Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading in February

Abercrombie's latest is blood soaked, grit under your nails fun – the kind of fun that's had watching two big groups of men smash into each other for three days and watching their honor, morale, and bodies fall to pieces, all described in starkly modern and sarcastic prose. The book's structure was interesting, and it will certainly be enjoyed by fans of Abercrombie's prior work, though I don't think that he's yet managed to reclaim the revelatory power of The First Law.

 Reading an established author's debut is often an interesting experience, as well as a somewhat worrisome one. Are you going to get to see an unfettered and fresh version of the brilliance you've grown to expect or will it be a sodden, meandering mess? In the case of Consider Phlebas, it's a bit of both. Review coming.
The Face that Must Die is a deeply unpleasant novel, a nightmarish trudge through a deranged and hateful mind, a novel filled with innocents who seem unable or unwilling to save themselves and predators that are twisted, loathsome, and, above all, human. It is, in other words, damn fine horror. Review coming.
 As I said after finishing the first Sandman collection (Preludes & Nocturnes), I simply don't understand how the early issues can be immature compared to the later ones. The Doll's House more than the first collection shows signs of relative immaturity, and there were some weaker moments, but if the rest of the series truly does put the beginning volumes to shame it will have to be quite mind blowing indeed. Review coming when I finish the series.

I've had a fairly mixed experience with Hamilton. He's written scenes and arcs that I've loved, and scenes and arcs that I've hated, and so far I've yet to read a book he's written without at least one of each. This, his debut, is a rather different beast. It's far more focused than his later works, though fans of the author's imagination will probably not be disappointed by it here, even if his creations are a tad reigned in. Still, I'm so far unconvinced that the Greg Mandel novels are capable of the same highs as the Night's Dawn trilogy. I suppose Hamilton's still got two books to prove me wrong. Review coming when I finish the trilogy.

 Noctuary is a quieter, subtler work than Songs of a Dead Dreamer was, though it's not quite as refined as Teatro Grottesco. Perhaps the most interesting part of the collection was the final part of three, a collection of a good deal of Ligotti's flash fiction. Besides those miniature tales, Conversations in a Dead Language proved to be my favorite of the collection, a devastatingly sad tale that's fairly unique in Ligotti's catalog. Review coming.

 I think it's pretty well established by now that I read Ligotti's work twice, and Noctuary was no exception. On second read, slower building tales like The Medusa and The Tsalal came into their own.
City of Ruin reads like a supercharged version of Nights of Villjamur, expanding on the strengths of that first novel and patching up many of its weaknesses – though that is not to say that it fixes all of the debut's problems. Review coming.
 This is the kind of book where you finish and then have to mull over what you've read for hours, reveling in the spell woven on you. Palmer's writing is excellent, and his story's deliciously bittersweet. Though it had some pacing problems, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is an excellent read. Highly recommended, just don't expect anything even approaching typical.
 To make sure that, after my rather scathing review of Frankenstein, I hadn't simply lost all affinity for classic horror, I went back and reread a dozen or so of Poe's finer tales and  found them just as fine the second time around (though, to be fair, it's closer to the fourth or fifth for a few). While I can't say that I'm as devout a follower of Poe as I am of Lovecraft, his mastery is undeniable.  The Masque of the Red Death, in particular, is pitch perfect, a bare handful of pages that couldn't be improved by a collaboration of the genre's top artists given a decade to improve as much as a single image.

 I was excited going into Frankenstein. No, really, I wasn't setting out to spear the classics. I was expecting a stunning read, a book that showed the origins of one of my favorite genres, a book that scared me, a book that made me think. Instead, I ended up bitterly disappointed. Review here.

Catherynne M. Valente's prose is versatile and opulent, and her writing is a tide of images that bears hapless readers to distant, often beautiful and often traumatizing, shores. Ventriloquism is a spellbinding collection, and, since much of its contents can be found online, there's no reason at all to not go immerse yourself in some of Valente's short fiction. Review coming.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some Changes...

I generally don't like doing State of the Blog posts, as I'm assuming that no one gives a shit, but there are a few things I want to address that can't be subtly woven into the fourth paragraph of my next review. So, anyway, onto business:


I'm going to be commenting as Nathaniel Katz rather than The Evil Hat from now on, because the latter moniker felt distinctly odd in some places. Not a big change, but I figured I'd just throw it out there on here.


It's occurred to me that doing a full length review for every issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine and others was a bit of an odd way to go about things and would also take a rather disproportionate share of review slots. Instead, I'm going to do a more informal piece shortly after the publication of each issue. Speaking of which, could that be the March/April issue on my desk? What a happy coincidence!


Is no longer up and coming, as it has deemed to be nonessential. As evidenced by how delayed each of those posts was getting, I was finding them to be more and more of a chore, and I'm not seeing any benefit from putting them together. When it comes to books off the beaten path that I spot heading this way, I'll still be sure to say something, but I don't think that anyone's gaining anything by me pointing out that The Wise Man's Fear is coming.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I Am Number Four [Movie Review]

I Am Number Four the movie is based on a 2010 genre debut of the same name, nominally written by "Pittacus Lore" and implicated in the whole James Frey debacle of recent history, though I do believe that it predates the remarked upon incident. Perhaps, if you read that book, the events here make sense, but the movie itself is nonsensical. I Am Number Four is clichéd, but the real insult is that it's so rushed and slapdash that it can't even manage to execute its clichés. This is a mess from start to finish, generic and confusing, riddled with plot holes and thoroughly forgettable.

Let's start with the back story. The planet Lorien was destroyed by the evil Mogadorians, and the nine remaining Loriens have fled to Earth (because). The Loriens are exactly like people, only they have weird growths on their legs. Each of them is numbered, one through nine. Each of them is guarded by a warrior from their home world, which might make you think that there are really eighteen Loriens, but…there aren't. Because. Those warrior guardians are armed with knives, because guns are for pussies, and none of the nine know any of the others. The Mogadorians – who look just like people, only with tattoos on their heads, gills (though they're not aquatic), and snake teeth – are hunting down the nine in numerical order (because), and the nine are the only ones who can stop the Magodorians (because). The Magodorians, by the way, are, we are explicitly told, not there to "colonize" new worlds but merely to "decimate" them. Oh. Sounds like a worthy goal.

The overarching story, like the individual scenes, is set up purely for effect. If the Magodorians just want the end of the human race, there doesn't seem to be much stopping them from just bombarding us and the Loriens from orbit, but, no, they're going to come down and fight their knife-wielding foes with ineffective fisher price laser guns. This philosophy is reflected in their every encounter. In the opening, we see Number Three die when Magodorians surround his wooden shack in the woods. Instead of, say, burning it down around him while he sleeps, they decide to knock on his door, go hide behind some trees, and then go on a merry chase through the woods to hunt him down. Sensible.

Alright, maybe I'm not being fair to I Am Number Four. A passion for spectacle's not exactly a penchant for pedophilia, and so what if the back story isn't that well considered. It's perfectly possible to have a good science fiction film that focuses on the characters...

In case you couldn't tell, that last paragraph was a set up for me mercilessly bashing the characters and plot of the picture. I Am Number Four ruins whatever promise it might have had (if its back story had, hypothetically, given it any) by jerking the plot this way and that to ram in ever illogical cliché of the last few years that it can. The characters here are archetypes, often archetypes taken to ludicrous levels, and the movie makes no attempt to elaborate on them in any way shape or form, trusting to the audience's familiarity with the concepts to provide all the necessary emotion and soul. Frankly, almost every bit of character interaction makes the viewer feel like they've missed half an hour of film in which any of this was set up.

