Friday, September 24, 2010

The Lies of Locke Lamora





"I'll grant the Lamora part is easy to spot, the truth is, I didn't know about the apt translation when I borrowed it...I just liked the way it sounded. But what the fuck ever gave you the idea that Locke was the name I was born with?"
- Locke Lamora

Just a little bit of business before the review proper:
     And for this week, thank God I have a Kindle. I recently moved to some (gladly) temporary lodgings, and so most of my books are over at my other temporary lodgings. Eventually I'll settle down somewhere permanent and get a real job and all of that. Hopefully sometime soon, too. But since I don't have access to all of my nefarious resources, I am forever glad that I have a little electronic book that I can carry around with access to some of my temporary collection on it.
    
     Enough advertising, though. I've been a fan of the heist novel, TV show, movie, and the like for quite a bit now. It all started with the film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which gave me a set of sympathetic though down-on-their-luck criminals, as well as various others who were inadvertently caught in the same twisted situation. And it was fun to watch. From there, I started watching other crime-comedies, including such staples of the genre as Snatch, Ocean's Eleven, and the TV series Leverage, among countless others. So when I found a book on the shelf at the LaFarge Library in Santa Fe that purported to combine the heist and con premise with a fantasticized (and yes, that's a word now) Venice, wild horses couldn't keep me from getting my hands on it and reading it. 
       The story begins with the Thieftaker, a sort of Fagin-like character who takes in orphans and uses them to steal from the middle-class, selling a particularly troublesome orphan to a blind priest named Chains. In short order, we find out that 1) the kid has done something baaaad. And not just heinously audacious, but something worth murdering him over, and 2) that Chains is not blind, not a priest, and nor particularly interested in upholding the laws of reason and order that govern the city. To this end, he trains the young boy, who calls himself Locke, to take over a diverse band of thieves known as the Gentlemen Bastards, whose entire point is to scam the rich (something kind of unspeakable in this society). The book bounces back and forth between Locke's training, in which he learns to fight, con, and otherwise swindle people out of every cent they have, and how he uses these talents in the "present day" setting. A shadowy figure, however, emerges from the underbelly of the city to offer a job that Locke and his crew can't refuse, though, and soon it's down to the Gentlemen Bastards to save the city (and themselves) by pulling every last trick they know. 
        It's nice to finally have a book in this blog that trades on dialogue. A lot of how Locke gets through situations can be attributed to his gift for speech and his quick wit. While the cons do have physical elements, mainly down to Locke's best friend Jean who serves as the group's "hitter", it's mainly about the speech. And there is a lot of it. Scott Lynch, the author of this book and its (as-yet unread) sequel, seems to have watched a ton of crime movies and knows his genre inside and out. Locke is made a sympathetic protagonist, despite being a bit of a monster on some level for manipulating everyone he meets, and he and his crew are much more sympathetic than the nobles they dupe, which is a large distinction. While the descriptions of the city are fantastic (Gladiators fight giant sharks! Brandy-infused oranges! Big crystal spire-castle!), it's really the characters that are the meat of the story. And meaty they are. There's one villain, introduced somewhere in the second "act" of the story, who you spend every page wishing a cruel and unusual punishment on. When it finally comes, it makes it that much sweeter. Despite the nature of it, it still brings a smile to my face every time I read it. Likewise, Jean, Locke, and their assistant Bug are people who despite their larcenous and sometimes nefarious nature are people I find myself wanting to spend more time with. They're fun. 
         Furthermore, the thriller aspects of the book handle their load with all the tension and suspense that they need. I've revealed one or two spoilers here, but overall, there's a certain sense of surprise when things happen the way they do. The escapes really feel narrow, the rewards really that great, and the plans remarkably intricate and well thought-out. By the end, when everything seems resolved, it all makes sense for the time, and when you get there, you will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome, given everything that has come before. 
           Sadly, the mood whiplash is the problem. The book cannot decide sometimes whether it's a grim and gritty crime story, or a lighthearted caper, leading to a constant tug-of-war in some sections of the book. While it can be argued that the sudden plunge into seriousness signals a change in the book's setting-- that the Bastards are playing with people who are much better at the game than they are, it still keeps the lighthearted trappings a little bit. Also, if you have a problem with swearing and harsh language, probably give this one a miss. These people are criminals, and they act and talk like it. If you could get through a British crime film, or maybe In The Loop without much trouble or offense, it's a little tamer than the language in that. But since from page three, Chains starts an obscenity-laden diatribe on why he won't buy Locke and the language doesn't improve from there, I'd suggest those of an easily-offended temperament go elsewhere.
             But is the book good? Oh, fuck yes. It's hard to find an original book on the concept of "One last job", but this is it. You will constantly be kept guessing as alliances and reasons change. Some motives are played with multiple times before being revealed to be something else entirely. And overall, it's a wild, sometimes shocking, always enjoyable ride through a criminal underworld, meant to interest both fantasy fans and crime-thriller fans alike. While it may never be part of my personal collection, it's something I've already picked up and read several times, each time noticing a new and different twist I hadn't before. And hopefully, you'll pick it up and find just as much to like as I do.

