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‘Control Point’ Review

Control Point Review

I’ll open with a spoiler-free (tl;dr) summary of my feelings about the book and then go into more detail (potential for some minor spoiling therein).

ControlPoint_UK_Cover_Final

Précis:

I enjoyed the book. I rated it on Goodreads, and although it deserves more than 3 stars, I don’t think I can give it 4.

I particularly enjoyed the way it challenged and questioned enculturated values. I liked how Cole managed the powers and his action scenes were kinetic and visceral. As a writer I learnt a lot from the way he brought the genres together, forced a collision and made something new from what was there.

I will read the others in the series, and happily recommend the book to fans of comic book superheroes, military fiction and urban fantasy.

Detail:

Control Point is the debut novel of Myke Cole, and the first in a series of “Shadow Ops” novels (of which there are three, with a prequel due out next year). I picked it up because I came to know of Myke Cole through his blog, and through Twitter (@MykeCole). He’s one of those authors who is incredibly interesting when they talk about how they came to be writers and what writing means to them. He offers advice and engages with his fan-base, and his books were recommended or enjoyed by others I trust, and had a good cross-over with other authors whose work I’d enjoyed (Mark Lawrence’s review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/246427711?book_show_action=true&page=1).

Cole is a US Military vet, having served in Iraq, and is currently a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s not a common résumé for Fantasy writers, and the world he has created is not common Fantasy. It has been described as a cross between ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘X-Men’ (by no less a reliable source than Peter V Brett), and you can definitely see the way that the influences of his professional militarism meet his personal geekdoms, with influences apparent from the battlefield, to superhero comics to D&D.

In an unspecified near-future USA there has been an awakening of previously latent powers. People have discovered that they can control elements, or – in rarer cases – exhibit other ‘magical’ powers. This awakening is quickly legislated and the military steps in to attempt control. Oscar Britton begins the novel as a military man charged with controlling (or killing) the awakened latents (selfers), but he sympathises with those he must hunt. When he exhibits powers himself he is faced with an impossible choice, to submit, or to flee.

Cole’s greatest strength is in his world-building. On gross structure this is familiar from any number of superhero origins, but it is in the minutiae that Cole’s world takes shape. Each chapter presents excerpts of speeches, legislation, media, etc from this new world which gives us a better insight into how society has sought to adjust. From this we can hold a mirror to modern cultures. The novel forces us to ask how we balance liberties against regulation, how we respond to de-centralised terrorism, how existing cultural and religious world-views have adapted – some better than others. The heavy-handed government control of the US is more criticised than endorsed. Cole takes an interest in the fictional indigenous of his magical source-world, and his understanding of Islamic and Native American cultures adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise have been a one-dimensional speculation.

That our protagonist finds himself more often opposing than endorsing his government’s militarist approach is particularly interesting, given Cole’s own history. If anything this is overplayed. The gung-ho militarists are obvious antagonists. Unfortunately Britton – our protagonist in this world, from whose perspective it is shown to us and to whose internal monologues we have access – is often a confused and confusing moral compass. Perhaps this puts the need to moralise back on the reader, something with which I am generally more comfortable, and yet the character suffers because of this uncertainty. From the beginning, when teenaged selfers are attacking their school, Britton sides with them over his command structures. This jarred me, as a reader, because the actions of the selfers were unsympathetic – they obviously needed to be stopped.

The pacing is rapid, the novel quite heavily plot-driven. This can mean that the prose is stark and direct, sometimes to the extent that it felt lacking. I think this is a necessary quality of the prose for the story being told, and this was a debut novel, but it makes no claims to high literature. This is fast-moving pulp and should be enjoyed as such.

Similarly, most characters are to be taken on face value, and while some show development and growth many others come into the narrative, serve their purpose, and depart the stage. Many remain archetypes or sketches throughout, and while this is a criticism, I think it’s one that flows inevitably from keeping the plot moving quickly. The character I found most sympathetic was the indig ‘Marty’, and he becomes a key motivation for the protagonist, as well as a key player himself in the build to the climax. Too often I confused characters, or forgot their names, or forgot which call-sign went with which name, etc. In large part this is my failing, but it also suggests perhaps that many of the secondary characters weren’t memorable beyond being a super-power in a uniform.

