Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess

As part of an experimental format, I am posting the epigraph and image just before a sort of "capsule" review of the book. The real review will be below the jump. Like it? Hate it? Wish to rant about the sad state of literary affairs in the world? Please tell me in the comments. This blog, as always, is an organic and ever-changing process, and the cooler I can make it, the better off both I and my readers will be.

ALSO: I am going on a longer vacation, so no review next Saturday. I need to calm down so I can concentrate on getting you the best reviews I can, delivered on-schedule and without having to rush and not finish the book all the way. There may also be a renaissance faire involved.

"It is here, with great reluctance, and a full awareness of how a chronicler should report a story without being the story itself, that one of your professors enters the narrative. Surely the tedious whys and wherefores of how he came to find himself in this particular prison at this particular time have no significant relevance to the greater story and shall thus be ignored."
- Professor Philip Foglio

           So, to get the basics out of the way, Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess is the second novelization of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius* webcomic series, a series born from a love of pulp, steampunk, comic fiction, and possibly monsters with teeth bigger than their faces. In it, the main character, Agatha Heterodyne survives an airship crash into the terrifying area of an alternate steampunk Transylvania known as "The Wasteland". To get her safely to the city of Mechanicsburg without being eaten by the terrifying monsters or crushed by steam-powered robots, she joins a traveling circus and hopes to have an uneventful time. But soon intrigues and adventure find her, and she is swept up in an adventure involving her lineage, lost princesses, and insane gadgetry.
          The book is incredibly well-done, though it suffers from a minor lack of context in the opening pages and occasional typographical errors in the edition I own. The descriptions are fantastically detailed, the sense of humor is frenetic but manages to let the reader catch up, and even the momentary self-insert is played self-deprecatingly for comedy. If you have ever wanted an adventure story that is just straight-out flat-out fun; with engaging characters, a good sense of humor, and a self-aware quality that engages the reader rather than ironically detaching them to poke fun at itself, this is your book. I love it, I thoroughly recommend you should buy it, and then once you've bought it, press it eagerly into your friends' hands with only a meaningful look and the words "read this".

(Complete review after the jump)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Quick State of the Blog

       I was hoping we could get through another few months without one of these, but sadly that time has come again. I've had a really rough week emotionally, and I need to take a little time to sit back and relax. Because of this, the post is gonna be late, something like Sunday or even Monday. I just haven't been able to settle my brain down enough to hammer things out, and with the stuff going on, it's just too much too fast.

The post will be up this week. Just check back in another few days or so when I've had enough time to process everything.

Sorry for the delay.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Demi-Monde: Winter

"Whatever happened to 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law'?"
- Norma Williams

          I will at the very least give Rod Rees this about his book The Demi-Monde: Winter. He is an ambitious son of a bitch*. In his debut novel, he takes cyberpunk, melds it with a certain post-steampunk sensibility, adds some nasty historical tones, some outright horror elements, and flings it all headlong into our laps without so much as a casual "look out". He tries, and he tries very, very hard. You can tell there was quite a bit of effort that went into The Demi-Monde, and that Mr. Rees wanted to make this an ambitious epic full of narrow escapes and frightening terror. He wanted to make the threats real and the story one that twisted and turned, with betrayals and an actually competent villain who won more than they lost. He wanted an epic, and that's what he tried to write.

        You'll notice a lot of "wanteds" and "trieds" in that last paragraph. If you think that's an accident, I regret to inform you it is most certainly not. 

        The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees is the story of a virtual reality environment used to train soldiers in "asymmetrical warfare". In the environment, the Demi-Monde of the title, technology is locked into the year 1789, and the world is split into several areas, each ruled by a different faction. Each faction has their own leader, a "dupe" of a real-world historical figure. The world is also crippled by warfare so that each faction has an immediate reason to go to war with the others, simulating the real-world conditions of asymmetrical warfare environments**. The biggest and most dangerous of these factions are a bunch of war criminals (and inexplicably, Aleister Crowley***) named the ForthRight. Due to some mysterious circumstances, Norma Williams (the President of the United States's daughter) gets herself trapped in the Demi-Monde. When this happens, the US military sends a young jazz singer named Ella Thomas into the Demi-Monde to save the First Daughter and bring her to the only remaining exit in a mission that I am completely justified in describing as "far too reminiscent of Escape from L.A.****, only with virtual reality".