Number Four – alias John Smith (clever…) – is determined to go to school, even though his protector Henri thinks this is a bad idea. Seriously, the alien wants to go to high school. In case you were thinking that I Am Number Four's high school would differentiate itself, the movie swiftly disabuses you of that notion. Moments after walking in, our character meets: A. the quirky love interest; B. the bullies, complete with obligatory prior relationship to love interest, shoving people into lockers, and police chief fathers; and C. the nerdy but smart kid who the bullies pick on.

Let's look into our quirky love interest first. She's defined by liking photography. These are the scenes in which she and John interact: she guides John to his locker; he sees her during recess; he meets up with her in town and they have dinner; they meet up again and discuss how they can think of nothing but each other and could never contemplate separating. It's mind blowing. It's like the movie knows how obvious the romance is, so it doesn't even bother trying to set it up. When John predictably tells Henri that he's not moving again because he loves Sarah, it took me a few seconds to realize that he wasn't being sarcastic the whole thing was so by the numbers.

Tying into the Quirky Love Interest is I Am Number Four's treatment of technology. This is a movie set in the 21st century, and iphone product placements won't let you forget that. And yet this is the 21st century as portrayed by someone with a very, very vague grasp of technology. The tone is set when Quirky Love Interest is berated for posting pictures of people in school online without the subject's express permission. Sorry, Mr. Stock Principle, but if that was illegal most of facebook would be felons about now. More glaring by far is the amount of attention that I Am Number Four thinks people pay to random high school web sites. John's picture being on Quirky Love Interest's site is a massive security breach, but the true horror comes when there's a video of him reacting to Number Three's death up on some random conspiracy theorist's site. Within a day, the bad guys have found the video and picked up on his location. But then again, maybe I shouldn't be expecting technological sophistication from a movie in which Henri takes John's picture, searches the internet for matches using that picture, and then deletes all those matches at the touch of a button.

But technology's not important in a Science Fiction movie. What's important is a good group of bullies. These guys are a crude parody of overdone movie bullies everywhere, right down to throwing a football at the nerdy kid's head (in keeping with the rest of its style, I Am Number Four differentiates that scene from the norm by making it even more over the top). But that's nothing to what's to come. Just before John Smith and his Quirky Love Interest declare their eternal love, they're at a carnival. Unbeknownst to them, the bullies spy on them the entire time with night vision goggles – then the bullies leap out of the shrubbery and attack en masse. Unsurprisingly, John beats them up, but this is one of those moments where a villain's plan is so colossally bizarre that it's almost better for them that it got foiled. Was a group of high school kids seriously using military hardware to carry out an assault followed by a kidnapping? What?

Finally there's the smart kid. First off, the kid's generic, but I doubt that will come as much of a surprise by now. More bemusing is the fact that the writers of the film evidently confused science geek with science fiction geek. Now, mind you, I like Science Fiction. I've even got this whole blog here to prove it. But it's not science, and it alone is not an indicator of intelligence. Sam is not good in school, and he shows no hints of intelligence. He just believes in UFOs. Fabulous, someone give this kid a Nobel Prize.

But enough about the characters. They're all as set up as they're going to get. Let's get to the plot. The movie, determined to work in every overdone idea possible, then shows us John struggling to control his newfound powers. In a better movie, I might call this an overused metaphor of strange abilities and adolescence, but we don't even reach that point here; one scene of jumping around and our boy John is a master. Whoop de doo.

Now, I won't spoil the story, but John and company are overpowered enough to turn the Mogadorians into standard action movie fodder, and all further danger comes from them conspicuously forgetting about their powers. Various events make no sense, various characters act completely out of character, the awful combination of school drama and alien invasion is unsubtly brought to a climax with the final battle taking place in the school, there's one bizarrely horrific scene, etc. The important thing is that the movie reaches an ending that promises a sequel and answers none of its own questions, and, more importantly, that the audience can now politely get up, leave the theater, and then go do something worthwhile with their time (like, say, write a scathing review).

So was the movie completely worthless? No, there's one scene where the genocidal aliens make faces at kids in a car and freak them out. That was pretty funny, and I'm sure it'll be on youtube before too long. Besides that, yeah, it's a total waste of time.

I went into I Am Number Four knowing nothing about it but that it had something to do with the lovable Mr. Frey. I came out with my non-expectations thoroughly shattered. This movie is cliché, shallow, stuffed with poor characterization and plotting, and bleeding from a dozen dozen holes. Avoid.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Player of Games

"This is not a heroic age," [Gurgeh] told the drone, staring at the fire. "The individual is obsolete. That's why life is so comfortable for us all. We don't matter, so we're safe. No one person can have any real effect anymore."

"Contact uses individuals," Chamlis pointed out. "It puts people into younger societies who have a dramatic and decisive effect on the fates of entire meta-civilizations. They're usually 'mercenaries,' nto Culture, but they're human, they're people."

"They're selected and used. Like game pieces. They don't count." (p. 22)

Player of Games is a book of layers, intricately constructed and meticulously engineered. Ferociously clever, Player of Games manipulates reader and character as one and makes its mark through its shifting focus and through what's there just off-screen to be either interpreted or rendered inconsequential. At the same time, it also manages to be a damn fun book.

Like most Culture books, Player of Games is not focused on the utopian Culture. The novel's main setting is the Empire of Azad, a brutal and imperialistic place focused on exactly what the Culture is not. In the Empire, people are defined by their status. Position in worth in the Empire are decided by the game of Azad, a game so complex and challenging that it is believed to be an accurate representation of life itself. The winners in the tournament rise in their careers, and the ultimate winner becomes the emperor.

Of course, a game to determine the emperor is a concept so bald facedly absurd that it's hard to approach it seriously, a metaphor so obvious that it seemingly loses all effect. In order to make the game work, Banks needs to draw a fine line – a step too far into the alien renders the concept comprehensible but unaffecting, a step too far to the familiar renders it absurd. This is a line that Banks walks well. Creating a world where everything is decided by a game would serve to cheapen and render silly the rest of the world. That's not what Banks has done. Instead, Banks has created a world of games within games, with only one of the layers being so brazen as to announce it as such. Azad society and interaction is itself artificial, devised and constructed, and it soon becomes clear that, in many ways, the Empire did not shape a game to resemble it but rather shaped itself to resemble a game. As a high ranking Azad official says two thirds of the way through the book, the Azad try to live according to the laws of God, Game, and Empire. (p. 220)

Azad is rendered exotic by several means beyond the game, some of which work better than others. Their society is divided into three sexes - male, female, and apex - but the division feels generally superficial, more for differentiation's sake than anything else; the apex's are human males for all intents and purposes. Still, such things are ultimately inconsequential when the feel of an area comes through as well as Banks depicts the Azad cities. For the majority of the book, we're cut off from the mainstream of Azad life as Gurgeh broods in hotel rooms and dominates in stadiums, but the moments when he enters the city at large are excellently rendered barrages of bizarre imagery:

They half walked, half ran down twisted wooden corridors, past many rooms and doors. He was lost in a maze of sensation; a welter of sounds (music, laughter, screams), sights (servants, erotic pictures, glimpsed galleries of packed, swaying bodies) and smells (food, perfume, alien sweats). (p. 160-1)

Coming from the Culture to the Empire of Azad, the "Player" of the book's title, is Gurgeh. Gurgeh does not fit in with the Culture, his very nature running counter to its central tenants. Left adrift in the Culture's post-scarcity society, Gurgeh has tried to give his life meaning through games. He has risen to the top of his field, and yet contentment did not follow success. Gurgeh lives for the rush that comes with winning a game and values himself according to his status and possessions; amidst the Culture's benevolent state of enlightened near-anarchy, Gurgeh is left with nothing he can truly achieve. When Gurgeh joins the Azad tournament, the competition's eventual turn into an ideological struggle is an obvious development, but that doesn't render it any less powerful. Walking through its cities, Gurgeh's viewpoint of the Azad is startlingly negative, and the events seen, the almost absurd pace with which atrocities are on occasion thrown at the reader, feels almost blatantly manipulative…

Which, of course, it is. The Culture may be benevolent, but it is surely not a fan of live and let live ideals. The fact that the reader is aware of the Culture's manipulation and the narrator is not does little to change its effects; the Empire of Azad is a horrifying place, and the reader cheers as the Culture targets the tyranny within it. But that's not to say that this is a black and white read. Reading the final pages of the novel leaves the reader with a feeling of deep ambivalence. It's near unquestionable that the Culture's society is "better" than the society of the old Empire, and yet this was not the natural movement of progress but rather liberty at the point of a foreign sword. While they may have been the "good guys," it's difficult for the reader to get over the final images of the Culture's Special Circumstances quite literally playing games with other civilizations, no matter their ultimate intentions.