For Military/Fantasy/Sci-Fi with fast-paced action and a 2nd world twist this is a good series to get into.

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‘Embassytown’ Review

Over on Goodreads I have a review in which I have tried to avoid spoilers. Here I go into more depth and there may be some minor spoilers for several of Miéville’s books, but I think I’ve largely avoided that again. Fairly warned though.

I am unashamedly a fan of China Miéville’s work. Look over to the tag cloud and you’ll see his name boldly prominent. I like to read his books, and I like to talk about his worlds and his writing.

Perdido St and The Scar were both magnificent. They changed the way I understood the Fantasy genre, my understanding of genre as a costruct, and what imagination and creativity really looked like. They opened shackles I’d unknowingly worn since my early-pubescent reading of Tolkein, Feist, et al. Fantasy was no longer the cobbling together of the D&D Monster manual. Fantasy was worlds drawn from a global supply of myth and eons of folklore and it was new things as well like physics and invention and theoretical sciences. The Fantasy hero could be a fat, middle-aged scientist, a bug-headed artist, a surgically enhanced man-dolphin. The Fantasy villain could be a moth, or a mayor, or some trans-dimensional benthic leviathan. That said, I’m not one of those calling for Miéville to return to Bas Lag. I am as interested in where he is headed as where he has been.

I liked Kraken and King Rat. I liked the London it showed me, familiar and strange at once, lovingly recreated and then twisted and shaped by myth and magic. I liked the subversions and inversions of ancient tales, of folklore, of nursery rhymes, of drum and bass. I liked the cross-culturalism of a modern city clashing with the ancient history of place. I liked the urban organic. I liked the religiosity and sociology of these ab-Londons.

Although some I know disliked The City & The City, I found it fascinating and I enjoyed the way that he drew back from what could have been absurdly fanciful and made it more about psychological dissonance, whether imposed or by way of self-discipline. I went away and researched towns with amorphous boundaries and cross/hatching. I developed a different understanding of geography and place. I found Iron Council to be a tough slog. At times it was frustratingly slow and tangential, but it had its rewards.

I was so looking forward to Embassytown: Miéville writing sci-fi, on an alien planet, with a whole alien race – a whole alien city – to create, with the technology for AI and constructs. Miéville exploring the artificiality of language, the interstice of translation, cross-cultural semiotics.

Miéville, sci-fi, linguistics.

What a recipe!

This should have been a book which I loved: brilliantly high-concept, detailed world-building, fascinating originality, clever and witty… and yet I really struggled to stick with it.

Embassytown is far from being a bad book. It is a very good book. Structurally it works well: builds a world, introduces us to characters, makes clear the complicated relationships and politics of people and place, twists and turns through an active plot and leads us to a satisfying conclusion.

I know that Miéville’s prose can alienate some readers, but I am not one such reader. His word-play, and his word creation, are fundamentally attractive aspects of his novels for me. In Embassytown we again have many of his signature phrases, his unique formations and phrasing, his extensive vocabulary, and I loved some of the passages. Miéville made me see the power of the adjective used adverbially when, in Perdido Street Station, a small seedling pushes pugilist through train tracks. It is a technique he continues to use to good effect. The Germanic origins of many of the terms gave depth to the world, but the hearkening to Latin and Greek gave variety. Neologisms of mashed nouns (terretech, citynaut, biopolis) were immediately sensible. The abbreviations (autom, exot, trunc) and others perhaps entirely invented (floaking – a term that has every right to join ‘Grok’ in the vocabulary of geekdom and perhaps beyond) fitted so naturally and seamlessly into sentences that it seemed that they just belonged. The numerator/denominator, cut/turn, expressions of the Hosts and the Ambassadors were a fascinating concept, as was the singular identity in dual physical bodies. I loved immersing myself (pun intended) in the language.

I also share an interest in many of the themes Miéville explored: metaphysics, existentialism, philology, the linguistics, the exploration of truly alien culture and the limitations on cross-cultural communication. The essence of self-hood, explored here through the ambassadors whose singular identity manifests in paired bodies, and names like CalVin and EzRa. The same theme I felt was sadly underexplored through the Automs – Artificial Intelligences whose personhood is hinted at but largely dismissed, most fully realised in Ehrsul. Of all the automs Ehrsul is said to be remarkable, even unique, and yet her narrative arc fades during the second act and is all but absent from the final.

