Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Perdido Street Station

I thoroughly apologize for the delay. I was snowed in this holiday season and left without my usual set of tools at my disposal. Now, without further ado...

"I remember when The Weaver changed its tastes, it took us three deaths before we worked out what it wanted."
- Mayor Rudgutter

          Hello and I hope you all had a wonderful gift-giving winter festival type thing. I had an eventful one, possibly even an interesting one myself. But before I get too far off track here, let's away into the review and have at it, shall we?
          In every author's body of work, there is always one work that stands as a "breakout". Neal Stephenson had two books published before it, but Snow Crash is the one that seems to stick in everyone's head like a bad pop song. Anthony Burgess is (and he is probably viciously angry about it in his chosen afterlife) best known for A Clockwork Orange despite writing literally hundreds of other books. Neil Gaiman very quietly inched himself along as a journalist, television writer, and short story writer before The Sandman blew him on to the world literary stage. And China Mieville has Perdido Street Station
           The book is a dense, grotesque work, choosing to show not just how one character or a set of characters are affected by the malevolent forces at work, but how the entire city of New Crobuzon is affected-- from the criminals and barflies on the low end of the rung all the way up to the corrupt political offices of Parliament The idea that the problem affects the whole city, as well as the ability to show it, is rare in works, and really marks Mieville's ability, as well as the scope of the novel. It's ambitious, particularly considering this was his second novel. And this book does have it all-- horror, insanity, a well-described environment, tight scenes, and a complex but entirely manageable political structure. So naturally, it has everything that would attract me to it.
           Perdido Street Station begins with an injured birdman named Yagarhek approaching a rogue scientist named Isaac. Isaac does his work in the nebulous field known as "Crisis Physics", a field that seems to involve doing random mad sciencey things to inanimate objects to put them into danger, in the hope that they will release "crisis energy", a force that bends reality itself. Yagarhek has been wounded, you see, and his wings have been severed from his body for a crime he speaks of but that makes no sense, a crime called "Second-degree choice-theft". He commissions Isaac for quite a bit of money to produce new wings or a new flight engine for him to use. Isaac sets about working on the idea of flight, dissecting birds and insects, putting out a general call for anything that he can study, be it larval, pupal, or fully formed. An informant gets some criminals to do the legwork, and one of them brings Isaac a rather large caterpillar that only eats hallucinogenic drugs known as "dreamshit". A caterpillar with a strange and checkered history with certain secret departments inside the Parliament. And when it decides it's time to metamorphose, the city quickly spirals towards disaster, ensuring that no one fully escapes the chaos Isaac's little pet leaves in its wake. 
             What makes this book great is all the care and detail that goes into it. You're dropped into New Crobuzon not as the author feels it out, but as a fully-formed city. Things unfold gradually, but they have the feeling of being established since the word "go". The protagonists don't initiate things so much as simply speed them along with the monkey wrench of the escaped moth and their subsequent quest to figure out exactly what it is and what it's doing in the city. A city that's explored in more detail than necessary, even-- every corner of New Crobuzon is given almost a page of description, such as the disgusting Remade, a class of criminal whose crimes were so heinous that through a mixture of thaumaturgy and sorcery they have been turned into grotesque walking art exhibits, the tamest of which would be the child-murdering mother who had her infant's limbs grafted on to her face, or maybe the informant who had his mouth sealed over. The moths (yes, plural) and their completely alien design are another example of too much information, but all of it makes a complex and almost independently intelligent setting-- malevolent, given that pretty much everyone is corrupt, but complex and independent nonetheless.
                In terms of morality, Perdido falls slightly towards the "Richard Kadrey" side of the sliding scale, though this is by no means a failing. The characters are flawed, but since we spend time with each of them (save for the freakish moths), we get to understand why they do the things they do. The heroes are a particularly good example of this, as while Isaac is a moral and ethical void that rivals other mad scientists of the genre, he realizes when things have gone too far and tries to halt the vicious mechanism he gave birth to in the first place. Isaac serves as a hero who slowly realizes what is going on around him is wrong, leading to several moments of genuine emotion and growth. The other characters, as well, start out in their initial stiff archetypes, as one would find in such books as Ghosts of Manhattan, but soon they grow and twist out of their initial roles and come into their own. By the end, you know who they are and why they do what they do, because their setting and their personal growth all inform what they have become. The final scenes show Isaac having grown but at the same time realizing that he, despite all his imaginings otherwise, is still human and still gets his share of bad fortune at the very end of things. While he triumphs, there is sacrifice.
                 I suppose if I had any bones to pick with the book, it would be that there are points where the book definitely drags. Yes, the politics are all important, yes we need to see everything because it's really about the city, but they should be quicker. Hit-and-run and get back to the plot at hand. The way they are now, they provide valuable and (here's that overused word again) detailed insight, but it's too much at times. Also, once again, Mieville lets his setting run away with the book, allowing the city to at times overwhelm its inhabitants. In the end, though, these small quibbles actually work in the book's favor for the most part. 
                 Yes, in the end, this is a fantastic book, much better than Kraken, his later outing, which tried to do the same thing but in a modern-day setting. Mieville's world-building skills are unmatched and unrivaled, and his instincts are fantastic. With New Crobuzon, Mieville creates a disgusting but beautiful and intriguing world, and with his story full of creepy, arcane systems and mechanisms, he creates the perfect play for its stage. This is one worth buying and reading over and over again, a thoroughly enjoyable work that marks a fantastic creation from a fantastic author.

Next week: Steampunk Month comes to a close with a review of The Steampunk Trilogy by the remarkably strange Paul DiFilippo, and I do the best books (new and old) that I've read this year, possibly on video. Have a great New Year's!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

"Burton! This is all your fault! Do what you're supposed to!"
- Spring Heeled Jack