Player of Games is far from the only intelligently crafted Banks novel. Far from it. In fact, you could even say that admirable structures that subtly reinforce the novel's theme are sort of Banks' thing. A more up in the air element is, sometimes, how the already referenced clever structure restricts the novel's success at being, you know, enjoyable. Matter, for instance, was arranged in a way that excellently highlighted the various levels of power at play – an organizational strategy that rendered the finale utterly unsatisfying even while it was intellectually interesting.

So how does Player of Games fair when it comes to the more visceral aspects of any novel, namely the reader's reaction to the characters and their drive to continue reading? Quite well, as it turns out. I wouldn't say that Player of Games is always as much fun as Surface Detail, but the novel also manages to accomplish far more. This is the best integration I've yet seen of Banks' two sides, namely the Let's Discuss Ethics, Right, and Motivations side and the Let's Build A Huge Space Ship With a Ton of Guns one, and the whole thing is spiced up by Banks' humor. While he's not as openly jocular here as in some later works, this is still a book that refrains from taking itself too seriously, something made abundantly clear by ship names like Gunboat Diplomat and So Much for Subtlety.

As Abigail Nasbaum noted in her review of the novel, Player of Games is structured like a sports story. Though there is the occasional – generally brief and not particularly satisfying – action sequence, the mainstay of the novel is the game of Azad and Gurgeh's struggles, both in-game and out, against the Empire's various master players. When dealing with a fictional game the rules of which are never disclosed, it's frankly a miracle that Banks manages to make Azad not only interesting but gripping enough to sustain the novel and draw the reader on.

Of course, most sports stories have a rather obvious conclusion: in the end, the good guy, the underdog, is going to win. It's possible that that's a statement more of my inexperience with sports stories than it is of the genre itself, but it still seems like a reasonable bet that the sympathetic guy who just happens to have a camera/author behind him every step of the way has slightly better odds than the antagonist when push comes to shove in the last scene. Furthermore, the revelation of Culture and Special Circumstances having been involved all along is roughly as surprising to the reader as the revelation that the trade paperback wasn't copied out by hand.

But this isn't a plot focused book in any sense of the word, something made abundantly clear by the lackadaisical pace of the opening section. This is, instead, a story of themes explored via characters, and Banks succeeds admirably at both of those goals. Gurgeh is not precisely likable, a result of his frequent callousness and naiveté, but he is still sympathetic, and the society of the Azad is vivid enough that the reader will read on for every new scrap of information they get. Moments do drag here and there – most noticeably at the several points when Gurgeh just figures he'll sit back and let things play out – but none of those moments are anywhere close to fatal.

Player of Games is a masterful science fiction novel, one of the clearest examples of Science Fiction as a vehicle to explore ideas and ideologies that I've ever seen. This is a thought provoking novel that will thrill you while it troubles you, and this is (so far) the best novel I've read by one of Science Fiction's most imaginative and intelligent authors. Essential.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Night of Forgotten Horror

Last night, after arriving at a condo in Vermont at around two in the morning (it seems New York and Vermont are kind of fair apart), I sat down by a window and took out my copy of Thomas Ligotti's Noctuary. It was late, but I was looking at a brightly lit expanse of snow that, right as it passed a particularly tall tree, seemed to stop and leave nothing but night beyond, and the atmosphere was far too good to pass up.

I read Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel. As I read, I got increasingly freaked out. It felt like, above that layer of visible snow, a mist was gathering, and my heart and mind were both racing when I finished the story. I lay awake for some time afterwards, not able to get the tale out of my mind.

When I woke up, I had no idea what I'd just read. I remembered the experience of reading it, and I remembered the story's title, but I hadn't the slightest inkling as to what the story had been about. When I reread the story that day, I learned it was about dreams, and, amid those dreams, landscapes of mist:

In the very last dream I had of this type, I was wandering amid a few widely scattered ruins that seemed to have arisen from some undersea abyss, all soft and pallid from their dark confinement. Like the settings of the other dreams, this one seemed familiar, though incomplete, as if I was seeing the decayed remnants of something I might have known in waking life. For those were not time-eaten towers rising around me, and at my feet there were not sunken strongboxes crumbling like rotten flesh. Instead, these objects were the cabinets and cases I remembered from that room in Mrs. Rinaldi's house, except now this memory was degenerating, being dragged away little by little, digested by that mist which surrounded everything and nibbled at it. And the more closely I approached this mist, the more decomposed the scenery of the dream became, until it was consumed altogether and I could see nothing but that sparkling, swirling vapor.

This wasn't a particularly important experience, admittedly, but it was certainly an odd one. I think that I might keep my Ligotti readings to the day time for now, though I doubt that resolution will quite make it to nightfall.

If you're interested, Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel is available for free here

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mary Shelley - Frankenstein

Frankenstein's a classic, and I'm sure that most of you reading this will have either read it or at least heard it discussed. Shelley's novel is very interesting both from a historical perspective and in how it approaches the horror genre. Frankenstein is a book, however, not an interesting piece of memorabilia, and my high expectations while reading it were not so much matched as smashed to pieces.

When compared to other classic horror authors, Shelley’s outlook is interesting in that it seems to be one profoundly antithetical to horror. Shelley’s world is a fascinating place passionately described. Landscapes, waterways, and glaciers are all rendered vivid at the stroke of her pen, and there is a vastness to her settings – to the waters which, at one point, bear her protagonist haplessly away from his destination or from the freezing arctic where both the tale’s frame and conclusion takes place. All that might be superficially relatable to the feeling of the world as a dangerous place that one gets with many horror authors, but while Shelley’s world is a dangerous place, it’s never a frightening one. That’s not to say that Shelley does not attempt to invoke fear, mind you, but her fear comes entirely from what’s known to man, from what man creates. The natural world here is, at times, both invigorating setting and potentially lethal setback, but it is never the enemy itself, and there is never the claustrophobic feeling that Shelley’s world is populated by the unknown. Her  horror comes purely from man, a horror that is frightening precisely because it comes from man.

Shelley is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Lovecraft (who tackled similar themes in Herbert West - Reanaimator). Lovecraft took a resolutely rational approach to portraying the irrational, an atheist evoking towering monstrosities to show just how empty our world really is. Shelley, on the other hand, takes an irrational route to portraying the rational. Shelley's writing isn’t precisely spiritual, but she does constantly invoke the supernatural with regards to chance, motivation, and the outcome of events (It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter destruction. (p. 23)), all the while making her monster strictly scientific and rational in nature, albeit impossible by any natural laws. The romanticism of the text – the feeling that the world is something vast and wondrous all around us to be felt and experienced – shifts for the chapters that the monster narrates. The monster is scientific in his outlook, piecing together our world from observation and trial and error. There is a lot of stumbling around in these sections, and the outcome of the monster's tale is rather obvious, but these sections are still by far the most powerful of the book.