Several characters annoyed me, but most notably Avice and Scile. This is perhaps because of the way the chapters inter-stitch different time periods, cross-hatching the Formerly and the Currently until the two narratives meet and we can finally progress to the finale. This makes Avice seem more inconsistent than she would be on a linear narrative, but even allowing for that I found many of her actions (and inactions) infuriating. Some of the tangents came to overwhelm and distract, there were Chekhov guns which remained loaded and mounted to the wall without ever being taken down or fired. Maybe – likely – this is deliberate. Likely Miéville is knowingly subverting such expectation, is touring us through the world he made so that we might simply enjoy it as an act of creation. He did the same in parts of Perdido, and Scar, and Iron Council, to varying success. He makes Embassytown more central than mere setting, just as New Crobuzon is, or London, or Beza/UlQuoma. To that end he is effective. The immerverse has massive scope for story-telling and an impressive depth beneath what little of it we see. Yet this efficacy comes at the cost of narrative pace and engagement, and for me there were times when the price paid was too great. The pace of the final act is effective, but for much of the middle it is glacial. Slow pace is not inherently a problem, but apparently it was a problem for me in this instance.

I gave Embassytown 3 stars on Goodreads, because for all that was good about it, I did not love it. More accurately, I loved it at times, in passages, intermittently. Other times it wearied me, it dragged, it rambled along and allowed me to follow without my ever really being clear why we were taking these detours. In sections, it floaked.

If you are a fan of China Miéville you should definitely read this. It follows through in detail and sophistication on many of the themes which are closest to his interest. If you are new to China Miéville, or unfamiliar with his brand of Weird / New Weird literature then I’d recommend starting with some of his others before working your way to Embassytown.


True Detective: masculinity, misogyny and monster myths

I have just finished watching True Detective and I intend to discuss it below in a way that will require I give a spoiler alert right here. There’s been a lot said recently about spoilers after a certain someone at a certain royal wedding met a certain fate and the internet went nuts and those people who didn’t want a 15 year old book spoiled for them were understandably upset. So though I don’t intend to deliberately spoil anyone’s enjoyment of True Detective, I’ll probably say something that might. Fair warning then. Spoilers ahead.

For a long time I have held The Wire to be my favourite TV show of all time, and I think there’s a fair stretch of daylight between The Wire and whatever is second. I thought Dexter was a challenger at around the time of Trinity, but it fell away quickly and it fell hard and by the end I hated that dead-beat, lumberjacking cop-out. Oz would be up there. I never quite caught the Breaking Bad addiction to the same extent as many friends did, but it’s clearly very good. Ditto Sopranos. Ditto Deadwood. Then there’s the next tier down where sits the likes of Lost, Walking Dead, first season of Heroes, etc.

True Detective I think is my new 2nd, and it’s closer to The Wire than any of those others came. It is the most stunningly beautiful cop procedural I have seen. The cinematography, the long-shots, the tracking shots, the aesthetic of landscape and urban decay and the people eking out lives of misery and quiet desperation… magnificent. Both leads are tremendous (and the support cast too, but more on that soon), each shed a weight of their parodied past and shouldered instead the gravitas and depth required in a series that relied a great deal on strong performances from its dual protagonists. They delivered. They delivered in spades. Harrelson is great, brooding, childish, petulant, aggressive, assured, fragile, by turns. He inhabits all of these contradictions and owns the physical changes Marty undergoes across the span of 15 years. McConaughey is astounding, and in his ’95 iteration particularly he is nearly unrecognisable but for his voice. I kept having to remind myself who I was watching, and he kept dragging me away from that guy and immersing me in the character.

That guy...

‘That guy’…

But what I feel truly set the series apart from other odd-couple, buddy cop, bromance, procedurals was the philosophical positions expounded by these characters. In his nihilism, his philosophical pessimism, his unflinching honesty-to-self, Rust Cohle brought some interesting ideas to the small screen. The most quoted – most quotable – of these has inspired Tumblrs and Sub-Reddits and all manner of internet discussion, dissection and debate. “Time is a flat circle” explores Nietzsche’s theory of infinite recursion – the thought that most terrified him, among all of the terrifying thoughts he offered. References to “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” made an 1895 collection of short stories an Amazon best-seller.

