Saturday, June 26, 2010

Two Week Hiatus

As I write this, my comfortable desk has been swapped out for the not-very-nice seats of an airport waiting area. Ever since the middle of February, I’ve been doing my best to bring something out here every week, preferably more than one something. And preferably something worthwhile, too, I guess. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to fail in that for the next two weeks, as I’m going to be quite far out of New York and lacking the time needed to consistently write.

Seeing as I’m going to be gone for two weeks, I guess I might as well give you a little idea of what’s coming, in the hope that you all don’t delete this bookmark. When it comes to reviews, a mammoth look at Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is coming up, as well as a review of Adam LG Nevill’s Banquet for the Damned. And, while we’re on the subject of Nevill, there’s an interview with the man himself coming up in only a little bit. In addition, there should be more of the same, hopefully indepth and possibly insightful, content coming up. I’d say that’s worth sticking around for, no?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Night Shade Books Screws Over Author

Generally, large presses are viewed as corporate monsters, while the small guys are always, without a doubt, in it for their love of the genre. Well, situitions like this just got to show that just about everyone is in it for the bottom line, big and small.

Seamus Cooper, author of the hilariously titled Mall of Cthulhu, has been ripped off and deceived by Night Shade Books:

I was paid my advance for this book, but I have no confidence that I'll ever know if I'm owed more money. If I were to be owed money, I have no confidence that I'll ever be paid. Night Shade's business model appears to be disappearing for months at a time, offering elaborate apologies, and then disappearing again.

There seems to be little he can do, short of prohibitively expensive court battles, but that doesn't mean that the whole situation should just fade away. The Speculative Scotsman brought the issue to my attention on his blog, and I agree with him when he says that readers in general should email Night Shade at info[at]nightshadebooks[dot]com.

If you're one of Cooper's readers, or are interested, you can get some cheap-to-free fiction, as well as support an unjustly treated man, out of this whole thing. Cooper has made the kindle version of Mall of Cthulhu available directly through him, for only three dollars, and that's in addition to the free version here. If you've read Mall of Cthulhu, and are eager for more, Cooper is publishing the beginning of the sequel on his website, with a paypal option for those of you who are in a generous frame of mind.

Even if you've never heard of Cooper before, this is a good chance to both check his work out and support him with an email.

Dreadnought and Surface Detail [Cover Art]

Absolutely excellent cover, which serves to remind me that I really need to get to Boneshaker. Or, really, any steampunk at all.

And, on a wholly different note, we've got Iain M. Banks's new Culture novel:

I'm still not sure if I really like, or really dislike, that cover, but it's eye catching and interesting either way, so I guess it succeeded. I've heard so many good things about Banks, but still haven't really gotten into him. I read Use of Weapons last year, and while I found parts of it to be exceptional, other parts soured the experience quite a bit. And then, of course, I got the ending twist of Player of Games revealed to me by someone who assumed I'd read it. Still, I suppose I can't count that against the man, and I guess I'll give him another chance at some point.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ian C. Esslemont - Return of the Crimson Guard

We are so close. Queen’s Prophecies, the completion of the Vow is within reach! We can break them! Why then these doubts, these worries? None afflicted at the beginning. Everything was so clear then. the sides so cleanly drawn, our cause so pressing. Now, though, I can hardly muster the effort to go through with it. For whom did they fight?

As I said in my Night of Knives review, the thought of Esslemont sharing Erikson’s world has always made me nervous. Night of Knives managed to calm those fears slightly, but it was a different sort of novel, and filled with flaws of its own, so I entered Return of the Crimson Guard – a monolith of Erikson’s proportions – with more than a hint of trepidation. I wouldn’t say that Esslemont fails at crafting an epic here, but I wouldn’t really say that he succeeds, either. Esslemont’s writing style is highly developed in some areas, but is sorely lacking in others. As a result, your opinion of the book is likely to go up and down in tandem with Esslemont’s competence at writing the current scene.