         Ella is transported into the Demi-Monde to inhabit the role of a dupe that looks like it could be her spitting image, and is given the mission of navigating a world ruled by incurable psychopaths and inhabited by sentient programs used to a culture of betrayal and brutal politics to save Norma and, as things escalate, possibly the real world itself. But if she wants to survive, she will have to navigate several plots and counterplots, as well as two revolutions and the surprisingly savvy maneuvers of Heydrich's forces to find the exit and escape. 

         And I'm not going to lie, the book is interesting, and the right kind of trashy, but it's just so very bad. It's like finding the rare un-enjoyable B-movie, a book that desperately wants to be so many things and tries so hard to reach an ambitious narrative and thrilling pitch...but then falls flat on its face. And slides along like a stop-motion man in a student film. The issue with Rees's writing isn't so much that there's not a good plot in the whole mess, oh no, there are the makings of several good plots in The Demi-Monde: Winter. The issue is that they're buried in the five hundred page disaster that is the published book.

           But I'd be remiss not to present evidence. So why is this book a disaster?

        Well, let's start with the issues in Rees's writing. While there is nothing wrong with the technical side of the writing, there are serious issues with the tone and level of exposition Rees has decided to adopt. The tone alternates between actual writing, massive info-dumps on the denizens of the Demi-Monde, and historical in-jokes. Historical in-jokes that then have info-dumps explaining the nature of the in-jokes and why we should find them funny in case we don't actually know who these people are and how clever the author is for making the jokes. And then there are the neologisms and portmanteaus he uses. Oh god so many neologisms and portmanteaus. About half the concepts introduced have stupid names attached. This is just poor writing****. Furthermore, when the actual history and personality of the real-life figures veers from what Rees wants them to do, he waves his hand dismissively and does a half-assed job of explaining it away. The most notable of these is his take on Aleister Crowley, Crowley simply dismisses some of the quotes and acts attributed to him when they're brought up and continues on his way as an evil Nazi sorcerer.

         Since it's a nice segue, let's look at his characterization next. It's terrible. Ella's pretty much a Mary-Sue****** who swings between being a mouthpiece for the author's own views half the time and being irritatingly contrarian towards everyone she meets the other half. The other characters are equally inconsistent, seemingly adopting modes and attitudes as the plot requires and then abandoning them at the most convenient times. One in particular, Trixiebelle Dashwood, winds up growing out of her initial bratty upper-class character into a fine example of a strong woman, only to regress the moment the plot calls for her to be a brat again. The only characters who seem to develop or be at all thought out are a psychic con man named Vanka Maykov, and Baron Dashwood, Trixiebelle's father. But, of course, since the book isn't about them and they can't take any snobbish and sanctimonious stances on sociopolitical matters, the author has them both as secondary characters. Everyone else tends to be historical and inconsistent, or underdeveloped and inconsistent.

            Furthermore, the characters tend to be idiots. Ella frequently forgets what she's allowed to do with her powers and what plans she can make with them, abandoning them for the good of the continuing story. In the two most blatant examples, knowing full well that there's an evil plot afoot, Ella does nothing to try and circumvent it whatsoever. This becomes especially obvious when she's given a literal deus ex machina to play around with and instead of using the damn thing to make her goals that much easier, she instead completely ignores any possible options that would bring a swift end to the conflict and instead goes for the ones with very little impact. She has every advantage given to her, and yet instead of using them properly, she just conveniently forgets she has ways to circumvent the laws of her current reality. 