Those whom I have read dissatisfied or critical of the series complain that after introducing this apparent profundity, this depth of philosophy and thought, this supernatural sense of myth… the finale is unconcerned with addressing those loose ends. I personally don’t think that was a problem. If this is to be understood as a story about Rust and Marty, then their story is told, and wrapped-up, in the finale. It is in some ways a surprising ending, perhaps in that it is so adherent to the buddy-cop formula, perhaps in that it draws a positive conclusion from a previously pessimist world-view, perhaps because it is so deliberately unconcerned with all those things that had the internet speculating, but it is a completion of the narrative.

Questions do abound though:
Who was the King in Yellow? Why was everyone so afraid? Why is the corpse of Errol’s father left just staked out like that? How did the murders go so long unrecognised? What was the role of the Tuttle family? What consequences await the governor? Why was this done in the first place? What religious or spiritual significance was attached to it? The spiral? The ability of DeWall to see Rust’s soul? What is the ‘mask’ Rust wears?

There’s been several articles and posts  about the conclusion. I can see why some feel the need for a more encompassing resolution to these questions, but I think that misunderstands the main theme of the show . This series was not entitled, “The Yellow King”. This was “True Detective”. Rust and Marty are our focus. It is their tale, and with the denouement in the hospital it is completed (although Lauren Davis’ examination of the conclusion as a supernatural victory for the Yellow King was most interesting).

The more complex criticism, and I suspect the more valid, is in the way True Detective treats women.
Kameron Hurley summarised the concerns as I understand them on her website, and her writing forced me to go back to the series and examine just how much I had read it through the lens of straight, white, cisgendered, male; examine just how different it might look through a different lens.

There were several occasions where the series explicitly explored the nature of masculinity. When, having seen only the first two episodes, I was asked by a friend what the series was about, “masculine roles” was my answer. In ep 2

Marty talks about how he differs from his father, how he faces his burdens – is expected to face is burdens – differently. He reveals himself as a man struggling to adapt to a world of shaken patriarchy. His concept of what it means to be a father, a husband, are shown to be hopelessly out-dated. Indeed he uses these concepts to rationalise the most egregious behaviour. His infidelities, he claims, are essential for him to maintain a healthy marriage. As the series progresses he loses control of himself, his family, his wife. The women in his life were all possessions, which he guarded jealously. His wife. His daughters. His mistress(es). He – as he tells Rust – likes to mow his own lawn. When these things are threatened he responds with violence, often shown to be an impotent violence that he knows he cannot realise, at least against those that matter. Against Maggie and Rust he backs down, or in the one fight scene with Rust he knows he cannot win – later accusing Rust of arrogance for holding back. Against ‘lesser’ men (and against boys) he gives his violence fearsome rein. Against women too, slapping his daughter, choke-hold on his wife, he is as much an aggressor as a protector. His insults against women who he feels have wronged him are all sexual. His daughter a ‘slut’, his unfaithful wife a ‘whore’, his mistress a ‘bitch’ whom he will ‘skullfuck’. Marty is a simple man, and undeniably a misogynist.

Rust is different, and less simple, but still has a deeply flawed view of women. Rust is motivated by a woman in the fridge, in this case his daughter. Subsequently he disassociates from women. He is reluctant to engage at all with Marty’s family, and surprised to find it less terrible than he’d feared. He accuses Maggie ‘what have you done’ immediately after their infidelity. He encourages a woman suffering Munchausen’s-by-proxy to suicide. He shows little compassion for the women and girls at the trailer-park ‘bunny ranch’, and what compassion Marty shows he mocks. ‘Is that a down payment?’ (That he later turns out to be correct only serves to endorse the view. Marty’s desire to protect an innocent falls away when he has a chance to be ‘despoiler’. Women, even ‘saved’ women, remain whores, to be bought).  Rust is a misogynist also, even if not as overt. He knows this. He knows that he is not a good man, but believes he is necessary to keep the other bad men from the doors of innocents (women and children – whom no one else seems to miss). He knows he is a dangerous man. He sets himself up as a protector of women and children, though he cannot have either in his own life.

