Review: Walking Dead: Suicide King and Home

Wooooooooooooo! Freaking finally.

I’m reading a book series at the moment – one of those open-ended deals that isn’t pretending that it’s going to tie-up in a satisfying way anytime soon – and I’m on book four. Books one through three constituted what I felt like was an emotional arc, running a coherent story through more episodic, um, episodes. (Gah. Bad word choice, I has it.) Halfway through four, I’m still trying to figure what the new arc is going to be and who these people are. I know I’ve been introduced to him? And her? But I can’t recall? At this point in the game, it is pieces moving on the board – this person here, this other person there, a conversation, a reminder. Even though I did not start out talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, that’s a pretty good encapsulation of my feelings about that series too. Books four, man.

Anyway. Point being, here we are after all the dun-dun reveals of the mid-season finale, and I’m feeling very much like I’m reading book four of the series. I’m squealing a little about my favorites, and trying to remember minor characters – who is Oscar? Oh right, the black guy they killed off for being not Tyresse; there can be only one – and wondering why no one is bothering to write a straight up episode arc anymore. Shit happening in sequencial order is not a dramatic arc, friends. I’m not saying The Suicide King was bad, or that there weren’t smart or even heart-melting developments, just that there’s a lot of ground covering and not a lot of what you might strictly call sense.

The opening verged on terrible. I have remained unconvinced by any of the zombie MMA scenes, which I thought initially was a problem of staging, although staging continues to be a problem. The arena feels small, with too few people in it, and I kept watching the shouting audience members one by one and thinking far too much about how the actors had been coached to shout and shake their fists. Too many long shots, too much light, not enough physical danger. Merle and Daryl start swinging at each other, and when they brought in the collared walkers, I thought, how long until this goes completely pear shaped, and Merle and Daryl slip out? Which might ultimately be a conscious choice, because Mayberry is such a total joke.

The scene tightened considerably when the smoke bombs were thrown and everyone ran screaming through the mist, walkers unleashed, the fragile sense of control broken. The Governor walking slow out of the smoke was an image, I’ll grant you, a very good one. But it’s also an image of what the heck is the problem with the Mayberry sequences: who the hell are these people? We’ve got 75 or so folk living here in Mayberry, and all we know about them is that they can shake their fists unconvincingly when brothers are to fight to the death. Sure, okay, maybe the Gov has gotten them through some hard times, but don’t they have, like, actual personalities somewhere behind the mob? Seriously, they’re going to try to storm the front gates to get out into the zombie apocalypse? 75 isn’t a lot of people. That’s half of your Dunbar’s number, and after what, a year? living together, there are no strangers anymore. There’s no anonymous arm shaking. There’s no packing the car and honking at the sentinels to let you out. That makes as little sense as how little Andrea and Michonne seem to know about each other after seven months – seven months! – on the run together. Seriously, why does Michonne scowl when Rick asks if she knows Andrea? Other than that’s the only thing the writers let her do? Bah.

So the Governor walks out of the mist and I think, yeah, I see what you’re doing. Mayberry isn’t a real town, it’s propaganda. This is an inflammatory analogy, but it made me think of Leni Reifenstahl talking about making Triumph of the Will: there was just Hitler, and the people. One man and the state. A less inflammatory analogy would be Lord of the Flies, with the great mass of undifferentiated boys who acquiesce to the will of the only people who matter, the ones in charge. That is totally fine as a metaphor for societal ethics and leadership, which is pretty much the decomposing heart of most zombie fictions, but often reads poorly as a narrative about real characters. Mobs ain’t people.

You’ve got this ongoing civic crisis going on, a boots-on-the-ground version of whatever civic crisis we’ve got going on today. And, given that one of our current civic crises is people (mostly white men between the ages of 20 and 50) shooting their fellow citizens en masse, the whole exploration of white men between the ages of 20 and 50 having their leadership styles completely fall apart feels pretty topical. The world of The Walking Deadhas put guns in the hands of every citizen, including tiny badass Carl, and what they are getting for their gunnish preparedness is most of the living being killed by other living. Seriously, when was the last time someone died from a zombie? T-Dog?

I did enjoy a lot of the everyday stuff back at the prison, like Carol’s discussion of her late abusive husband, and how Daryl’s relationship with his brother is similar. And her little reaction shot when she learns that Daryl has run off with Merle just gutted me – man, that actress is good. I loved the mail holder with Asskicker emblazoned on the side. I keep worrying every time I see that blonde girl and Judith, because I feel like they are swanning around being adorable, and adorable is a huge freaking bullseye. And because I wrote most of this and then got way to busy to finish it before Homeran, I’m just going to start into that.

