psychological, literary story. The Reapers Are the Angels follows Temple, a teenager born into a world overrun by a zombie plague. She doesn't remember the "good old days," because they ended years before she came into the world; but she remembers an old man who helped her and a younger brother she had tried to protect. Now she wanders the landscape, avoiding the undead and trying to survive in a world reduced to "survival of the fittest" at its most radical. And she's a product of her time: untrusting, ruthless, methodical, and smart-witted. As Temple wanders from place to place, trying to avoid her demons and understand who she is, she encounters a cast of characters that change everything, from Moses, who wants her dead, to Maury, a mentally handicapped man who doesn't understand the world around him. And her journey will show her that there darker things in the world than zombies...The Reapers Are the Angels is not your typical novel. Its plot is simple and its overall feel is disconnected. But it is also brilliant. People who read this novel for the plot are reading it for the wrong reason. It is about a character (Temple) and her development, about her journey to understand who and what she is, where she belongs, and how to deal with the mistakes of her past in a unforgiving world that is stuck in the dumpster and disinclined towards grieving. A number of reviews of this novel have seemingly ignored this key element, and I suspect it is because many expect a zombie novel to be plot-oriented--never mind that many zombie stories are, in fact, character studies in a zombie-run world. After all, The Reapers Are the Angels is set in a world framed in a way that is likely familiar to the zombie fan, and some of the events that occur throughout the book have happened before.But the novel is about Temple, not the world, and ignoring how she views the world around her, how she forms her own form of morality without the security we are afforded every day, and how she conceives of her own kind (humanity) are indelible marks of a story that thinks beyond the mundane events of life in a zombie world. The disconnection one feels while reading this novel is brought on by the disconnection Temple feels to the communities and places she visits. She, as indicated earlier, was born into a post-human world. Zombies have always been there for her, and her journey into cities, towns, farms, and so forth are journeys into the unknown. She understands them in the same way we might understand a radically different culture (East vs. West, for example). Even religion plays into this disconnected feeling, because while Temple was raised briefly with a concept of God, she is forced to reconcile her beliefs with the reality surrounding her, without the "support" of scripture, creating a religious framework that seems slightly alien when compared to the religious world we live in now. All of these elements are relayed through Temple's point of view, one of the other strengths of the novel.Bell's narrative is told in third person present through Temple's eyes. This creates both an intimate connection to the character and to the world, since everything is happening "now" rather than in the past (again, this brings up the problem of the past; namely, that Temple does not want to relive hers and that the world is slowly developing a concept of the past that is progressively present, rather than focused on what once was). One could even read into the use of third person, rather than first person--if disconnection from place and self is a principle element of the novel, then isolating Temple slightly from the reader by avoiding an entirely internal view maintains the disconnection for the reader as well. There is a kind of brilliance at work here, both in the narrative that Bell attempts to create and in the language and style. The language is reflective of Temple's limited experience and the style itself is urgent and fluid, while also being fragmented and to the point. One gets the sense while reading The Reapers Are the Angels that the future is indeterminate and yet always present (always progressing, but going nowhere at the same time), an urgency brought out in Temple's interjections and in the stochastic "plot."Despite its effective narrative style and display of characters, The Reapers Are the Angels did have one flaw: its ending. On the one hand, the book ends how you might expect (which I will not mention here); on the other, however, there is an enormous shift that pulls the reader too far into disconnection. I found myself wishing the novel had ended at the height of the climax, because then the implied tension in the novel (and the world) would have been maintained at its worst point. But the novel continues beyond the climax, dragging us into a new space that had never been ventured to before. I am intentionally being vague about the specifics, though, because as much as I have issues with the way the novel ends, I still think The Reapers Are the Angels is worth reading. The ending simply reminds one that there are no perfect books.In the end, The Reapers Are the Angels is simply an extraordinary book. True, it lacks the flare of originality in much the same way as Cormac McCarthy's The Road (a text that contains very little originality in terms of its world content, but makes up for it in its story of an understandably overly cautious father and a naive son), but The Reapers Are the Angels presents a well-written, deeply psychological story that we're not familiar with in a world that we are. It is a kind of cognitive estrangement in that sense (to use Suvin's term). It's the kind of book that zombie fiction fans should love, and a book that readers who are not familiar with the form will find engrossing (as I did). The zombies keep coming, Temple's mind keeps bleeding, and the pages keep turning. What else could you ask for?
