Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Extra

                 Okay, the rundown is as follows: This is a book that moves. It's not a slow book, or a book that gives much time to settle down and take a breather, it just shouts "go" and runs off without you, hoping you catch up. It's a book written like an action movie, and it delivers on that premise. If anything's too illogical or silly, all one has to do is go "It's just a show, I should really just relax." and enjoy the ride as is. The characters are colorful, the dialogue is good, but where the book really shines are the cinematic action sequences that run throughout, from running down a skyscraper in the opening sentences to the tense fight through the corridors of an office building at the end. 

                  The problems set in when the whole world feels way too safe. Safety is a good thing sometimes (see last' week's review), but the issue I have with the book is that I never thought the characters were in any danger. It's the kind of action that you never feel hits the point where the heroes are ever out of options, in fact, they handle themselves amazingly well. The book's biggest sin is that it feels cozy and predictable, and by feeling cozy and predictable, it does itself a disservice. You should never completely feel the heroes are out of danger, just that whatever it is, they will eventually overcome it. Also, I am worried as this is supposedly the first book of a trilogy, yet it came out three years ago and is pretty much wrapped up in a single volume. There are also some character arcs I question, but more, as always (with spoilers) below. 

                          Hey, Players! Ready to earn those big clacks?
- The Announcer

               I found this one through a very familiar way. It was on the shelves of Montclair Books way back when, and happened upon it in the "new books" section. I didn't have enough money, so I left it right there where I found it. It did intrigue me, though, so I spent the next two years trying to get it out of the library, only to find that there were no libraries nearby that had it. I'd been burnt on "future game" books before, after all (lookin' at you, The Hunger Games...though that's another review entirely), and so I wasn't too jazzed on the genre. But something about the praise quotes from the kings of B-movies, as well as the endorsement from my personal entry for king of geeks, Patton Oswalt, gnawed at me a little. Then when the book became so hard to find, well, anywhere, instantly my curiosity was piqued all the more. So I went looking for it.

              But every time I found it, I either didn't have enough money, or there were other things I wanted to get. So for a while, it drifted around. Finally, I looked through my current public library on a whim...and it was sitting there on the shelf, Astonished, I picked it up with an armload of other books, and got to reading it the very moment I finished NOS4A2. And it is...really something.

              The Extra starts with Curtis, the lead narrator, talking about how he and his friend Japh got into the movie business sometime in the mid-future. The story begins with them pushing a book cart through the large multi-story apartment building they live in, a sprawling urban area known as the 'Rise. Curtis and his big friend Japh run a book cart for themselves. They sell books from the massive urban slum known as The Zoo in the 'Rises, and make a meager living that way to pay for the rent and an apartment for Curtis's relative, a place which Curtis calls "The Windows". One day, after a mix-up leaves several gangers seriously injured and possibly one person dead, Curtis and Japh decide to go out to the Zoo to find books, where they meet Jool. After saving Jool from being harassed by some Zoo punks, they wind up causing her even more trouble, and the three of them decide to avoid the heat (and make the money to survive since their business is trashed) by signing on as Extras in the new film by Val Margolian.

               And then things get weird.
                Being Extras means that you get paid a quarter of a million dollars in cash, tax-free. But there's a catch. See, in the future, extras are live-action people in live-action monster movies. The APPs (Anti-Personnel Properties) are big robot monsters programmed to kill the Extras. To get the 250,000 dollars in cash, all you have to do is survive to the end of the shoot. Somewhere in the range of eight to twelve hours against homicidal monsters programmed to kill you in gruesome ways, and you get a quarter of a mil to walk out. But there are bonuses, too. For every APP you kill or help kill, you get an extra 175,000 dollars bounty, dropped right there for you by an operator in a floating skiff. 