         Which leads us into the plot. Of the several plots going on, there are exactly two worth exploring-- Ella and Vanka's attempts to run a short-con on Heydrich's forces to spring the President's daughter, and the building rebellion in the Demi-Monde. Neither of these emerge until at least halfway through the book, and while each one would make a lovely book on their own, as a whole package, they suck. The plots do intersect and wind up dovetailing quite nicely, but both of them would have been much stronger on their own. As a whole, they merely wind up weighing each other down. It's like Rees couldn't decide between those and the numerous subplots he tries to introduce, so he tries to keep them going all at once. To add to this ADD theory of plot explosion, the various factions in the Demi-Monde seem to act a certain way only when it suits them. One of the final plot twists hinges on a non-aggression between two groups who are so ideologically opposed that any agreement between them is impossible, simply because...the plot says so? Things seem to happen more or less for this very reason.

           And finally, the ending. Or rather, the lack of one. Since this is the first book in a four-book series (and we'd have to assume a four-book series...this one's winter, the next one's called The Demi-Monde: Spring, and Rees has said the last book will be The Demi-Monde: Fall.), Rees has decided to end Winter on a cliffhanger where everyone is almost very nearly dead and/or routed. But it seems like a cop-out. He doesn't bother to resolve anything, just sort of lets the loose ends be loose ends with the empty promise that all of this will be resolved by the end of the series. Well, I highly doubt it.

           I suppose in the interest of objectivity, I should say that there are a lot of cool ideas in The Demi-Monde. I love what he's done with the world and the cultures, and it all feels like there's a good book in there somewhere. My issue is that the book that could be and the book that we wound up getting are two entirely different books. And since I can't review the book that could be, we have this book. Hopefully he'll have a better editor for the next three. 

        So in the end, don't read this book. Give it a miss. If you have to read it, wait until he finishes his little "masterwork" and then either steal it or pick it up from the library. I, for one, will certainly hamstring Mr. Rees in both his legs and make him crawl to the top of the Guggenheim Museum if he ever pulls something like this out of whatever festering hole he found this particular heap of offal in. He should know better, and if he doesn't, someone needs to teach him.

PHIL AND KAJA FOGLIO'S Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess

Noir by K.W. Jeter
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
and other articles and sundries.

*For those of you who follow me regularly, I think I may have given the game (and my verdict) away using an expletive so soon. Don't tell anyone, would you? I certainly won't.
** Think of it as Civilization V on downers with a steampunk mod.
***A man who, despite being called "The Black Beast" and apparently being a massive creeper, has done more to further knowledge of mysticism in the modern era more than anyone, and believed more in open liberation than repressive theocracies. 
***You see? You see? Rod Rees couldn't even rip off the good Escape movie.
****And if anyone'd know, it'd be me. I've done this before, and was soundly trounced for it.
*****Contrary to popular belief, Mary-Sues are allowed to fail at stuff. And do. I don't know why people keep thinking otherwise.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Secrets of the Fire Sea

"And every so often, it's time for you to stand up and take responsibility for your own actions."
- Badger-headed Joseph

                I've wondered for a while now why I seem to like Stephen Hunt's novels of strange pulp fiction, but by the same turn seem to dislike most retro-future and steampunk novels. Part of it could be that, as I said, steampunk is very hard to get right, with most people simply pandering to the airships-and-cogs crowd. But I think the answer lies a little deeper than that:

The best steampunk writers, in my opinion, don't strictly write steampunk.

               Now, part of this has to do with steampunk being more or less a broadly-defined genre. For a book to be steampunk, usually it's science fiction transposed to the Victorian era with some minor magical elements to tie together how in Hell a society can do all the things they can when the only devices they have are steam-powered. On the surface, it seems like a very simple definition, and one in my youthful folly I claimed wasn't that hard to screw up. However, it appears that simply stopping with that is pretty much what separates the good from the bad.
              F'rinstance, take Secrets of the Fire Sea. In this book, we have elements of pulp adventure stories, high fantasy, hard SF, detective stories, cyberpunk*, post-apocalyptic fiction, and about six or seven other things I may have forgotten that just wound up all wrapped up in there. It's probably got some elements of cosmic horror and, well, regular horror there, too. Stephen Hunt isn't content to just stop with one genre of fantastic fiction, he has to have them all. And use them all at the same time