The Left Hand of God

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The rise of fantasy has, in my opinion, produced two kinds of cliche-oriented reactions within the publishing spectrum: entertaining, inventive, and/or enjoyably derivative trilogies, and fascinating ideas and worlds mired by barely serviceable prose, lackluster plotting, and/or a general failure to maintain cohesion (in the plot, worldbuilding, character development, and/or the writing). Both groups aren't always separate, since sometimes a book with weak prose can still be a thrilling read, but usually they are. Unfortunately, I think The Left Hand of God fits into the latter of the two groups.Because the synopsis plays a role in my review, I'm going to post the version on the inside flap of the U.S. edition of the book:In the Redeemer Sanctuary, the stronghold of a secretive sect of warrior monks, torture and death await the unsuccessful or disobedient. Raised by the Redeemers from early childhood like hundreds of other young captives, Thomas Cale has known only deprivation, punishment, and grueling training. He doesn't know that another world exists outside the fortress walls or even that secrets he can't imagine lurk behind the Sanctuary's many forbidden doorways. He doesn't know that his master Lord Bosco and the Sanctuary's Redeemers have been preparing for a holy war for centuries-a holy war that is now imminent. And Cale doesn't know that he's been noticed and quietly cultivated.Then, Cale decides to open a door.It's a door that leads to one of the Redeemers' darkest secrets and a choice that is really no choice at all: certain death or daring escape. Adrift in the wider world for the first time in his young life, Cale soon finds himself in Memphis, the capitol of culture-and the den of Sin. It's there that Cale discovers his prodigious gift: violence. And he discovers that after years of abuse at the hands of the Redeemers his embittered heart is still capable of loving-and breaking.But the Redeemers won't accept the defection of their special subject without a fight. As the clash of civilizations that has been looming for thousands of years draws near, a world where the faithful are as brutal as the sinful looks to young Cale to decide its fate.It sounds intriguing enough, and Hoffman's book does deliver on a number of the points described above, but overall, The Left Hand of God falls desperately short in three key ways.The first failure has to do with point of view. While the synopsis indicates that Cale is the main character, Hoffman's writing fails to adequately display that, almost as if Hoffman didn't seem to know who the book was supposed to be about either. The first quarter of the book does focus on Cale, but the rest of the novel switches randomly from POV to POV to give the reader the thoughts of basically anyone in the room at that moment, or even people who are completely insignificant to the actual plot. None of this is done between chapters, which might have been okay, but within chapters, sometimes between paragraphs, and sometimes between sentences. One second we're hearing Cale's inner thoughts, and the next it's someone else. And before you can grow used to the transition, Hoffman switches again.From a purely stylistic standpoint, this is simply poor writing for two reasons: 1) trying to tell your readers everything everyone is feeling about everything sucks the life right out of the story, because very little remains a mystery, and 2) switching POVs in the middle of paragraphs is unnecessarily jarring and almost as annoying as inconsistent tenses. Sadly, Hoffman violates one of the golden rules of writing on a routine basis in order to give as many perspectives as possible--i.e. "show, don't tell." I suppose you'd have to in order to perform the aforementioned task, but breaking the rule so clearly, with no regard for its eccentricities and ambiguities, is careless. The prose suffers as a result.The Left Hand of God also suffers from narrative inconsistencies. For example, the synopsis indicates that Cale isn't aware of the world outside of the sanctuary. The problem? This isn't actually true. He doesn't understand the customs of the cultures that exist beyond the walls of sanctuary, sure, but, as we learn later in the book, he is both aware of the outside world and instrumental in the Redeemer's plans for those places (i.e. he actually designed their plans). This leads me to another inconsistency, which is Cale's fighting ability. When Cale first exhibits these abilities, it's a shock both to the reader and to the non-Redeemer characters. Why? Because it's never mentioned beforehand. One moment he's just some poor, beaten-up, grumpy guy, and the next he's the Roman equivalent of a ninja. It's all rather convenient, and obviously so. Narratives aren't supposed to be convenient. They're supposed to feel believable. Nothing should feel as though it doesn't belong.The last problem I had with The Left Hand of God was the general unbelievability of some of the events that occur throughout the narrative. Characters do things that are completely contrary to who they are, despite Hoffman's attempts to establish them as pretty clearly in one particular form. Perhaps the worst instance of this is when Hoffman writes the Materazzi as a Spartan-esque warrior class, but then proceeds to have them lose a battle in the most idiotic manner conceivable--a thing that no military of the Materazzi's caliber would do. Likewise, characters fall in love at random, sometimes despite legitimate reasons why they shouldn't. I may have rolled my eyes more than once while reading. The point is, Hoffman's novel regularly devolves into nonsensical plot points, which sucks it dry of the potential established in the first chapters--the strongest part of the book is the beginning.The Left Hand of God isn't without positive qualities. Hoffman does have a knack for tension, and, as I've just mentioned, the beginning third of the book, while a tad long, is quite strong and intriguing. Plus, the interior of the book is quite beautiful, with nice texture for the pages, an awesome map, and a good design for the pages and chapter headings. But it's not enough to have some great ideas, a relatively strong beginning, a nice interior, and a few generally entertaining sections. A novel needs to be more than that, and, unfortunately, I don't think The Left Hand of God comes close to meeting the burden of minimums. The biggest problem for me is that I had high hopes for the book. It had a lot of potential and there truly were some good moments. But I ended up being disappointed and thinking that this isn't the right direction for fantasy at all. Let's keep the mediocre writing standards to the vanity presses, please.
Zoo City

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When my friend and I asked Lauren Beukes to describe Zoo City, she understandably remarked that the book is rather difficult to explain. Zoo City isn't like a lot of books. On the one hand it is a noir murder mystery with a semi-New Weird slant, but on the other it is a novel about refugees, the music industry, South Africa, guilt, revenge, drugs, prejudice, poverty, and so much more. It is a gloriously complicated novel with equally complicated characters. You might even call it a brilliant example of worldbuilding from outside of the traditional modern fantasy genre.Zoo City is concerned with Zinzi December, a former convict who, like many others, must bear themark of her crime in the form of a semi-intelligent animal -- in her case, it's a sloth. But there's also the Undertow -- a mysterious force that some claim is Hell reaching out for the damned souls of aposymbiots like Zinzi. Aposymbiosis, however, isn't all bad. Every aposymbiot is gifted with an ability. Some can create protective charms while others can dampen magical fields. Zinzi can see the threads that connect people to their lost things. And that's how she survives: finding things for people for a modest fee. But when she takes on a job from a music producer to find a missing girl, things get sticky. Her employer isn't who he seems and the person she's trying to find might be running for a good reason. Toss in her debts to a shady organization of email scammers, her complicated relationship with her refugee lover, a murder, and the seedy underbelly of a Johannesburg trying to deal with its new "problem" and you have a complex story about South Africa, its people, and