So, we’ve got two leaders losing their shit, Rick and the Governor, and it is making me really bored with Rick’s problems, and question his leadership. Daryl stepped in in the last power void, and he was smart and competent, and now Glenn has done the same. Wait, why is this a Ricktatorship again? Why does Santa/Gandalf keep delivering these homilies about how Rick has gotten through the hard times with his wistful, rheumy eyes? And Lincoln, man, he seems to think that sweating profusely is a good telegraph for trauma. The dude who plays the Governor is doing a better job with his insanity, especially considering the dialogue he has to do it with, and Mayberry continues to bug. Omigod, he shot a dude in the street! Where have you people been for the last year? At a point it just gets to be bad writing. And Andrea, ugh.

Given how loony Rick has become, I have a very hard time tracking his motivations. Seriously, it is self-evident that your group needs more people, especially because you know the Governor is going to come at you. I guess I’m cheered a little that the writers are treating Maggie’s sexual assault by the Governor as exactly that, but I would like to know what the hell is going on with Glenn and what his motivation is supposed to be. Seriously, this show cannot handle sexual politics at the best of times; they should step away from that plotline as quickly as possible. I was really loving the pedo-Romanov-mustache dude in the last two episodes – they gave him some really great work – which should have been a sign that OMIGOD YOU KILLED KENNY. Maybe there can only be so many racist rednecks on the show, just like there can only be one black dude. With Merle on his way back, you can do the math.

But, whooooo, that ending was a treat. The Suicide King had the problem of its action sequences being mostly crap – and action sequences are where this show really kicks ass – so it was pretty great to see the Governor’s assault on the prison in Home. And I got to be smug about how the zombies are being used in this show, as a sort of violent rhetorical device about how fear is used by the powers that be against the body politic. They’re a tool, like calling the Rickocrats terrorists at every opportunity, like running bullshit about how the Governor is “out on a run”. (Andrea, seriously, stop being so dumb.)

I know this is not going to happen, because the Governor and Rick have been pegged together too hard – it’s too much about their whole doppelganger deal – but I would completely love it if Rick took one in the eye, and then the Rickocrats formed an actual democracy and defeated the fuck out of the Governor and all his dictatorial bullshit. Zombie stories have this tendency to run to justified dictatorship, because obvs a society can’t deal with a threat to it without some self-important lunatic telling everyone what to do. Even though the storyline is making feints in the direction that this might be bad – the whole incompetence of the Mayberrians being the evidence – with how devoted they are to Rick being the main character, and therefore inviolate despite being full of crap, it’s probably just not going to happen.

Sacrificial Magic: Right Book, Wrong Time

I forced this read, and I’m sorry, because I think I crimped my enjoyment. Sorry, Sacrificial Magic. You were the right book at the wrong time. Blame it on the library, which only lets me renew thrice before I have to return the book, and with 10 days left to go, I figured, screw it, I can read this in a Sunday. 

I read the first three books of the Downside Ghosts series in one of those cabin porch hazes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster (though this term is never used) in an alternate present: in the late 90s, murderous ghosts broke free into the world, killing maybe half the population of the earth. The only bulwark against this threat was The Church, a non-theistic organization which replaced all the other religious and governmental powers that be. But that’s all backstory; this series is about Chess and her city. Chess is a powerful fuckup with a seriously damaged past, someone who managed to claw up just barely to near-polite society through some native talent hitched to the driving need to get out of her squalid upbringing. But just barely. She’s a junkie and an emotional isolationist, and I just adore her. 

The first three books felt to me like they ran an emotional arc, with the third, City of Ghosts, rising to a crescendo of things I’d barely noticed hanging around on the edges twisting together into a big explosive clusterfuck. God, that was just grand. So, here, in Sacrificial Magic, I feel like we’re restarting a trajectory which will run for the next couple of books, and I’m just a little let down. It’s not that this book is place-holding, it is that it’s piece-moving. I liked a lot of the piece-moving, but, as I said, I forced it. 

I think for me the weakest parts of this series tend to be the ghostbusting Church plots. Chess is given an assignment, and in a sort of Noir-lite manner, that assignment intersects with her Street life, her dealers, her drug use, etc. Here the Church assignment felt especially weak, with too many people I didn’t give boo about and couldn’t differentiate doing things way too sins-of-the-past for me to respond. The assignment had to do with a high school, which gives framework for Chess to ruminate about her shitty education and upbringing, and that part I really enjoyed, as I did her tense and fractious relationships with Terrible, Lex, and Beulah. And hoorah, I’m loving that Chess finally has a female friend – and that she realizes she has friends at all. 