              Secrets of the Fire Sea takes a new direction for Stephen Hunt's Jackals Sextology**, not setting any of the story in the Kingdom of Jackals and playing with its many devices, but moving the action to the island of Jago. Jago is an island nation with a single city comprised of hermetically sealed vaults in the middle of the titular sea. The nation is home to one Hannah Conquest, a young mathematician who wishes to join the Rationalist Circlist Church. Hannah lives with her guardian, the Archbishop of Jago, until suddenly the Archbishop's murder**** leaves her indentured to the sinister Guild of Valvemen and forced into a power struggle almost centuries in the making. At the same time, a group from Jackals comes to Jago to investigate both the murder of the Archbishop, and the research left by archaeologists who died under mysterious circumstances. Naturally, the two plots split, and interweave, and finally come crashing together in a brilliant fury at the end of the book, an explosion of steam-bots, battle scenes, and sentient bears.

           Oh. Yeah. There are sentient bear-people in this. It's a little jarring at first, especially since there aren't many sentient non-human races in Hunt's novels, but you get used to them pretty quick. 

           What makes this book worth reading, however, is the sheer staggering amount of stuff in the novel. Stephen Hunt's always been an imaginative author, and the world of Jackals hasn't ever gone without its share of cool concepts, and this book is no exception. Jago's defenses and power plants (which hew closer to dieselpunk than steampunk) are heavily detailed, and the familiar grotesque nature of the world is definitely on display-- the Valvemen all seem to be dying from radiation poisoning, the "stained senate" is governed by a senile man with a foot fetish, and the cities are being swallowed up both by the sea and the feral beasts beyond the walls. The hacking sequences, too, are all very lovingly detailed, short on mathematics but still holding true to most of the conventions of actual hacking-- long commands and mathematics rather than flailing wildly, and the idea that it can't do everything.

         Another great thing about Stephen Hunt's books as a whole is the characters. Hunt will usually take minor characters from his work and turn them into major characters in others. In this one, Jethro Daunt and his companion Boxiron become major players, as well as a research assistant from The Kingdom Beyond The Waves. The fact that these stories do feel like parts of a larger world where every character plays their own part in different stories helps to tie the sense of the world together, and definitely helps with the overall plots of the book.

          However, there are a few issues. Hunt can't seem to stick to one plotline, or even one set of villains. While in previous books the plot twists were set up in advance, here the plots tend to come out of nowhere and change without warning. Literally the last hundred and thirty words had me yelling "What?! No!" as I tried to make sense of exactly what was going on. The book cuts back and forth too quickly, and the main villain for most of the first half of the book suddenly and without warning is neutralized and shrugged off. They spend the rest of the book more or less as a persona non grata while other factions come out of the wings. The final plot twist is actually so random as to count as nonsensical. On top of this, Hunt cuts around too damn fast. There are even some plot elements he just drops completely. F'rinstance, what's the whole deal with the creepy chamber in the basement of the Guild's stronghold? Never comes up at all.

        The other problem I have is how Hunt handles death. With a precious few notable exceptions, most characters in Hunt's novels are pretty much dumped unceremoniously without a second thought, leaving characters who have sometimes been with you through the entire book suddenly tossed off the page without a second thought. Hunt has done this before, in Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and it was just as annoying then as it was now. In particular, the character he does it with deserved a much better death, once again.

         But in the end, despite the plot's breakdown and all the silly twists and character deaths, this is a book worth reading, especially if you enjoy steampunk or pulp-style adventures. It has some imaginative ideas, some very good setpieces, and while it's lesser when compared to the previous novels in the series, an iffy Stephen Hunt book is still a damn good book. Maybe not a must-buy and read for everyone, but a good read nonetheless, and an essential book for fans of the series.