its culture.Zoo City is immense in its complexity, despite having the allure of a typical genre romp. Trying to describe the novel will always leave out some salient detail, which will prevent one from conveying a true sense of the novel. It is, in part, a noir crime novel, but it is also a foray into South Africa's present. What is surprising about Zoo City is that it breaks the fantasy tradition of disconnection from reality -- what some might call the escapist nature of the genre. Zoo City roots the reader in the now, altering details as necessary to convey a world that has been changed by its supernatural affliction (aposymbiosis); it is a novel with an intimate relationship to South Africa's present (and, by extension, its past). For that reason, I think Zoo City would benefit from multiple readings. The novel's cultural layers are palimpsest-ial in nature, each element bleeding into another so that almost every detail, allusion, and reference becomes integral to the development of the novel's characters and the narrative itself. I consider this to be a good thing because the novel doesn't suffer from feeling disconnected from the world its characters are supposed to occupy (an alternate-history near-today) -- that is that the characters are so firmly rooted in Beukes' South African milieu that they don't read like characters transplanted from elsewhere.Being so rooted, Zoo City is as much about its world as it is about its characters. The first-person-present narrative style allows for Zinzi's voice to dominate, but that doesn't prevent Beukes from providing useful insight into the various other characters around her main character. While the focus on Zinzi certainly shows a lopsided view of the world, it doesn't fail to show the wider context in which Zinzi has become a part. Zinzi's detective role, in a way, is a duality: she uses it first as a survival mechanism, but then as a way to dig into her own personal reality, discovering the truth about her friends and even herself. It is through this process that the narrative's cultural strands build on top of one another, providing the reader with a progressively deepening view of the characters and their interaction with the world around them. Zinzi's refugee lover (Benoit), for example, is a man with his own mysteries, and it is inevitably through Zinzi's various other doings, some of which she has hidden even from those that know her, that she not only explains the world from which Benoit has come, but also discovers more about who Benoit is/was and how new events in her life will change the dynamics of their relationship and their relationship to the world around them. Throughout all of this, Zinzi's humor, sarcasm, and cynicism pokes through, coloring her character and her vision of the South Africa of Zoo City (by extension, the reader's view is also colored by these interjections).It is this attention to detail and character that I loved about Zoo City. Instead of focusing undo attention to its plot, the novel finds a balance between both plot and character. Neither is written at the expense of the other, but the characters also seem to steal the show because they are all incredibly flawed, and deal with those flaws in (sometimes annoyingly) human ways. Perfection is an impossibility in Beukes' narrative. Zinzi has many advantages -- her magical ability and her attitude, which she uses to intimidate her "enemies -- but she is also limited, and knows it. Her actions are appropriately influenced by this knowledge; reading her thoughts as she comes to terms with these flaws, particularly in bad situations, is an amusing, if not voyeuristic, experience.Neither plot or character are perfectly in-sync, however. The ending, I would argue, felt somewhat rushed and without full resolution (by this I don't mean the last pages, which I think were appropriate based on what occurs in the novel); in a sense, I think the ending shies away from the noir crime narrative Zoo City started with and delves into darker themes that might have been better served by stronger foreshadowing in the novel. Zinzi's voice and her character flaws do, to some extent, overwhelm these minor issues, making the ending suspenseful and (slightly) insane, and I suspect that this line of thought is more a nitpick than a sustainable criticism. What I did enjoy about the ending, though, was that it was not pretty; there are no grand heroes to save the day without a scratch here (and, to be honest, there aren't that many grand heroes that save the day to begin with in the novel) -- Beukes is fairly unrepentant about how she treats her characters. The unresolved ending might also make it possible for a sequel, which I think would be a great addition to Beukes' oeuvre, since it might offer further closure to the narrative strands that, like Zinzi's gift, are still pulling for that distant "end."Overall, though, I think Zoo City has pretty much secured its place in my top novels of 2011, and of the decade. Zoo City is cultural studies in action, and a brilliant piece of work. I've already found myself leaning ever closer to considering South Africa as the second half of what will form my PhD dissertation. Whether it will be influential on SF/F over the next decade is impossible to predict, but I do know that the novel has already begun influencing me, much as District 9 did when I first saw it last year, and much like future projects by Beukes and Blomkamp undoubtedly will. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read Moxyland.
Silver

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Every time I read an urban fantasy, I remind myself that I am not the primary audience. After all, much of what I dislike about urban fantasy are the very things I dislike about bad books. Stereotypical characterization, repetitive narratives, and repetitive tropes (if I see one more tramp stamp cover I'm going to blow a gasket). But Rhiannon Held's Silver bucked the trend, taking what should have been yet another stupid werewolf novel and turning it into a rigorously constructed sociological foray into a potential werewolf culture.The novel's focus, oddly enough, is on Andrew Dare, not the character from which the novel draws its title. A werewolf pack enforcer, Dare discoveres Silver wandering in Roanoke territory, seemingly delirious and injected with, well, silver (the connection to her name is explained in the novel). Silver's condition reminds Dare of a past that he would rather forget, and one which wediscover through him as he battles against the memories. Working to uncover those responsible for Silver's torture, Dare must confront the demons that make him anti-social and unwilling to lead.One might say that I'm an unusual reader when it comes to urban fantasy. All those flashy monsters and the like really don't mean much to me if they are substitutes for character development. What is powerful about urban fantasy for me isn't so much that it is the fantastic littered in contemporary spaces; rather, it is that urban fantasy seems like a perfect space for examining the relationships between characters, human and otherwise. Silver is such a novel, with a tangential focus on plot. What centers the novel, and made it work for me as a fantasy, are its characters. Dare is sympathetic and mysterious; reading about his development as a character, moving from a man afraid of responsibility to a man who must take it, was refreshing, in part because it meant the story needn't reduce itself to a long series of random werewolf fights in order to explore a set of themes (in this case: haunted pasts, torture, pack culture, etc.). Likewise, Silver, the second POV (less focused in this novel for reasons that become obvious as you read), suffers from similar traumas. Though her development is less pronounced than Dare's -- it is partly her past that Dare is trying to uncover -- Silver's growth as a character offers a emotional exploration into psychosis and werewolf phenomena. Readers expecting an action-packed novel would do best to explore elsewhere; this is not that kind of story.Perhaps the novel's greatest strength lies in Held's attempt to take a fantastical concept -- the existence of werewolves -- and put a soft science spin on it. Much of the novel draws attention to the dynamics of werewolf packs and the power struggles that exist within them. While the idea is likely not original, it is one that Held handles well. Rather that infodump, the pack