                   On this particular shoot, they have their nastiest APPs yet-- gigantic poisonous spiders (Spoilers be damned, it's right on the cover there). But on this same shoot, the skiff operators have finally gotten fed up with watching people die. The Director is on to them and wants to film himself there in the action stopping the operators, as he's insane and doing this for motives even he doesn't fully understand. And his equally-insane assistant wants his throne. Jool, Japh, and Curtis; along with Curtis's friend Cap and a demoted assistant director-turned-skiff operator named Kate have to navigate a city literally built to kill them and flooding every second with more of the gruesome robot spiders. But with luck and a full-on uprising on the hands of the higher-ups, they just may be able to turn this around...

                    Okay, the action in this book is amazing. Every set piece is tightly written, the stakes are put right up front with a series of dogs getting poisoned and turned into husks by the spiders, and the last half of the book is a no-holds-barred tumble to the final chapters and the end of the shoot. Shea knows how to frame his action sequences, and it really shows: His characters fight well, and while there's not much of a sense of danger, there's a sense that they're actually fighting for their lives, or at least doing a good job of faking it through the storyline. In particular, the opening fights against the spiders (before they get their weapons and a good position on the set) are breathless and I really rooted for them to succeed. I could see the action the way he plotted it out and described it, and it really worked. It's cinematic, which fits the theme of the book. And if it had my attention for every improvised spear-thrust, every tense gunfight, every moment where the spiders suddenly erupted and people went scrambling for weapons. It's a book with a lot of power and a lot of moving parts, and it handles them all really, really well.

                  The characters are also really well-developed. They have motivations outside simply doing what they do, and eventually, it really shows. In particular, the main factions and the major players are all introduced very early on and in fairly short order, leading to a familiarity with the people involved as they go about their various plots. The dialogue also's natural, it fits all the characters well, and it sounds like the kind of things one would hear in an action movie. Especially Cap's dialogue, which sounds like it's coming out of Samuel L. Jackson, with only half the uses of the word "motherfucker". 

                  Finally, the plotting is also tight. By framing the novel from several different points of view, Shea manages to explain how the lucky breaks his characters have are all logical (to a degree) within the story-- the operators have a method of thinning the killer robots, so the director goes down to investigate, and the assistant immediately floods the streets with the reserve robots so that he can up the chances of killing and make a nice demo reel. Knowing the cause-effect chain actually helps to mitigate some of the more illogical decisions that are made. And by the end, there are logical causes. For most things.

                   But when there aren't is when the book loses me. There are a lot of lucky coincidences, and there's an issue with that. Especially since while in a movie, the logic would be easily hand-waved as not seeing all the action on-screen, but in a book, the author can actually sketch out the various motivations. Shea plots very tightly, but he falls short when he leaves some things completely up to chance, and some characters survive through illogical coincidences that aren't plotted out. 

                    Also, the book is very safe. The characters never feel like they're in any danger whatsoever, and in the end, everything works out more or less all right. Well-- one guy loses his hand, but other than that, of all the named characters you meet? There are maybe two casualties. The last thing anyone should think of a dystopia is "That sounds cool, I'd like to live there", but with Shea making Margolian's death set feel more or less safe as long as you're a main character, that's exactly what happens. I know somewhere in the back of my head that I'd get killed, but it plays out like an adventure film. Even the people I thought would act a certain way acted in the much safer one. 

                   But in the end, the book is an adventure film. As much as any book could be one. It's enjoyable, and I'd definitely suggest it, especially since this month marks the start of the summer season, and it's a good, quick summer read. Also, since the second book in the trilogy comes out this August, a book titled Assault on Sunrise, it's not like you have long to wait for more adventures from the Extras. So pick this up. Inter-library loan it, buy it used...I don't suggest buying it new or on ebook (mainly because Ebook is a terrible format), but definitely give this one a look.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

and then:

Go Mutants! by Larry Doyle
People of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Coverage of AnimeNEXT

and More.

1 comment:

  1. Good point about stories "feeling safe". It's a distracting hallmark of a number of B movies and books in the world. It happens when the hero just has too much going for them. I'll always remember when a good friend of mine explained that what made Harrison Ford such a fun action movie actor was that you just knew that Indiana Jones ws going to survive every movie, but Ford was good at conveying that he didn't know whether he would live or not. It makes a difference.