              When Barry Hughart was writing his classic novel Bridge of Birds, he says that he had "A lot of cool ideas, but when I took a look at it, the book wasn't really about anything. So I put it in a drawer...and then it dawned on me-- this book should be about love. So it was, and the rest of them were, too." And that's the sense I get from Mark Hodder's book The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack-- it should have been about something. Oh, granted, the plot is fun, and there are a lot of great ideas, but it doesn't seem to have any grounding, which is kind of important to any plot. And it's a shame. A quick glance at the other reviews on this site would tell you I really should have liked this book a lot more than I did. The author is well-read and knows what he's doing, the steampunk ideas he integrates are really original, with eugenics and magic being mixed in with all the rest, but the way he presented things fell short and definitely didn't do justice to any of the concepts he was introducing. 
               I'll explain: The plot takes place in a Victorian England, but not the Victorian age we know so well. No, due to something happening, it has veered wildly off course. Eugenicists breed talking dogs and parakeets who relay messages, there are subway and elevated rail systems running throughout the country, and various other morally and ethically removed elements are becoming commonplace. Into this strange world walks our hero, Sir Richard Francis Burton, a man who has spent much time exploring abroad and has returned to debate his onetime friend, John Hanning Speke, over the source of the Nile, or at least is supposed to until Speke shoots himself in the face. Shortly after that, Burton is accosted by a man wearing springlike stilts on his feet, and shortly after that is offered the chance to become the King's Agent and figure out why London is being plagued by red-robed, spontaneously combusting werewolves. With him are poet and masochist Algernon Swinburne, the corpulent DI Trounce, and a rather bizarre cast of characters, almost all of whom are taken from British history. For some reason, the strange figure who assaulted Burton, a man nicknamed "Spring Heeled Jack", keeps talking about how the natural order of history is upset, and Burton must get to the bottom of all these mysteries to protect the crown and country.
               The problems with the book come in when the setting overwhelms the plot and characters. Mark Hodder has done himself a great disservice here, as in setting up his world as an alternate history to ours (the ultimate culprit is a time traveler who made one fatal mistake and is trying to reintegrate himself into existence) he has cast fictional versions of real people (with one major exception) to carry out his plots. Had this been an adventure story with characters completely separate from history, elements of it would not have been quite the same, but the setting would have been served better. Hodder obviously has a great deal of potential as a writer, but at the same time, his sense of play and his need to treat historical figures like his own personal action figures drags everything down. Burton is a fantastic protagonist, sharing his bloodline with such great fictional detectives as Sexton Blake and Sherlock Holmes with his mastery of disguise, mesmerism, and the sword; the problem lies in his being an actual person and thus being dwarfed by the setting at hand. Hodder wants to explore the future of this timeline and the people in it (Oscar Wilde shows up as a nine year old newsboy for almost no reason but to be there.), but seems to have less commitment to the plot. The book suffers for this in gross quantities, eventually toppling under the weight of its own cool ideas by the end (though the character of Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a massive steampunk robot octopus is actually kind of funny). 
               That isn't to say that the plot isn't interesting. While the first few chapters start off slowly, the first and third sections of the book are intriguing and gripping. Watching Burton and Swinburne run down leads in a succession of pub crawls and fights is a lot of fun to watch, and while the action flags, they are brief moments between a lot of truly fantastic seqences. The Battle of Old Ford (which makes up all of the climax) is handled not from the overhead perspective Stephen Hunt favors, but from a more personal level as Burton and Trounce smash and slice their way through the ground troops of the villainous Mr. Belljar (an orangutan with a brain in a jar on his head in a nice nod to Murders of the Rue Morgue and simultaneously '50s horror) and his army of sinister Libertines. The titular Spring-Heeled Jack is handled with just the right amount of pathos in his sections, and they would be interesting on their own, but in the end they serve mainly to slow the story to a crawl right before the big climactic airship (you knew that was coming) battle with Mr. Belljar and the bloated, two-brained grotesquerie that is Charles Darwin. The ending pathos and moral choice made by Burton are emotionally tugging, and the book even shines through in some moments with some pitch black humor. 
               I suppose the problem with the book is that Mark Hodder tried to write two books and smoosh them one, Burton and Swinburne must stop an evil and insane cabal in an adventure reminiscient of Mark Frost's The List of 7. In another, a time traveler must stop his ancestor from assassinating Queen Victoria, or alternately find some way to reintegrate himself into the timeline. While the interesting central idea is what makes the book turn and gives it focus, the problem is that the two halves don't really fit together. One should be separate from the other entirely. Put together, both elements which would have been strong on their own are weaker until the final scene, where Burton (after being told he has to make a choice) decides "I like the world I live in now.", a moment both touching and intriguing in its own way. Better yet, perhaps he should have tried to find an illustrator and do a half-guidebook, half-story novel about the way his Victorian society is different from now, a la James Gurney's excellent (so excellent George Lucas repeatedly poached from it) Dinotopia. Instead, what we get is a work chock-full of ideas, but none of which connect.
                   In the end, the book is definitely worth a read if you enjoy steampunk, or even just strange science fiction or fantasy literature. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack isn't as good as, say, The Court of the Air or The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (which handled a similar story much better, though it had its own set of problems), but while I would caution one not to buy it, I do give it a mild recommendation. It's an okay book, though not good or great, and it makes me want to see more of Mark Hodder's work, though hopefully separating his writing from his history. 

Next Week: In what seems to have become Steampunk Month (despite that slight sidestep for the Richard Kadrey novel), the more grotesque and insane side of the genre is shown with one of China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, Perdido Street Station, or perhaps The Scar. See you then.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kill The Dead

"Imagine shoving a cattle prod up a rhino's ass, shouting "April Fool!", and hoping the rhino thinks it's funny. That's about how much fun it is hunting a vampire."
- James Stark             

             Over the past two years, I've had a ton of respect for Richard Kadrey. He's worked with bizarro authors, crafted noir stories that really feel like they're borne out of the mean, gritty streets they take place on, wrote some pretty cool cyberpunk, done "fetishistic photography" (his words) on the side, and he dragged the urban fantasy genre kicking and screaming back to its initial roots in shades-of-grey morality and a world where everything isn't romantic and fraught with relationship drama. Sandman Slim, as some may remember, is a favorite book of mine, for the reason that it moves quickly, slams into its intended climax with the grace and energy of a freight train helmed by John Woo himself. Butcher Bird is an equally awesome novel, one that takes the "one last heist" concept and sets it in a grotesque mishmash of worlds and ends in a literal trip through Hell. Kill The Dead tries to be a worthy successor to that legacy and...isn't.
               Kadrey still blows the other mooks out of the water when it comes to urban fantasy detective fiction, but Kill The Dead finds James Stark much in the same straits one finds the novel: Without a purpose, drifting from familiar haunt to familiar haunt, playing at working for the Golden Vigil, a bunch of overarmed and underinformed Homeland Security dicks whose sole purpose seems to be to play right-wing strawmen. Things get off to a cracking start with Stark taking down a pod of teenage vampires, including a blond schoolgirl with a flamethrower. This gives him a small amount of comfort, because Homeland Security decides to take taxes and Social Security out of his paycheck, and he goes back home, where his former friend and onetime enemy Kasabian tells him that Lucifer has a job for him. Stark accepts, and becomes Lucifer's bodyguard while the Prince of Darkness tries to get his biopic made. But with the streets filling with zombies, the vengeful angel Aelita after him, and members of the magical underground vanishing left and right, Stark will have a lot to contend with if he ever wants to collect his next paycheck.
                 I suppose the problem with the novel is simply that it picks up almost directly where the last one left off. Mason is still down but not out, Aelita is still calling Stark a freak of nature, Ghost-Alice is still haunting Stark, and the whole thing has a downbeat tone. This isn't a sequel, this is someone writing the buildup to a sequel. Stark's renewed sense of purpose doesn't kick in until the last third or so, and the whole book ends on a cliffhanger, so not even that went anywhere. While there are some cool fight scenes, including Stark and a Czech porn star ripping zombies limb for limb, the book's momentum is choppy. No longer do we have the smooth (if formulaic) transitions between fight scenes and Stark adjusting to the world that moved on while he was stuck in, now we have a bunch of uptight magic Angelenos hanging around Lucifer while Stark tries and fails to make sense of an electronic cigarette. Allegra, the uninitiated alchemist from the first book, is easily the best thing about it, and a book about her, written in sort of a "this is House with magic and with absolutely none of the slimy residue Olivia Wilde leaves on everything she touches" way probably would have worked better for this transitional material, leaving the writer with only the problem of transitioning back to Stark for the big nasty fight scenes. 
                  The characters are still strong, though...Lucifer comes through as some kind of pretty-boy, but one that's well able to handle himself, especially as seen when he takes down a hit squad with two massive, flaming swords. That's right, he's so special he gets two gladii instead of one. Allegra has matured nicely, as have Kinski and Carlos the bartender. And so has Stark. Which makes me pause. Yes, of course Stark should mature. That's the whole point. But Stark is an anachronism, a leather jacket-wearing bastard in a century of touchy-feely types who know they need him, they must trust him, because he's the man separating them from the dark. And I understand that his scars have to heal up because there needs to be that element of risk to the whole thing, but the direction Stark is doesn't feel like Stark. This isn't the man who told the head of the Sub Rosa to fuck themselves, this is that man plus thirty years. 
                     And finally, why invalidate plot points as soon as they're brought up? If Stark is part angel, and that's why he heals from whenever someone tries to kill him, why, exactly, does that stop happening now? If the Vigil has a supernatural terrorist list, why haven't they acted on it until now? All of these questions pop up suddenly to create false and inflated tension in the work. While the fight scenes are still crisp, they no longer function as well. While the descriptions and the tough talking are cool, they all seem rather hollow. In the end, Stark walks off to Donut Universe once again, but it doesn't seem as right or as okay. 
                        In the end, I hope Mr. Kadrey writes another Sandman Slim book, one that helps tie this one up. It's a good transitional sequel, but it's nowhere near the end the series deserves, or even a complete book. It's a mess, a strange half a book that runs on too long, and nowhere near as up to par as the first one. It's still head and shoulders above the other fantasy crime novels of the genre, but for a man who writes as god damn flawless as Richard Kadrey has in the past, it's a step down and a definite disappointment.