Beginning a Malazan novel is always an upwards climb. You’ve got a few dozen plot threads and characters to acquaint yourself with, most of (or, in this case, all of) them new. In general, the beginnings of Erikson’s books are a myriad of half scenes, with the reader frantically trying to latch on as things escalate. The main part of this boils down to characterization and prose. Return of the Crimson Guard is the novel about the Malazan Empire, where Esslemont seeks to communicate the answer to all of our questions about it before both he and Erikson move, in large part, to foreign shores. More than being a novel about the high seats of Malazan power, however, it is, like every Malazan novel, first and foremost about the characters – some high ranking, but most low – that we see the events through.

In a novel with a dozen viewpoints, it’s absolutely essential for each character to have at least one distinctive trait that we can immediately latch onto, so that we can tell who the hell they are when they pop up again. At this, Esslemont is adept, but, when it comes to later filling in those stark outlines with details, he falls horribly short of Erikson’s standard. Almost none of Esslemont’s characters have any depth to speak of, ranging from clichés to empty shells that act for reasons that are impossible to decipher. It is telling, I think, that all of the characters that have any depth to speak of in this volume are not viewpoint characters and are, generally, viewed only from the periphery.

Compounding the problem of characterization is Esslemont’s prose. Though it’s never truly flawed, it lacks the richness and flowing nature of Erikson’s. It is, in short, a workman’s prose, there to get the ideas across and nothing more. As a result, the times in the text when Esslemont tries to awe the reader, such as another look at the jade statues from House of Chains, fall flat. The combination of the bland prose with the shallow characterization makes the beginning of Return of the Crimson Guard a true barrier. Once you power your way through the opening, however, Esslemont begins to play to his strengths.

Esslemont’s prose comes alive when he describes combat. All of a sudden, what was only a paragraph ago so much ho hum description, or what have you, lights up with new fire as soon as someone throws a punch. Esslemont’s style, in these scenes, becomes almost staccato, and you understand what his prose was going for the entire book. His grace at battle isn’t only on the small scale. Esslemont’s grasp of military battles and tactics seems excellent and is a joy to read.

The pacing of the last third of the book is the opposite of the beginning. Where the opening was starting a thousand different threads with no payoff in sight, Return the Crimson Guard ends with literally hundreds of pages of climax. Now, the amount is a bit excessive, and I won’t deny that it could’ve been stronger if some had been cut, but the jaw dropping confrontations, and the political machinations that go along with them, are by far and away the strongest part of the book. Esslemont adds layer after layer of complexity, sub plot after sub plot exploding at once, that it almost beggars belief.

And then he adds one too many layers, and it all sort of falls apart.

Return of the Crimson Guard is, fundamentally, concerned with the question of Laseen. Is she running the empire well, playing a deeper game than anyone realizes, or is she merely a pawn that exceeded her station? For most of the book, Laseen is Esslemont’s one unqualified success. The enigma of her character grows in the absence of any close viewpoints, and her plans become more twisted and more daring with each half step they take into the light.

The problem with Laseen’s climax isn’t the decision that Esslemont took. It’s his and Erikson’s world, and I can’t even begin to guess the causes or ramifications of the conclusion, so I’ll wait till I have that information before passing judgment on who did what. What is unforgivable, however, are the implications of what happens to Laseen. By making her oblivious of something that every reader, no matter how unobservant, knew for thousands of pages on end invalidates any intelligence that reader might once have ascribed to her. The remainder of her plan simply does not matter. Whether or not she was ever cunning becomes irrelevant, that act of ignorance leaves the reader forever unable to view her as anything but clueless.

Esslemont answers the question of Laseen’s plan, yes, but in a superficial, meaningless way. He checks “yes” and “no” to each aspect of her being, telling us whether she knew this and not that, or whether she was interested in him and not in her, but nowhere do we understand the character herself. The missing piece at the center of the novel turns out not to exist. The enigma is never penetrated; it is destroyed with its secrets intact.