Everyone knows the basic story of Frankenstein, I think: Victor Frankenstein makes a monster from dead flesh, and the monster's not the nicest of fellows, though one must admit that it's rage is somewhat justifiable. The key flaw in Frankenstein is the near total lack of tension, caused both by wordiness and a horrendously loose plot. Shelley's prose is very much driven by the character's emotional state. Her writing latches onto an event and circles around and around on it, pontificating at such length on the most minute matters that it soon manages to loop around entirely and contradict itself. On page 141, we learn that: As the period fixed for our marriage drew nearer, whether from cowardice or a prophetic feeling, I felt my heart sink within me. Then, on the very next page: Indeed, as the period [of our marriage] approached, the threat appeared more as a delusion, not to be regarded as worthy to disturb my peace, while the happiness I hoped for in my marriage wore a greater appearance of certainty. (p. 142) Both being terrified and undisturbed, now that's a feat of cognitive dissonance, Victor.

As for the actual plotting, one would be able to reach roughly a hundred of this book's hundred and sixty-seven pages and assume it had nothing whatsoever to do with any monster. In the author's reprinted foreword, we learn that Shelley intended Frankenstein to be a short story but was persuaded to make it a novel. The signs of filler are everywhere; the book is an exercise in the most lax plotting, and bloat practically bursts forth from its seemingly slight page count.

The novel's frame story is a man exploring the arctic who stumbles upon Victor in pursuit of his monster. Those opening pages are told through letters from the man to his sister. But here's the catch: Frankenstein is not spotted until page eight, and his story does not begin for several more pages. The opening scenes of the story are spent setting up the frame character who is almost wholly irrelevant to the novel. It's a slight matter, admittedly, but it's a sign of the excess to come.

Frankenstein is ashamed of his creation and does his best to try and put it out of sight and out of mind. That's totally fine. It's believable and shows every scene of leading to personal struggle and all that. But it's taken to absurd lengths. Frankenstein flees his apartment when he creates the monster, and then proceeds to do nothing about it. It only really becomes important again when he's about to lead a friend into his abode: I dreaded to behold this monster; but I feared still more that Henry should see him. (p. 38) Bringing dead tissue to murderous and horrible life is upsetting, sure, but if our friends saw it'd just be too much! Read a bit too fast and you might be left with the impression that Frankenstein isn't worried so much about breaking all natural and moral laws but rather the playboys he might've left in plain sight.

Perhaps I should give Victor a bit more leeway, though. After all, he'd just been subjected to a rather bad shock. Shortly after, he comes down with a debilitating fever, and maybe we should excuse him for his actions. In fact, the book seems to be looking up. He's heading back, and it seems that something terrible has happened n his absence. If this was the only instance of bizarre nonchalance, it'd almost not be worth mentioning. But it is, of course, not the only instance. Far from it. Frankenstein is a master of fretting. He has perfected the art of completely ignoring the monstrosity he's created for pages on end while he does absolutely nothing, all the while thinking about how he must hurry to resolve the situation before it rends him and all he loves limb from limb.

The worst example of this comes when Victor  takes a multi-month sightseeing tour of the United Kingdom. This section is infuriating. Perpetually horrified, Frankenstein takes the time out of his busy schedule to visit tourist attraction after tourist attraction. These are, every one of them, described. Not in terms of the plot, or even in terms of how the character feels about them. Nope. We just get to have brief history lessons: We passed a considerable period at Oxford, rambling among its environs, and endeavoring to identify every spot which might relate to the most animating epoch of English history. Our little voyages of discovery were often prolonged by the successive objects that presented themselves. We visited the tomb of the illustrious Hampden… (p. 117) It goes on like that. For pages.

Sadly, when Frankenstein does come around to the point, it's not much better. Now, there are effective sections. The problem is that they're few and far apart. The majority of the books climactic scenes drown whatever genuine emotion there was to be found in torrents of melodrama, obscuring tragedy with phrases like: The human frame could no longer support the agonies that I endured (p. 129). The core of the novel is never described to the reader. Any chance of us developing our own terror of the monster is smothered by Victor's awe inspiring gushing.

The issue is not truly the scenes of action themselves but rather Frankenstein's general personality. He responds to every event with rapture or terror; he is incapable of concluding the simplest sentence without an emotional exclamation point, a habit that's rendered even more grating when coupled with his indecisiveness. When first confronted by the monster's demands, he says: "I do refuse it […] and no torture shall ever extort a consent from me.[...]" (p. 104) Then, after a single page, he admits: I was moved. I shuddered when I thought of the possible consequences of my consent, but I felt that there was some justice in his argument. (p. 105) The end result of such effusive dialogue is a thundering hesitancy, a narrative filled with grand declarations that, ultimately, amounts to nothing at all.

If Frankenstein had been written last year, I would have declared it turgid and sworn never to read the author again. As it's a classic, however, my disappointment's mixed with incredulity. Frankenstein is not bereft of virtues. The premise is excellent, but it's horribly executed. The monster's perspective was interesting, but it's highly digressive (even if less so than the main narrative). And so on. Frankenstein may be worth reading for its historical value, but, as a novel, I found its every page miserable.

[Note: all page numbers from the Dover Thrift Edition]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Arkham Asylum’s principle accomplishment is the one thing I was sure it would fail at: the player really feels like Batman, and, when I say Batman, I don’t mean your average guy wearing tights, but rather the semi-invincible master-at-everything who can take the matchup Batman v. Anything and Everything and win every time.

A big part of that is the fighting system. One man is never a problem in a hand to hand fight with Batman, so the game becomes more about crowd control, combos, and flow than the specific trading of blows. The sheer power that is impossible to not feel as you twist through the air from one end of the room to the other (landing to savagely smash a criminal down with a beautifully rendered spin kick, and then leaping off again to drive your fist into the skull of another foe on the other side of the room) is immense, but what makes the experience is the feeling of dancing on the tip of a needle. You’re invincible unless you fuck up, but a single misstep yanks back into normal time, where everything runs like sludge and it feels like everyone in the room is about to break every not-so-fragile bat-bone in your body.

Unfortunately, that feeling is an illusion. Batman has a prodigious amount of health, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the combo system should never have any trouble with the campaign’s fights. Later on, the game tries to remedy this by the inclusion of knife and baton armed thugs, but both only succeed to badly break your flow for the first two appearances and then simply become targets to take out as soon as possible, before you resume your general rampage. To make matters worse, the Challenge maps offer exactly what the campaign fights needed: huge swarms of enemies, a leap so obvious that I’m unsure how whoever did the details of the campaign maps never thought of it. Unfortunately, you’re likely to discover the Challenges after doing a quarter at best of the main game, and once you play those adrenaline-infused fights for long enough to start getting thirty hit combos with ease, the toughest encounter in the campaign begins to seem like a laughable tutorial.

The other half of the Batman feel is the stealth aspect, though the developers have stated that they prefer the term Predator to Stealth; while that sounds like a meaningless distinction, it pretty much sums up those parts of the game. The first few times the player meets enemies armed with guns, they freak the hell out. Suddenly, there’s a foe that’s so much stronger than Batman that the difference between the two is almost comical. And yet, after an encounter or two, the player is ready to strike from the shadows, orchestrating traps and pulling off hit and run tactics. It’s true that the stealth, like the combat, never really evolves from what it starts out as, but that’s far from a deal breaker, because it’s awesome to begin with. The Predator missions are, without a doubt, the highlights of the game, and I soon found myself playing far longer than I intended to because I knew there had to be a stealth section coming up, and I simply had to experience it.

Finally, exploration is quite fun. This aspect of the game is hampered by the general lack of respawning enemies when you respawn an area later, eventually making it so that exploration's more footwork than adventure. Still, the grappling hook is extremely well done, and flying down from some high perch is great fun (and is even better when there's some squishy inmate/mortal down there to land on). The game's collectibles are generally fairly well placed to be a bit of a challenge but not impossible, and most of the important ones (IE, the ones that unlock challenge maps) are easy to get without too much trouble, even if the occasional one will have you scratching your head with three different guides and two maps spread across your desk.