Next Week, we return to steampunk with The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder.

The Automated Alice

"And until the end of her days, Alice was never sure whether she was the real Alice..."
- Jeff Noon

           The first time I read a Jeff Noon book, it was how it should have been-- out of the blue. He writes in a trippy, stream of consciousness style that seems to discard both conventions and even the narrative tricks of his predecessors. What he writes are books of style and very strange substance that occurs out of that. He "remixes" his short stories as odd poems, writes in a made-up language peppered with infodumps disguised as press releases, and once wrote a novel where one of the main plot points boiled down to "Numbers have sex for the benefit of rogue mathematicians". In short, where there is weird, Jeff Noon only makes his first port of call. 

This is the man who wrote a "trequel" (his own name for the third book in a series) to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

Okay, back to live action.

              The story begins with Alice trying to finish her jigsaw of the London Zoo as her Great Aunt Ermintrude calls for her so the two of them can start a lesson on the usage of the ellipse. Due to Alice's naturally odd nature and impulsiveness, she gives in to an urge to let her aunt and uncle's parrot, Whippoorwill out of his cage. Whippoorwill then flies around the room, despite Alice's best efforts to get him back in, and into the grandfather clock, where he vanishes out of sight. Alice, desperate to recapture him before her Great Aunt can find out, follows him through the workings of the clock, emerging in a "computermite mound" in far-future Manchester. From there, she embarks on a rather odd journey to get home by two o'clock in her own time, find all the missing pieces of her London Zoo jigsaw puzzle, and capture the troublesome parrot. But future Manchester is a terrible place, filled with creatures like the "Civil Serpents", snakes who believe in absolute order and bureaucracy, and a race of people affected by a disease known as "Newmonia" that scrambles their genetic code and makes them anthropomorphic. Plaguing the city is someone known as the "Jigsaw Murderer", who is killing people by reorganizing their parts in the wrong ways. Before her journey is over, Alice will have been swallowed by a snake, solved the murder, and met a robot exactly like her, as well as finding out the true use for an ellipsis.
                  I can't really apply my usual method to this one. While I could talk about the characters, they're little more than concepts used-- the two main characters are Alice and a robot statue of Alice named Celia. The rest is a landscape of puns, both visual and textual, and the feel of the book is right along with the original source material. Noon definitely knows what he's doing, and his faithfulness towards Lewis Carroll and his work-- both historically and in a literary sense. Overall, there is a sense of fun that permeates the novel. Noon had fun writing this and playing with the various aspects of modern society: Bureaucracy, entertainment, and even modern art and music are poked fun of in a manner of ways, from director "Quentin Tarantula" to the overly-saccharine nature of the kiddie "lantern shows". 
                   What really makes the book what it is, though, is the sense that you're reading another Alice book. The illustrations look like they've been cribbed from John Tenniel, the illustrator for the actual Alice In Wonderland books, and even the writing, when Noon decides to leave the fourth wall intact, follows the stilted but very pleasant prose. And what really pushes things over the edge is when it starts to slip. You see, Automated Alice plays fast and loose with even its own reality. At times, despite the pleasant prose, things happen oddly. For example, why is it Alice knows who Charles Dodgson, the mathematician and creator of her books, is? And furthermore, is she dead, trapped in unreality, or some odd combination of those things? When Noon really starts to explore all the aspects of Alice and Alice's reality, he really proves he's definitely done the research into the character. After all, this is a book about Alice, in all her various forms (yes, even automated), and as much about how the character is and came to be as it is about what goes on in the story.
                       The only problem is that Noon has too much fun. As in way too much. Be it his ponderings on his place as the author (he shows up as a character), his "or is it?" ending, the metafictional way he goes about things, or the oh aren't I so clever jabs at quantum physics and the like. Eventually, it just gets kind of annoying, though never terribly so. The action also seems beside the point given the metafictional nature of the work, though given last week's entry, the fact that it occurs organically from the story, rather than occurring in spite of the story is a massive plus. Personally, I think the metafiction doesn't distract too much, but the whole business is a little too silly, a little too tongue-in-cheek. It's like an essay couched in the terms of a narrative story or something. Furthermore, the connections to other books are a little too obvious and silly at some points, referencing things from other books he wrote. They kind of get in the way.
                        But without these touches, or even if you manage to look at the work as a fiction story instead of an exploration of reality, the book is fantastic. It's a fun little story that manages to stay true to its own roots, and at the same time bring Jeff Noon's own psychotic touches and weirdness overload to the forefront. It's well worth a read, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, even if I'm not quite able to discuss the plot elements without getting into the whole "fourth-wall" nature of the book. It's worth reading, especially if you enjoy surrealism and the Alice books by Lewis Carroll. Definitely give this one a look.

Tomorrow: The return of the Monster Who Hunts Monsters, James Stark, in Richard Kadrey's Kill The Dead.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ghosts of Manhattan

So, due to two back-to-back spontaneous vacations, this blog wound up on hiatus for too damn long. I will be posting three reviews in the next few days. Hope you enjoy and sorry I kept things in suspense.

"He was going for a gun. we do it your way."
- Detective Donovan

        I hate it when a reviewer starts out a dissenting review with "I tried to like this book, I really did." It's been used sincerely, and I respect people who can, but it's also one of those things people use on Amazon (which has a level of intelligent discourse like the infinitely more infamous XBOX Live only with people reviewing books instead of playing Halo and Battlefield) when they want to say "Hey, I'm on your side, so take this bad review of a book seriously!" along with "I've been a fan of (Insert genre/author here), but this is..." and trashing the book. 

        The problem being, I really should like Ghosts of Manhattan. It's a superhero story set in a steampunk version of the pulp era. There really isn't another alley that one could say was mine...I'm a huge fan of steampunk, Boardwalk Empire, The Shadow, and detective stories. On top of that, George Mann is a widely acclaimed author whose book The Affinity Bridge is considered a classic of the genre. But Ghosts of Manhattan, to put it mildly, is ridiculous crap. And with a declaration like that, I'm prepared to back it up. So, without any further ado, let's get to it.

