Monday, April 22, 2013


I've always preferred stories about Queen Elizabeth I to those of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, and this novel did not change my mind. If anything, it cemented my general contempt for the latter for all time.

That should by no means be taken as a statement about the quality of Royal Road to Fotheringay, which is textbook Jean Plaidy fictionalized biography. The novel takes us from Mary Stuart's early days as the toddler queen of Scotland, romping through various castles and monastaries with her "four Marys" (four little girls of noble birth, all of whom share her given name, who were raised along with her to give her company and, later on, servants) through her later upbringing in France as the intended bride of the Dauphin, the sickly boy who grew up (sort of) to be the short-reigning King Francis II, her disastrous second and third marriages, and then skips on to her infamously botched execution on the orders of her cousin Elizabeth I of England. A sequel, The Captive Queen of Scots, presumably covers the twenty or so years between the death of her third husband and Mary's own death, and will be read in due course. Probably. Once I'm done with gnashing my teeth over how much I wanted to slap Mary through most of this novel.

I had, of course, a similar experience reading Plaidy's two novels concerning Lucrezia Borgia last year. I'm not sure how similar these two heroines really were, but as Plaidy wrote them, both were spoiled, petted young things who grew up into pathological people pleasers who allowed monstrous goings on to take place all around them without even trying to do anything about said goings on, before, during or after. Of course they are also products of their age, and I'm meant to feel sympathy towards them (Plaidy seems to have made it her special mission to rehabilitate, or at least explain, Borgia), or at least try to understand them, but... man, it's rough. It's rough.

Royal Road to Fotheringay was a lot more unpleasant a read than the Borgia books, though, because so many of the characters it has to portray are unpleasant. From Mary's creepy Uncle Clarence, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who helped "guide" her during her upbringing in France and who does a lot of "caressing" and  engages in blatant emotional manipulation that all but amounts to abuse, to her first husband, the vain and spoilt and cranky Darnley to her womanizing, raping, pillaging jackass of a second husband, James Hepburn, to Mary's mother Mary of Guise and one-time mother-in-law Catherine de' Medici, Mary Stuart's life is like one long parade of monsters. If only she weren't so damned passive, gullible, foolishly romantic and willing to be manipulated... seriously, she is the Dobby the House Elf of European monarchs. Not that she ever stood much of a chance of being anything else.

And this chick ruled a country. Well, sort of.

Maddening as it is, though, it's a good story, impeccably told. And that counts for something.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dorothy Dunnet's THE DISORDERLY KNIGHTS #OneBookAtATime

Oh, Lymond, Lymond, how I do want to love thee. And every book you almost, almost talk me out of it. Every book you look guilty as hell of whatever crimes most have all of Scotland/France/Malta/Wherever up in arms, and every book you turn out to be, well, I'm trying not to spoil anything here, but there are three more books in this series, so certain truths are probably pretty evident, even to the kinds of people you're so very, very good at fooling...

The Disorderly Knights, the third in the great Dorothy Dunnet's great Lymond Chronicles, broadens the geographic, political and moral scope of our favorite Renaissance bad boy considerably. The Knights of the title are none other than the famous Hospitallers, aka the Knights of Malta -- though an argument could be made for that title also applying to a mercenary company our man forms when he finally gets back to Scotland about halfway through the novel -- and they're in a bit of a pickle, one that the King of France seems to think Lymond might be able to help them out of, or at least bear honest witness to. The King of France being something of a Lymond fanboy after Lymond's exploits last novel in defense of the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, who is engaged to marry the King's son. Ah, dynastic politics!

The problem the Hospitallers face is the same one they were formed to face, namely the Turk, whom they've helped to protect Europe and bits of North Africa from for a good 400 years. But as of the late 16th century, though, well, the Knights have gone a bit to seed. The Grand Master is a bit of a jerk, and a Spanish jerk at that, and the Holy Roman Emperor being Spanish as well, unseating the GM and putting an effective leader in charge is tricky, especially when the good candidates for that job are all either French or Scottish...