Whether this means that the series itself is misogynist, I’m less certain. I can see the argument, though I’m not entirely convinced. True Detective fails the bechdel test . Maggie is given a role in the narrative (as interviewee) only after they can no longer interview the men, and then she’s only interviewed about the relationship of the men to each other (and what her role in its fracture might have been). Her own arc has some moments of strength and independence, but these are undermined by that final scene of her, with obedient daughters, showing up to offer Marty redemption. That it is too late for that, that he is not redeemed by his delayed heroism, is his tragedy, not hers. The one moment in which Maggie does seize some agency is in her decision to have sex with Rust. Even this, a brief glimpse of her as a decision-maker, as an agent, is in service to the show exploring the relationship between the men.

And yet perhaps that’s the point. Willa Paskin, at Slate, accepts that “mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof…” and yet argues that this is deliberately so, that this ignorance of women is a thematic decision. If it is then it’s an important theme perhaps too subtly played out. True Detective shows the monstrous acts of men: abduction, rape, pedophilia, dismemberment/corpse display… It gives us at the end the catharsis of our (flawed) heroes pass through the labyrinth and defeat the monster at its centre. Errol is clearly a monster. His monstrosity is foreshadowed clearly by Rust in his interview.
And yet what True Detective then ignores is all of the other men in that video, all the others who allowed this to happen, the society that meant women and children could go missing unnoticed, that police would not even search for a child if the orders came from above that they shouldn’t.
It’s this monstrosity, the monstrosity of the normal male, the quotidian masculine assumptions of power and privilege, that are the truly terrifying, and I wonder if by giving us an obvious monster to kill True Detective didn’t distract us from the horror of all those ‘normal’ men who participated and facilitated. It’s something Rust is himself concerned by, expressing his regret on his hospital bed. marty though is satisfied. ‘We got ours,’ he says, and for him that’s enough.

Near where I live a woman was walking home – a short walk, and familiar, along a well-lit and heavily trafficked street – when she was taken by a man, raped, murdered, hastily buried. The man was caught and convicted, sentenced, is imprisoned for his crime. He had a history of sexual violence and that he was free to commit this rape and murder on an innocent woman sent shock and outrage through the community.
As I was drafting this post I became aware of something which the husband of that murdered woman wrote. Despite what he had suffered, despite the genuinely nightmarish monstrosity of the rapist who took his wife from him, this man still has the courage and perception to see how dangerous the myth of the monster is.
Some violence against women is perpetrated by monsters, by Childress and his ilk, but much of it – the overwhelming majority of it – is perpetrated by men like Marty, and perhaps like Rust. Manly men, who struggle to find their place in the world and struggle to understand how to relate to women, or how to cope in the absence of women, or how to curb their desires. Men with double-standards and short fuses and a view of women as possessions or playthings. These men are the real dangers.

And so the one ardent criticism I have to level at one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, is that we too easily identify with, accept, and forgive, the monstrous behaviour of bad, dangerous men.


2013

Well, this year is about wrapped up, and as is the want of the season I figured I’d take a look back and see if I could somehow parse some meaning from all of those events that occurred:

Best Books:

I read some excellent books this year.
Noteworthy was Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country‘, which was much anticipated and lived up to lofty expectations. I really liked the returning characters and the new ones even more so, and Joe’s continuing breadth of hybridised genres remained an invigorating force on my appreciation of modern Fantasy writing.
I also read several of Chuck Wendig’s books. You might have noticed I referenced him repeatedly this year on the blog, and with good cause. I ‘discovered’ his writing through the terribleminds website and his advice to writers, and I’m glad that this led me to his fiction. The Miriam Black books were great. His Corn-Punk YA and Atlanta Burns stories were good excursions into a genre I don’t read enough of, and Blue Blazes was great. I still have a special place for the first of his books that I read though, the tales of Coburn, a vampire who wakes up in the zombie apocalypse and must become a shepherd to his ‘sheeple’

Against this stiff competition though rose Mark Lawrence’s trilogy (Prince, King, Emperor of Thorns). It has caused some controversy in some circles but I didn’t find the protagonist as shocking or evil as some of the criticism would suggest. He wasn’t a good guy, but I think he was trying to be without really knowing how. In that sense he wasn’t so much different from other protagonists I’ve read. He was younger in book 1, but as the book progressed that feature became less pronounced, and given the images of teenage ‘soldiers’ coming out of Syria I had little problem accepting it. The world was interesting, but several queries regarding technology level and such went unanswered. I would happily recommend them and look forward to reading Lawrence’s future works.