         Ghosts of Manhattan is the story of a steam-powered version of Manhattan-- Cars have funnels on them, airships dot the skies, and holographic advertisements are common. Think a futuristic city, but done completely with retro overtones. In this city, the main antagonist is a crimeboss known only as The Roman, a man who inexplicably seems to do a decent share of his own dirty work and leaves a pair of denarii on the victims' eyes as a calling card. His right hand man, Gideon, holds sway over New York City with a supercharged (we know this because it has three funnels on it. Three!) car, an army of moss golems, and a custom-made pistol. Opposing him are the one honest cop in the city, a lounge singer with a secret (of course), and the hero known as "The Ghost", a technological genius and former war vet. Also embroiled in the mess is Gabriel Cross, a wealthy playboy and you can see where this is going from there. The Roman turns out to be a threat to all existence with some unsettling ties to otherworldly powers (of course), and The Ghost, the lounge singer, and the Honest Cop(tm) must band together against the forces of darkness to save the city and perhaps the world (of course). 

             I suppose the first problem with this Lovecraftian abomination of a book is that it insults the reader's intelligence. To give an example, let's start with the character of The Ghost. Here we have someone like Bruce Wayne, with one difference: Everyone knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. People who haven't even seen or heard much about Batman know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. It goes without saying. That's part of writing about superheroes-- you let the reader in on the game early and then you let them tag along to interesting places after that. 

              So why the hell would George Mann, in creating a Batman-style character, want to try and mislead everyone into thinking that the billionaire playboy war vet isn't the masked superhero raising hell and shooting lethal explosive darts into mobsters' heads? I mean, he could be trying to be original, but come on-- when there's a superhero and there's a billionaire playboy with some questionable nighttime activities, everyone knows the score. No, I believe that George Mann just thinks his entire readership is dumber than primordial syrup and is willing to believe that they're different people until the big reveal comes up to shock and surprise them. In this regard, Mann is like a magician who very obviously palms a coin and then tries to explain it as magic when he pretends (with an equally obvious motion) to pull it out of someone's ear.

                Constant readers (few of you that there are) might remember in this review, I stated that steampunk was

  "...a pretty easy job: Just throw around some robots with boilers and some higher technology, and suddenly, boom. Instant steampunk book. Bonus points if you use the word "airship" twice in the same chapter.

 No one should have any problem with this, normally. After all, it's kind of how the genre works. Nothing wrong with the genre working, right? Well, it's a little harder than I originally outlined. You see, the setpieces and props have to actually connect to the story, not exist in spite of it. It's insulting to write a story with a cool setting and then barely use the setting in places here and there. Yes, the Ghost uses a flechette gun, jet boots, and some pretty cool goggles, and the "holotubes" are a nice touch, but everyone else uses a regular ol' gun, and even the cars are fairly par for everything, save Gideon's. In other words, Mann takes my earlier description of steampunk writing and absuses it like a redheaded stepchild to such a degree that once again, it's like he's insulting the audience. That sort of lazy, dishonest behaviour simply won't cut it. No author should ever treat his readers like this. 

                        The characterization is terrible, too. Those archetypes I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that's the whole character for each of those. It's like the writer went through a list of every possible trope they could and took the basest possible meaning for each. (The links, in order, are the hero of the piece, the lounge singer girlfriend (or at least her secret), the honest cop (tm), Gideon, and The Roman) What makes it worse is that the hero is named Gabriel Cross, and one of the villains is Gideon Reece, which leads to some confusion, given the biblical names that begin with G and the fact that their first names are mentioned far more than their last names. These are not interesting people, or even fully-formed characters. They are stand-up carboard cutouts that move and talk vaguely like people. They are fucking pod people. This is not what an author does. This is what a lazy mouth-breather with a book to write does.

                     Without any characterization, the plot can boil down to "people run around a city, doing random crap and hoping it makes sense to anyone". There's even a biplane chase scene in the final third of the novel. The idiot screwed up a biplane chase. When it happened, I had to stop and wonder "Huh. What the hell is this doing in here? It's screwing up the book." I then went on to wonder exactly why a biplane chase had materialized out of thin air, instead of occurring organically in the novel itself. I never wonder what an action sequence is doing in a book. That's part of what I like about books-- the action sequences. Those nervous moments between characters and how they react to things. 

                      And speaking of missed action sequences, the climax is, pardon my language, shit. It is the syphilis-infected needles on a junk heap of disgusting offal that I refuse to get into the specifics of  in such a classy and respectable establishment as this blog.  The massive doomsday portal had a gigantic "OFF" switch all the heroes seem to miss until after the big world-destroying creature was summoned, the love interest is sacrificed for no reason other than she said so earlier and the plot wants to make her carry through with it, and the villain who has been set up for the better part of two hundred pages is offed from behind. By a single bullet to the head. After previously wiping the floor with Our Hero. That shouldn't happen. Once again, it's the mark of a lazy author when the villain's henchman is given a much bigger (by an exponential magnitude) sendoff than anyone in the book and the head villain is given a bullet in the head in the basement. That there was a massive and horrifying event before it does not clear this of an anticlimax.

                         I suppose there are good things here and there...the ideas presented are interesting, and this had the potential to be a really cool steampunk superhero pulp kinda story. If it wasn't lazy, insulting, and not worth the paper that it was printed on. And some day I will find George Mann, and after I quiet the urge to smash in his face and sensitive private areas for writing such offal, I will buy him a drink and explain to him exactly how offended I am by his travesty of a novel, and how he, long considered an author of note and merit in the field, has let me down. Then I will probably storm off. 
                         For those of you who decided to skip the large reams of scathing invective and insight, I did not like this book. In fact, I do not even  I do not recommend it to anyone, nor would I ever. Avoid it at all costs. That this even was published by a decent fantasy book outlet makes me weep for the publishing industry and apprehensive about what quality books we are getting in the age of ebooks, self publishing, and the like. It's boring, insulting, forced, and none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. There's a plot in there, but not one anyone would feel particularly obligated to follow. Please, please avoid this book. For my sake if not for yours.

Tomorrow: We continue in the vein of strange worlds and stranger technology with Jeff Noon's The Automated Alice, which is better than this, I promise you. 
Friday: A return to Richard Kadrey's L.A. Antihero Stark with Kill The Dead
Next Week: We return to normal schedule with The Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I am visiting friends this weekend, so the update may not come exactly this weekend. Go enjoy time with your families and whatnot. I'll probably have it up when you're back. 


Friday, November 19, 2010

Life's Lottery

"Go to 0"
"And So On"
- The Narrator

            I have no idea how I found this book. Seriously. I mean, I've always been a fan of Kim Newman, as he seems to be one of the few (very few) people to criticize horror movies and not have his head wedged firmly in a rather unpleasant orifice. He also did vampires in a very chilling, blackly comic style with his Anno Dracula novels, which essentially tell of a world where vampires rule everything and humans (both sides being a mixture of fictional, historical, and classic characters) either live as the oppressed masses, or are put into prison camps. I've also been a huge fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, having played them throughout my childhood and even into high school. So I suppose it was only a matter of time, but somehow, this one just fell into my lap and I immediately ordered it off of Amazon. It took me a little while to find it, because I don't think it was released over here (could be wrong about that one) and it's definitely out of print. What pisses me off about that is that there's an incredible market for adult Choose Your Own Adventures in the US, where we kind of look on that sort of thing with rose-colored nostalgia, and a bunch of publishers said "mmmnope, this'll never sell." 