Really there's only one Scottish candidate, though, a man in whom our Lymond has definitely met his match. Sir Graham Reid Mallett, nicknamed Gabriel, is everything Lymond is but turned up a notch: a great big gorgeous blue-eyed blonde who is also a genius, a brilliant leader of men, a great strategist, fighter and tactician, but also a holy man, because like the more famous Templars, the Hospitallers are all warrior monks, in the service of God and the Roman Catholic Church, priests with swords. When he and Lymond meet up, the whole world seems fixed to change. Gabriel becomes obsessed with winning Lymond over for Jeebus and won't take no for an answer; Lymond, of course, is loyal only to Scotland and his family and finds religion profoundly unnecessary, if not actually detrimental to a well-lived life. But like I said, Gabriel won't take no for an answer, and soon insinuates himself into every possible aspect of Lymond's life as the duo and a small contingent of Hospitallers first fail to defend various tiny Mediterranean islands from the Turkish onslaught and then, for an encore, lose the famous stronghold city of Tripoli to the Turks. Oops.

Covered in glory like that, what can they do but return to Scotland, where Gabriel has stashed his drop-dead gorgeous sister, Joleta, whom he has already intimated is his ace in the hole (umm) as far as winning Lymond's soul for Christ is concerned, because of course Lymond will convert for the privilege of maybe getting to schtup her. Really, kind of a Lymond thing to hope to do, as Lymond has, more than once, proven that he's not above seducing the odd strategically important round-heeled woman to achieve his goals. Did I mention Lymond has met his match here? Except that now we find there are two of them!

Of course by about two thirds of the way through the novel, the reader discovers she's misread pretty much everything, because the only person better at deception and red herringry than Lymond is his creator, Ms. Dunnett. But when it's artistes like these, it's a pleasure so to be fooled.

Meanwhile, there is everything one would turn to some good historical fiction like this in order to enjoy: more amazing sword fights, sieges, battles of all sorts, border reivers and the Hot Trodd law (and lots of other weird Renaissance English/Scottish border law), sexual politics and oh, about the sexual politics...

I've not yet mentioned the women of The Disorderly Knights, apart from the sex bomb Joleta, who is really the least interesting figure in the book. Most of my old favorites are back and getting good page time, with Lymond's mother Sybilla stealing scenes as usual, but also of note are two others, who come to the fore in this novel after kind of making me yawn in The Game of Kings and Queens Play: Oonagh O'Dwyer -- former mistress of a would-be king of Ireland, who spent most of Queens Play trying to abet her man in his plots to conspire with the French and Scots to throw the English out of Ireland (we all know how well that worked), only to have an encounter with Lymond that looks to turn out to be way more important than it seemed at the time -- and Philippa Somerville, twelve or thirteen-year-old daughter of an English lord who was friendly with Lymond back in the day but who herself hates Lymond like poison and spends a lot of The Disorderly Knights just entertainingly gnashing her teeth at him until circumstances and her own sense of fair play cause her to woman up and kick about 20 kinds of ass all over northern England and southern Scotland and become my new favorite Dorothy Dunnett lady.*

So I find myself so eager to tear into the next book, Pawn in Frankincense, that I don't see any reason not to, even though lots of other good stuff beckons from my to-be-read pile. I was warned that this might happen.

*Though her presence reminds me that my other favorite bratty Dunnett tween, Lady Agnes, has disappeared completely from this narrative, and that makes me a little sad. Agnes does not hold a candle to Philippa in the awesomeness department, but she was terribly amusing in The Game of Kings and I miss her a lot.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Matthew Hughes' THE DAMNED BUSTERS #OneBookAtATime

First of all, just look at this cover! Angry Robot's design team knocked another one out of the park! And truly, it conveys pretty much exactly what you get inside.

And what is it that you get inside? Only the most plausibly implausible (or would that be implausibly plausible?) superhero story in the history of ever, that's all, fun in the way that only a story about an ordinary guy who accidentally causes a massive labor dispute in Hell and gets superpowers and a nearly omnipotent demon sidekick as part of the settlement can be fun.

And no, that's not a spoiler; all of that takes place in the first chapter or two. The fact these first few chapters are the most amusing bit of the book should not deter anyone, by the way; for this book is mostly in earnest, slightly silly premise aside. As are most superhero stories.