Next Week: The Orphan's Tales: In The Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves









"Bad luck is one fruit you will always find growing in the jungles of Liongeli"


               I found a copy of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves tucked in a back corner of The Strand's science fiction section, on one of the low bookshelves close to the floor, where they keep all the good books. Strangely enough, I picked this up not half a foot away from where I found Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. Why they keep all their best books low to the ground is a mystery, but since they've taken slightly less money from my pocket than Steam and more money than the average GDP of small countries, I suppose it's kind of irrelevant. I'd heard of Stephen Hunt in passing before finding his book on the shelf in The Strand, but that evening, I figured that several coincidences lining up during my day was less random chance and more some kind of serendipity, and so I immediately snapped it up and made my way to the checkout. And I have not regretted the decision since.
                Granted, I'm immensely biased. You see, I'm a big fan of both steampunk and the old pulp-novel aesthetic, so give me a book which combines both those things together, and I'll pretty much be begging to read it. But Kingdom combines them and uses their ideas with such style and grace that it goes beyond the mere eye-candy of an alternate-technology world. A book like this doing its job is a given. It's 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. Kingdom, and it's companion book/preceding book The Court of the Air do the job well. Stephen Hunt spent time on his world, and it shows in the care that goes into crafting it. The characters have traditions, obscene gestures...all those little touches that make us know they're part of a bigger world, that they actually have something beyond their own characters.
                 Kingdom begins in a way that will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen the Indiana Jones movies, or pretty much any adventure film: Professor Amelia Harsh, a tomb-raiding rebel archaeologist, is climbing up a mountain with her companions (and aided by her massive, gorilla-like arms) to reach a cache of artifacts from the Black Oil Tribe. The opening sets up the whole tone for the book, from the guns to the crystal grenades, to the feeling that you've stepped into one of the old pulp novels, but, you know, less dry. The professor is raiding archaeological sites to try and find any evidence of the lost city of Camlantis, long since disappeared in an odd form of meteorological phenomena, essentially a "skyquake". Amelia is undertaking the quest to restore some honor to the memory of her father, a suicide after he lost his fortune in stock manipulation. Due to some double-crosses and bad luck with the Caliph, the ruler of the desert she's currently excavating in, Amelia is left crawling through the desert alone, on the verge of death.
                    It would be a very short book if she died in the first chapter, though, and once she gets back, the university she works for promptly throws her out despite her evidence of the lost city. Soon, her sworn enemy makes her an offer to fund an expedition, and Amelia has assembled a crack team of pirates, slavers, a professional scoundrel, and former commandos to head downriver, into the dangerous jungles of Liongeli and find Camlantis-- or die in the attempt. Her hellish cruise through the jungle makes for a good read, and even plays out in a cinematic way. Hunt is excellent with handling fight scenes, focusing first on the energy of the scene and then carrying that through the moments, keeping you invested in the action and reminding you that it isn't just an obligatory scene in his work-- it is vital to survival that these characters win. 
                    The story that alternates with Amelia's story of lost cities, adventure, and tomb-raiding prowess involves a character by the name of Furnace-Breath Nick, a masked vigilante who takes on a job to rescue a rather prominent scientist from the Stalin-ish country of Quatershift. Nick slowly untangles further espionage webs in the style of an old pulp novel like Fantomas or Raffles, a gentleman criminal with a dark side and a mask, fighting evil from the shadows. Eventually, the two stories intertwine quite nicely, but sadly Furnace-Breath's story is the weaker of the two. It's no fun reading a detective adventure when the villain is clearly put right out there, adorned with a neon sign reading "Villain of the book", and accompanying himself on accordion. What little interest there is in Furnace-Breath Nick/Maximilian is quickly quashed when he is revealed to be the brooding, fearful of himself type of hero, like Batman with a homicidal anarcho-psychotic alternate personality.  Yes, we get it, the mask is a necessity you'd rather not have. Considering how much you have to use it, though, we'd like it if you, oh, just shut up about your personal troubles and went back to figuring out what the evil industrialist was really doing.