Return of the Crimson Guard is a novel where the number of plot twists is only matched by the endless fluctuations in writing ability. Though he has a rocky beginning, and several very obvious shortcomings, Esslemont eventually overcomes his problems and draws the reader into his story. Night of Knives gave us the surface of Laseen’s climb to power, but we saw it from a cinematic perspective only; none of the depths of character or motivations were revealed. Return of the Crimson Guard promises to rectify that, and, for a while, it seems poised to do so. And then, Esslemont reverts to the same superficiality that his debut displayed, solving every question without understanding why we wanted the answers in the first place.

I haven’t given up on Esslemont. As long as he’s cowriting one of my favorite series, I’m not even sure that I can give up on him. I have, however, lost quite a bit of faith in him. I suppose I can only hope that Stonewielder is as much of an improvement on Return of the Crimson Guard as Return… itself was to Night of Knives. Or, failing that, that his treatment of my beloved Darujhistan isn’t as skin deep and superficial as everything that’s gone before.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Emotional Complexity and Disciple of the Dog

On his new blog, Bakker has posted about sentimentalism and emotion in general. He says:

The weird thing is that not all of us experience this [emotional] complexity. Introspective access to our emotions varies between people: some of us can see something of the messy bolus, whereas other only see unitary shape - ‘low-feelers’ I’ve seen them called. Perhaps this is why so many people can think that Britanny Spears provides profound commentary on the human emotional condition – why sentimentalism, cartoon representations of emotional complexity, can reek of truth for so many.

His words seem to make sense for the most part. After all, the differences in how each of us experience the same emotions are vast. Still, I'm having a bit of trouble reconciling this with another of Bakker's frequent points of argument, namely that we each flatter ourselves and rationalize our actions. If you hold that to be true, than how is it possible to say that people enjoy cruder emotional products because they are "low-feelers," immune to the complexity of their own minds, and that their method of feeling is therefor inferior, without it simply being an example of you flattering yourself and your emotional complexity?

Bakker reasons that people disliked Neuropath, then rationalized their dislike by saying that the emotional portrayals were over the top, when they were, in fact, simply beyond what those "low-feelers" were capable of understanding. And yet, how is what Bakker says not a rationalization in its own way? People called him out on a facet of his writing that they found weak, and he rationalized his usage of it to himself through the language of emotional complexity.

Well, regardless or not of whether I agree with some of what he says, Bakker's writings are always interesting, and I'm damn glad that he's regularly blogging, now (though I think his anonymity on it's rather blown at this point). What most interested me about the whole post, however, was the final paragraph:

Anyway, in my next book, Disciple of the Dog, I experiment with a kind pseudo-sentimentalism to see if I can’t simultaneously ring both bells. I’m curious to see how it works…

I'm quite curious to see how Bakker tackles both "layers" of complexity and whether he succeeds at doing so. Disciples of the Dog is one of my most anticipated books, though I'm a tad apprehensive about it. After all, for me, Neuropath's brilliance was only matched by its flaws.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

It's a June Miracle!

My father’s a big fan of Russian literature. Over the years, that’s led to some nice perks for me. At his advice, I read The Master and Margarita (which I’ve briefly gushed about on here), The Brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace. As I’m sure most of you will agree, that’s a pretty worthwhile crowd. Out of them, Dostoevsky’s probably his favorite, and he only lets off recommending Notes from the Underground when he’s pushing Crime and Punishment instead. Early last year, I noticed that I had a copy of Notes From the Underground (And two other short works, etc) in my possession. I assumed that he’d put it there, at some point, for me to read. At the time, however, I was reading something else, and I decided to get to it later. I promptly forgot about its existence.

I’ve been reading Crime and Punishment lately, and a fairly conservative rendering of my impression would be something along the lines of: Wow. Seeing as he was such a fan of it, I was discussing the book with my father one afternoon. He said that I should read Notes… next and went to get it. I began to tell him that I already had his copy, but when he came back he was holding something called Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, which was assuredly not the volume I had. When I asked why he had two, he said that he didn’t, and when I described the book to him, he said he’d never seen it.