Chesney Anstruther is an actuary by trade, a man more at home with numbers and statistics -- and comic books -- than with human beings, despite his mother's extensive efforts to have him trained to do with his conscious, rational mind what most human beings do by instinct. So yes, probably a high functioning autistic, but maybe it can just be laid at mom's door, for she is a religious fanatic and a moralist of the strictest and most gleeful order -- her main hobby is writing scathing, hideously imaginative diatribes to whatever celebrity her favorite TV preacher picks on that week, diatribes in which the torments of Hell are lovingly detailed. So Chesney probably never stood a chance.

Then he becomes a superhero, of sorts. His settlement with Satan gives him pretty much unlimited power via his sidekick, but only for two hours a day, because his powers derive from his command over the sidekick, the amusingly sybaritic Xaphan, who has to be taken off his usual sinner-punishment detail to serve Chesney. He'll do anything Chesney demands, without loopholes, as long as Chesney's demands don't interfere with the fulfillment of anyone else's, more conventional, deals with the Devil.

Ah, there's the rub. Because it seems that some pretty important people have such deals in place, including, perhaps, Chesney's top boss, W.T. Paxton, tycoon and would-be politician, who is soon pursuing Chesney's superhero self (the Actionary!) with a proposition: help Paxton fight crime, and get access to all of the work of Paxton's firm, including the services of a crack team of top notch reasearchers and actuaries. Including Chesney himself. Oh, and Paxton has a mind-bendingly beautiful daughter, Poppy whom Chesney only seems able to talk to coherently while disguised as the Actionary...

So of course all of this comes into entertaining conflict, made just that more interesting by the introduction of yet another attractive girl, Melda, to turn Chesney's head and draw him into uncomfortable situations. And make Poppy jealous.

All of this combines into a pretty standard superhero plot, and that would make for a pretty decent read right there, but for two things. One is a stiff and mannered narrative voice that gets pretty distracting over the course of the novel -- for instance, throughout the book, Chesney is referred to as "the young man" over and over and over again* -- and the other is the author's insistence on playing a big meta-fiction game, to wit, the central argument the book is making is that it is a novel, a novel that God (aka Matthew Hughes himself) is writing, and it's a draft, and everything can change if the author changes his mind (as said author has many times in the past, or good Christians like Chesney's mother and her beloved TV preacher friend, Rev. Hardacre [who becomes Chesney's mentor] would never touch pork or shellfish or wear clothing made from more than one kind of fiber), and moreover it's going to change, so it's unlikely that contracts made with the Devil are going to be binding because the next big change is coming very soon. Or so the prevailing theory goes.

So uh, if you don't like characters discussing, sometimes at length, their status as characters in a novel, this might not be the book for you. Me, I'm on the fence a bit. Most of the time, I do not like this. I was a languages and literature major once upon a time and still bear the psychic scars of a whole course on meta-fiction and so generally hate this kind of twee crap like poison. But I quite enjoyed the goofy take on a superhero story and still have just enough curiosity about where all of this is going to have a look sometime at the book's two extant sequels, both of which I already have on my reading devices thanks to Angry Robot's ebook subscription.

I just hope it doesn't wind up being all about the meta-fiction. I really, really do.

*But then we come to a passage -- and mind you, this book is very much set in the present, meaning the 21st century -- where we find him sounding much older than he could reasonably be for a character constantly referred to as "the young man": "Chesney could remember when going tieless and unshaven was a mark of low socio-economic poverty." So he was around during the Mad Men era, was he? Yeah, so he's quite the whippersnapper.

Monday, April 15, 2013


I first encountered the romantic (and Romantic) figure of Ross Poldark, veteran of the British side of the American Revolutionary War, on television, via the glorious BBC adaptation that PBS aired when I was a kid. I knew that someday I'd have to get my hands on these books to read them, because I could just tell that stuff was getting left out.

Oddly, though, this does not seem to be the case, much; the television show has proven to be very faithful to the books, or at least to this first one*. Which is to say that all the melodrama of the returned, wronged veteran plot is here, with just a dash more melancholy in the form of a prologue concerning Ross's father and uncle as the former lays dying and the latter lays plans to marry his son to the girl Ross has always fancied. Because everyone presumes Ross to be dead, of course.