dynamics play a central role in the plot, allowing the reader to see the interrelations between packs, the ways in which individuals maintain pack dominance (including Dare's struggles with his own alpha nature), and so on. One might look at Silver and call it anthopological urban fantasy. That would be a fair assessment considering that Held has argued in interviews that the world of Silver is more science fiction than it is fantasy; the werewolves have an implied evolutionary origin in the novel, which will play a more important role in future novels. Whether her universe can be conceived as a science fiction one is up to speculation; regardless, the rigor with which Held constructs her werewolf culture means the story never takes its fantastic elements for granted. That's something I can appreciate as a reader. The werewolves don't exist just for the sake of existing, as is sometimes the case in urban fantasy. They exist because there's a seemingly logical reason for it. I sometime call this "building a world that feels lived in." Silver brings us that world: a lived-in-world in the present, with a definable, if not mysterious, history.My largest criticism of Held has to do with what she does not adequately cover. One of the subplots is the expected development of a relationship between Dare and Silver. While Dare struggles against his instincts, feeling that even a sexual flirtation with Silver is a violation of his ethical code, he eventually gives in, and it is implied that they will remain mates (in werewolf terms) for future novels. What troubles me about this is what it says about the characters, and what is not said about how others view their relationship. In other words, their relationship is, to put it bluntly, troublesome for precisely the reasons Dare cites: Silver is disabled and still psychologically unable to cope with what has happened to her, even though we see her move away from that weakness towards the end of the novel. In a very real sense, her ability to consent should be questioned, puzzled out, and explored in more depth. While Held does attempt to explore this social dynamic, Dare seems to give in too easily to temptation, and not enough resistance, in my mind, is provided by the secondary cast. Perhaps this stems from Dare's alpha nature. If so, I hope future novels will delve into the problems of their coupling.Overall, though, this is a solid first novel. Even if what Held does is not wholly original, her ability to craft a werewolf mythology that is more anthropoligical than paranormal is commendable -- and certainly appreciated by this reader. Silver is the kind of novel that shows an author's strengths. Held handles the character drama with focus and molds a fantastical present worth exploring further. She has a lot of potential as a writer, and I sincerely hope Silver does well enough to warrant future books, whether in this series or otherwise.
After the Apocalypse: Stories

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Collections of short stories are still the hardest thing for me to review, which invariably means the following review will be flawed both methodologically and stylistically. But perhaps I can move past this by way of the interconnected-ness of the stories in Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse. Unlike most collections, McHugh's stories revolve around the same premise in the same world: something has gone terribly wrong with our world; the nine stories in After the Apocalypse are about those who have survived, or are surviving.That's essentially what this collection is about: how human beings respond to catastrophe. But, mostly, the collection about survival, without all the exotic images our post-apocalyptic movies show us. There are no grand heroes here, nor an assurance that "things are turning around." These are stories caught in the middle between the moment of catastrophe, the momentimmediately after, and the intermediate moments between "the world as it was" and "the better world to come." And it's that focus which makes After the Apocalypse one of the most beautiful literary feats of 2011.Despite following a similar theme, each of McHugh's stories is distinct in vision and voice, from a young man imprisoned in a city compound infested with zombies in "The Naturalist" to a woman trying to make a living in the wastelands along the U.S. border with Mexico in "Useless Things"; from Chinese women trying to free themselves from indentured labor to Chinese corporations in "Special Economics" to a magazine-style article about a young man who survived a dirty bomb attack, but lost his identity in "The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large"; from two computer programmings debating whether their AI is trying to communicate in "The Kingdom of the Blind" to the sudden and strange shared desire for travel to France in "Going to France"; from a young woman's attempts to make something of her life after a failed marriage in "Honeymoon" to a family struggling through the after-effects of a time-dilated disease spread through food in "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" to, finally, a woman and her young daughter struggling their way north after America's economy and borders collapse, and also struggling with themselves in "After the Apocalypse." The variety of perspectives and content produces a palimpsest of narrative; in other words, each story seems to layer on top of the one that proceeded it, turning what in other collections would be a disparate set of worlds viewed through a particular gaze into a set of stories that feel inherently collaborative. What one story cannot do due to the limits of space, the next might.Paul Kincaid has argued that "McHugh's approach to the apocalypse is oblique, a concern with the personal, the individual or family unit, rather than the devastation that surrounds them" (from Strange Horizons). He's right. The palimpsest that is McHugh's collection is perhaps driven by the intense personal nature of her narratives. No story in this collection is about the apocalypse-that-was. We never see the events that led McHugh's characters to a relatively solitary life along the border ("Useless Things") or to make a break for the city to make something of herself ("Special Economics"). We only learn about the catastrophes in retrospect, often through the eyes of characters who no more know what happened than any of us can say, with any certainty, what exactly happened on 9/11. Complex events are compressed into single-strain narratives. The effect is wondrous, if not because it's refreshing to see a different approach to catastrophe/apocalypse, then certainly because McHugh's stories, by and large, are beautiful.That's not to suggest that every story in this collection succeeds in what I've interpreted as a narratory path. "Honeymoon" leaves something to be desired, though the only reason I can muster is that the story never felt like it belonged in the collection, and, perhaps, in comparison to stories like "Special Economics," "Useless Things," or "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," it falls short of the mark, both on a personal and narrative level. Similarly, "The Kingdom of the Blind" and "Going to France," while interesting enough, don't quite approach the grim personal nature of the other stories in the collection. The personal, I think, is where McHugh shines, as demonstrated by "The Naturalist" (the criminal), "Special Economics" (the exploited), "Useless Things" (the struggling), "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" (the broken survivor), "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" (those who survive the dead or dying), and "After the Apocalypse" (the disconnected). These stories provide a kind of funhouse mirror in which to examine humanity, distorted through a world that just might be. The effect is chilling and humbling, because McHugh shows us how fragile, and yet beautiful and unique, human beings really.After the Apocalypse is a thorough, if not unsettling, journey into the human psyche after catastrophe, at once thrilling, compelling, and disturbing. This collection alone proves that McHugh is a force to be reckoned with in the world of genre, for her simple-but-beautiful prose, evocative imagery, and raw human explorations make After the Apocalypse one of the best works of SF of this decade. You can expect to see this book appear in my WISB Awards in February.