I fetched the book and showed it to him. After a few seconds, a light dawned in his eyes. “This is the book I first read Dostoevsky in,” he said. “I lost it thirty years ago and bought this edition to replace it.” How did it end up with my stuff, if it was lost before I was conceived? I have no idea. What I do know is that both collections have, if one ignores Notes… itself, entirely different contents, so this all worked out quite well for me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I'm Sorry, Mr. Erikson, I Don't Think You Understood What You Were Trying to Do Here

I understand not liking a novel, of course, few things are more natural. If you wish to delve deeper, look into the novel’s core, and decide that what’s there is repulsive, well, more power to you. If you want to read the novel, understand its themes, decide they’re repulsive, and then rail against the unthinking fans that you believe are either misinterpreting or ignoring something that’s repulsive, fine; that’s well within your rights. What I don’t understand is how these things don’t stop with the fans, but rather how the blame returns to the author’s feet. How some people, somehow, think that the author has misinterpreted their own work.

Malazan is, as far as I can tell, made up of two different parts. The first is the one of vast scales, huge armies, and breathtaking feats of prowess and daring. The second is the subtler, thematic one that, whether you enjoy reading it or not, has existed throughout the series. But no. There seems to be a rather sizeable group that deny the existence of that second strand completely, that view the books as nothing but a comic book in novel form.

Anyone who argues this has to discredit Erikson in interviews. Well, that’s fairly easy, I suppose. Clearly, he’s just desperate for some respect and is deluded enough to think that his action movie has depth. Everyone ignore the fool, let’s move on. Wait, though, isn’t there more than Erikson’s word that he’s exploring themes like responsibility, duty, divinity, and the like? Aren’t there passages in the book that unmistakably show these ideas? No, no, there aren’t. Those passages are just accidents, you see. The Myhbe is a two hour cut scene, inserted via uncaught glitch into the middle of your Halo level. A slight accident, nothing more. Not an interesting idea by the author, merely a mistake.

Now that I’ve finished Toll the Hounds, this view has become, if possible, even more confusing. Toll the Hounds is, without a doubt, the black arrow of death to every one of these arguments, seeing as musings on redemption and the tale of an abandoned child take up far more space than climactic duels. But, once again, I – and Erikson – have got it all wrong. Toll the Hounds isn’t a second kind of book, disparate from the others, it’s merely a failed example of a seventh or eighth Die Hard film. Somehow, dismissing the book as bad allows Erikson’s attackers to ignore what it’s trying to do, to ignore that it is, quite obviously, concerned with more than fireworks. The book is, it seems, just another attempt at a riveting hack and slash adventure that went horribly wrong. A vapid book of war in which Erikson, somehow, forgot to mention the army. Whoops.

Perhaps someone reading this can explain this viewpoint to me, because I’m a bit lost? I’ve read again and again on Westeros that Erikson is nothing but a video game, that the series hasn’t moved on from its original role playing roots. Can someone explain to me how this view holds up in direct opposition to, not only the author’s own statements, but the text itself?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stephen King - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old. At ten o’ clock on a morning in early June she was sitting in the back seat of her mother’s Dodge Caravan, wearing her blue Red Sox batting practice jersey (the one with 36 GORDON on the back) and playing with Mona, her doll. At ten thirty she was lost in the woods. By eleven she was trying not to be terrified, trying not to let herself think, This is serious, this is very serious.Trying not to think that sometimes when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a near perfect book for the first two thirds of its narration. In the first pages, Trisha walks away from the path while on a family hike in the Adirondacks. The story follows over Trisha’s shoulder as she struggles to survive and find her way back. Every word in these scenes bleeds tension, and the book is impossible to put down.

After a time, we reach the middle section. Trisha’s story to survive is no longer quite as urgent – it’s become clear that she’s not going to be rescued in the next five pages, but she’s not going to be fed to a bear in them, either – but this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Building a narrative based on monotony’s always a dangerous move, for rather obvious reasons, but King successfully walks a fine line and manages to convey the crushing, deadly tedium of a world where you’re the only thing who’s had a thought more complex than “grrr” today, without the text becoming an exercise in willpower.