                      I suppose what I like best about the book is the cinematic quality. I can see every action scene, every fight and flight, laid out in detail. Hunt's book(s) would actually make a good movie, given that pretty much every scene is given such detail that it feels less like you're being dragged through and more like you're a silent and intangible observer. There's a series of fights and action sequences in the middle of the book which really highlight this point, a group of fights, captures, narrow escapes, and betrayals that would seem complex to explain, but simple to go through. Hunt has a good grasp of his setting and what makes sense in it, and all of that comes out on the page, much to my delight. This, and I hate to use such simple words for it, is a good book.
                   Another thing I like, which I mentioned previously, is the attention to detail. There are at least three political systems introduced in the book-- the Free Catosian States, a proper anarchy with loosely-formed Free Companies and gender equality, the parliamentary country of Jackals, where the main characters all come from, and which rules under a somewhat totalitarian form of parliament. Think Cromwell if he went a step or two further with his ideas of governance. And finally, there is the hive-mind of the Liongeli, a complex network encompassing every living thing within it, from the plants to the creatures, all under control of the biological automatons known as the Daggish. In an amazing display of wordsmanship, none of these are dropped in favor of another, though each have their place. 
                       The problems come in with the pacing, though. It is impossible for any writer to continue to keep such an energy level, and while Hunt almost manages to, his lulls are made all the more obvious when they appear. In particular offense is one section at the end. Once the villains' plots have been revealed, the surviving heroes have reached their destinations, and the final desperate battle is obviously in the cards and ready to go on the rails, the book stops cold. Not only is the villain's plan pretty nebulous and a little hard to follow, but the story refuses to go anywhere. This may be a byproduct of a strong story and a weak story meeting together and the elements combining to a mix that makes one go "Well, that's rather plain", but nonetheless, the story runs out of steam. When it gets back up to speed, it doesn't even manage to drag itself back to previous heights. You would think an aerial battle would have much more pep to it, but sadly it doesn't, and the book suffers for it. The saving grace is that the ending brings everything to a nice close, but with just enough plot points to revisit the characters if one wanted to.
                         The other major problem involves one specific incident with the death of a character. For someone who we have spent the whole book with-- and believe me, you'll know when it comes up, it's pretty obvious-- being randomly killed without even a last stand or any real reason other than "someone needed to die in this section" is a little less than the character deserved. It soured some of the sections, though the book recovers nicely from the event and gives us decent storylines for the surviving main characters.
                         Finally, Hunt's obsession with his own grotesque world tends to wear on one after a while. Yes, on one hand we have a kingdom where the hereditary ruler has their arms amputated and spends their life being humiliated by his public, but we don't need to hear about it all the time. Same with the fact that Amelia's arms are "gorilla-like" or "massive" or "oversized". Yes, her arms are huge. Similarly, the constant descriptions of the Greenmesh and its indoctrination process get repetitive after a while. The details are nice, but we don't need to hear about it over and over again. That's just crass.
                         In the end, I suppose that while it isn't always a strong book, it's a highly commendable one. It makes a very good attempt at being a classic adventure story, but less dry than, say the works of H. Rider Haggard or such. Hunt clearly knows what he's doing with his characters and his world. He shows a great deal of love and care to them, gives them interesting things to do, and gives them ends fitting of them. The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is a book worth reading, and worth reading more than once. I am proud to have it on my bookshelf, and am looking forward to any other books Hunt may write.