Pretty much with this book I was just shipping for Chess and Terrible, which is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it made me feel a little antsy when the high school ghost plot was unfolding. Get out of the way, plot! Let us freak out about their last conversation! And the fact that Chess is still a huge junkie, the way she manages and feeds her addictions, continues to be one of the selling points of this series. There’s a scene where she notices others noticing her usage, and she gets really jealous and freaks: this is mine. This is my addiction. Quit looking. That we’re on book four, and Chess hasn’t had a big After School Special moment where she realizes Drugs Are Bad – addicts know drugs are bad, kids – is a very brave choice on the part of Kane. There are no easy answers, and the knowledge that you are fucked up beyond belief doesn’t magically cure you of the fuck up. Even addiction is one day at a time. Or one book at the wrong time; sorry again.

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Unholy Magic: Where I Store my Complaining

Before I set into bitching – this is going to be the review for the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane series where I lay out my gripes with this world – I want to make sure I underline how much fun I’ve had reading these books. There are more than three at this point, but the first three seem to constitute an emotional arc. While I’ll probably check the others at some point, my lost weekend of slamming through the Downside Ghosts series is done since I just closed City of Ghosts a couple minutes ago. 

So, as a middle in a trilogy, or even as a second in a series of books, Unholy Magicis going to lag a little on the enjoyment level. Kane is very consistent in her writing style and plotting, which I count as a good thing – but consistency is the hobgoblin of readers getting a little wearied of certain things. As a second book, you’re not in that sparkle of new environments and the rush of new characters. You’re at that point in the relationship where you start noticing how your new beau has a tendency to snore or to clear his throat all the freaking time seriously what is that? The opening half is characterized by a lot of wheel spinning and the solving of mysteries I don’t care about, which brings me to the next thing.

Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster is a profoundly alternate history. In 1997 there was a ghostacalypse which tore down every religious and governmental institution we know. All institutions were replaced by The Church, a mystical but ultimately non-theistic order which is the only thing that can keep the ghosts at bay. One the one hand, it’s just fine to gesture to this profound upheaval, running your characters from their limited perspectives from street level, a street level I found richly detailed and, well, just cool. On the other, oh, come on. While I appreciate the lack of infodumps – well, Bob, you recall how the Elders of the Church formed a council which blahblahblah – sometimes the haziness was a little too hazy. Even when paying pretty close attention, I don’t really get how this whole ghost thing works, exactly, and there was more than one occasion where Chess would be in a dire magical situation and be like, oh, yeah, if I do this thing it’ll neutralize this other thing, and wheee! Now I’m out of that scrape. It’s not so much that the magic was inconsistent, it’s that I didn’t know enough about how it worked to do anything but roll my eyes and think, well, that’s convenient. Which is not to say that Chess doesn’t continue to be one of my favorite fuckups in urban fantasy. 

The opening mystery is one of those locked houses with a bunch of perverse rich sickos. Which is fine or whatever, but it took maybe longer than necessary for this to snick up with the other plot line, because you totes know it will. As I’ve said before, this is pretty straightforward detective Noir plotting, where everything is going to brew up into one giant clusterfuck. And whoo boy, when it does, the cluster fucks so godamn hard. Even while loving Chess as a character, she’s not a good person, and her failings come home to get her in a powerfully awful way. She’s a junkie, and while I didn’t think this ran entirely convincingly in the first book, there’s a withdrawal sequence here which had ants running all over my joints. Gah. But that sequence is just a warm up to her serious comeuppance for betrayals that you can dig why she did them, but oh, Lordy, being the betrayer is no fun park. Specially when you get caught out. 

Oh, and, quick edit, I’m on record as having a boner for city stories, ones that write a city as character. Triumph City, and its underside, the Downside, is really compelling to me. I like its markets and orphans and physicality. I like how Chess talks about neighborhood, the Street, the interactions of the poor and destitute, the ways the rich are insulated and clueless. Much as I love Downside, the fact that this must be a recognizable American city rankled me a bit. Is this DC? Where the fuck are we? I noticed this more in this book, with its casual chatter about LA and Hollywood. And, can we talk about the City of Ghosts? Is this place accessible from any city in the world? Or just in Triumph City? What happened in Russia during Haunted Week? Again, I’m not really complaining – this book is about the concerns of a person, and her concerns aren’t about the global experience of the ghostacalypse. But it would be sweet if this were addressed even sorta passingly. 