It’s in these sections where we see the first hints of the supernatural, but, whatever the monster that’s pursuing Trisha is, it stays well out of the limelight here. If the cover didn’t say Stephen King in such big letters, you might even think the beasty was just a reflection of Trisha’s terror and loneliness, the need for there to be some other agency at work in such a lawless place, even a malicious force being better than simple bogs and trees and flies.

During these pages the focus of the story is still very much Girl in the Woods, not Demons Killing Stuff. Now that the sheer terror of the earlier sections have subsided, King takes the opportunity to show segments of beauty as well as plight, further drawing the reader into Trisha’s journey through the wilderness. King cuts back on the flashbacks as the story progresses, while simultaneously deepening Trisha’s character considerably.

And then we get to the ending, and – who’s surprised? – it all goes to hell. At the end of a chapter two-thirds of the way through the book, I put the book down after reading for the past hour, absolutely enthralled. I have no idea where he can possibly go from here, I thought to myself. Well, it turns out that Stephen King didn’t know where he should go either. In a few dozen pages literally all tension bleeds out of the narrative. Maybe it’s yet another horrible obstacle, yet more hundreds of miles of forests, that breaks it, piling on one too many catastrophes for the result to still hold together. Or maybe it’s just that something like this couldn’t be kept up forever. I don’t know, but while I read the first two-thirds of the book in two sittings, this part took me four or five to muscle through.

In inverse proportion with the amount of tension there is in the narrative, you have the supernatural presence. When the Lost in the Woods episode begins to lose its luster, King brings the bogeyman to the fore – and everything falls totally flat. Not for the first time, a monster is what takes the sails out of King’s horror, beginning with the nothing-short-of-painful scene where Trisha talks to the representatives of the three gods, the intangible sub-audible, the loving God of Tom Gordon, and the evil-horror-terror God of the Lost.

In addition to the growing demonic presence, as The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon progresses, the endless procession of sayings – ranging from those obnoxious faux-adages, to TV jingles – only intensifies. King’s love of euphemisms is pretty well established by now, stretching back to his earliest works (remember the capitalized DIVORCE, in The Shining, for instance?). It’s not a bad thing in and of itself and is even quite endearing, at times. The problems come to the fore when clichés replace description, and truisms replace thought. As far as I can tell, Pepsi is the suburban equivalent of a fortune cookie generator, an utterly blank slate, save for an endless parade of prepackaged sayings. Acknowledging that something is hollow and cliché doesn’t make it meaningful again, and ironic winks grow tiresome when repeated ad nauseam.

I haven’t even mentioned the actual climax yet. [The rest of this paragraph has SPOILERS; if you want to be totally chaste entering the book, skip to the line break.] You know when you’re reading a book, you stop at the one quarter-or-so mark and laugh to yourself about how poorly the author could end it? The problem with reading a newer Stephen King book is that you’ll have a prediction…and then it’ll actually come true. For instance, what’s the worst way that a book about a girl being lost in the woods could end? Her being randomly found through no effort of her own, of course. To make matters worse, it comes right after what could’ve been a great ending. It was horribly cheesy, of course, but it worked. It was the kind of ending that tugs your heart strings so hard you just can’t complain. But no, cheesy-but-excellent wouldn’t be climactic enough, so let’s bring in the gun toting hunter. Why the hell not? Ugh.

The first two thirds of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are among the best pages that Stephen King has ever written. As I was reading them, I was mentally listing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon alongside great works like The Shining and It. And then, I read the ending and was forced to watch as everything I loved about the book was ravished and discarded. I don’t know whether I should recommend this book or not. It’s not the worst thing that King’s written, Everything’s Eventual takes that dubious honor with ease, but it disappointed me more than anything else he’s done. In the end, I think my recommendation goes like this…