             So yes. Life's Lottery is a Choose Your Own Adventure book for adults, divided into three hundred separate sections. In it, you drop into the head of one Keith Marion. Keith is a fairly average person. He does have a love of pirates and gets better grades in school, but other than that, he's fairly normal. You play through his life several times, making choices each time, always the same way-- in The Man From UNCLE, a classic spy series, does he prefer Ilya Kuryakin, or Napoleon Solo? It's this choice that spins off wildly, from kidnapping schemes to becoming a punk rock record producer, to fighting a large variety of enemies, from body snatchers to things that are better left unsaid and discovered.

           Except...except there are things that keep popping up. Little, offhand things. Who is Derek Leech, for instance, and why does it seem like he owns everything? What's with section number eight and why is it so ominous? And what's with all the spiders? And then there are the sections you can't get to when "playing" the book "properly". Like the section where two doctors talk about Keith having some kind of syndrome (Note: This isn't a spoiler, this is something you can discover fairly early fact, the book tells you the section is there). 

             Life's Lottery is exactly as it appears to be, but on another level, it's not. What it is and what you discover will be entirely up to you...if you decide to read the book beginning to end, you'll have just as interesting time, though the narrator seems to chide you for taking that path...he chides you for a lot of things, actually, as if he has a vested interest in keeping you playing the book a certain way. And, since the narrator is the one relaying all the events to you, everything kind of takes on a nice, chummy flavor. After all, it's in the narrator's best interest to keep you playing. He's got his own reasons and means for doing so, and occasionally will direct you away from areas he'd rather you not be. The narrative voice is really what carries the piece, as it kind of has to. Keith doesn't say very much, aside from those times where you have to choose something for him to say, and the other characters, while well fleshed out (after all, they stay with you from childhood to adulthood), tend to be shadowy-- they're merely other people in Keith's life. Some of them will stay, others will not. 

              The other thing that makes the novel really good is the sense that there is always something more to discover. I've "played" through it several times, once reading the alternate sections, and it's the sense of discovery. You play through it once, you get one possible set of paths. That's fine. You play through again, you get different paths, and different branches. After all, there are three hundred sections, each with their own endings. Only two, however, let you "win". The others say things like "And So On", or my favorite, the one that signals every death you may encounter: "Go to 0." On the way to any number of these paths, the realities of Derek Leech, the mysterious spiders, and even the possibility that you may be playing these lives out simultaneously, with different names taking the place of different versions of you. 

                 I will say this book is not for everyone. Some sequences drag just a little, and others tend to leave you in weird places. You may find the book's secrets distracting, or stupid, and wonder "why did I get through all those pages just to have a reveal like that?" It's experimental to a certain degree, in that every story in it is part of a larger story that you can either take or leave, depending on your view, so if you don't enjoy experimental books, or books that don't have a purely narrative thread, I wouldn't completely recommend it. It's also not very substantial at first glance. Keith isn't exactly a main character that pops off the page, as you're supposed to fill in the blanks. The stories are nice, but feel a little on the light side sometimes, too.

                      But in the end, the book is a whole load of fun. Unlike many books of its kind, it is one you can come back to again and again...maybe you'll discover something different as you read and re-read it, maybe you'll just enjoy it for being a Choose Your Own Adventure book that takes a decidedly odd direction with its concept. Either way, you should find a way to get it and read it, because I guarantee you will never find any other book like it on earth. It's imaginative, inventive, and yes, a little twisted and macabre, and the ride is well worth it.

And So On.

Next Week: A return to the wild world of Steampunk with George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan

Saturday, November 13, 2010

As an added bonus: Tom Waits!

This is the song that acts as a sort of leitmotif in Sandman Slim, and works as a good tone-setter for the book's film-noir tone. So I thought I'd put it up as a nice addition to the review. The video isn't mine, but I like it.

Sandman Slim

"L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crack off of Jim Morrison's bones. If the Viagra and the illegal Traci Lords videos don't get you, then the Japanese tentacle porn will. New York has short con cannibals and sewer gators. Chicago is all snowbound yetis and the ghosts of a million angry steers with horns like jackhammers. Texas is criscrossed with ghost railroads that kidnap demon-possessed Lolitas to play strip Russian roulette with six shells in the chamber. L.A. is all assholes and angels, bloodsuckers and trust fund satanists, black magic and movie moguls with more bodies buried under the house than John Wayne Gacy. There are more surveillance cameras and razor wire here than around the Pope. L.A. is one traffic jam away from going completely Hiroshima."
- James Stark