And, I would have really liked there to be at least one lady in this whole world other than Chess. There’s some bitchy librarian types and some dead whores, a psycho wife and a teenage daughter, but none of these women matter. Or they don’t really matter to Chess. This is pretty common in urban fantasy, or in romance more generally – the lone chick in a world of dudes – but it’s bunk to fail the Bechdel test no matter what the gender of the writer, no matter what the gender of the protagonist. (Aside on the Bechdel test – yes, this was developed for movies; yes, it’s not a measure of quality; yes, it’s not exactly fair to bring this up in a very specific instance. It’s a statistical test, a way of polling the relevance of women’s relationships within a genre. Which is why I get so disappointed when I see fucking sweet ass characters, girl characters who have real personalities and failings, written by sweet ass women writers whom I respect a good deal and still have those sweet ass characters only exist in a world where women don’t talk, don’t have real relationships.) Which is not to say this book doesn’t deal sensitively and convincingly with certain touchy subjects that are alarmingly common in women’s experience, things like the legacy and recovery from rape, prostitution and trafficking, and some other dire ass shit. The experience of women does matter in this world, which is why it seems notable that Chess doesn’t have even one ladyfriend at all. 

Anyway, blahblah, feminist hobbyhorse aside, this is an incredibly fun series, and the slackness of the early sections of this book give way to some really knuckle biting conflict, conflict that won’t rightly be resolved until the next book. Not that is is uncompleted – the locked house mystery comes to its little end – but the trajectory of Chess’s betrayals is still mid-arc. I kinda like downbeat, uncompleted endings, hanging in a welter of shame and survival, but mileage varies. I can say the next book deals with that stuff in a satisfying way to me, but that’s a retroactive assessment, fwiw. Booyah.

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City of Ghosts: Squealing While Jumping

I outlined all my complaints with the Downside Ghost series by Stacia Kane in my review for the last book, Unholy Magic, so it’s time for me to become a squeemonster and jump up and down clapping. My ratings for the books in this series have been all over the place, but in truth, this is just a bang up pulp series, and this book really distills the goodness down to a black tar of seriously freaking awesome. 

Which is the thing about series. For book series, I have the tendency to wander off after one or even two books, my investment on the world or characters not able to stretch beyond the several hours it takes me to get to the end of the installment. TV, though, that’s a different beast even though it’s series-similar, and I find myself on the hook for seriously uneven crap like The Walking Dead, beholden to the odd nail-biting set piece – and lord, can that show pull off the set piece – despite the shiftiness of the characters and dialogue. The series waits for that season ender, which will blow a budget on a burning barn and a bunch of character deaths that will pay me off for putting up with all the bullshit. 

Here though, in the third book, City of Ghosts, Kane pulls together a whole bunch of disparate stuff from the first two books, things I wasn’t even rightly tracking, and sets those bitches on fire in the very best way. This is squeal at the commercial breaks season finale fun, working out mythology details that you didn’t even know were going on. Woooo! If I were the kind of reviewer to use pictures, there would be one here of clapping or something. 

Anyway, should I say something about this series in general? Okay. In the late 90s, there was a ghostacalypse that killed off much of the world’s population, and also set into power The Church, a paranormal but non-theistic order that keeps the murderous dead at bay. Chess is a ghostbuster in this organization and also a huge freaking junkie, and much of the series details her mixed allegiances, from her work life to her love life. This book pays off all of those threads in a serious way. And that despite my reservations which are still on record from the second book. But sometimes the squeal of the series finale, up out of seat at that last scene, is happy enough to overcome more complainerly tendencies. Wooooooo! 


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Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypse

Recently, I said some stuff about the epistolary novel being dead on arrival, which has more or less been proved true with this book. In a ba-dump-tss kind of way. I hedged that the epistolary novel has been hanging on in Gothic-slash-horror longer than in straight up fiction, so I get to revel in my rightness, as usual. The confirmation bias rules. 

  Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypsewas crowdsourced by the folks at Lost Zombies. It seems to be a more specific kickstarter for a zombie movie, pulling together shaky hand-held found-footage stuff from the zombie apocalypse (which, you may know, is occurring now) and running it into a sort of narrative. There’s a timeline and a frame narrative here: a backpack stuffed with all of these notes from the zombie apocalypse taken off of a 10 year old girl who had been bitten and put down. I pretty much hate the editorial timeline, which runs the usual American panic about quarantine camps in a way that is both unlikely and annoying to me. 