As for the game's story, it's about what you'd expect. It primarily serves to get all the villains roped in so that Batman can beat them up, and the ways in which that's done do occasionally seem contrived, but there're no obvious false notes, and the Joker is amusing enough to gloss over any weaknesses.

Every once in a while, events come to a head and the game throws a gigantic set piece at you. Now, this is a Batman game. The Batman universe is filled with fun villains. By all rights, the boss fights here should be awesome. They are not. They are terrible. The vast, vast majority of boss encounters go exactly like this: 1. Huge Enemy 2. Huge Enemy Runs at You 3. Throw Batarang and Dive Away 4. Huge Enemy Hits a Wall 5. Every Few Times Huge Enemy Hits a Wall, jump on its back and hang out for a little while.

Now, the initial Huge Enemy (Bane) fight wasn’t too bad. Generic, but entertaining. The fights with the other, more colorful villains were bad. Poison Ivy is defeated by throwing batarangs for about five minutes, dodging every once in a while. Croc is defeated by walking…really…slowly…for…a…really…long…time… and then hitting him in the face with a batarang. The first is banal, the second tedious. But those are nothing to the Huge Enemy/Bane-clone fights that are repeated again and again and again and again and again.

The absolute pinnacle of those occurs between two thirds and three quarters through the game. It’s two Huge Enemies v. One Batman.  Every thirty or forty seconds, one of them charges. You hit them with a batarang, and, when they hit the wall, they are stunned for something approaching thirty seconds or more. It’s absurd. The two almost never attack together. You’ll wait two or three minutes before charges, at times while they stomp around and occasionally chuck some slowing moving crud at you. Then, when you finally take away one of the three health bars that each of them have, you have to jump on that one’s back. If you don’t, it gets the health back…somehow. When you jump on its back, you simply ride it around for an ungodly long time with absolutely nothing to do. The fight took over half an hour (without dying), and it occurred to me near the end that, if I died, there was no way in hell I was ever playing that fight again. Thankfully I didn’t die, but I can safely say that that one boss battle was the absolute least fun I’ve ever had playing anything that dared to call itself a game.  

In the end, Arkham Asylum is a fun game. It’s got some good atmosphere, and I usually consider that the most important thing, but that same atmosphere stays exactly the same for the vast majority of the game. There’s a difference between being powerful and being immortal, and combat here often feels more like the latter, compromising the feel of the world while you sip your coffee in between attacks. Of course, those are the good parts, because when Arkham Asylum tries to break out of its own mold, it falls on its face so hard that you can hear the bones break. If you’re interested in Batman, or want to play a game with a great stealth concept, or just want some fun, you won’t be disappointed in this. Just don’t expect anything too great. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - Teatro Grottesco

For a time it was all rumors and lore, hearsay and dreams. (p. 177, Teatro Grottesco)

Teatro Grottesco is Thomas Ligotti's fifth collection, containing tales written throughout his career. Almost all of Ligotti's fiction is an attack on the same lines, a slander against just about everything in our world. Still, Ligotti is not an author content to repeat himself; his various stories approach his thematic mission in their own way. It's honestly debatable whether this is a horror collection at all, at least in the traditional sense. Monsters are almost wholly absent, and the suffering and violence present here is almost never the point of the stories and often takes place in the periphery if it's shown at all. But this is certainly a Ligotti collection, in many ways the fulfillment of the promise, the broadening of the vision, displayed in Songs of a Dead Dreamer. Teatro Grottesco is the author at the height of his powers, filling the reader with both awe and dread as the collection goes on.

Ligotti's name is rarely mentioned without Lovecraft’s also coming up in the conversation. The comparison is apt, but where Lovecraft strove to render humanity irrelevant when compared to the vastness of the cosmos and time, Ligotti seeks to attack us as individuals. Lovecraft’s ancient vistas and sunken cities are here replaced by industrial districts and offices, slums and small towns, corner cafes and backroom art exhibits. Ligotti’s work is precision targeted, built to attack and not bothering to sustain itself once its point is conveyed. The work in this collection is inimical and difficult to grasp, half-created oddities rendered seductive by flowing prose and immaculately stained atmospheres.

The opening story, Purity, perhaps best displays the almost unfinished nature of much of Ligotti’s work. The elements are all present, but they’re assembled out of order and connections are often pushed into the shadows and difficult to spot. The story seems, at first, to be about the narrator’s father and his bizarre experiments. In actuality, however, the supernatural elements of the story are merely a red herring, a tangent to absorb the reader's attention while Ligotti hits us in the back with a killing blow. Unlike many of Ligotti’s stories, the narrator is not a loner, and dialogue and relationships play a large role in the tale. Those various characters drift offstage as the story closes, leaving the tale’s meaning buried in brief pockets of exposition and a single off hand comment.

Many of the first section, Derangements, are similarly fragmentary. We are shown glimpses and images, brought into the picture when events are already well in motion but nowhere yet near ending. The Clown Puppet is one such story, a visit by the demon on strings that heralds all things in the narrator’s life. The Red Tower, too, is generally devoid of traditional structure. It is, I think, the pure essence of Ligotti’s beliefs and style. It’s a story without a single human element save for the off stage narrator, a parable for all existence written with moments of sly humor near-drowned under impersonal and inevitable imagery:

I can certainly picture a time before the existence of the factor, before any of its features blemished the featureless country that extended so gray and so desolate on every side. Dreaming upon the grayish desolation of that landscape, I also find it quite easy to imagine that there might have occurred a lapse in the monumental tedium, a spontaneous and inexplicable impulse to deviate from a dreary perfection, perhaps even an unconquerable desire to risk a move toward a tempting defectiveness. As a concession to this impulse or desire out of nowhere, as a minimal surrender, a creation took place and a structure took form where there had been nothing of its kind before. (p. 79, The Red Tower)

Sideshow and Other Stories is one of the two tales in the collection that is more mosaic than united narrative. Our protagonist, a writer temporarily unable to create, meets another writer in a café. The mainstay of the tale is five unconnected vignettes penned by the other, older writer. Where many writers go through extravagant lengths to insist mid story that the transpiring events are real, Ligotti openly takes us through flights of fancy within imaginary settings, tales told by fictional people about fictional things that lose none of their impact from their incorporeality. Ligotti's work makes its impact from its ideas, from convincing you that it is describing your reality, not from the actual nuts and bolts of its own construction.

Two of Ligotti’s "Corporate Horror" stories begin the second section, Deformations. In addition to the two stories here, I’d add The Town Manager from the first section to the list of the collection’s corporate horror; though it does not share the setting of the other two, it uses the same general techniques to establish the same feel.

The Town Manager depicts a small town where all work is assigned and directed by a Manager. As managers appear and disappear, the town disintegrates and the jobs grow bizarre, grueling, and reward-less. The disappearance of the first manager in the story is marked by the townspeople’s obsession with the Manager’s light bulb. Throughout the collection, characters fixate on either small details or seemingly insignificant objects, unable to look away while the world changes around them. The surreal imagery and disquieting oddities of the town are excellently depicted, but it’s the stories climax – the realization that there is no escape possible, and that the narrator’s town is only remarkable in how open it is in its purposeless manipulation – that cements the tale's power

My Case for Retributive Action is one of the collection’s strongest tales. The narrator is a nervous and broken individual from over the border, forced to work for the Quine Corporation to afford the medicine that he needs to keep functioning. The doctors, however, all work for the Quine corporation, as does everyone else on this side of the border (and, perhaps, on the other), and there’s no escape possible once the job is taken on. The familiar odors of cigarettes are banned in Quine’s storefront offices, while the smell of pickles permeates everything, further hammering home the senselessness of it all. Like in many of Ligotti’s stories, My Case for Retributive Action is plagued with a slippery and untrustworthy timescale, here crystallized with the “indefinite hours” that govern the schedules of Quine’s workers, those working in a workplace that (like ours?) has come to not only dominate, not only define, but become their lives.