Central Park Knight

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Disappointment is an unfortunate thing when it comes to reading. Sometimes a book doesn't live up to the expectations set up by the cover copy. It's not often that this happens to me. I've found books with such problems to be average or even below-average, but it's a rare thing that a book leads me to write a review like the one below. Central Park Knight promises adventure of the Indiana Jones variety, magic, dragons, and massive battles. In many ways, Henderson's delivers on these promises, but not without an inconsistent plot and a slew of other problems, all of which make this novel a weak addition to the urban fantasy genre.Central Park Knight follows Professor Piers Knight, curator at the Brooklyn Museum, a bit of an adventure, and wielder of ancient magics and other arcane things. Of course, those last two are reluctant additions to his relatively simple life at the museum; Knight doesn't want to be a hero. But whenever monsters and other terrors threaten to the destroy the world, he knows he's the only one who can do something about it. So begins Central Park Knight: Knight uses all his knowledge to stop a beast from beyond from ending Earth's days, but even in the aftermath,more dark things are stirring. An old lover once thought dead appears in his office, rumors surface of dragons stirring from the Earth, and talk of new, more terrifying ends reminds him once more why he can't have a regular curator's life -- because Piers Knight is the only one that knows how to save the world from forces beyond its imagining.The opening chapter of Central Park Knight is my favorite part of the book. It's only vaguely tied to the actual story, but it gave me the impression that Henderson's novel would resemble something akin to a New Weird novel. The chapter consists of selections from a fictional academic talk about the existence of dragons and the study of them. It's fascinating, fun, and set a tone for the book. Henderson, however, never follows through, leaving much of what was compelling about the opening chapters behind for a story that never hits its stride. Therein lies the problem:Central Park Knight is riddled with plotting and writing problems. One of my biggest pet peeves in literature is random POV shifts, of which Henderson seems to be an expert. Viewpoints often shift in the middle of chapters -- and sometimes even in the middle of paragraphs -- in order to tell us what other characters are feeling at that moment. More often than not, these shifts give us nothing useful to work with as readers, sucking life away from the primary POV of that chapter (usually Knight, but sometimes one of the dragons or George). The shifts are jarring, too, and draw too much attention to themselves, which is the greatest issue here. Once you yank me from the story, it's hard for me to get back into it without focusing once more on the prose. Popular prose styles aren't meant to draw attention to themselves; that's left to more complex and poetic writing, in which language is sometimes more subtle and nuanced. Instead, popular prose should flow and give the reader the space to imagine what is being relayed on the page. The POV shifts made this a daunting task because I could never be sure that the POV on the page would stay firm long enough for me to focus on the character, the scene, or the emotions of the moment.Likewise, Henderson's prose is bloated and suffers from bizarre temporal orientations (which I'll explain in a moment). What could easily be said more effectively in fewer words is instead crammed full of excess verbs, prepositions, etc., sometimes to the point of being run-on sentences; such sentences are too frequent for comfort and I found myself growing frustrated when a sentence would suck up four or five lines on the page in order to tell me something that could have been told in less than one line. And then there is the strange structure of his sentences: actions which should be happening on the page are shoved aside by "as he did X, so he did Y" sentences; sentences with this structure are so frequent that the story often gets lost in their clunkiness. Throw in a handful of typos, grievous grammar errors (missing words and the like that should have been caught), and stiff/clunky dialogue (the attempts to make George sound like a modern teenager read more like an offensive caricature than a realistic person) and you end up with a book which reads as poorly as it is plotted.The plot, as such, is where I'll end this review. The book opens with an event that, quite honestly, is far more climactic and interesting than the story we're inevitably given. This is a problem not only because the rest of the story is less developed and riddled with logical inconsistencies, but also because one of the characters we're supposed to care about in the opening scene then disappears without little more than "eh, she went home" as an excuse. I'd expect such a thing from a TV show that has to explain why one of its character (and, thus, the actor) isn't coming back (House managed to do this by killing one of its characters), but it's not something I would expect from a novel which is supposed to deal with developed individuals. Since all indications on the actual book suggest that Central Park Knight is a stand-alone novel, these kinds of issues in plotting and character put a black mark on Henderson's narrative.There are other plot issues that I could mention, but this review is already negative enough as it is. I really wanted to like Central Park Knight. It has an amusing premise, interesting, though undeveloped, characters, and an a mythology and history that, with proper development, could yield challenging and fun adventure stories. But that's not what Henderson has done here. He's written an inconsistent narrative with unbelievable characters, clunky prose, and weak dialogue. As much as I tried to enjoy the book, I couldn't get past what was wrong with it. Maybe the previous novel is a better story with a tighter plot, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to follow Henderson there. At least, not any time soon.