Oh, Ross! The odds are stacked against him from the start. His father being a younger son, what patrimony there is for him is meager at best -- just enough to qualify as "landed gentry" with all the responsibilities of a country squire, not enough to afford to live at all well. The tin mine from which his father's fortune was drawn has sucked it all back down again, and a rotten pair of no-good servants have let the family pile get so run down that they're housing chickens in the living room... welcome home, war hero!

Oh, and yes, his childhood sweetheart is indeed marrying his cousin, son of the older son who got all the money and the original estate and the tin mine that's still worth a damn! Did I mention melodrama? Because melodrama.

But melodrama isn't all that's on offer here. There is also some wonderful nature porn, of which author Winston Graham was a gifted practitioner. In the high Romantic tradition, weather is often a stand in for/emphasizer of emotion, so, for example, a solitary figure standing quietly still and watching the sea can be understood as in turmoil if the waves are being especially powerful and crashy. But sometimes it's just there for the sake of being there. I'm already half in love with Cornwall, between growing up watching Poldark on television and having recently enjoyed the excellent Doc Martin series, exteriors of which were shot in Port Isaac, Cornwall (which, take a look at SF superstar Alastair Reynolds' relatively recent photo odyssey there, tracking down Doc's house and whatnot), and it's obvious that Graham was, too. With good reason.

But Graham does interiors, too, like that of a cottage in which dwell a family under Ross's care, and how the family spends its exhausted evenings. Graham gets the whole "world lit only by fire" and turns this shack into a mysterious abode of shadows and half-secrets: "On the floor Matthew Mark Martin's long bare legs glimmered like two silver trout; the rest of him was hidden in the massive pool of shadow cast by his mother."

Winston Graham is one cinematic writer, no?

But he is also, as it turns out, a writer with a real gift for honest, ordinary human emotion. Especially -- and this is quite rare -- happiness. For example, a scene, one that really just concerns Ross and Demelza rowing out to watch the yearly pilchard catch, is one of the loveliest I've read in a long time, not so much for the scenery (although that is nice) as for the rarity it captures: a moment of quiet, slightly awe-stricken joy, joy that is recognized and savored by our usually troubled hero. It's a total grace note, this scene, but I'm so glad it's there.

For Ross is a most turbulent, even exhausting character. A member of a family so ancient and steady they would probably have regarded the Cecils as gotten up parvenus, he shuns the local gentry in favor of the miners and farmers and poverty-stricken villagers who are his tenants, not out of any hipster-ish disdain for the manners and mores of the former so much as an inborn sense of decency (sharpened by the memory of his reprobate, skirt-chasing-and-catching father), which gets him into plenty of trouble when his proteges get caught poaching or when he rescues an urchin from a beating and makes the life-changing decision to adopt said urchin as a member of his household staff even after said urchin turns out to be a 13-year-old girl... and everyone in Cornwall starts thinking what you're probably thinking right now, unless you already know Ross and his story...

All in all, this first Poldark book is one of the loveliest things I've ever read; even the love story, which  sort of element usually makes me retch, is a thing of beauty. I suspect this is because Graham focused on the friendliness and companionship rather than on the passion. Ross Poldark spends most of the second half of the book hopeful and happy. And Graham found a way to make these states of mind anything but boring.

For pure pleasure in reading, Ross Poldark cannot be beaten.

*Though this is, of course, in plot and tone, really, this faithfulness. One way in which the TV show is lacking is in the way it portrays the relationship between Ross and Demelza. Robin Ellis did not really sell Ross's tenderness and genuine love for her, or the sheer happiness she brought to him. But could anyone, without a lot of cheesy voice-overs?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Jasper Fforde's WELL OF LOST PLOTS #OneBookAtATime

I was told, when I started reading Jasper Fforde's silly books for smart people, the Thursday Next series, to stick with them after the first because they only got better. I'm pleased to see that, as of this third novel, The Well of Lost Plots, the fangirls are right.