The final corporate horror story, Our Temporary Supervisor, is one of the two stories in the collection that I found lacking. Like in the prior tale, our narrator takes what he assumes to be a temporary job with the Quine corporation, viewing the work as an unfortunate stepping stone on his way to bigger and better things (though what those bigger and better things are is as unknown to us as it is to him, a vagueness that many of Ligotti's narrator's goals seem to share). At the beginning, the corporation seems almost normal, but, as we progress, the emergence of the indefinite hours and endlessly frantic pace of the previous story emerges, and the narrator’s attempts to distance himself from the system are inconsequential in the face of its inescapable, unguided, and unnecessary productivity.

And yet, the very inevitability of the story plays against it. Deprived of even the possibility of another outcome, the monotony of ceaseless work becomes – well, monotonous. The supernatural aspect of the story, the temporary supervisor of the title that waits in a seemingly empty office as a dark ripple that may or may not have arm protrusions and head protrusions (p. 115, Our Temporary Supervisor), is an initially interesting image but ultimately feels undeveloped and never manages to instill a sense of fear or unease. In the end, Our Temporary Supervisor is somewhat interesting but wholly lacking in emotion, retreading the ground of the prior two corporate stories without making half of their impact.

The final story of the second section is In A Foreign Town, In A Foreign Land, the second of the two mosaic stories, previously published as its own collection of four stories. This is the most abstract piece of the entire collection, almost wholly devoid of actual motion or characterization, instead relying almost wholly on language and ambiance. The four interconnected stories are about a “northern border town” (the same border that was crossed in the Quine stories?) that seems to lie between death and life.

Names take on a very special significance here, as they do in many of the other stories in the collection. Especially in the first story, His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House, the people of the town seem to understand the world around them only through names, through attempts to quantify the unknown into the manageable and easily identifiable. Epithets abound here, characters introduced through their prior deeds without the slightest hint of what lies within them.

IAFTIAFL is about what’s beyond. Beyond the setting and the rare recurring character, the stories are united only by their mood. The stories each approach that theme in different ways and with different central characters, while just what is beyond is itself shifting. These are expository in nature, contemplation and “metaphysical lectures” drifting about a core established by vivid and bizarre imagery:

Now I could see the parade approaching. From the far end of the gray, tunnel-like street, the clown creature strolled in its loose white garments, his egg-shaped head scanning the high houses on either side. As the creature passed beneath my window it looked up at me for a moment with that same expression of bland malevolence, and then passed on. Following this figure was the formation of ragged men harnessed by ropes to a cage-like vehicle that rolled along on wooden wheels. Countless objects, many more than I saw the previous day, clattered against the bars of the cage. The grotesque inventory now included bottles of pills that rattled with the contents inside them, shining scalpels and instruments for cutting through bones, needles and syringes stuck together and hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and a stethoscope that had been looped about the decapitated dog's head. The wooden stakes of the caged platform wobbled to the point breaking with the additional weight of the cast-off clutter. Because there was no roof covering this cage, I could see down into it form my window. But there was nothing inside, at least for the moment. (p. 161-2, A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing]

The final section, The Damaged and the Diseased, contains more traditionally Ligotti stories, but these tales are polished to an artistic sheen, at once beautiful and terrifying. This story cycle of overlapping themes and hidden artistic societies is one of anticlimaxes. In each story, Ligotti manages to both chillingly evoke a subtle and powerful menace – a conspiracy, a monster preying on artists, a hidden master – with sufficient skill as to render those surface stories excellent on their own. And then he goes further, deconstructing everything about the tale in just such a way that, as the last visages of storytelling crumble before your eyes, you realize that your life is just as destitute, as meaningless and hopeless, as that of the cycle’s narrators.

Throughout the collection, Ligotti revels in repetition, many of his stories endlessly circling the same phrases and images, unable to escape, building to an inevitable climax like water circling a drain – though a sewage pipe might be a more fitting image. This repetition shows itself in almost every story of this section, but it’s Severeni that truly epitomizes the technique, building to a fever pitch in its final pages. The entirety of the final cycle too has a rhythm, one formed of recurring themes and personalities – if not names – and it’s one where the familiar is felt to always be lurking just out of sight, never to appear.

As I said earlier, the tales in this collection are more “complete,” presenting us with problems and characters and bringing situations to a head in a way that those of the first section and I A Foreign Town, In A Foreign Land so pointedly neglect to do. All the same, these are probably the most depressing of the Ligotti stories that I’ve read. Purity undermines the things that bind us together, but these tales eventually undermine everything that makes us who we are as our various narrators strive to better themselves, their quests (unsurprisingly) ending in a failure as crushing as it was unavoidable. The title story savages artistic aspirations; Gas Station Carnivals (my favorite of the collection) memory, our sense of self, and those around us; The Bungalow House our fundamental ability to form any meaningful relationships with the people in our lives; Severini our own person; and, finally, The Shadow, The Darkness our motivations and consciousness, our world. The stories each attack a different aspect of us, striving to leave us, in the end, forced to conclude, as the narrator of The Bungalow House does:

First, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (p. 238)

Though there is more action here than in prior sections, the stories are still primarily tales of mood and atmosphere. Up until its conclusion, The Bungalow House is a story delivered through artwork, the “Metaphyischal Lectures” fluttering on pamphlets in the northern border town of In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land the stars of the story.  Gas Station Carnivals, too, is centered on imagery, on a series of bizarre festivals in isolated gas stations, one of the many almost comically absurd images in the collection that are rendered vivid by Ligotti’s prose.
In the collection's title story, the narrator remarks: Suffering through the days and nights of an illness, especially an intestinal virus, one becomes highly conscious of certain realities, as well as highly sensitive to the functions of these realities, which otherwise are not generally subject to prolonged attention or meditation. (p. 191, Teatro Grottesco) Illnesses, both intestinal and otherwise, plague Ligotti's various narrators. The final section is rife with them, some discomfort time and time again either the symptom or cause of a worldview profoundly delusional falling away.

Earlier in the collection, other ailments play a similar role. Frequently, as the supernatural becomes more pronounced, Ligotti's narrators try and compensate by becoming more and more focused on the mundane, the mechanical. As the metaphysical visitation at the heart of The Clown Puppet builds, for instance, our viewpoint character finds himself almost hypnotized by inanities: [I] looked away from its pale and pasty clown face and its dead puppet eyes, gazing instead through the medicine-shop window and focusing on the sign in the window of the meat store across the street. Over and over I read the words BEEF-PORK-GOAT, BEEF-PORK-GOAT, filling my head with meat nonsense, which was infinitely less outrageous than the puppet nonsense which I now confronted. (p. 65, The Clown Puppet)

The Shadow, The Darkness is the capstone of the collection, one of Ligotti's longest stories, and several of its scenes are horribly powerful. The ending – an out and out plot twist, a rarity in a Ligotti story – is well done, as are many of the stories images, but the tale is let down by the verbosity of its principle character, Grossvogel. Grossvogel is, to some extent, supposed to be a rambling and unfocused man, and so his lectures are not precisely out of character, but they do grind the tale’s pace to a halt to such an extent that even the narrative ending is not enough to invigorate it. It's still certainly an interesting story, but it's not one nearly as powerful as those that preceded it.

As I said in the beginning of the review, Ligotti uses his varied work to approach similar themes in different ways. Interestingly enough, that concept doesn't only apply to broad story ideas. There are several aspects of work that the author has returned to time and time again, honing and refining them. In that vein, Teatro Grottesco is host to several interesting overlap with the author's nonfiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which was released three years after the Mythos Books edition of Teatro Grottesco. In The Shadow, The Darkness our narrator finds himself conversing with the author of a manuscript called An Investigation of the Conspiracy of the Human Race. (p. 272, The Shadow, The Darkness), and readers of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race may recognize the Bungalow House quote from a few paragraphs up (First, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (p. 238)) as an early version of its form in that later book: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know.