I just spent more time than was wise checking the history of quarantine/isolation and in modern times, there is very little history of anything but the isolation of specific individuals while contagious, let alone huge whack camps of sick people set up, filled, and turned into zombies in days. Seriously, bureaucracy is an issue, and always has been. (I highly recommend checking out the case study of the historical Typhoid Mary. Why, yes, I have just linked to Wikipedia. You can shut up, Internet.) Especially when the illness is widespread and easily contagious. But whatever, Americans, have your panic about the gumment. It’s not that I think you’re wrong, exactly, except for how you’re wrong exactly. You know? 

But the notes from the apocalypse here are wonderful. Or, um, not wonderful, but a good mixture of heart-breaking and funny and mean. Not long ago I read Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, which is his reaction to 9/11 in the days and weeks following the event. The thing that was so surprising to me, ten years since the Towers fell, were the stories about people being thoughtless, callous dicks. Seriously, Art, why are you freaking out so much? I mean, two planes have just vaporized two of the largest buildings in the world in an ugly symbol of cultural warfare, but you need to get ahold of yourself, man. We run our narratives from when the whole cataclysm crashed over us. 

I mean, how often do I relate that, when my sister called me when the first plane hit, from an office in Midtown, totally losing her shit, I was stupidly blase? It has to be an accident or something, like that time in the 40s when that little bi-plane hit the Empire State. There were hundreds of people on that plane! She yelled. The horror cracked a little, but I still didn’t get it until I got sucked into the CNNmageddon, the second plane, the falling, the ten years down the road where we’ve elided our shitty, less than empathetic responses. I don’t know what note I would have written at the time, but it might not have been awesome. 

Morwenna called about some plane crash not far from where she works. She’s okay but freaked out. You should probably call her when you get a sec. And you’re out of dog food, btw.

So the occasional mean-spirited “I never loved you and I’m glad you are now one of them” notes felt true, if ugly, an artifact of our sometimes crappy instincts in trauma. I mean, trauma isn’t exactly ennobling. 

they weren’t bitten, I just told you that so it would be easier for you to leave them.

HELP Fuck you!

There are sad notes and funny notes and notes about typography.

there r three of them inside. if you kill one take a tab. tab one is pulled, with the note: things got bad. tabs four and five are drawn in in another color
CLOSED ZOMBIES. Are you fucking kidding me? Warning about zombies in comic sans? What is wrong with comic sans? I blame all of this on comic sans

This is solidly a half-hour book, something you should put down fast with a bullet in its brain before it turns. These sort of found-objects collage things rely on you, the reader, to fill in gaps and create narrative, the way the social animal in us does, and I can entirely see being in the wrong mood for this, thinking too hard about specific instances, and generally having this frame narrative not hold together. But I really enjoyed the whole existential Marco Polo that went on, people scrawling notes to one another as the end of the world went down. My favorite in the collection is this:

I'm hiding in the attic you fuckers if you could read this you could get my ass

The worst thing about zombies is that they are illiterate, my friends. Boo yah.

Seed by Ania Ahlborn

I have this compulsion to call Seed by Ania Ahlborn “cute”, which I think might come off as bitchy and insulting. I don’t mean it that way though. Seed is a riff on The Bad Seed, which has been iterated many times since its mid-century publication: stage, film, and even Macaulay Culkin vehicles designed to “show his range”. (Also, whoa, looks like Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for The Good Son. Trippy.) Anyway, The Bad Seed is this slightly hysterical examination of the whole nature/nurture where-does-evil-come-from? question. A perfectly adorable Aryan moppet from a good family – good in this case having the usual class/racial overtones – turns out to be a conniving sociopath. Being a product of the 50s, there’s a lot of Freud talk and socially Darwinistic stuff about criminality which doesn’t read too good anymore. 

But scary, creepy kids are a horror mainstay for good reason, which is that raising children is probably the scariest thing I can think of. If you don’t have kids of your own, then other people’s kids are just objectively creepy. (Sorry, other people’s children.) It’s all so confusing, and everyone is so judgmental, and there are days when you get that call from the school about an “incident” and just close your eyes and try to sound like a grown-up, but you know you’re just a fraud. 