In this installment, our heroine, still pregnant by a father who never existed (her husband Landen having been eradicated by her time traveling enemies), is hiding out via the BookWorld's "Character Exchange Program" and serving in said world's equivalent to her home in LiteraTec, "Jurisfiction." The former has her living in an early draft of a bad detective novel so that the character she's replacing can get a break from the crime she's supposed to solve and the detective she's supposed to solve it with; the latter has her policing fiction and fictional characters from the inside alongside Miss Havisham, her mentor figure from the prior novel. Got all that? A bit head-scratchy, this, but on that front things get a whole lot worse.

With this novel, Fforde has gone all the way towards treating the world of novels not only as an elaborate theatrical troupe as we've seen in the first two Thursday Next stories, but is now including not only the set designers and directors and property managers but also the suppliers of raw materials for sets and costumes and whatnot, and treating plot devices and ideas and the very act of reading as tangible commodities as well. Much of the plot of The Well of Lost Plots (the title refers to the "place" whence comes all uncompleted, unpublished fiction) thus concerns the development of a new operating system for fiction -- think of the oral tradition as the first operating system, scrolls as a later one, books as an improvement on scrolls, etc -- with lots of flashy new features that has everyone very excited but that may be cause for some concern as well. It's impossible not to read this story as a sort of veiled critique of the development of ebooks, in other words, but it's very, very well veiled; the book never gets preachy at all, and lets the reader work out for herself what the pros and cons of a new delivery system for fiction might be.

But meanwhile, this is a Thursday Next novel, which means lots of inspired silliness. Like Miss Havisham running a sort of group therapy/anger management group for the characters of Wuthering Heights, all of whom have very strong feelings about one another. Heathcliffe steals the show there, of course, with his star turns and demands delivered via his agent and whatnot. Another, earlier segment, which explores the problems posed by misplaced modifiers when the sentences containing them are literalized, is exceptionally hilarious and entertaining if you are a certain type of person, which I am.

This all should have been unbearably twee, but miraculously, it never was. While the operating system/ebook critique plot did make me roll my eyes a bit when it was brought to the fore at the novel's climax, there was plenty of other stuff going on that, while also threatening to become unbearably twee, wound up being entertaining nonetheless. Thursday's battle with Aornis, or rather a mental representation of Aornis, the revenge-seeking sister of Thursday's former nemesis that is slowly eradicating Thursday's memories, not only of her no-longer-existing husband but of everything else, is what keeps the reader's attention most of the time, and while its resolution is a bit too tidy for my tastes, felt like a genuine conflict and source of tension in a way that the capital P Plot did not. A further exploration of Fforde's BookWorld was mostly fun, as was Thursday's first mission as a bona fide Jurisfiction agent, in which she had to work behind the scenes to repair a damaged children's book that threatened to have a bit too much of a downer ending (this is the girl who gave Jane Eyre a "new and improved" happy ending, after all).

I can't help but notice, though, that Thursday Next wound up finishing the novel in pretty much the same situation she started it, which I found frustrating. I'm going to have to simmer down for a while before I take up the next one.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Joseph D'Lacey's BLACK FEATHERS #OneBookAtATime

If you've ever wondered what the result would be like if Neil Gaiman wrote a post-apocalyptic fable that attempted to rehabilitate the character of Damien Thorn, look no further than Black Feathers.

Gordon Black, one of the two protagonists of Black Feathers, is not precisely Damien, but the circumstances of and mysteries surrounding his birth are just as ominous and prophecy-burdened as that famous son-of-the-devil, and one would spend a lot of the story wondering if he couldn't really be just as evil* -- were it not for the other narrative, concerning the other protagonist, one Megan Maurice, a child living generations later than Damien, who grew up in the pastoral/agricultural paradise of the "Bright Day" following the "Black Dawn" that ended Damien's (and our) mechanized, industrialized, computerized world. From Megan's perspective, Gordon is a more of a messiah than an antichrist, a psychopomp set to guide her to revelations about an archetypal figure known as the Crowman, in whose power lies the salvation of the Bright Day world.