Wait a minute. Haven’t I said all this before? Right here, in fact?? You know, I don’t know if I can even blame Stephen King anymore. The formula for his later books is pretty damn blatant by now: excellent characterization and pacing, followed by lackluster horror and a god awful ending. I should know what I’m getting into by now, right? By this point, writing that a late era King novel disappointed me makes me feel like I’m going to a restaurant I’ve always hated, every single night, and complaining that the same dish I’ve always despised hasn’t changed. Well, duh. I think it’s time to stop coming back. Next time I’m in the mood for King, I think I’ll reread Salem’s Lot.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Way of Kings Preview

A preview of one of someone's most awaited novel's should be a joyous occasion, right? Wrong. All it does is mark a long struggle with temptation, where it's-RIGHT-there clashes with but-it'd-be-better-with-the-book, usually culminating in either resentful abstinence or guilt ridden surrender. Assuming you're not me, however, and assuming you're interested in Sanderson's Way of Kings, the preview on Tor is probably the beginning of a gleeful introductory period with the book, hopefully culminating in a happy friendship, or maybe even love. Lucky bastards.

Oh, and make sure to read Sanderson's introduction to the book.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adam LG Nevill - Apartment 16

Horror is, quite possibly, the easiest genre to get wrong. It’s a genre based entirely on atmosphere. It has other elements, sure, but they all matter only as much as they contribute to the book’s mood, be it one of subtle unease or outright terror. A horror novel that lacks atmosphere is a nonentity, the equivalent of a science fiction novel set in modern New York City and following the wholly unremarkable life of a single commuter. Adam Nevill is aware of this. As Apartment 16 progresses, he builds its atmosphere brick by brick, gradually ensnaring the reader in his bleak vision.

Characterization in Apartment 16 is centered on the effects of Barrington House, and, to a lesser extent, London. Seth is a night watchman at Barrington House and an outsider. The other porters disbelieve his story about strange bumps in the night; the building’s millionaire tenants regard him as an incompetent nuisance; and the owners and other denizens of the Green Man, the bar in which he rents an upstairs room, barely know him. His only interest is art, but he hasn’t painted in months.

The presence in Barrington House reaches out to him and gives him his passion back, but, by showing him the world as it really is, it has immersed him in endless horror. Before, he looked out at the world with nothing but apathy. Now, everyone around him is grotesque and sadistic. He’s no longer trapped in his own world; he can see the city all around him, grinding him and everyone else down and turning them into monstrous caricatures of humanity:

Away from this. Oh God, to just be removed from this place that didn’t work. A city regenerating its timeless contamination through the misery of the occupants. That was how it found nourishment. By dousing hope and disturbing minds. By instigating crisis and breakdown. With the shock of poverty and the tyranny of wealth. With the eternal frustration of being late; the suffocation of mania and the binding of neurosis; the perpetual cycle of despair and euphoria; the stares of faces at bus windows; the mute absorption and quiet humiliation of the underground; delinquency and drink; a thousand different tongues snapping in selfish insistence. City of the damned. So ugly, so frenetic. And all beneath the white sun in the forever grayness of sky. Where the damned are swallowed and forget who they are. He loathed it.

Half detached and half revolted, Seth’s narrative is a gradual slide into dementia, and he’s aware of his descent every step of the way, unable to stop himself. Once it reaches critical mass, his story is one of horrible inevitability. His repeated attempts to flee are always half hearted. His consciousness is repulsed by what he is becoming, but it is clear that his is an obsession deeper than his own malleable desires. When he abandons yet another escape attempt, trying to fight his way through sickness in King’s Cross station, it is more akin to the slow slamming of one’s only escape route than a plot twist.

Apryl is the opposite of Seth. She’s new to London, having come from America to sell her wealthy, deceased, and estranged great aunt’s flat in Barrington House. Unfortunately, Apryl’s character is not as successful as Seth’s. Seth’s character can be very much envisioned on its own. Without any ghostly beings in the night, Seth would continue down his slow path of self destruction until he was exactly what all the other characters he saw in his fever-dream-existence were. Apryl, on the other hand, exists precisely as far as the story takes her and no further.