Jack Winter is driving his family home one evening when a swerve to avoid the flashing retinas of a creature on the road results in a car accident. Nobody is killed but the car, which for this slightly less than politely impoverished family is a pretty serious financial blow. The youngest daughter starts behaving strangely, and Jack begins to ruminate on his own childhood encounters with whatever sharp-toothed beastie hides in the grass and the walls of the house. There’s never really a question as to whether this is anything but supernatural in origin — this is Old Scratch, not new psychology.

Seed is very Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park Southern Gothic, with all the requisite touches: crumbling house, sins of the father, trailer homes, card reading, religious in-laws. I thought the family sketches were very nicely drawn, with a naturalistic sense of the mixed irritation/affection of the long married — how fights get shorthanded and truncated, each knowing what the other will say and then nodding at the wheel-spinning with something like understanding. I liked the kids, who felt — when they we’re being creepy and evil, of course — like actual kids, not the truth-speaking moppets who drive me mad in many supernatural tales. Hell, if you get right down to it, I even liked when the kids were evil, because I think most parents have at least the one moment when they look down on their child having a nuclear tantrum and think, this child is possessed by the devil. One of mine had a creepy relationship with an imaginary friend who seemed less than imaginary sometimes. (I have a portrait drawn of Ghosty, which is a blank spot on the paper. When I asked about this, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see him, but he’s there.” Shudder.) 

Jack is so strangely passive in the whole business, for reasons I found murky at best. On one level, I guess I dig it, in that it’s such an unbelievable bummer seeing my less-easy personality quirks visited upon the next generation — sorry about that introversion! and the social anxiety! — but on the other hand, seriously dude, you know what’s going on here, just say it out loud. At times it felt like his lack of affect was being treated as a supernatural quiet, like the hand of the devil was closing his throat, making him play out these scenes. When it wasn’t diablo-ex-machina — which I don’t exactly like, existentially speaking, but can accept in the confines of the story — Jack’s passivity just didn’t track for me. 

But, I still want to call this cute. It may be that the cuteness I am feeling is the very old school nature of the plotting, which serves up a series of reveals and visitations with a stair-treading escalation that isn’t really surprising. I mean, there’s a pet dog: where’s that gonna go? I’m sure he’ll get lots of treats and go live on a farm somewhere. Which isn’t to say I’m bagging on this, and as a slender (one might almost say cute) piece of atmospheric horror, Seed treads the creaking Gothic stairs very competently. But given the straightforwardness of the plotting, I think this could almost be trimmed to deliver its gut-punches more quickly, like the truncated arguments between the parents. Everybody knows the dice are loaded, just roll them already.

Railsea and Earthsea

One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.

Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan– I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones. 

Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot. 

Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair. 

Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns. 

Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.




The Price of Spring: Well Paid

This is an impossible review to write. I don’t even feel like I can go with a simple plot description, given that the events in The Price of Springby Daniel Abraham are so dependent on the ugly climax of the last book, a climax I do not want to spoil for those readers who eventually might get around to this series. I guess I’ll just blather a bit about the general trends in these novels as a group. 

So, high fantasy, yeah? The Long Price Quartet takes place in a mildly medieval mildly Asian setting – farms and courts and no electric lights. (But no elves or dragons.) You just kind of accept this, as a reader, because, hey, why not? And the costumes are sweet. But there is this very tiny piece of magic in the mix, a very careful, deliberate magic, so careful and deliberate that it blows my mind here in the last book. The magic is embodied in creatures called andats, who are called into being by poets; the embodiment of concepts. Once a concept has been bound – and this binding takes physical form in something that looks human – it cannot be bound in the same way again. In the beginning, many, many generations before the start of this book, poets bound and released andats almost playfully not realizing there would be a cost down the road. A binding gone wrong – one that is too close in grammar to one already done – will result in the death of the poet.

So that’s where we are at the start of A Shadow in Summer, which details the plots of some failed poets, some not failed poets, women, and empires. I said this in the review for the first book, but the magic, the andat, is an almost-allegory for technology, a sort of nuclear power that can light up a thousand homes, or murder an entire culture. Take, for example, Seedless, the only andat we meet in Summer. He (and this pronoun is off – these are not gendered humans, but more on that later) can be called Removing That Which Continues, and this bound idea mostly works to remove the seeds from cotton – a cotton djinn. (Ba-dump-tss.) But he can also remove a gestating child, and he could, through his magic, cause every woman to miscarry in the enemy state of Galt, who, unlike the city-states of the Khaiem (in which these events occur), have to rely on the more mundane magic of steam ships and clever technology.