The novel alternates between Gordon's story of escape and pursuit as his world comes to an end, and Megan's pursuit of Gordon's story through a series of shamanistic escapades, because keeping Gordon's story alive in the minds of her people is vital to the continued well-being of Megan's community and the land it stewards, land only recently recovered from the Sheep Look Up devastations of pollution, overfarming, etc. visited on it by Gordon's people (i.e. us). The mystery of why this is so is kept artfully from us, so we wind up very much empathizing with both children, neither of whom has a clear idea of what is expected of them, both of whom are motivated by a sincere earnestness, a desire to do right by the people who love them. As clueless as they, we trip along with them, carried by some very graceful prose and imagery, and the wonderful ambiguity of the Crowman they both seek. Is the Crowman, cast by tradition as an evil, Satanic figure in black, good or evil? Or is he simply the amoral avatar of the earth itself, memorably depicted early on as "shaking off" humanity like a bad case of fleas as Gordon's world comes to its miserable end? There is an edge of brutality to him/it, as well there should be -- nature red in tooth and claw and all that. He is as compelling a figure as the archetypal Green Man which inspired him, and I want more of him, and of his prophet/harbinger/servant/avatar Gordon.

Alas, while Gordon is a vivid and sympathetic character, whose plight (trying to keep one step ahead of the totalitarian Ward -- government, police and military rolled into one New World Order nightmare -- who have "collected" his family and are using them as bait to lure him into their clutches) and coming of age are gripping and deeply felt, Megan is much, much less so. Megan is basically a Lemmiwinks, pushed through her plot line by the urging and instruction of others, proceeding from peril to peril in pursuit of her destiny as someone who has to tell someone else's story. I couldn't even hate her, like I so often hate weak/helpless females in fantasy stories, because there is nothing of her to hate. Her adventures are wonderfully (and sometimes shockingly) described, but then, so were those of a certain gerbil. One hopes she'll develop more in the sequel.

For sequel there shall be. By novel's end, it becomes obvious that these nearly 400 pages have all basically been prologue. And preaching. Lots of preaching in this novel. But it's all in the service of good solid stuff that apparently can't be repeated enough -- give back as much as you take, respect the land and its gifts that make your life possible, treat people as you would be treated -- and the preaching is never really overdone at any one point, and, as I hope I've conveyed by now, really beautifully, even lyrically done. Black Feathers has the feel of myth; it feels old and familiar and well-known even as it also feels fresh and inventive and original. Neat trick, that.

*Megan's story is hardly our only hint that Gordon's specialness is a good thing, of course. The fact that he is being hunted down by the totalitarian Ward people tells us so, as well, but I've chased enough literary red herrings in my day that I no longer feel comfortable accepting obvious villains at face value anymore, generally speaking. Of course, the fact that the two Ward Sheriff's who first come after Gordon are dead spits for Croup and Vandemar lend weight to the idea that the reader is supposed to perceive them as totes evil, which really just tells me that I way overthought my reading, here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Paul R. Hardy's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH CLUB #OneBookAtATime

The conceit behind The Last Man on Earth Club is without a doubt the most original idea for a science fiction novel I've come across in a long, long time. On a multiversal hub world to which refugees of apocalypses (apocalypti?) galore are brought after being rescued from Earth's destruction by everything from solar flares to zombie plagues to Heaven's Gate-style mass suicides on a planetary scale, six people, each of whom is the sole survivor of his home universe's variant on the human species, are treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as part of the process of integrating them into a brand new society. That's the book in a nutshell, setting, cast and plot all in one. Such a schtick carries with it both the potential to be horrible and gimmicky, and the potential to be weirdly awesome.

I'm happy to say it's weirdly awesome, though I was left feeling a little dissatisfied with the ending.

But the beginning and middle are all kinds of inventive fun, fun that manages to have a real sense of authenticity to it.*

Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction will enjoy the veritable buffet of ways the world has ended in these survivors' experiences. Hardy explores nuclear war (from the perspective of the man who just might have been the one to push the big red button that started it all), alien suicide cults (from the perspective of the only person to survive his blissful attempt to join those bright white energy balls who promised Heaven to anyone with the courage to join them -- and who is still trying to spread the faith in his new world), Matrix/Terminator-esque man vs machine wars (from the perspective of a cyborg found drifting naked in outer space), the ever popular zombie apocalypse (from the perspective of an embittered doctor who tried to fight it), a horrible history of slavery and final extermination of one human species by another who shared the planet with it (from the perspective of the last survivor of a failed captive breeding program to preserve the species in a zoo), and a comic book world where just over half of the population has some kind of superpower but that couldn't save them from some kind of mad science experiment gone horribly wrong and spontaneously combusting them all (from the perspective of a ditzy office girl who thinks everyone just took off and hid from her as a practical joke). As the stories are told, the survivors emerge as distinctive personalities and fully-rounded characters, characters in a lot of pain and denial and trauma, trying to cope with what happened and with each other's foibles.