Best Graphic Novel:

It’s a small field, as I don’t read too many, but I did finally get around to reading “Red Son”. I’m not really a fan of DC and certainly not of Superman who I think tends to fascistic fantasies of control, or to some infantile desire to be protected and guided by a greater being. I was interested in how the Superman mythos would play out against the Soviet political ideals, and while ‘Red Son’ touched on this paradox it went largely unexplored. In the end I felt that the Red Son Superman was still an American, transplanted into Russia, rather than a full exploration of what a Soviet Superman would truly mean. It was an interesting and thought-provoking read though.

Best Film:

Surprisingly few real contenders here. I saw many of the big ‘tent-pole’ movies and usually came away with mild disappoint. ‘Elysium’ didn’t live up to its aesthetic and tried to sledgehammer me with a political message. ‘Into Darkness’ was silly, burdened by fan-service and more spectacle than substance. ‘Iron Man 3’ had some good sequences but seemed to lose the sense of character. ‘Man of Steel’ did a wonderful job of setting up and re-imagining a familiar origin story, but the Krypton scenes were unnecessary, the whole final act was terrible and Snyder’s misogyny kept rearing up ugly. ‘World War Z’, again, sacrificed story to spectacle. ‘Desolation of Smaug’ looked amazing but was weighed down under its own attempts to be an epic far beyond the proportions of its source material. ‘Pacific Rim’ had awesome robots and kaiju… and that is all. ‘Django Unchained’ was disappointing – particularly in the manner by which it relegated its eponymous character to secondary and tertiary roles when Waltz and DiCaprio were on-screen.

I think therefore that ‘Gravity’ gets the nod. Sure there were problems, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, but it was a great experience. I saw it in IMAX 3D and it was beautifully immersive. I love Cuarón’s long tracking shots and the film’s opening was a wonderful example of how the technique can be well used.

(Special mention to ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ for being an absolutely awesome movie to watch with the kids).

Best Event:

Two great events for me this year as a writer.

Firstly, Genrecon 2013 gave me the opportunity again to meet so many other writers in such a diverse range of specialities, and at different stages in the auctorial development. The panels and workshops were excellent, the community supportive and inclusive, the international guests warm and engaging, the banquet after-party sufficiently well lubricated.

Secondly, I saw George RR Martin and Michelle Fairley in conversation, hosted by the Wheeler’s Centre in a side-show to their Supernova commitments. Michelle was wonderfully entertaining and forthright. GRRM went over some adages with which I was already familiar – it must be tremendously difficult to answer the same questions in new ways – but also added some interesting insights into his process and the story thus far (such as his being uncertain that Bronn would even survive the Eyrie, only to watch as the character became important as a sounding-board for Tyrion, and then important in his own right).

Writing:

I have taken some strides here too, but not as many as I had hoped. I’m much more organised with my submissions tracking spreadsheet and a good list of potential markets to explore (thanks in particular to Peter Ball and Alan Baxter); I pitched my novel MS again and felt a lot more confident and assured in doing so; I have five finished short-stories this year, for a total of about 30,000 words.

I am not unhappy with that, given all of the external pressures on my time, but I want to increase that figure. Alan Baxter estimated himself as having completed over 250,000 words this year and Chuck Wendig has something like 600,000. Chuck’s a full-time pen-monkey, but he has a toddler and I am sure many of the same concerns and excuses that I do, so I’m not going to point at any of those as a way out, I’m just going to look at my 30,000 or so, nod, and acknowledge that I could do more.

2014:

Goals then?

  • To write over 50,000 words in 2014. For those not good on the maths, that’s about 1,000 a week. 200 words a day x 5 days a week. That looks do-able.
  • To have completed 6 short stories. That’s one every 2 months. I’ll need to do this and more to hit the 50,000, so hopefully this is a goal I can meet and exceed.
  • Reading 10 novels. That’s about one very 5 weeks, and I suspect this will be the tough one., because I want to hit this goal without including the reading I have to do for work, but perhaps the work reading will have to contribute.
  • Reading 100 short stories. That’s 2 a week, and I think this is an achievable one. I’ve subscribed to Daily Science Fiction, so even if I just read all of them I will be fine, but I’ll get subscriptions to a few other mags as well so that there’ll be the variety. I’m also reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories for work. I may or may not include these toward my goal.
  • Blogging. 1 post a month, at least, and I ambitiously hope to get one up every fortnight.