The Demi-Monde: Winter

Good Omens as a classic review. So I can see what I think of it twenty years after its debut, and ten years after I read it.
The Half-Made World

*Victorian-age computer hacking! All over the damn place!
**Writing that word makes me feel dirty...maybe not as much as his abandonment of the really cool cover scheme he had going until he swapped publishers, but still. 
***What is his deal with all these orphans? Seriously. 
****Once again, spoilers be damned, they say so on the farging dust jacket

Saturday, August 4, 2012


      I figured since I'm having an issue on which book to next bring you guys a review of, I'd explain why I do this blog. It's a topic I haven't gotten into, and I've always been a bit shameless, so here goes:

      I am good at probably two things, talking and writing. From what I hear, I write competently. From what I know, I also talk all right, though it's been getting worse because of some nonspecific anxiety. I've been told I'm good at these things for a long time, though I don't actually believe it myself. I'd like it to be true, because it'd mean my dream job-- a job where I could do what I want without being bothered or having to take shit from a lot of people-- would be that much closer. Now, this is a dangerous affair, as jobs where talking well and writing well are concerned tend to be at one of two extremes without a lot of middle ground: either your job winds up sucking (Tech manuals! Sales! Cold-calling!) or you job winds up being kinda awesome (Acting! Writing! Spoken word! Gonzo journalism! Regular journalism!). Either way, it takes a combination of luck, skill, and a lot of persistent effort on your part to pull off, even at the low end. There's a discipline involved. The internet's kind of fooled us into thinking anyone can be an overnight sensation, and it's never really been that. This shit, my dears, takes work.

       But chances are if you're reading this, you already know that. You're well aware it's a discipline and not one that comes easily, and even if you've got skill, you could go nowhere with it or any number of things. Which brings me to the reason for this blog. I want to go somewhere with this. Eventually. I want to improve my style and the way that I do things. And the easiest ways to do that are by continuing to write on a regular basis, building up the discipline I need to actually tackle the longer forms of written works, and by thinking about what makes the books I like to read worth reading. If I think about what I like and what makes a book good for me, then I'll have a better idea of what to do in my own fiction. If I don't like a book, I know what to avoid by reviewing the book and figuring out all the reasons I don't like it. 

     On top of which, by continuing to write reviews, I'm slowly developing a voice and a style of saying things. This isn't as important in fiction, where you have to adopt several voices for different characters, but giving one's work a sense of personality and style is pretty important in non-fiction works, where it becomes important to be distinct. Any mope can tell you about their day or what they're doing right now, or how much fun an event they went to was. Most people have this skill. But the truly interesting ones know how to make that worth reading, worth showing to other people. So I'm developing that, too, getting the right rhythms down and all of that. Making the dreck I write worth reading, weeding out the smugness...you know, the usuals.

        The other reason I'm doing this kind of ties into a bigger discussion I should have at some point about the role of critics in the art and entertainment world, but that's kind of a long thing to get into here, and kind of off-point, so we won't completely hop on that bandwagon. 

         See, I read. A lot. Maybe not as much as I used to since I've been out of school and got the internet on a regular basis. Maybe not as much as those nights where I'd sit out on my front steps and then before I knew it, it was dark out and I'd kept reading until the front lamp came on. And I like a lot of the books I read. This leads to me talking a lot about the books I read, and this would be where the blog comes in. People eventually got tired of me talking about every book I read, sometimes even forcing it into their hands, and so one of them, my father, asked me why I didn't just start reviewing them online?

         I'd thought about it, but due to the caustic nature of the internet critic world, and the idea people have about "critics are just people who aren't good enough to write/act/sing/make stuff themselves and instead tell other people that they're doing it wrong", I hadn't wanted to get into it. But then I realized:

        There are a lot of books, and a lot of people who read out there. And I'm going to be reading a lot of these anyway. And no one can possibly find and read all of the books that they'd really dig. They'd have to be omniscient or something simply to find them all. But, if I provide a view of a niche, then there's a chance that there's something someone put down, or something someone hasn't even thought of trying to read. And that? That is cool. That is something worth doing, to provide people with books they haven't read, or maybe a perspective on a book they put down. 

      So that's why I do this. A desire to improve my non-fiction writing the best way I can, and to show the people I know some cool books they may not have heard of on a more credible platform than just waving it at them and going "readthisreadthisreadthis!" I hope I've given a bit of insight into things.