This would be enough for a pretty interesting book, but author Paul R. Hardy was much more ambitious than that. Rather than just creating a sort of post-apocalyptic Breakfast Club**, he turned his novel into a serious discussion of refugee care, genocide, justice and jurisdiction in a way that still has me astonished.

He also spun all of this into a sort of mystery plot, tantalizingly hinting at the possibility that some or all of these planetary destructions and extinctions are linked, that they might have been the deliberate work of one or more races of bad actors. Several of the characters, in the course of their therapy, reveal clues to who this might have been and how it might have come to pass, and as the Hub prepares to receive another huge wave of refugees from a universe in which the Earth is being destroyed by solar flares gone wild (that might just have been deliberately set off, one suspicious survivor hints), resolve to try to take on this unknown entity and deliver to it/them the punishment/justice that the IU looks unlikely to ever mete out. Interesting stuff, this (but isn't it all?), but it is here that my dissatisfaction comes in: this is never tied up, really, at all. None of it is, really. The novel just sort of ends -- on a semi-promising note, sure, but not with any conclusions or finality. I've not seen any word on whether a sequel is in the works, but there had better be, Mr. Hardy.

There had better be.

*Having been treated for PTSD myself, I found the novel's depiction of this difficult, chancy and inexact process to be wonderfully true to life, even as the stories emerging from individual and group sessions were the stuff of pulp fiction and comic books. I admire the balance the author struck there exceedingly.

**Though on this level the book works just as brilliantly as the John Hughes film I refer to. These characters are vivid as hell, and while none of them could ever be called likable, they nonetheless inspire both sympathy and empathy and feel utterly real and believable.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lee Battersby's THE MARCHING DEAD #OneBookAtATime

I had a lot of love last fall for the first novel in this series, The Corpse-Rat King. So much love I almost gave it five stars. Really, the only reason I didn't was because I was pretty sure the best was yet to come.

And I was right. With this sequel, The Marching Dead, Battersby kicked up everything I loved about the first novel by a notch or two -- world-building, storytelling, hilarity, and most of all, characters who just made me punch the air over and over again, usually while laughing. Gerd, the trusty dead bumpkin sidekick on whom our hero Marius relied on last novel, comes into his own as a bona fide second hero, for one... but there's more. For instance, Gerd's newly dead Granny, who could go toe to toe with Lady Sybella and the awesome cranky biddy gang of the Lymond Chronicles, but who, ultimately, would shock them speechless with her command of bawdy songs. And Alno the dead bastard cat. And Arnobew, aka Warbone, the crazy cardboard warrior. And Marius' parents, who are both real pieces of work. And...

See what I mean, here? Generally, any book that finds me giving lists of characters in the first paragraph or two of my blog is one that has made me very, very happy.

But wait, there's more. Like plot twists that actually surprised me. Like genuinely grounding the bizarre, over-the-top story in the hero's character, past and present and making it work. Like featuring lines of dialogue like "It's not necrophilia if we're both dead" and having it feel completely natural, tasteless absurdity and all. Like a stupendously badass order of nuns with whom no sane would ever want to tangle. Really, the only way I could have been happier would have been if Battersby had managed to throw in some kind of awesome Busby Berkley cockroach scene or something. My only complaint is that, well, this seems like an awfully small world; Marius do keep running into every (impressively bosomed) woman he's ever slept with and winding up needing something from her years after leaving on messy terms.

Which is to say that, yes, I could have done without the love rhombus.

But that's a small matter, really. And it's the big matters that, well, matter. Because amid the violence and the guffaws, The Marching Dead has a thing or two to say about belief and religion, about life after death (obviously) and about responsibility, which not even Marius can run away from. There are some poignant moments between the scenes of slapstick carnage and smartassery. As there should be when the subject is death.