Next Week: Either Vurt by Jeff Noon, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, or the start of that Twilight series of reviews I might want to do, depending on what I feel like and what people would rather see me do.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm

    

"The hidden may be seeking and the missing may return..."
The Legend of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd

"Make a mistake with sacred and you get scared"
- Stinky Wiggler

     I first found out about Zanesville: A Novel (sometimes referred to as "The first book of the Lodemania Testament", whatever the hell that is) via completely random circumstances. I'd accidentally found Scifi.com's book reviews*, and after a quick look around at an alternate-history review written by (I believe) Joe R. Lansdale, I looked at the rest of the site. I actually got quite a few recommendations from the site that I still enjoy, but the only one I actually bought and am proud to keep as part of what I like to call "The Private Collection" is Zanesville. At the risk of sounding like some kind of toady, no matter what may be said about Kris Saknussemm, he is original. Very original. Maybe not so in his plotting, but certainly in every element other than that. If someone says "There are no original ideas any more", or "Everything's been done", just press this book into their hands and laugh maniacally. Oooh, also, tell them I send my regards.
      Zanesville tells the story of a man out of his depth-- a theme Saknussemm seems to revisit time and again. This time, the man is a young blond amnesiac who wakes up in Central Park. His only possessions seem to be a tracksuit emblazoned with a burning wheelbarrow logo on the chest and a set of burning scars reading "FATHER FORGIVE THEM F" across his back. Before the park's police can take him in, he is swept away by a huge black drag queen in an aqua-colored wig. And that's only the beginning of the story. It turns out the drag queen, an ex-lawyer built like a linebacker, is a major player in a rebel organization known as the Satyagrahi. The amnesiac they rescue (who they dub Clearfather) is possibly a messianic figure who will work against the Vitessa Cultporation, an organization that owns absolutely everything in America (and it is briefly hinted, the world). Given his massive and distinct endowment, his near-perfect security clearance, and his odd psychic effect, the rebels decide the best thing for him would be to send him to a sympathetic corporate executive named Julian Dingler and way the hell away from their base. And thus, Clearfather's journey begins.
      Already I feel like I've given too much away, but I've barely scratched the surface here. When I previously mentioned that Saknussemm is a master of overloading the reader with details, I'm not screwing around, and I could personally point to this book as evidence. The USA has been changed from a country into a massive, nightmarish amusement park...think a lethal version of Disney World on a country-wide or continental scale. Cartoon characters rampage through train stations. A gigantic fire-breathing Johnny Cash battles Oprah over the streets of a coast-spanning amusement park. And you, the reader, will never look at a barbershop quartet the same way again. Every page, a new act is added to the sideshow, a new bizarre situation is cooked up as Clearfather makes his way through the gritty and surreal streets of Philadelphia and from there across the country, encountering a lesbian biker gang, robotic blues musicians, and even (very possibly) a sort of god, against a backdrop of blimps that sell haggis and vivid yet hallucinatory set pieces that range from unsettling, Lynchian nightmare fuel to outtakes from acid-fueled cartoons. 
       But the best part of all of this, beyond any of the all-too-vivid images themselves, is that it all somehow fits together. Barring one or two scenes in particular, there are no moments where I was asking myself "How the hell did I get here?" or "Why the hell is this necessary?" There were a lot of moments where I was asking "What the hell?" but never once why. The book moves at a quick pace, and many of the parts seen as throwaway continue to be brought back. Take, for instance, Dooley Duck and Ubba Dubba, two cartoon characters who first campaign for realistic organs after Clearfather's meddling, and then create a political party to rival Vitessa, along with multiple riots. Like Private Midnight, which I reviewed earlier, it's one hell of a trip, but it seems both less sinister in intent, and less hallucinogenic. Then again, with a setting full of gay boxers, murderous amputees, and the rest, what would be grossly out of place in the hard-boiled world of Private Midnight is absolutely commonplace in Zanesville. I wouldn't even be surprised if Genevieve Wyvern or Birch Ritter were running Vitessa, in fact.
       Sadly, there are one or two scenes that don't fit together. The book hits a low following the convoluted sequence with a lesbian biker gang, involving several double crosses and what seems to be absolutely no light shed on the plot, though a lot happens and the plot does eventually advance. In the end, it just seems to be a way to get as much insanity into a tea-party scene as possible. After the scene there, the narrative takes a while to pick back up again, muddling its way through a sequence involving rednecks, mutants, and autistic children running around in hamster balls. The second lull in the action comes at the moment where Clearfather seems to have reached the end of his quest, featuring (weirdly enough) another tea party. By that point, the conclusions feel kind of false and hollow, and while it's possible that was the point, it feels more like Saknussemm simply ran out of ideas. The book pulls itself together to a rousing and brightly-colored climax where all the characters seem to get their ultimately happy ending, but after a dissatisfying reveal that Saknussemm spent most of the book building towards, it's a massive let down. Furthermore in the fact that the big relevatory sequences don't seem to go anywhere until near the tail end of the whole thing. 
       I could go on, but these are minor complaints, a way of picking pieces of grit off of a flawed yet ultimately enjoyable work. The point is, Zanesville is a lot of fun. It's a quick-moving work full of original ideas and insane imagery, and I am proud to own it. Find any way you can to read this, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I'll offer the caveat that it's a trip, and a rather bizarre and convoluted one at that, but it's still wholly enjoyable. I recommend this completely.