 Such things aren't particularly important in and of themselves, but they do show – along with the revisions that Ligotti is doing for the Subterranean Press editions of his stories – that Ligotti is an artist perpetually evolving. Still, even in the midst of an upwards trend that one can only hope will continue indefinitely, there are great places reached at which one can stop, look at what's around them, and see it for the masterpiece that it is. Teatro Grottesco is Ligotti's most mature, most focused and most polished collection. This volume is perhaps the most accomplished work of his career. If Subterranean Press does reissue Teatro Grottesco, I'm curious to see Ligotti's revisions, because, as it stands, Teatro Grottesco is the rare work that is almost pitch perfect, every word doing its part in weaving the author's insidious spell. This is Ligotti at his most assured and his most persuasive, essential reading both for the converted and the curious.

[Note: all page numbers from the Mythos Books hardcover edition.]

Friday, February 4, 2011

Haruki Murakami - After Dark

My review of Haruki Murakami's After Dark is now up on Strange Horizons. I think the suspense of the whole matter (and yes, there was suspense) was broken when I mentioned that Strange Horizons had purchased one of my reviews a bit back, but it's still a damn fine day. I've already spent about half an hour staring at the thing (it says my name up at the top of the screen; how's that even possible?) but you guys are free to look too.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

K.J. Parker - The Engineer Trilogy

K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife is the story of an amoral man’s life who, during his ruthless rise to power, ends up greatly benefiting his society. After hundreds of pages of us seeing his callous beneficence, he says:

 "A hundred of my predecessors tried to make the world a better place…They tried so hard, we’ve had poverty, economic collapse, and so many wars I lose count. My approach is, I try and make money for myself in a way that benefits the Republic." (p. 192, The Folding Knife)

The words sum up the entire novel, throw everything into a new perspective that illuminates every event of the text. The ideas have already been proven to us at that point, all that was left to do was to articulate what it was we’d just been shown.

The Engineer trilogy is, in many ways, The Folding Knife structured in reverse. In The Folding Knife we see Basso as an uncaring man who does great things, and then we learn why that is so, the theme of the book revealed once the supporting evidence is irrefutable. In the Engineer trilogy, on the other hand, the theme is an announced mission, a thesis statement; Vaatzes believes that people are machines, and he will manipulate them like machines (thereby proving that they are no more than lone cogs in a greater structure) to get back to where he was before his exile.

But theme does not work in reverse. Fiction is not science. You cannot show us what you mean to prove before you prove it, because in fiction the author is God; when the author can do literally anything that they can conceive, their evidence is worthless and fabricated, and it’s almost impossible to view anything they show us as anything but manipulative when you know from the start that they're trying to manipulate you.

And so it is in Devices and Desires. We are told that the characters are nothing but tools, and so we view them as nothing else. Everyone but Vaatzes appears subhuman, an automaton whose only unknown quality is just who is pushing them around. Scenes with Vaatzes become tensionless things, the reader just waiting for him to shove everyone around him over and stride off their cardboard corpses.

In almost any other book, I would chalk such a structural mishap up as an interesting failure, perhaps add something else the author did to my amazon wishlist in the hope that they figured out the proper order later, and move on. It’s not so easy to do that to the Engineer Trilogy, though, and the reason is that, exempting the untimely revelation of Vaatzes’ worldview, the trilogy is excellent.

The realization happens towards the end of the first book, and the realization is that, after hundreds of pages of Vaatzes calling events perfectly, manipulating everything just so, the engineer is not infallible. A certain character acts in a fashion that, at first, seems startlingly out of character – but wait, the role they were not cooperating with was never one that they’d designed, was not something laid down by either the character’s own willpower or by authorial fiat; the rule broken was one of Vaatzes’, and, if Vaatzes could be wrong about that, he could be wrong about anything, the various components of his machine suddenly given back their humanity and resurrected from the fleshy detritus they’d previously seemed to be.

The realization invigorates everything that follows, making the question no longer how will Vaatzes accomplish his goals? but rather will Vaatzes accomplish his goals? with decent helpings of what are Vaatzes’ goals? and should he accomplish them? on the side.

The events of the trilogy can all be drawn back to Ziana Vaatzes and his flight from Mezentia, the Eternal Republic, a walled city of brilliant craftsmen that dominate the world without ever stepping foot beyond their own walls. To survive in the outside world, Vaatzes offers his skills to the Eremian people, who were recently shamed when they tried to attack Mezentia and were slaughtered by the Mezentine’s artillery. Faced with the exposure of their industrial secrets, the Mezentine government hires mercenaries from the old country to punish the Eremians and anyone else who dares try and break their economic stranglehold on the world.

Such an epic war could easily lead to your standard epic fantasy fair, complete with heroes leading brave armies, but the machinery that’s so central to the story handily slaughters that, waves of heroes dying at the duel hands of will-sapping economy and body-destroying industrial creations:

He'd been there when the volley struck the seventh lancers. First, a low whistling, like a flock of starlings; next, a black cloud resolving itself into a skyfull of tiny needles, hanging in the air for a heartbeat before swooping, following a trajectory that made no sense, that broke all the known rules of flight; then pitching, growing bigger so horribly fast (like the savage wild animals that chase you in dreams), then dropping like hailstones all around him; and the shambles, the noise, the suddenness of it all. So many extraordinary images, like a vast painting crammed with incredible detail: a man nailed to the ground by a bolt that hit him in the groin, drove straight through his horse and into the ground, fixing them both so firmly they couldn't even squirm; two men riveted together by the same bolt; a man hit by three bolts simultaneously, each one punched clean through his armor, and still incredibly alive; a great swathe of men and horses stamped in to the ground like a careless footstep on a flowerbed full of young seedlings. Just enough time for him to catch fleeting glimpses of these unbelievable sights, and then the next volley fell, to minutes of angle to the left, flattening another section of the line. He couldn't even see where the bolts were coming from, they didn't seem to rise from the surface of the earth, they just materialized or condensed in mid-air, like snow. (p. 62-63, Devices and Desires)

When it comes to industry, Parker is a master. It could be argued that she goes overboard in her descriptions of this or that technological process, and you probably will learn more than you ever wanted to know or are able to process about making pieces of ancient equipment that you didn’t previously know the name of, but the sheer inhuman power of siege weapons and economies are horrifically rendered here. They are greater than any one man, turning conflict from glorious struggles to battles of attrition and protracted, mutual declines broken up by periods of horrible annihilation like the one quoted above. The characters of Parker's world, and the reader, can't relate to destruction on such a scale (though we modern readers have long since eclipsed it), and such artillery can't be comprehended on its own terms, instead viewed as animals and isolated images, as a force of nature not unleashed by one man but rather sent down from the sky to slaughter them all, amoral.

The constructed machines are far from the only mechanical element of the series. Vaatzes’s machine analogy can be used to illuminate almost every aspect of the series, but what makes it truly interesting is that, though everything is precisely motivated and running on perfectly aligned tracks, there are wheels within wheels within wheels, and you can never tell where the true beginning of anything was.

In the end, it is love that motivates the various great and terrible leaders and men of the story. Their most human emotion deprived them of their free will, turned them away from their old paths, loyalties, and characters, and sent them off to change the world in ways that they never could have predicted. Their decisions, once made, cannot be retracted, and social constructions made for a purpose often soon turn unwieldy and threaten to crush their creator as surely as their creator’s enemies.

One of the most interesting characters is Duke Valens, the leader of Eremia’s ancestral foes, the Vadani. Vaatzes is the arch manipulator in the novels, but Valens is the one conscious of being manipulated, not by Vaatzes but by himself and his circumstances. In the first chapter of the book, we see Valens as he really is: an awkward boy, bored by matters of state, intimidated by hunting and its larger cousin war, and wholly unsuited to be a duke. When we next meet him, however, his father has passed away and the mantle of leadership has come to him – and he has forced himself to fit it.