As soon as things look to be getting too serious, though, Battersby always comes out with a send up. Because ultimately, he seems to want to tell us, death and fear of death are laughing matters, if anything is. It's just that the joke is on us. As is the vomit, blood, other body fluids....

Battersby is one messed up dude. Delightfully so. We should all be so lucky. All the stars.

James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT #OneBookAtATime

Oh man, if I had known from the beginning just how literally this title, Cities in Flight, was meant -- I took it to feature the word "flight" in the sense of fleeing pursuit, rather than maneuvering through air or space -- I would have attacked this book a lot sooner. That's one of the disadvantages of scooping up a whole lot of ebook titles at once; if you don't examine the cover art, you're just going on author and title unless you take the trouble to look up the blurb. And the author.*

Cities in Flight is actually an omnibus edition of four novels Blish published in the 1950s: They Shall Have StarsA Life for the StarsEarthman Come Home, and The Triumph of Time. I could have read them discretely as I often do with such collections, but I found the central conceit of these stories -- that a pair of technologies developed in the early 21st century allowed entire Earth cities like New York and Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and Scranton to lift themselves bodily, buildings, subways and all, from the planet's surface and go into space as giant spaceships** -- so compelling that I just kept right on going after the first novel, which detailed the development of the twin technologies, a gravity defying/harnessing field called the "spindizzy" and anti-aging drugs, that would allow this weird feat to be possible. Rather than just function as an elaborate prologue to the "real" narrative of the spacefaring cities, though, They Shall Have Stars is a great novel all on its own, as I'll get to in a bit.

But first, I want to share this cool fan-made video by Charlie McCullough. Just because it sells the concept so marvelously, and is cool in its own right:

Cities In Flight from Charlie McCulloch on Vimeo.

Outlandish! Ridiculous! Attractively art deco! Am I right?

But so anyway, the novels. These span from the political/budgetary machinations that made the spacefaring "Okie" cities possible, to a tale of a young man kidnapped by the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania who later rises, out in the galaxy, to become a man of some importance after he is traded off as useless to New York, NY, to the story of the mayor of New York's thousand-year reign and the tribulations faced by a city whose motto "Mow your lawn, lady?" encapsulates its willingness to do any crappy job, anywhere in the universe, in a universe whose economy is collapsing, to that same city's final establishment as actually being the center of the universe that many of us assume New Yorkers think it to be anyway. Heh.

So, this one has a lot in common with Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, except its eons of time are spanned by a single generation of essentially immortal human beings, which means it has characters of a kind, but don't go looking here for people you'll love or hate or feel like you know. Blish is interested in charting a vast future history, just as Stapledon was; he just chose to give it a slightly more human scale for the benefit of his readers. So Senator Bliss Wagoner's story of secret research projects and financial shenanigans bleeds into Chris DeFord's rise to prominence bleeds into John Amalfi's tribulations at the helm of the city so nice they named it twice bleeds into Amalfi and a bunch of pseudo-cosmologists doing pseudo-cosmology until the reader's face melts... They could just as easily all be the same guy. Why they're not is anybody's guess. But that's okay. What these novels lack in character they make up for in grandiosity, imagination and occasional goofiness -- as well as the odd (and I do mean odd) moral dilemma of a kind that could only occur when big industrial cities are out in the universe doing odd jobs, planet by planet, solar system by solar system.

And hey, if you're going to do science fiction, might as well really freaking do science fiction, right?

*I have mostly known Mr. Blish as the constructor of novelizations of episodes of Star Trek (original series). He did this very competently, no complaints, but since the reader already knew the story from having seen it enacted by Shatner and Nimoy et al, his skill and imagination were eclipsed by memories of Shatner and Nimoy et al. At least they were for me. But then there was Spock Must Die! And Spock's Must Die! was more than a bit brilliant, and it was on the strength of this (and the inclusion of two Blish works in the SF Masterworks series) that made me want to read the man's "own" work.

**Doctor Who fans will be hopping up and down and screaming about The Beast Below, and surely that episode owes a lot to these novels. No starwhales, though.