Like Seth, Apryl begins with a defining trait of her own, but it’s both far more inconsequential than Seth’s and too self referential to let us really understand her. Apryl loves old styles of clothing. It could be an interesting aspect of her character, but it’s just not nearly as defining as Seth’s love of art. In addition, having a character fascinated in fashions from the fifties isn’t much of an oddity in a novel primarily concerned with personalities and spiritual remnants from the fifties.

The parallel goes beyond mere interests; for the first ninety percent of the novel, the only real physical description we get of Apryl is that she looks like her aunt from the fifties. The result of all this is that Apryl’s entire being is wholly defined by the events of the novel; I can’t so much as picture her having a cup of tea outside Barrington House’s influence. This isn’t to say that Apryl’s portions of the story aren’t interesting, but that they are interesting due to the things that she discovers and the people that she meets, not because of anything that she herself thinks or does.

This is a novel about obsession, and about insanity, and, at its best moments, we can see the two worlds, real and imagined, at once. Shortly after he begins to truly see the people around him, Seth goes to a supermarket. The scene is sickening:

The tins of tuna that he picked up to buy had something sticky on their dented lids that smelled rancid. Contaminated. He put them back. Inside the sardine tins he knew the silver bellies of the dead mothers were full of tiny brown eggs. Seth burped and wiped a layer of milky sweat off his forehead.

The reader can feel Seth’s frustration and disgust throughout the scene as he smells piss and stares at the filthy, self-absorbed creatures all around him. Even as we feel for him, though, we see the other side, and that is what makes it truly devastating:

A trolley was pushed into his shins. The mother-of-three behind the carriage looked daggers at him and barred her dirty horse teeth. Her breath was a gust of sour yogurt.

“Fuck off!” Seth said, his voice cracked. Grabbing her children against her legs, she stumbled away from him, repeatedly looking back over her shoulder as she took flight. Even at ten feet he could see her mustache.

It’s this contrast – the knowledge that, if we were in the store with him, we would edge away from his raving madness – that makes the scene so powerful. We know that Seth is wrong, and we know that he is gradually losing touch with reality, but his viewpoint is too sympathetic for us to stop feeling his pain. The dichotomy returns right before the novel’s climax, when the two point of views finally intersect and we see each through the other’s eyes.

Horror has a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t problem when it comes to revelations. A book that ends without ever giving more than sheltered glimpses of its evil feels incomplete, but everyone knows that the second the camera focuses on the monster you lose eighty percent of your fear for it. Apartment 16’s treatment of this dilemma is mixed. The majority of the evil here, such as the ghostly figures in the corner of your eye, isn’t scary because of its red face or thin form, but because of what it signifies, and yet we never learn precisely what that is. Exactly how these apparitions travelled from one diseased mind to the building’s very soul is never shown. Seth’s characterization stays excellent throughout (in fact, I’d go as far as to say that his conversations with Apryl are his -- and the book’s -- finest moments), but he’s too pitiable to ever be truly terrifying. His handler, an ominous child in a sweatshirt, never comes into a focus clear enough to really be frightening; his entire existence is like the beginnings of a creepy soundtrack with the werewolf attack left out, all buildup and no payoff.

What never loses its dark charm, however, is the Vortex, a hell of infinite distances and seething darkness. The glimpses seen through Felix Hessen’s (excellently described) art are intriguing, but it’s nothing to what’s to come. The final product is so terrifyingly empty that it may just leave you doubting the reality of the very ground beneath your feet. The Vortex isn’t Nevill’s only success when it comes to terror. A large part of the horror comes in a manner that any seasoned reader is likely familiar with – the glimpse in the mirror, the presence near your bed, etc – but Nevill’s prose and the book’s oppressive atmosphere make for a chill factor that’s far greater than its disparate parts can account for and for a book that’s damn hard to put down.

Apartment 16 has problems, and the climax is a little disappointing. In horror, however, atmosphere trumps everything else, and Apartment 16’s got atmosphere in spades. If you’re a fan of dark, character driven horror, Nevill’s a name you need to start paying attention to.