* Scifi.com no longer does book reviews now that they are Syfy (it's pronounced "Siffy"). You may be able to find the reviews at sfsite.com.

Next Week: Either The Kingdom Beyond the Waves or the start of a new idea: Me reviewing the Twilight series.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kraken by China Mieville





"Krakens move in mysterious ways."
- Dane

       I don't have many bad words to say about China Mieville. The man is something of a genius in fantasy circles, one of the heralds of a style known as the New Weird. And it's all well-deserved. I started reading his works with his second book, Perdido Street Station. It was a wild, grotesque tale of a city full of arcane systems and intrigue. Each creature was described in vivid detail, and while the plot could be distilled down to its base elements and explained as "unoriginal", the sheer warped complexity it came across with made it memorable and easily-recognizable. The one problem I ever had with the book was that so many plot threads went into play at once that whenever I put it down, I never managed to pick it back up without having to read all the way from the beginning. I actually had to pay attention to it. It was like Pynchon or Ayn Rand, but, you know, interesting and not read by pretentious college students everywhere*.

        So when I heard his new book, Kraken, was going to be the same Mieville craziness I love but set in modern-day London, I went ahead and preordered the book. I don't do this very often, but I did so because I didn't want to have to look all over for it, and don't even get me started on my complex love-hate relationship with my Kindle. I love it, but there are a lot of things I'd rather just have hard copies of to read. And my verdict on Kraken? Not good. I hate to do this to an author who has so many good ideas and such a frenetic style of storytelling (as opposed to stodgy), and I must give him props for having an urban fantasy novel with absolutely none of the usual tropes: It barely flirts with police procedural, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single romance within its pages, save for the one broken up by a frighteningly effective hitman. Tropes are averted, reality is played with, and overall, there are a load of cool ideas in it. But, and here's the important bit, the book does not work.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

With apologies to Tim Scott

Well, Rage fans, it looks like the Outrageous Fortune review has been put off due to circumstances I'm not quite ready to get into. Instead, I'll be doing China Mieville's Kraken, which has actually come out this year. Also, which I have read fully. 


We apologize for the inconvenience.