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.