Dark Jenny

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Every once in a while I go out to the mailbox and discover a book in the mail that I wasn't expecting. A lot of those books end up sitting on my review shelf, but some of those books intrigue me enough to dig my eyes into them. Such books tend to be quite good. Dark Jenny is one of those books.Dark Jenny follows Eddie LaCrosse, a witty sword for hire who'll solve any case for a reasonable price. But Eddie also has a history that most people don't know about, and it involves the fall of the kingdom of Grand Bruan, a feudal utopia with an Arthurian legend at its core. When a mysterious coffin is left in the snow outside his place of business -- i.e., a tavern -- Eddie begins to weave a tale about murder, dark family secrets, unscrupulous and vengeful characters, and a version of Grand Bruan's fall that nobody has ever heard before.Dark Jenny is a lot like the movie Clue on a twisted date with The Princess Bride. Bledsoe's novel is one part dark comedy and one part social critique. As a dark comedy, it benefits from having a strong protagonist and a solid cast of secondary characters. Eddie is sarcastic, witty, and clever, but he is also a farcry from the antiheroes of many popular fantasy series, despite his attempts to avoid involvement in anything other than his business. The result was a character I enjoyed reading about and a character whose motivations I could understand, even if I might have disagreed with him. This feeling is helped by the fact that Dark Jenny is a first person narrative, the result of which is a thorough understanding of Eddie's thought processes and a lack self-referentiality -- that is that the novel doesn't suffer from requiring some familiarity with Bledsoe's other works, however minute. Instead, the novel is made internally consistent by a character who feels fully-developed from the outset (the novel opens in a tavern and does a fantastic job of creating a sense of familiarity through Eddie's interactions with the various minor characters around him) and whose development is then displayed full-force by a flashback narrative (one which shows that development morally through his interactions with the people of Grand Bruan, in which his aggressive nature is challenged by -- and challenges -- people above his stature; we then get to see how his personality functions and why he is who he is). Eddie's voice is perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel next to the genre critiques, without which I think Bledsoe's tale would falter.The core of Dark Jenny is an Arthurian legend twisted on its head, in part because the kingdom has descended into barbarism, which the opening of the novel indicates, but also because Bledsoe doesn't avoid breaking down the utopianism of feudal myths (often through humor) in order to show the dark inner workings of societies which are served by those myths. To put it another way: Bledsoe's novel, despite presenting itself as a fun, but dark comedy, is one which critically engages with the mythologies societies give to their citizens, showing the tenuous balance between maintaining order and manipulating one's subjects. (Bledsoe is engaging with the fundamental unknowability of utopia, which Fredric Jameson discusses throughout his writing, but specifically in Archaeologies of the Future). Bledsoe relays these critiques largely through humor, which is refreshing when one considers how many fantasy novels deconstruct the feudal utopia through elaborate political or metaphysical pessimisms.Dark Jenny does have some issues, though, some of which will be the result of the reader's taste. While the novel contains within it a heavy social critique, its outer skin -- that of its comedic nature -- sometimes falls short from a language perspective. Eddie frequently uses euphemisms which are far too modern for the world he is playing with. Though Dark Jenny is set in a secondary world, I felt myself being drawn away from the story when phrases like "she's a knockout" appeared in the text. Many readers may not be bothered by such things, but I find that the language can only be modernized so much before the story's medieval settings starts to feel strained against an encroaching modernity.There are also issues related to the Bledsoe's use of sexual relationships. I never got the sense that certain characters were reasonably attracted to one another (though there is a twist which explains why some characters are that way). In Eddie's case, there is a love interest, but it felt somewhat strained to me. I tend to prefer romantic relationships which develop realistically. Eddie's "charm," while usually evident in other avenues (such as his interactions with Kay), wasn't given enough space in the romantic subplot. There needed to be more interaction, because without it, I got the sense that the relationship did not contain the depth that Eddie frequently announced in the text (the relationship seemed to be about sex rather than some kind of attraction beyond the physical; the novel suggested that the relationship wasn't just physical).The novel's structure is also interesting to note. I feel that some readers will have issues with Dark Jenny's jumps between the world's present and its distant past (at about the same frequency as The Princess Bride), but I found the structure enjoyable and fascinating. This means that the novel doesn't present itself in a straight way. Some details are revealed from the start, while others are left to be discovered -- by the Eddie's past self and by the reader. The structure works well with the mystery plot that begins the novel's present and past, and will certainly please fans of other genres than fantasy (mystery fans might find Dark Jenny enjoyable).Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed the book. It's a dark comedy/fantasy romp with a strong lead character, plenty of mystery and twists, and a solid plot. I've been inundated with too many epic fantasy stories; receiving this book in the mail was a welcome shift from what I usually read in the genre. You should definitely give it a whirl.
In the Lion's Mouth

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Michael F. Flynn's In the Lion's Mouth is a space opera of the new variety, which is to say that it takes a genre that once stood for oversimplified adventure, sometimes of the Campbellian mode and redolent of the pulps, and infuses it with political intrigue and sociological awareness. The planets that make up the novel's empire have ceased to be spaces only of conquest, adventure, and wonder, and become contained worlds connected by a common but divergent history. This is not to suggest that Flynn's novel has abandoned the tropes of the adventure story, but that it brings a rigorous examination of the conditions of the empire in which that adventure occurs. In the Lion's Mouth is compelling not because of its adventure elements, but because it is at once an exploration of the inner workings of its network of worlds and an almost satirical play on the conventions of the old, pulpy space opera.In the Lion’s Mouth alternates between two stages of Ravn Olafsdottr’s journeys through the labyrinth of the Lion’s Mouth, the bureau that oversees an exceedingly efficient class of assassins known as the Shadows, which has begun splintering into competing factions. The frame narrative concerns her attempts to convince a rival organization, the Hounds, to put their cards on the table of the civil war raging within the Lion’s Mouth. This narrative also forms a clever stage upon which Ravn can demonstrate her manipulative talents as she relates another tale through flashback. That second strand concerns an intimate of the one Hounds: husband and father Donovan buigh. Donovan, a former