But the stories of these four books mostly follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two men, Otah and Maati. I’m sitting here staring at the cursor, trying to will an easy encapsulation of their relationship into being. These books occur at roughly 15 year intervals, so Otah, Maati, and all of the other players age and change, not just in the books, but in the interstitial periods between them. We met them as boys, and here they are men, old men, dealing with their failures and horrible successes, trying to salvage their lives, their legacies, and the inescapable fact that more of the candle has been burned than not. A lot more. 

The last book dealt with a war, and while it was not a civil war in the strictest of senses, it has become intimate in the aftermath and reparations. Civil in the sense of of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state. Again, I’m not saying this is Tolkien’s dreaded allegory, but this last book got me thinking abut our own American civil conflict, and the Reconstruction period just after. The andat – and these creatures view themselves, and are, slaves – are out of the world, the books burned, the poets put to the knife. The societies in question have to put the world back together, have to build an economy and a shared civil identity that isn’t predicated on that slavery, and they don’t like it at all.

And why would they? I sat there, as a reader, wanting to shake everyone. Maati, oh god, what you are doing is going to end in tears – and what he is doing is trying to build a women’s grammar to bind a new andat. (Of course, in this semi-medieval setting, women’s rights do not figure, and poets have always been men, which is dealt with so amazingly well that I amaze.) I mean, this is a personal tick of mine, but I believe strongly that fantasy, and especially high fantasy, almost always trades in nostalgia of one stripe or another. That nostalgia often works out to this faux medievalism where the ladies wear dresses and are chattel, but it’s okay, because harvesting grain and being pretty is so rewarding, yo! Not here. Abraham is so much better than this, and he addresses the gender imbalances, calls them into question, makes gender both the question and the answer. The good ole days were good because of slavery, so they weren’t good for everyone. It’s seriously awesome. 

As much as I wanted to shake Maati, at least when I wasn’t covering my eyes knowing that what he was doing was going to end in horrors, I was wanting to shake his friend/enemy, Otah, for doing things that have a terrible, necessary purpose on many levels, but were absolutely sickening. Otah, oh god, you get to take the high road in your own mind, but that’s such total bullshit. And the worst part? He even knows it. They all do. And they do what they do anyway because it makes sense. Because people are people. Because we all pine for lost countries, ones we even lived in, and want to make our perfected memories into perfect futures. The whole thing is bananas. 

All this blather I’ve been making about society and gender and stuff – ignore this. This is not why you should read this. You should read this because it has some of the most careful, beautiful character sketches, sketches that move through time, that build, that allow characters to make bad choices and be assholes, characters that try to do the right thing, who fail and burn and regret. I love that we see whole lives in this series, from young lovers to regretting widowers with bad knees. 

And another thing I say about fantasy: the land is character, the cities and places. There’s a moment in here where some characters (no spoilers) are in a ruined city, and they have this reverie about the food carts that used to ply the overgrown streets, how with your food, wrapped in careful paper, you would also receive a collection of seeds in a twist. After eating, you threw the seeds on the ground, and the birds that came to eat the seeds were a divination tool: a thrush for luck, a crow for bad omens. It’s throwaway, but it’s beautiful, and it’s careful. It’s a moment for a place that never existed, but never existed in a way that had its own customs. Omigod. Go read this series now.

(And the previous book, An Autumn War, and this can be found in the omnibus edition called The Price of War. So good.) 

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An Autumn War: Anvils

I’ve realized something about Abraham’s writing. He shows you the anvil he’s going to drop on your head. There’s a sussurus of silk as he slowly lifts the cover away, a hint of jasmine in the air as you sip tea, growing cold the way everything warm does. You consider the anvil, the way it is dark and sits, anvil-like, unassuming as the inevitable. You watch it lift, slowly, and the servant that moves the pulleys pulls hand over hand, one fist in front of another. It’s beautiful, the way the lines stretch taunt, and then go slack, and then stretch taunt again. It’s like life in its consideration, a bowl going cold because you are too busy living to drink, and then you drink and it’s cold and regretful. 

And then the fucking anvil hits you on the head, and it’s not about how unassuming the anvil is, or its color or shape, but about how the expectation is not the same as the experience, and the experience is not the same as the aftermath. There are birds and little arcane symbols tweeting around your head, and you can’t understand how that damn black and metal thing hit you so hard because you knew it was coming. You saw it unwrapped, like a stiptease of your coming mortification. 

