The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Read: 17 July, 2015

Sixteen years after Leviticus Blue undermined the city’s banks with his Russian-commissioned Boneshaker machine, Seattle is a very different place. The boring caused a gas to be released from deep underground, corroding whatever it touched and raising the dead as “rotters.” A wall has been built around the city to keep the gas in, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes spilling out.

In the meantime, Blue’s son, Zeke, ventures under the wall, into the Blight, hoping to find the truth about his father. After an earthquake traps him inside the city, his mother comes in the hopes of rescuing him.

With airships, fantastical machinery, and zombies, it’s hard to see where Boneshaker could go wrong. Unfortunately, there were a few key issues that prevented me from really liking the book. The first was the over use of coincidence. I can ignore it if it’s used only very occasionally, or if it gets the ball rolling, and it works in a series like The Wheel of Time where it’s explained by the world-building (in that case, it’s the pattern weaving itself toward certain outcomes). But in Boneshaker, major aspects of the plot were directed by coincidence – an earthquake that blocks an exit just when a character goes through a tunnel, an airship crashing into a tower just when a character happens to be inside it, another airship that just happens to be repaired and ready to take off when the characters need to escape, etc. Far too much of the plot relied on these big coincidences, and it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief.

Overall, it gave the impression that Priest was writing on the fly, coming up with the plot as she went. Sadly, I found the characters suffered from the same problem; I found them very underdeveloped. They are always reacting, getting thrown about the city by circumstances as though they’ve paid for the tour. I was often confused by a decision, which seemed out of what I’d been able to construct of their character, until I realized that it was necessary to get them to the location of the next adventure, or to show us a new area of the city. (SPOILERS: Even the ending, when Briar and Zeke appear to decide to stay in the city where they’ve been miserable and have spent the last few days in a constant state of almost dying, seemed the author’s romanticised vision of the setting rather than anything the characters themselves would have chosen.)

Many of the side characters seemed interesting at first, until they stuck around long enough for me to realize that Priest had chosen one interesting image for them, and that was it. They had cool armour, or an interesting look, or an implied backstory, but no depth. In fact, the only character that seemed to have any real personality was the setting. Which leads me to the book’s real strength: Seattle.

There were some anachronisms, but the alternate history provided some cover there. I still always enjoy it when books have a sense of place, and the landmark details certainly did that. Priest also clearly put a good deal of thought into how the city might look in the Blight. The ambiance, with the need to wear gas masks and the moaning of the rotters, was fairly well done, and Priest certainly did a reasonably good job of building tension, except that I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. As long as I could tour the setting along with someone, I found that I really didn’t care much if it was Briar/Zeke, or if they were switched out midstream for some other “guide.”

The mechanics of writing were mostly solid, but there were some very odd word choices that threw me. One that stood out in particular was the use of the word “for” instead of something more conventional, like “because.” It’s oddly archaic, and stands out from the text around it. I noticed the same thing in Huntress, and it bugged me there, too.

My final gripe is about the ending. The plot structure is what could be described as an “onion” plot, in which the real goal is the discovery of a piece of information – in this case, what happened with the Boneshaker machine. The question is raised at the very beginning, with a reporter approaching Briar for information, and it is finally answered at the very end. Unfortunately, the answer that had all the characters guessing, and at least one character risking his life and the lives of others to uncover, was almost immediately obvious. I read the whole book knowing the ending’s big reveal, and my disappointment was dampened only by the fact that Priest seemed to care as little about it as I did. Sadly, it came with a missed opportunity, as I think that much more could have been made of the connection between Angeline’s daughter and Briar, if only the characters had had a little more depth to them.

I found this to be a fun fluff book, and the setting is certainly interesting enough to make it worth reading. It could have been a lot better, though, and it’s a shame that the characters and plot weren’t able to better complement the location.

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Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove)

Read: 31 May, 2014

The year is 1602, and the heroes of the Marvel universe have been born in the wrong time.

I’m not the target audience for this book. I’ve never been a fan of superheroes, and I didn’t enjoy Gaiman’s Sandman series (at least not the first one, at which point I gave up). But I’m a sucker for peer pressure, and I was told that I absolutely had to give 1602 a try.

And, I admit, it was pretty interesting. Just from living in a culture where superheroes are talking about, I knew who most of the characters were and I was able to appreciate the reveals of the disguised ones. I also found it quite a bit easier to slip into the world of the story since I was on more solid ground – being better acquainted with Elizabethan England than with Marvel’s modern day world.

Some aspects of the plot still seemed rather absurd to me. Like, what was the whole point of the Watcher getting involved? It felt very much like a Deus ex machina, but with weird rules that didn’t make any sense (Strange isn’t allowed to talk about what the Watcher tells him while alive, so he has to die in order to do what the Watcher wanted him to do, even though everyone seems to have pretty much figured out the solution without the Watcher’s explanation anyway, lolwut?).

Still, the story was compelling, the characters reasonably interesting, and the artwork was enjoyable. I’m not sold on superheroes, but I’m not angry at the person who begged me to read this one.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Read: 6 March, 2014

Mists of Avalon retells the story of King Arthur and his knights, but from the perspectives of the women in the story – Guinevere (called Gwenhwyfar), Mogana le Fey (called Morgaine), and others.

I loved how complex the characters were, and how seamless their transition as they grow older and change their opinions. I loved the religious discussions and the tug-o-war between old and new. I loved getting to hear all the familiar King Arthur stories, but from the perspectives of characters who had always seemed to be on the outside.

It was a long book, and it took a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. I found it exciting and interesting and wonderful and so totally “up my alley.”

I highly recommend this book for its complex and nuanced look at life, religion, gender, sexuality, and so much else.

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Hexslinger #1: A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

Read: 23 November, 2013

When I read the description of A Book of Tongues at the store, I knew I had to get it. Gay cowboy wizards involved with ancient Mesoamerican gods? What’s not to like!

Unfortunately, I just could not get into it. All the elements of a book I’d really like are there, and I found it full of great ideas, but the execution just fell flat. The narrative style was inconsistent, slipping back and forth between modern and Cowboyese. I also noticed several errors – wrong grammatical use, wrong diction, etc – that made the book a hard slog. And while it’s clear that a lot of research was done in the writing of the book, there were a few anachronisms that I found rather jarring (such as one character’s use of the term “glory hole,” which was not used in its present sexual context until much later).

The feverish quality of the narrative meant that I could never get a grasp on the characters – something that’s necessary for me to care what happens next. The entire book read like the weird dream/trance sequences that I always skim through.

All in all, I find myself very disappointed. I love creative magic systems and I just can’t get enough of books that incorporate mythology into their narrative, but A Book of Tongues just did not do it for me.

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