Shadow who had his mind split into multiple personalities by an as-yet-unknown agent, was, we learn, kidnapped by Ravn to fulfill, willingly or otherwise, a purpose in the war. As the frame narrative cuts into Donovan’s story, we also learn that Ravn is up to much more than truce and explanation. Rather, she’s up to something vaguely sinister.Flynn uses this structure to tell two unique tales of intrigue, both deeply political and both productive of an edge-of-your-seat reading experience that always has a surprise in store – even on the last page. The frame narrative, far from being merely a stage for Flynn’s "story time," has a hidden agenda of its own, which Ravn and the Hounds eventually unearth. As Ravn remarks, in the heavy accent of Confederal, before embarking on the first piece of Donovan’s story: "This will be a tell to tangle your strings, oon my word; but I will give it to you in my oon way and reveal things in their oon time. Life is art, and must be artfully told, in noble deeds and fleshed in colors bold" (28). Here one might find Flynn’s satirical play on space opera, forming an astonishing tale of Donovan’s and the Shadows’ extraordinary feats in the Lion’s Mouth through Ravn’s (admitted) flawed retelling of the events:"Tell me," [Bridget, the Hound] says, "how you can know the thoughts of Donovan buigh, when I doubt even he knows them so well?"The Confederal [Ravn] smiles. "You must grant me two things. The first is many weeks of conversation between us, in which he may have revealed his mind to me.""That would be quite a revelation as I understand things. And second?""And second, you must grant me some poetic license." (53-54)Should we take Ravn’s words as gospel, as Donovan’s daughter believes we should ("I think she tells the truth. The Donovan she describes is a man I recognize. If she has embellished his thoughts, she has not done so falsely" (55)), even if she fills in the gaps with her own "poetic" imaginings? Or are the embellishments meant to distract us from the signs that something is amiss? For Ravn, it seems, the myth is a means to an end, not the property of a particular body politic to retell the story of history. In other words, the tropes of traditional space opera – the empire, the grand adventures, the loose attachments to actual mythological forms – are exposed by Ravn for their farcical nature: they are little more than devices of empire, broadly speaking. And for Ravn, that means it’s a device than can be retooled for different purposes, even to work against the established structures of power.In a way, In the Lion’s Mouth as new space opera is a response to Darko Suvin’s assertion that space opera is sub-literature – a literary form which has more in common with the elements of myth and fairy tales than with the literature of cognitive estrangement, inside of which he places science fiction. Flynn, whether intending to or not, sets the stage for an internally rigorous re-imagining of the space opera (though certainly he is not alone in this endeavor). This rigor is evident in a number of elements, but for the sake of space, I will only briefly discuss two: language and the world.While dialects are not new to science fiction, Flynn puts language to a particular use: manipulation. Ravn’s centrality in the narrative, as already mentioned, provides an ambiguous reading of events, but so too does her language. The consistency with which Flynn elaborates on Ravn’s accent is eventually made questionable by her intentional slippages: “It is a rhetorical trick, this abrupt dropping of the hooting accent, but no less effective for that. It freights her pronouncement with greater significance” (26). If it isn’t clear by the 26th page that Ravn is a questionable figure, then the numerous slippages of language to follow and her dubious alliances should do the trick. As much as the text is a performance, so too are the characters who are playing in it. But Flynn never fully reveals the game.Within Flynn’s future space, language rests on a solid foundation. From the opening pages, we are shown the degree to which Flynn has built his world: a map roughly showing the layout of worlds provides the scope of things to come. While many of these worlds are not part of the narrative, the ones that are provide the illusion of completeness. One illuminating scene in this regard draws upon the clichéd history of the bar as a staging area for men (or women) of ill repute. The chapter opens with two sections which tell us the history of Yuts’ga (the world where the various pieces of the Shadow puzzle have begun to assemble). The first of these explains the ancient history of Yuts’ga – where it got its name, who settled there, and what those settlers found when they set up shop (208-209). The second narrows the historical scope to Cambertown (209-210), and finally, in the next section, to the Mountain Dragon Inn, where we are introduced to Domino Tight, one of the many Shadows elaborated upon in Ravn’s tale (210-212). It is here that Flynn gives us a breakdown of the complex inner workings of the Shadows-in-action: who the Shadows command (their “flocks”), how they operate, and so on (213-226). While this is not the only scene that shows us the Shadows-at-work (one of the other interesting scenes is an official duel between two Shadows), it is a scene which illuminates the rigor with which Flynn has created his world. These are fully realized elements which exist within the familiar spaces of the adventure, but also seem to bring something new to the mix. But In the Lion’s Mouth is not just an exploration of the internal machinations of empire; it is also an adventure which twists the old into something with the appearance of the new. Flynn manipulates the old, reductive network of worlds made loosely into belongings of empire or spaces to be explored and conquered by its agents into one with the pieces tenuously placed on the board while its interiors pull themselves apart.In the Lion’s Mouth, however, does suffer from a sense of overdevelopment. Seasoned readers of Flynn’s universe will likely recognize many of the features which seemed alien to me. While the novel can be read, as the publicist suggested, independently of the rest of the series, I would suggest starting from the beginning. Where the beginning begins depends on whether you believe his Firestar cycle (Firestar, Rogue Star, Lodestar, and Falling Stars) should be read before The Spiral Arm series (The January Dancer, Up Jim River, and In the Lion’s Mouth) – this is apparently a center of mild debate. Then again, Flynn apparently has a tendency to tie “worlds” together.In any case, so much of In the Lion’s Mouth gave me the impression that no matter how closely I read, I would always be missing out on something, like an "in" joke. There is an extensive universe attached to this novel, one which Flynn only touches with the tips of his writer’s toes. I don’t want to suggest that Flynn’s novel is unreadable, however; the truth is that even with the alienation, the novel never ceases to entertain. But I can’t help feeling that the full reading experience for In the Lion’s Mouth demands familiarity with the rest of Flynn’s universe.And yet, despite that need for familiarity and the lofty praise of Flynn’s neo space opera, the ultimate measure of a novel’s value is in its ability to entertain. In the Lion’s Mouth never falters on that front. At once a political thriller and a high-tech war story, Flynn’s novel does nearly everything right. The experience is immersive, the plotting relentless in its forward motion, its secrets desirable, and its action – and attending developments – enormously exciting. If this is the new space opera, insofar as such a thing exists, then science fiction is definitely on the right track.