I interview Nevill here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Up and Coming (and Essential?) in June

Wait…didn’t this one already come out? Well, yes, it did, for those of you not stupid enough to preorder the paperbook months ago. I don’t know why I occasionally pretend I have self control, but I sometimes get the urge to play make believe, and as a result I have to wait for months and months to get to read something that looks excellent to me. So, while you were all waiting for City of Ruin, I was checking my mailbox for a slightly smaller, softer package. If you, like me, still haven’t gotten to this, there are countless excellent reviews to stir up some longing.

This is, as far as I can tell, an epic SF vampire epic, reminiscent of the Stand. Well, god damn, I need to read that. Spurring that growing need on is Wert’s glowing review. Cronin also talks briefly about the books genesis here.

I loved Gaiman's Neverwhere and have been itching to explore more of his work ever since. Stories, of course, has more than just Gaiman, and the rest of the cast is just as exciting. The same Joe Hill whose 20th Century Ghosts I just fell in love with? And - could that be? - Gene Wolfe? An interesting and promising lineup for sure, an alluring fact only aided by the Speculative Scotsman's review.

This is like those threads on music forums, where you construct your Dream Band. Or, to use a more relevant analogy, it’s like those threads on Westeros where you construct your own ideal small council/war council/kingsguard/privy-construction team, and this book is like Tywin, Littlefinger, and Kellhus occupying all the positions in perfect harmony and sending out an army of dragons to go roast dissenters. How can you possibly complain about a table of contents this strong? Well, I guess you could if the stories are shit. On that count, there’ve been some mixed reports, so far. Pat’s comments so far in this Westros thread have been fairly negative, while Aidan’s put up a few quite positive reviews of individual pieces (Lynch and Abercrombie, to be precise). I guess time, and personal taste, will tell.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Brandon Sanderson - Defending Elysium [Short Story Review]

Above, beyond the buildings, beyond the air, Jason could Sense the specks of starlight in the sky. "Space is Elysium, Lanna. The place where heroes go when they die. The Varvax and the others, they've fought and bled, just like we have. They finally over came all of that—they paid their price and have earned their peace. I want to make certain their paradise remains such."

"By playing god?"

Jason fell silent. He didn't know how to reply, so he didn't. He simply stood, Sensing the paradise above and Evensong below.

Defending Elysium is a novel’s worth of content shrunk down into short story form. Imagine if you opened up Mistborn to, say, page five hundred and started reading. That’s something like what this feels like at first. I’m not saying that Defending Elysium is incoherent, mind you. Far from it. The world gradually does begin to make sense, but it does so through something more resembling gradual osmosis than any info dumps that I’ve ever seen. The entire thing feels almost like a jigsaw puzzle, and the reader’s primary job while reading is to try and put all the pieces together and make sense of the world. Once you do, the resulting picture is a fitting reward for your troubles.

The worldbuilding is deep, and everything we see only makes it more apparent how much there is under the surface. Everything strikes a good tone between humor and drama, and I challenge anyone to not be intrigued by the idea of the Phone Company dictating human policy. Of course, setting mysteries aren’t enough to keep the reader turning pages, and Sanderson knows this. Defending Elysium’s characters are engaging enough to keep you turning the pages while you wait for everything to click. Jason’s competence and Lanna’s amusing chattiness do a fine job of moving the story forward, but the best character by far is Coln Abrams, a sworn enemy of the Phone Company and who gives up his profession to find out his enemies secrets…or so he thinks.

Sanderson’s prose here is adequate, but not as polished as it would be in his later works. The dialogue, also, manages to be snappy and realistic for the most part. Unfortunately, things get awkward every once in a while, though not fatally so:

"A reporter," Lanna guessed.

"No," Jason said. "He's too well-equipped. Remember, he managed to hack into a secure FTL comm."

Yes, Jason, we do remember the events of five minutes ago.

Despite a few minor hiccups, Defending Elysium is an engaging and entertaining short story. If you want to just read on the surface, you get a fun ride. If you want to go a bit deeper, you get some food for thought. None of it is completely original, but all of it is well done and well worth the click necessary to read it.