                 I have a secret. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, I always wanted to grow up to be Philip Marlowe. Or not even Marlowe, but just someone with that same hard-boiled attitude and dedication to what is right at any costs. Spade, you see, would get the job done. Marlowe would do the right thing, even if it meant the job went to crap. He rarely ever got the girl, the money, or anything more than beat senseless. But things were done right. He survived, he fought, and he always wound up doing the right thing. It was someone I could look up to when I was younger. So when something has that distinct, gritty film-noir flavor, it's already got me hooked. This has led me from good things, like Garrett and Nightside to bad things, like some of the more moronic cyberpunk novels, to weird things, like Crooked Little Vein. 
                 At the same time, I've always had a love of urban fantasy, starting with the book Dark Cities Underground. Urban fantasy seemed darker, somehow, and nastier...more concrete. Interestingly, I seem to have sidestepped most of the modern connotations of urban fantasy, and gone more for the weird ones. And believe me, or maybe just believe the quote above the text of this review, this is a weird one indeed. 
                 Sandman Slim begins with James Stark, the antihero and our protagonist, being spat out of Hell and into a garbage pile. He immediately punches out a man described as a "Brad Pitt lookalike" and grabs his clothes and stun gun. After being stuck in Hell for almost a decade, he's managed to escape and is looking very hard for the people who sent him there in the first place. Within short order, he clears out a bar full of skinheads, finds one of the mages who got him dragged off to Hell, endures several gunshots to the chest, and slices his head off (It's okay, he survives). Stark wastes no time telling everyone he's back home with large, explodey signals, drawing the attention of more than just the mages he's come to kill. Enemies and friends begin charging out of the woodwork as it turns out that Stark's vengeance may not just satisfy his urge for blood, but success may mean saving the world itself. But to finish things off, Stark will have to contend with a Homeland Security-funded angel, satanist skinheads, a sadistic race of dead celestials known as the Kissi, and his archnemesis, the charismatic Mason.
                   What I like most about the book is the feel. It's a good read, but it's a very uncompromising one. Stark is very much on the darker side of the heroic scale: a brutal, caustic man who will finish his quest at any cost, and damn the implications and results. In one of two large, explosive setpieces, Stark destroys a block of Los Angeles fighting with his adversary, Parker. He does not apologize for this act, nor does he seem to feel any regret or remorse, other than letting Parker get away more or less intact. Where most books would be engulfed by their secondary elements (such as romance or fantasy lore subplots) or try to make their hero seem good despite it all, Slim goes the opposite route. Stark isn't any better than the denizens of LA, but his motives are a little more pure. He's a monster, but he's needed because the monsters he fights and kills are ten times worse. In short, Kadrey has taken the crime fiction idea of an antihero back to its roots-- a criminal who does the right thing to further his own motives, rather than to further the greater good. 
                       Another element I like is the way Kadrey sets up his scenes and characters. He has a good grasp of the dialogue, from the tough-guy phrases snarled by the hardened Stark to the down-home platitudes of the Homeland Security chief. He also has a good grasp of set pieces. The climactic battle in a rather twisted specialty nightclub feels like it could have been ripped straight from John Woo, with its gunplay and theatrics. The broad-daylight battle with Parker could have easily fit in a Michael Bay film, if Michael Bay had any sense of taste whatsoever. 
                        If you look at Kadrey's influences and references, you find anime, B movies, the music of Tom Waits, film noir, and gritty crime fiction-- none of which really adapts to a literary style (save the latter), but it all fits together. The images it evokes keep the book moving and keep hitting the right emotional and energetic notes. The references also add a certain amount of cinematic quality to it-- films are more likely to reference topics as vast as anime, Richard Stark's Parker novels, the memoirs of Vidocq, and a great many others, but Kadrey does them effortlessly, without even drawing attention to them. 
                       Another strength the book has is the supporting cast. Stark interacts with a staggering variety of characters, from an enigmatic antiques dealer named Mr. Muninn who seems to know everything about everyone to a hipster girl who works in Stark's video store and wants to learn how to do magic. Each one has  their own voice and their own personality, and aside from some of the "holy warriors", none of them blend together. Add to this the meticulous descriptions, and the book takes on an interesting cast-- you can actually see things happening, rather than simply reading and imagining. It's the cinematic quality that makes the characters "pop out" from the page, and what keeps the book moving along at a breakneck pace.
                         If there are any weaknesses to the book, they would be Stark's personality. He is definitely a tortured man, and you definitely get a sense of that, but it gets to be a bit much when he's a prick even to his friends and those who help him. Sometimes, with people like the angel Alita, this results in amusing exchanges, but one begins to wonder exactly why he's telling his good friend Vidocq to fuck right off? It makes the book as a whole turn away from Stark as a hero and wonder if he didn't deserve to be dragged into Hell, even if he was a good person before he was yanked off and his girlfriend died. 
                          But in the end, despite the flaws of its main character, it is a fantastic book. It takes urban fantasy back to what it was originally-- taking the fairytales, myths, and legends of our time and melding them with the dark, modern setting. It involves a chase scene through Hell, womanizing alchemists, gruesome villains, and a cameo from Satan in which he rifles through a collection of movies on "the Devil", searching for something to steal and watch at home for entertainment. I recommend this book because it's a fantastic read from start to finish (the fact that it pushes all my buttons aside), because it's fun, and because Richard Kadrey takes the genre where everyone else holds back, flinches, and goes "No, no, that's not right." It's an action movie, a payback thriller, and a dark fantasy all rolled into one, it's original, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Next Week: Life's Lottery by Kim Newman, or, if either of my interlibrary loans come through, Kill The Dead  by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to this week's book), or Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

State of the Blog

             Don't worry, this isn't another leave of absence thing. I think I should just be as open with all of you as I should be, as you're the regular readers of this thing, you've stuck with me for almost four months now, and I figure when I make a change, you deserve an explanation and have the right to comment directly to the changes I make with things. 
           That said: I'm going to be switching the schedule, though. I will not be reading Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I promised you guys I would finish the books I review, and let's face it, I just can't finish this one. The other thing is that Master Li is beginning to feel done to death for me, just a little, and what we'd be headed for if I continued is something that a) I wouldn't want to write, and more importantly, b) you wouldn't want to read.
            So instead, our schedule will pick up this week with something a little different. I'm debating whether to go with the urban fantasy noir novel Sandman Slim, or several of the other things I have clustered around the room with bookmarks in them. Rest assured, there will be a review this week. I just can't bring myself to batter through a third Barry Hughart book.


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox Part Two: The Story of the Stone

"Now let's take a look at reality. Little Hong Wong is indeed taken in hand by the educational establishment and force-fed languages, calligraphy, poetry...following which he's ready to start learning something--mathematics, for example...He passes his examinations and is ready for his first official appointment, and then what happens?"
"A superior who inherited the job from his uncle rams a barge pole up his ass."
"Good boy...Ox, at an early age, a Chinese genius gazes at the path that lies ahead and reaches for the wine jar. Is it any wonder that our greatest men have lurched rather than walked across the landscape as they hiccupped their way into history?"
- Master Li and Number Ten Ox, respectively

           I have a mild problem with sequels to books like this. I suppose the problem started with Harry Potter, weirdly enough, a series I have a mild amount of respect for. The first book set things up with such a sense of wonder and exploration that it was like stepping into a new world and viewing everything for the first time. It felt, honestly, like a vacation. You know, how you go somewhere and stay in a nice hotel, and you absolutely love every moment of being in the city or the small town or whatever, and you think you could stay there forever. To continue the comparison, though, the sequels are the moment you start trying to live somewhere and realize that this has become where you live, and all the things you found so fascinating are now terribly, terribly commonplace. So you have to find new things to do and experience, while all the while the things you used to find so cool become routine.
             Master Li and Number Ten Ox is no exception to the rule. Li's slight flaw is still the same, though Ox is less innocent. It appears that in between Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone, Number Ten Ox has become more streetwise and mature in his ways, and less innocent. He's writing his memoirs, which Master Li complains about for making him look "violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there's a need for it." The story proper opens as Ox casually observes an assassination attempt in our heroes' favorite drinking establishment, the Worst Wineshop in China (yes, the one from Bridge of Birds), located in the Alley of Flies (guess what the wine's secret ingredient is?). From there, they are called to investigate a curious forgery and murder case that quickly turns into an insane quest involving a divine inkstone, a long-dead prince, several folk and fairy tales, and a mushroom-fueled trip to Hell. On their quest, they are accompanied by a concubine and a sound manipulator somehow interlinked with each other in a way that's best left unexplained, who have their own part to play in the mess.
              But it doesn't feel as natural or tight as in Bridge of Birds. Ox is less the innocent fool, which is a bit of a relief, but at the same time, Li feels scaled back from the man who would easily slice off a thug's ear in a bar dispute. There's better by-play, but Ox sometimes feels relegated to a position of observer where in Bridge he observed, but he had just as many insights that helped move the plot along. The plot seems like it's starting to become formulaic, which is bound to happen, but shouldn't in such a way that your readers can guess a few of the minor plot twists because you used them in previous books. The locations have been scaled down from the country-spanning plot of the first book, but some elements seem scattershot. It's as if Hughart felt like writing another book, but didn't have his heart and soul invested in it the way he did the first one. It's actually kinda sad in a sense. The whole thing ends in an anticlimax that barely reaches the highs of the first book, and the big reveals aren't so much reveals as casual observations, as if one trips over gods, monsters, and long-dead handmaidens several times a day.
             Which is not to say that there aren't lovely points in the book. The trip to hell is a high point, as is Master Li petitioning the Celestials to appoint a new goddess of prostitutes, and the bit on the eating habits of monks (for self-mortification). The darker tone of story and the air of desperation as the Neo-Confucianists (a group much like conservatives, but with classical philosophy degrees) have taken power and appointed an Imperial Censor. Master Li's class of people, it would appear, are on their way out where before they were a fixture in the opulent place that is the Middle Kingdom. And the dialogue flies fast and furious as ever, though Master Li and Ox seem a little more cynical than in their previous outing. 
            I suppose my reaction might be mainly to the tone, but it just didn't seem as right to me as Bridge of Birds was. That the villain built up for most of the book was defeated (and that's not a spoiler...there's a third book here, so the heroes have to win in some capacity) in such a handwaved manner that it almost felt rushed. and then the archvillain was presented in too affable a manner for the final confrontation to have any heft. When the loose ends started to get tied up, I was more glad that things were coming to any kind of conclusion. That shouldn't happen, particularly in a book written by someone like Barry Hughart. 
            In the end, I'm not as incensed or angry with the book as I am disappointed. It started out rather strong, sort of like a Chinoiserie version of The Name of the Rose, or a fantasy-historical murder mystery. It ended like a B movie where they ran out of budget halfway through. The whole thing was a solid book, and I admit, if I'd written Bridge of Birds, I'd have an almost impossible act to follow. But solid doesn't cut it when the narrative shows so many flaws, and I can't forgive or give this a pass for so many. It's worth a read if you want to revisit the world of Li Kao and Lu "Number Ten Ox" Yu, but not worthy of a solid place in the series. I have hopes for the third one, though. With certain notable exceptions like Star Wars (Empire, not Attack of the Clones) and Nightside, second volumes usually suck.