Down the Mysterly River

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Fantasies for young readers are almost always a joy to read. I'm no sure what it is about such books. Maybe it's to do with the whimsical style -- of which Down the Mysterly River has plenty -- or the adventures -- ditto. Or maybe there's something else I haven't discovered yet. In any case, Willingham's children's fantasy, Down the Mysterly River, is an exciting adventure story with a wonderful mixture of fairy tale and detective mystery. Too bad I don't have kids to read this book to...Expert boy scout Max "the Wolf" wakes up in a forest without any idea how he got there -- or any idea where "there" happens to be... Soon Max discovers that this forest is part of a new world, inside of which a group of violent hunters known as the Blue Cutters seek out new lives to trim and prune into their "proper forms." With his new (mysteriously talking) companions -- Banderbrock the warrior badger, Walden the less-than-spectacular-sheriff bear, and McTavish the monstrouscat -- Max sets off on a journey to meet a mysterious wizard and discover why he and his companions have been whisked away to such dangerous world.Down the Mysterly River channels a number of interesting genres. The most obvious is fantasy, which is an unavoidable fact both for the reader and for Max, who has to come to grips with the reality of the world around him. The second is the young detective story, which Willingham brings out through Max via a methodical set of steps of detection. These detective elements are interesting, though I have to admit that they sometimes felt forced. That is until you get to the big reveal, which immediately draws into focus Max as a character and the old-time-children's-story feel he evokes. The same thing can be said about the dialogue, which sometimes seemed too advanced or perfect for a character as young as Max; but once you realize what has been happening throughout the book, you start to understand why Willingham writes dialogue in the way that he does. To be perfectly honesty, young folks are probably not going to notice these issues. With or without the ending, however, the mixture of elements works, in part because it gives Max an enhanced sense of agency in a story that could reduce him to the victim trying to escape an evil that wants to kill him. Having Max attempt to discover "why" things are happening, to put it another way, makes for a story that does more for its reader than provide an extended chase.That said, Willingham's plot and pacing is expertly crafted. The story moves at a good clip and the twists in the story are sure to amuse or shock readers (there are two major twists or revelations, plus a fair deal of minor ones; the ending, however, will blow your mind). Willingham makes a good effort to introduce the genre mixture and Max's character traits without damaging the flow of the adventure story; in many respects, he succeeds. One issue I had with the plot's construction, however, was Willingham's use of non-central POVs to show things the main characters couldn't see. These are fairly minor, and are perhaps more common in literature for young readers than I am I aware, but they can pull you out of the suspense. Regardless, the journey of the main characters is rarely disrupted, moving forward with an even dose of revelation and action.Willingham also succeeds at constructing a cast of sympathetic (or terrifying) characters. Max is a clever young boy who refuses to let the situation get the best of him, but also a boy who has a strong sense of morality -- he's easy to sympathize with as a result. Banderbrock is a warrior with a soft heart who serves as a wonderful companion, and the interactions between the badger and McTavish -- which translate roughly to an animal kingdom version of "I'm tougher than you" -- are amusing. Walden, who is the only actual member of law enforcement in the group (though a bad one), is also lovable as a character, which seems perfect for a bear. And the more you learn about him and watch him try to adopt Max's detection skills, the more you love him. How can you fault a big, hug-able bear for being a less-than-stellar sheriff? Even the Blue Cutters, who are the story's villains, are interesting characters -- and it's because of them that I want to see more stories set in this world. They are pure villains, but there is a hint of complexity in Down the Mysterly River that I think Willingham needs to explore -- either through additional Max stories or via some other character. There's a lot left to be told about this world.Overall, Down the Mysterly River is a fantastic book. The characters are amusing, the young detective storyline is compelling, and the fantastic elements are enjoyable and exciting. I had trouble putting this book down, in part because I wanted to know why Max ended up in the world and in part because the mixture of genres and the characters seemed to beckon me through the cover. Hopefully others will feel the same way.
The Magician's Elephant

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Readers will remember Kate DiCamillo as the author of the adorable Tale of Despereaux, which was turned into a computer animated film in 2008 (which I had the pleasure of seeing and enjoying). The Magician's Elephant is a less expansive narrative, but one which attempts to reach into the heart of the human condition through the figure of the child. It is a story which looks at the moral complications of lies, the power of loyalty, and the desire and safety found in the family unit (even if that unit is broken).The Magician's Elephant is about Peter Augustus Duchene, a young boy who has lost his entire family and who has been adopted by an ill and disgruntled soldier (Vilna Lutz) who wants Peter to grow up to be just like him. But when Peter spends Vilna's grocery money on a fortuneteller, he learns an amazing truth: his sister is alive and an elephant will lead the way. A series of strange events soon follows and Peter begins to question everything, uncovering the lies about his life and his family.DiCamillo makes me wish I had children. The Magician's Elephant lends itself well to parental voice acting because it has such a large cast of characters: Peter, Vilna, Adele, the Elephant (you read that right), the Magician, Leo, and several more. Each character, remarkably, has his or her own storyline, though some get more attention than others for obvious reasons. The plethora of characters adds a certain charm to the story, since it allows DiCamillo to move temporarily away from the dark family-oriented narrative of Peter into the odd-ness of her world and its eccentric cast. The novel never truly escapes from darkness, though, resting firmly in dark comedy territory.The darkness is perhaps why I found the book so interesting. Setting aside Peter's orphan status, the novel is rife with trauma-induced mental illness. Vilna is a broken soldier who still thinks he's part of the army, crying out as if experiencing flashbacks from a war we're never really told about. The Magician and Madam LaVaughn have been reduced to the repetition of the same grief-stricken routine by the trauma of the Elephant's entry into the world. Some readers may find the darkness overwhelming, but I think the effect it has on the closure of the narrative is more powerful than would the excavation of everything but Peter's story. The intersection of all of these other stories and traumas makes the ending a fascinating (almost cathartic) experience (though, in all honesty, I think there were too many secondary characters, some of which weren't given the attention they deserved). A good deal of the trauma is also attached to an underlying didacticism in the narrative, which I found interesting not because there were messages to be found and learned in The Magician's Elephant, but because the perspective through which these moralistic moments are derived is that of a child (Peter). There aren't any grand moments in which adult characters tell the young protagonist that X is wrong and that they must learn a lesson (except when DiCamillo wants to show how some of the adults are hypocrites).As a story for kids, I think The Magician's Elephant is a fantastic read. While the story is dark, there are plenty of humorous moments. The quirkiness of the plot and characters doesn't get in the way of the story, though, which is something some chapter books fall prey to. Instead, The Magician's Elephant is a wonderful story about the power of family, friends, forgiveness, and compassion, with an interesting cast of characters and a strong plot. It's definitely something to read with your kids (if you have them) or to read on your own.
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