It took me forever to get through An Autumn War (The Long Price Quartet). I cheated on it with several other books, because I could feel that coming shock. This series is stagy like nobody’s business, and that is intentional, deliberate, one foot in front of the other, a chess move that moves the other pieces like a diagram. I don’t like military books, as a rule, because I’m a squirming girl who can’t handle glory. There’s no glory here, just ash and pain and a thousand bad and completely understandable choices that end in the worse and the incomprehensible. Good Lord, this anvil. It is hard and dark and made of metal. I will grope my way through the next book, but not right now. I’m going to lie down and consider the patterns on the insides of my eyelids for a while.

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A Betrayal in Winter

It pisses me off how good a writer Daniel Abraham is. It pisses me off more that you lot don’t seem to be reading him at all. I’m going to start buying his books and mailing them to you for your birthday, L. Ron Hubbard style. This is not an idle threat. 

 A Betrayal in Winteris the second in the Long Price Quartet. I always feel a little weird writing reviews for later books in series, because I’m going inevitably to drop spoilers from the first book. With that in mind, there may be mild spoilers for A Shadow in Summer, but that can’t be helped. (As an aside, I keep having to look up the names for these books as I write this review, which is a pretty serious problem, I think. I get how they work together thematically, or whatever, but they do not marry to their content well and are pretty forgettable. I never know who to credit/blame with titles – bad titles can be the fault of either writers or publishers, for different reasons – but these are straight up bad.)

A Betrayal in Winterstarts roughly a decade after the first book, in another city, with some cast changes. I really feel the absence of the character Amat at first, with her mashalled, gendered anger, but she’s found her corollary in Idaan. Maybe corollary is the wrong word; Idaan is more a cautionary tale. I keep getting surprised by these books, because they have this really sly, cutting gender commentary, and fantasy, Goddess bless it, often doesn’t. Come to think of it, books that deal with fantasies of one stripe or other often fall into gender ghettos. Fantasies for women play out one register of stereotypes; fantasies for men another. (Arguably, Fantasy with a capital F is fantasy for men. I do not say this to start fights.) When either kinds of fantasies play out in semi-medieval settings, I think you get a lot of sexist play-set action. Not so, here, at all. 

The plot is almost Shakespearean: the king is dying. There is no primogeniture; his sons will have to kill one another to determine succession. His daughters, well, they do not count. All of them are too old to start the killing game, but one of the four sons dies suddenly, of poison, in an opening gambit blamed on our Otah, our upstart, from the first book. This would probably have more frission with an Elizabethan audience, having just gone through the whole mess with, um, something historical that I have forgotten about? Scottish succession and what a total mess it was? Anyway, um, back to my point, which is that if I spend much more time outlining the plot, I’m going to make it sound like one of those court intrigue jobs that I have mixed success with. No. My Dad is fond of quoting the following aphorism: all politics are local. Then he winks and says: No, actually, all politics are personal. Sometimes I fall asleep when I’m reading court intrigue dramas because they forget the actors are people, and not just widgets in a system. At some point, one of the characters says, “We are all men under our robes,” which is beautiful and perfect, because they are, of course, when they are men. But sometimes they are women, and that makes a difference. That difference fuels some of the plot. 

There’s other loves for me in here. The first book set forward some fantasy mechanics that have deepened here. There’s the poets, who call into being andats – semi-living embodiments of an idea who are something between a metaphor and bound god. We met one in the first book, Seedless, and here we meet another, who changes our ideas of how the andats work, how metaphors work. There is still the gesture-language, not as fully utilized as in the last book, but one that puts a spin on the statements of characters in this book. And then there is the continuing metaphor of the sleeve, where people keep their correspondence, or have it spill on the pavement; the cloth that covers the wrist also conceals the heart, or reveals; the difference between the mask and the person, the clothes and the man. Or woman. Ah ah ah. 

I think this book could almost be read as a stand-alone text, something that makes me quake. I blame Tolkien’s editors for breaking LotR into three books when it should have been one, and giving later fantasists license to write a bunch of narratives that never culminate, never complete. I mean, sure, I like how Fellowship ends, with it’s downbeat incompleteness, but I can’t remember the break between Two Towers and King, and King is mostly appendix, and OMG, I’ll stop nerding out here. This book does not ramble to its end, to be begun again where it finished like after a nap. That said, there are things in Winter that tighten into the next arc, a late moment when I realized that the library is at the heart of the metaphors in a way that makes my booknerd soul become incandescent with glee. I’m really impressed, and you lot should get up off your asses and start reading Abraham right now. Now. 

(And this, and the previous book, A Shadow in Summer, can be be found packaged in an omnibus called Shadow and Betrayal. Get on that shit.) 

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