Next Week: The series concludes with The Eight Skilled Gentlemen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Geek Rage Halloween Special!

  So it's finally here. I read, with dubious quality, three of my favorite freaky stories aloud for you, the readers of this blog, with criticism and comments on each one. I have tried to keep the comments to a minimum, but I kind of have a low fast speaking style and love to talk. In any case, hope you enjoy the readings, if not the presentation. I'm still new to the seamy underworld of video, and hopefully I'll catch up with it someday. These were uploaded in single takes (except for one instance where I was interrupted by a phone, and also one instance where I invited someone in to listen to the story and that's an obvious one) In any case:

Part One: "Cool Air" by HP Lovecraft (from Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of HP Lovecraft)

Part Two: "The Specialist's Hat" by Kelly Link (from Pretty Monsters)

Part Three (and our grand finale): "20th Century Ghost" by Joe Hill (from 20th Century Ghosts

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In which there is a postponement

In a move many who know me will find startling, I have decided not to take my laptop to Philadelphia in the interest of trying to interact with the people I'm there to see a bit more. This means that there will be a slight postponement with the review, and possibly a single-day delay to the Halloween readings. Or I might put them up early. Either way, the schedule's a little shaky right now, as it always seems to be when real life tends to intervene. I will be thinking of my readers and friends fondly, though.

Also, as a note on the videos: To aid with the process of putting them up and having them here, I have decided to use the Blip hosting service, as the terms of service and length requirements seemed a little lighter. I apologize for any problems with the videos and also if there are any things like ads or popups that result from them.

-- Caius.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox Part One: Bridge of Birds

"My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and I have a slight flaw in my character. This is my esteemed client, Number Ten Ox, who is about to hit you over the head with a blunt object."
- Master Li
    Once every so often in your life, you come across a book that instantly makes it into your all-time favorites. A book where you can get lost in it, that makes you feel for the characters in it, and that you can hold up as unforgettable and instantly recognizable. In short, once every so often in your life, you come across what can only be described as a favorite book. Bridge of Birds is that for me, and I'll gladly put it in the pantheon along with all the rest. It worked overtime to make me feel good, to give me that world that easily sucked me in and didn't let go until the last lines. This is, for me, now one of my favorite books.
    I don't even know how I came across this one. I think I was looking on Wikipedia for Kaja Foglio (Wife of Phil Foglio and co-creator of Girl Genius)  to explain something for my then-girlfriend. In any case, through a random series of link dives, I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Instantly I was intrigued, and after a bit of digging, came up with an Amazon link to a n omnibus edition of the books that cost far more than I would ever be willing to pay ($125)*. Luckily, my local library and the interlibrary loan program (which everyone should know how to use, and not just for academic research) came to the rescue and at long last I sat down to read it. 
     And it blew me away. The book begins in the small village of Ku Fu, where the annual Silkworm Festival, an event that usually brings the local merchants tons of money, is sabotaged. Due to the sabotage, the children of the town are exposed to poisonous fumes and all fall into a coma. Lu Yu, known as Number Ten Ox because he is the tenth person in his family and possesses great strength, is sent with the village's money to find a detective. After much searching and little luck, he finds a hundred year old man sleeping off a bad drunk. Upon coming back to consciousness, the man introduces himself as Li Kao, or as Ox begins to call him, Master Li. A former con man who decided solving crimes was much more challenging and interesting than committing them, Li turns out to be the greatest scholar in the Empire, despite his occasionally unscrupulous means. Li heads back to the village with Ox and immediately figures out who poisoned the slikworms and how. How to bring the children back, though, eludes him. And so, Master Li and Ox embark on a quest to find the medicine they need, or die in the attempt. 
      I could list everything I like about this book, but it would be a long list. Master Li is, despite the "slight flaw in (his) character" he's quick to remind everyone about, a thoroughly engaging character, be it his con jobs to make sure he and Ox aren't hurting for money, or his lightning-fast intellect. Li is what Sherlock Holmes would be if he were more personable and less aloof-- a ribald, snarky, hard-drinking, loveable, ingenious bastard. His "Watson" is our narrator, Number Ten Ox. Ox is an audience surrogate. Seeing Master Li through his eyes, what would probably be obnoxious to behold otherwise, or even flat-out illegal, is seen as ingenious and amusing. Ox gives us an interesting way of looking at the world, one in which we get a sense of wonder and interest in this world and how it works. The narrative voice and the strength of our main characters and even the minor ones like Miser Shen and Henpecked Ho helps to drag you into the story at the start and carry you through.
     The dialogue helps back things up, being deft and very, very funny. The sequence in the "worst wineshop in China" where Master Li has the shortest recorded bar fight in existence and then, using a severed ear, successfully bargains for several extravagant items with which to pull off a con with is particularly funny, but each bit of dialogue does its part, be it the duke's vizier's wife who calls her paramours (including Ox) things like "Boopsie" or "Woofie" or the almost too calm and nice Henpecked Ho, who is personable until Master Li suggests that an axe might fix the problem he's having with his monstrous wife and seven obese sisters-in-law. While these characters may have more informal speech patterns than their station and time period would usually allow, it helps draw us in. They talk like real people, therefore we can treat them like real people.
     The descriptions and the plot finally ram things home, though. Barry Hughart, the author of this book and its sequels, knows the importance of individual pieces building together to a whole. In particular are the sequences in the Duke's Labyrinths, where there is a definite sense of urgency as our heroes try to escape before the death that awaits them catches up. Many of the setpieces and the sense of emotion is shown, not told, something a lot of people who write fantasy and science fiction forget almost entirely. Hughart moves quickly from one setpiece to the next in a style that far outstrips Stephen Hunt's action sequences and doesn't stop to quit while it's got a minor lead. A good example of this is the "sword dance", where Ox must complete  a series of increasingly complex maneuvers with a pair of swords so he can appease a ghost. The scene is lit at dusk and instantly, an image of the scene and what was going on popped up in my head. 
     If there's anything at fault, though, it's that the mood doesn't work for the whole book. While the story has a light tone, there's one sequence in particular where a revenge murder is half-disguised as physical comedy. Granted, the subject of the cruel prank definitely deserved it, but when you start to think on it, it was really a nasty thing to do. Other points where the mood doesn't completely work include a palace stampede culminating in a gruesome axe murder and several other, more minor moments. But these are but specks on the large, intriguing work that is Bridge of Birds.
    In closing, the book is a fantastic read, and will go up on my top five along with Fool on the Hill, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Neverending Story (The original book, which I'll get to at some point). This book is worth a read, and not just that, but maybe a re-read, as there are probably things I've missed. It's funny, sad, exciting, and the ending had me half-crying, half-laughing. It's got all the components of the best of books, and it's infuriating that almost no one knows it exists. (Or at least, all the people I've mentioned it to have gone "What? Who?" So, once more for the cheap seats, READ BRIDGE OF BIRDS!