So there you have it: 2013 tucked into the past and a clear guiding line through 2014. Thanks for following and being a part of it. I appreciate that there is some sense of an audience out there and it helps me to stay motivated knowing that there are readers waiting.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope it’s been a good ’13 and a great ’14 ahead.


‘The Rook’ Review

(Continuing my re-posting of reviews I have written and previously published elsewhere. Here is my review from last year on Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel)

In the interests of full disclosure I received a free copy of ‘The Rook’ in a greeting bag at Genrecon Australia last year. Every attendee received a book, randomly, from a selection of books by panellists at the con. I got lucky.

This is modern Urban Fantasy with a healthy sprinkling of absurdist humour.

O’Malley gives us a protagonist as unaware of her world as we readers are, having woken up in a park, surrounded by gloved corpses, with no memory, and a letter in her pocket.

“Dear you,

The body you are wearing used to be mine…” And so we begin.

The technique here is to have a narrative in which a series of letters from Myfanwy Thomas provide back-story and exposition, while we follow our amnesiac heroine (and newly made Myfanwy Thomas)as she discovers the strange world into which she has awoken.

And what a strange world it is: a

  •  secret government agency (The Checquey) with super-powered agents combat m

anifestations of the weird, the malevolent and the unusual to keep safe an unwitting British public. The hierarchy of The Checquey borrows heavily from the chessboard, and in this hierarchy Thomas is a Rook. She also discovers that the previous Rook Thomas has been betrayed, by a colleague, and so can trust no one.

O’Malley does a great job of balancing the different strands of the story he tells: The becoming of the new Rook Thomas, the mystery of the betrayer, the conflict with The Checquey’s old enemy. He is also adept at introducing fresh concepts (a multi-bodied consciousness, a restless contortionist, crazed Belgian flesh-sculptors), while giving new life to hoary clichés (A vampire, an amnesiac, a dragon), and keeping everything from taking itself to seriously (with lashings of goo, prognosticating ducks and unintelligible Japanese bodyguards in tartan).

It was certainly a page-turner. Despite it not being a great time for me to be reading at the moment the book kept drawing me back, and I became invested in the characters, particularly the two Myfanwies Thomas, who are well fleshed out and nuanced.

Recommended Reading

(Spoilery critical detail below. Proceed with caution…)

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There was a lot to take in early in the novel, and at times this necessitated info-dumps.  Particularly in the introduction of so many characters so rapidly, it was hard to distinguish the primaries from the secondaries and tertiaries, and so the reader is left trying to store a series of names, connection, descriptions, super-powers, etc… without any real organic introductions. Of course the letters and folder explain all this but…

The technique of having the letters was effective early, when they were short interludes – a page or so at most – but as the letters got longer (whole chapters) I felt they dragged down the pacing of the main narrative. This was especially true in the third act as the new Thomas was coming fully into her power and meeting high stakes, and the shift of gear to the old Thomas’ reminiscences was jarring. I also found at times the coincidence of the letters providing just the salient information at just the right moment was, while necessary, a strain on credulity. I can accept characters who can turn their skin to steel, or who can emit tear gas from their skin, but I struggled to understand why the new Thomas wouldn’t read everything in detail as soon as she could, rather than apparently choosing the letters fortuitously over the course of weeks. I do understand the need for it to be so, but it is perhaps a weakness of the structure that it was.

I really liked the ending, the slight miscalculation of time-frame destroys so many well-laid plans, and if it does all come together a little too neatly (centuries of enmity were put aside a little too quickly, a little too easily) I was prepared to accept it because I like Rook Thomas and was hoping she would succeed.

I was initially a bit sceptical of how the humour would be used, but O’Malley handled it quite well I thought: absurd without being stupid, off-beat without resorting to desperate wackiness.  The fate of the duck was a particular highpoint (though I felt that that chapter should have come earlier, being that it was a long(ish) letter and I just wanted to get back to the main narrative where the new Thomas was imperilled).

All said I enjoyed the book and it drew me in, I came to care about the main character and wanted to keep reading to see her succeed. What better measure of success for an author than to affect a reader so?

I look forward to the rumoured sequel gestating away in O’Malley’s mind. He sure does have some interesting places to go.