Each of the three novels of the trilogy start with the same sentence: "The way to a man's heart[…]is proverbially through his stomach, but if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket." (p. 1). Each time, a central character is learning to fence and presented with the same problem: they must stab through the center of a ring hanging from a string. For Valens, the answer is to cheat. As he admits later, Valens does everything by cheating, by sidestepping the original problem and sidestepping the limitations of the man that the problem was presented to. Valens the man is useless and incompetent, but Valens the duke is a master hunter and strategist, an excellent diplomat, tireless, intelligent, and dedicated to his people.

The most elaborate, painstaking aspect of Valens-the-creation is his letters. He and Veatriz, wife to Duke Orsea of Eremia, have kept in communication with secret letters delivered by merchant couriers for years at the start of the story. In the letters, Valens communicates with quotations and elaborate phrases, and Veatriz falls in love with the man revealed there – a man with precious little in common with the boy that opened Devices and Desires.

The Ducas, Miel, is the opposite of Valens. The Ducas are a proud, noble family so bound up in tradition that their every move is dictated. Miel knows this, is aware of his utter lack of free will and inability to plot his own course, and yet he bows down to it, embraces it. Like Valens, Miel strives to dominate and excel at his position. Valens changed himself to fit his position, created a second identity for himself and always consciously turned to it when he had to make a decision. Miel, by contrast, simply changed himself. Valens toys with his image as a perfect duke. Punishing himself for his inner weakness, he has made himself a man endlessly fascinated with the trappings of power, with elaborate hunting trips and their like. At the same time, he probes the edges of what he's allowed – and often violates those edges – with his letters to Veatriz. Miel himself has no other desires beyond his position. When faced with a choice to either abandon their duty or lose everything that they love, Valens acted by instinct and, for a time, cast aside the restrictions that he placed upon himself. Miel, by contrast, has numerous moments throughout the series where he knowingly acts against his own interest, doing what the Ducas must do even if he would like nothing so much as to do the opposite. As he thinks in the second book:

You could fill a book – someone probably had – with the selflessly heroic deaths of the Ducas. Dying of thirst in the mountains, the Ducas gives the last mouthful of water to the rebel leader he's captured and is taking back to face justice; awestruck by the example, the rebel carries on to the city and meekly surrenders to his executioners. Fighting a duel to the death with the enemy captain, the Duacs gets an unfair advantage when the enemy slips and falls, to forbear to strike is to give the enemy a clear shot, which he's obligated to accept since he too is fighting for the lives of his people; the Ducas holds back and allows him self to be killed, since duty to an enemy overrides hid duty to his own kind. In such a book, there'd be pages of notes and commentaries at the end, explaining the complex nuances of the degrees of obligation – nuances which the Ducas understood and calculated in a second, needless to say. (p. 428, Evil for Evil)

By contrast, the Eremian duke, Orsea, is simplistic and earnest. He is a good man who always tries to do good to the best of his abilities – but his abilities are woefully inadequate compared to what he, as the leader of a nation, needs, and his best effort often falls horrendously short of what he would need to do to save his people. Orsea is sympathetic and occasionally painful to read about, though his self effacing perspective can grow tiresome on occasion.

The Engineer Trilogy's cast is conspicuous for its near total absence of female characters, a fact that (perhaps) plays into the speculations about Parker's gender. There are two prominent women in the Engineer Trilogy – Veatriz and Vaatzes's wife – but they are both completely defined by their relationship with the men around them. While on occasion formidable, there is never an indication that they have any true hidden depths of their own.

Parker’s world is as meticulously created as the rest of her vision. The different nations – the silver mining Vadani, the rudimentary Eremians, the sidelined Cure Doce, the far off old country, the arrogant Mezentines, the barbaric Cure Hardy – are all richly developed, and it's obvious that Parker put a great deal of thought into every aspect of their interaction, their trade routes and quirks intersecting with and influencing one another like the fine workings of an expensive watch. That being said, there's actually the feeling that everything is too neat. Every piece of the puzzle is so well integrated that they all feel essential, inevitable, making it hard for the reader to ever conceive of a different system, rendering a supposed history of huge wars bizarre and hard to picture. The Mezentine confidence in war feels fully justified, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that, for a people so dependent on exports, they're being a tad glib in their slaughtering of half of their potential markets.  In the final volume we do learn that there were other, long forgotten nations in the area, but it's too late for the knowledge to really impact our view of the world.

As I said earlier, the second volume, Evil for Evil, is where Parker really hits her stride. The Engineer Trilogy is shocking in just how much motion there is. The individual novels in the sequence really are world changing, and the picture that we end with is nothing like the one that we began with. Evil for Evil occasionally lags in pacing, but the characters are well established here, the plot gripping, and the stakes high. The novel's primary new thread is woven in somewhat clumsily – with not one but several dues ex machinas signifying its opening – but soon overcomes the stumble.

Evil for Evil also sees the introduction of the character Daurenja. Daurenja is, basically, your standard fantasy hero. He is brilliant, deadly, gifted at everything he attempts, and lucky enough to shoot up in the ranks like he was shot out of a cannon. Oh, and he's not a good guy (and wouldn't be even if Parker allowed such one dimensional concepts as 'good' and 'evil' into her work). Daurenja is a wrench in the works, a force of nature that will either bring Vaatzes's designs to head or shatter them utterly. This is the rare character in fiction that is a total enigma and yet somehow understandable, at once terrifying and witty, equal parts savior and executor.

The final volume, The Escapement, brings the final element of the narrative into play: the primitive Cure Hardy that are so numerous and warlike that even the Mezentines are scared of them. In fact, the Cure Hardy here become almost the center of the story, the ultimate change to all the players that ensures that, win or lose, the world will never be the same again.

In the first two volumes, both Duke Orsea and Duke Valens meet small numbers of the Cure Hardy and discover that a large number of their assumptions were completely off. When they finally step into the spotlight, everything seems poised for them to be as well thought out and fascinating as the other two races.

They're not.

The Cure Hardy, in fact, never step into the spotlight. They're the main motivator for just about every character in the third volume, and yet their actual presence is negligible; they're kept off screen and only briefly evoked in war councils made up of unnamed characters. The Cure Hardy are the only faction that we never get a perspective from, that we never even get a single sympathetic character from, and the omission renders them ultimately inconsequential in the reader's mind, regardless of their importance to the story. Without caring a whit what happens to them, the climax of the final volume, involving key questions with regards to the Cure Hardy's future, is – though outwardly satisfying – devoid of the moral complexity that it's obvious Parker was striving for.

Parker's prose throughout the trilogy is as precise and detailed as he engineers' plans. That is not, however, to imply that it is dry. Parker's writing is cynical, sarcastic, and at times hilarious to read:

He opened his eyes expecting to see the kingdom of Heaven, but instead it was a dirty, gray-haired man with a bug mustache, who frowned.

"Live one here," the man said. [Name] assumed the man wasn't talking to him. Still, it was reassuring to have an impartial opinion on the subject, even though the man's tone of voice suggested that it was largely an academic issue. (p. 24, Evil for Evil)

Or, later in the same book:

Which was, he reflected later, as he lay in the dark staring up, a bit like killing yourself to frame your enemy for murdering you; a sort of bleak satisfaction; looked at objectively, though, not terribly clever. (p. 544, Evil for Evil)

The Engineer Trilogy is an incredibly interesting work that's marred by several flaws. Still, this trilogy's highs are so powerful and well made that this is still essential reading for anyone interested in realistically constructed, morally complex, and well written epic fantasy.

[Note: Page numbers from Devices and Desires refer to the mass market, for the others, the trade editions.]