*Individually, the books are quite reasonably priced. It's just the omnibus editions, and the "limited" one in particular where they get kinda pricey.

Next Week: The Master Li series continues with The Story of the Stone, and I do a live reading of Joe Hill on Halloween. See you then!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Halloween Special

For Halloween, I will be in Philadelphia seeing a friend or two. Depends on who's up there.

Sometime around Halloween week or weekend, though, I will be uploading a "Live" reading of a short story or two, including one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I apologize for doing it most likely on my crappy webcam, but we work with what we've got. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dinner at Deviant's Palace

"They can't stand the bitter rain, so they run underneath one of the two awnings--religion or dissipation-- and guess who's waiting for them, under both awnings at once..." - Sevatividam

           I freaking love Tim Powers. I'd like to just get that out of the way. The man flings ideas into the air and then makes them collide at high speeds, he helped invent the steampunk genre, and more than that, he tends to write books that unfold at equally high speeds with a lot of substance. Whether it's the Las Vegas sleaze hiding a soul-trading game in Last Call or the drug addiction novel centered around ghost-huffing that is Expiration Date, he manages to deliver. And while his book On Stranger Tides is getting made into a movie in the most terrible and sad way possible, it's still getting made into a movie, and that's kinda cool. Also, due to Tides, every time you see pirates and voodoo together in a movie (or a video game *coughcough* Monkey Island*coughcough*), it's officially Tim Powers' fault.
           I first uncovered Dinner at Deviant's Palace in a Bookman's. It had no cover and no plot synopsis, just a simple yellow book in the sci-fi section. Granted, this didn't exactly endear me to it, as I kinda need some kind of synopsis to get an idea of what I'm getting into. Too many books titled things like The Vampires of Venice or things like that only to be about a bunch of war atrocities when I'm not in the mood for them. However, on a train last week, I found a copy of the paperback and dove right in. By three AM the next morning, I was done with the book. I finished it within a day, almost, and I have to say: It's one of the best freaking books I've read. And entirely unexpected as to the central ideas.
            The book begins in post-nuke California with Gregorio Rivas, a musician, or "gunner", getting an odd request. One of the richest people in LA, Barrows, has lost a loved one to a religious cult called the Jaybirds. He pays Rivas five thousand "fifths" (playing cards used to represent brandy, the currency of this new world) to infiltrate the cult and bring her back home. You see, Rivas used to be a member of the cult who found out how sinister it actually was and ran away. He's also got a shady past as a "redemptionist", a combination of a cult deprogrammer and bounty hunter who tries to rescue wayward cultists and bring them back to their families by pretending to be cultists. And all of this has to do with his target: Barrows' daughter, Urania-- the former love of Rivas' life and what set him off on such a strange path on the first place. After much internal conflict, Rivas takes the job, infiltrates the Jaybirds to kidnap her back, and battles threats both external and internal in his quest, leading him to the titular event.
              And to top it all off, it's a western about a man doing what has to be done, to save himself and to save others.
          What I liked most about the book is the setting. While it becomes obvious that it's a post-apocalyptic setting where they use Brandy as currency and drive horse-drawn carriages made out of classic cars, it's very well-realized. Venice is presented as a sleazy den of sin with Deviant's Palace rising over it like some insane, nightmarish castle. The Holy City of Irvine is bright and clean from the outside, but filled with poverty and trash on the inside, with everyone being welded into leg-irons and forced to work. It's a world with its own slang, mannerisms, and rules of reality. Powers spent a lot of time on this for a book clocking in at under three hundred pages, and every bit of it shows. Despite the book being a slim, quick read, every page has a new facet of the world, be it the playing card-obsessed "Aces" who ruled the wasteland until an explosion went off and killed the Sixth, the alien intelligence known as Sevatividam, the history of Jaybird leader Norton Jaybush, and so on. 
              The problem, though, with Deviant's Palace is that it vanishes too far inside its character's own head. WAY too far sometimes. It's fine that we have a great sense of internal conflict, of Rivas fighting that impulse inside of him to join back up with the Jaybirds and let it consume him, but to have him living in his own head breaks immersion a little, like the scenes where he has flashbacks and can't tell past from present. While this sort of thing was merely disorienting and added to hallucinatory qualities in a book such as Private Midnight, it sometimes stops the book dead here, as the action is suddenly interrupted. 
               In fact, Private Midnight has a lot of similarities with Deviant's Palace. Both are books involving a rather driven man with a curious and dark past encountering a charismatic person who hints at being an otherworldly intelligence. But where one is a hallucinatory and strange tale of identity and how people can change, Deviant's is a book about being unable to run from who you are and knowing that icky, repugnant thing may not be pleasant to look at, but it's a part of you.
                 The other problem, and it's not really a problem, is the fantasy elements. It starts out as a post-apocalyptic western about a man fighting a cult, sort of like The Searchers if it was just John Wayne and he had to pretend to be an Apache for half the movie. But then you get the floating thing known as a Hemogoblin that claims to be a part of Rivas, the weirdness behind the "Sacrament", the restorative powers of "Peter and the Wolf" (which just makes me think of Peter Lorre in M), and a climax involving an alien psychic vampire. Or perhaps just some kind of mutant. And while the book should have ended there, you get a strange two-chapter epilogue just to tie up loose ends that didn't really need to be tied up. While the fantasy elements were still cool, and led to a fantastic setpiece, they didn't tie correctly into the book as well as they should have. Also, there's that stupid epilogue. 
                   But you must read this book. It's a fast, brilliant ride, and while it's ugly and insane in places, it's all part of the charm. Besides, it rips a few satirical targets a good one, and is possibly the best post-apocalyptic and single-character book I've ever read. Rivas, despite starting out as a money-grubbing bastard, turns into a stone-cold badass by the end of the first section, and by the end he's a completely changed man, willing to throw himself in the way if it gets the job done, because his sanity-- and the sanity of his world-- are riding on the consequences. You feel every twist, every turn, and every triumph, and while the epilogue shoehorns a vague romance and tries to end things on a more ambiguous note, it's more than worth a read. 

Next week: My three-parter on The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox begins with my review of Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.