Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight

E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.

The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.

He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.

But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through affect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.

Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.

Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

I first stumbled upon T. Kingfisher not quite knowing what to expect. Or, that’s not precisely true: I stumbled on The Seventh Bride thinking I was going to get one thing — dumb, light romance-adjacent fairy tale retelling — and then what I got was decidedly not that — smart, twisty, disturbing iteration of an already disturbing tale. I mean, most of this misapprehension was on me, because who is going to write a romance-adjacent version of Bluebeard with a straight face, at least that I’m going to run across and then think is a good idea to read. The Seventh Bride was really top shelf stuff, the kind of thing that made me make note of the author’s name. (I’m fairly disastrous with names, so this is a much bigger deal than it might appear.) So I picked up The Twisted Ones on the strength of The Seventh Bride, and I was oh so richly rewarded.The Twisted Ones is the sort of novel that infected my dreams, my evil, eldritch subconscious redressing my nightmares with imagery from the novel because so much of it is horror-adjacent to my own subconscious terrors. Yeesh.

A thirty something woman called Mouse returns to her grandmother’s home in one of the Carolinas to clean it out after her death. Her father, her grandmother’s son, is wasting from one of those unspoken tangle of diseases — maybe cancer with some dementia thrown in — so he doesn’t feel up to emptying his childhood home. Mouse’s grandmother was a hateful old hoarder, and no one much mourns her passing. Nothing about this set up seems a good idea, even to Mouse, who is our rueful, retrospective narrator. She’s constantly breaking in to say: yes, I know how bad this looks, and you’re reading this thinking I should have just cut bait, but that’s not exactly how people work when hip deep in a situation. It might seem a little like meta-textual fuckery, but she’s not wrong. Which is exactly the worst thing about it.

When I was a house painter, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes. Mostly, they were in habitation while I was working, the family mostly off set during the day as they worked or went to school. The house would have a kind of ringing emptiness, so when I was there changing the skin of the house, there was the impression of visitation. Working for hoarders is like this, but also somehow more full. They tend to keep themselves in residence while you work — lest we disrupt the fragile teetering equilibrium — but there’s another presence of the stuff itself. For hoarders, their house and its contents are a memory hoard, and you can feel the weight of that memory as you work in the house.

An anecdote: Due to a tangle of friendships and professional obligations, we worked once for a hoarder in a post-war expansion suburb. We went to pull a permit before we began work, and — I swear this is true — no less than three inspectors manifested, their faces full of thunderous disapproval. She had been in arrears to the city for so long, and so egregiously, that they were about to throw her in jail. My business partner and I did a little softshoe — we’re here to help, not hinder — but they were right sick of her shit, and had little to no faith we could fix anything. You really really have to be fucking up, as a land owner, for the civic system to escalate to that level. Mostly you can do what you want if you own land outright, America being what it is.

We would push into rooms and start the process of beating back mold and powdered plaster. In the afternoon we’d clean up, leaving things empty and drying. When you work in the average person’s home, they don’t want tools and drop cloths set down mid-work, to be picked up in the morning. Something about it is unsettling to homeowners, so we tried to keep a light footprint from the end of one workday and the start of the next. But at the hoarder’s house, we’d return in the morning to find a truly prodigious amount of activity in our absence, as the homeowner busied herself moving the mass of her hoard right into our workspace, trying to cover our disruptive rehabilitation with whatever her shit represented. This did not go well; there was yelling; we eventually cleared it back out.

So Mouse’s project of clearing out a hoarder’s house felt very accurate, to my experience, full up with not just the ghosts of the dead, but the strange fullness of memory and the indefinable tenor of any given person’s stuff. (I’ve also emptied houses after a person’s death or incarceration, and you get this weird sense of a person through their stuff. I have dozens of strange anecdotes that go nowhere about how people live.) Mouse finds a journal, which tries to recreate another journal, which details the supernatural experiences of both journal writers. Again, this could be just preciously meta-textual — a wry commentary on the Gothic novel and its bracketed and embedded narratives — but Mouse’s voice is so authentic, so perfectly pitched, that any literary assholery by me was well and truly disarmed.

Mouse’s voice is so forcefully written — and with such a ringing trueness — that I never questioned why she was staying in this horrific home full up with doll bones and the lingering hatefulness of an old hateful woman — not more than she did. The Twisted Ones reveals the horror slowly, a lapping reveal of the uncanny and the unearthly. The slow reveal is excruciating, the kind of storytelling that reveals the sinister behind the everyday, like the tok tok of what must be woodpeckers, or the almost-not-quite figures in stone. Kingfisher beautifully captures the itchy discomfort that city dwellers feel in the woods — even, and maybe especially, woods we encountered in our muzzy childhoods. She does a nice job with the sort of nosy and judgy experience of being in small towns, but then how such communities will fiercely claim people with even tenuous, distaff relationships in the right circumstances. She draws excellent portraiture of a long-eared dog, whose unflappable dumbassery was an odd comfort in the most horrible moments. All told, an excellent novel, and for sure I’ll be seeking out more of her work.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

I think it’s generally true — though of course there are exceptions — that mystery novels tend to be about a city. The murder is a wound on the body politic, a blister where something imperfect about the social system rubs. The detectives then move through the various socioeconomic layers of the community, and often find submerged and surprising connections between this sub-culture and that, between families, between the powerful and the powerless. The city can be a small town, or a farming community, or a section of a larger metropolis, but mysteries move through a tight geography, the social layers stirred up like blood in water. The old saw is that the personal is political, and the mystery turns this inside out, in the very oldest senses of the words.

The apocalyptic novel, by contrast, tends to be about something bigger than a city: the nation, or, if that schema is too vague and high-level, the region or country. (I mean this last not to mean nation, but more broad area: north country, back country.) The Road is a Western. The Reapers are the Angels and This Dark Earth are both Southern Gothics. Station Eleven details my Northern Midwest. Parable of the Sower moves through California, and also Black America, a region that is not defined by geography, but nonetheless exists. There are dozens of apocalypses that detail that vast region of America — both the cityest of American cities, and a whole microcosm unto itself — New York: the elegiac Zone One, the chilly millennial Severance, the trash poetry of Monster Island. The writer destroys everything they know, and then sets to scrying the bones, throwing them down to see the immutable characteristics in the cant of ash. The apocalypse strips everything down to essentials: Rick Grimes clings imperfectly to his notions of family and the constabulary; Candace Chen hides behind a camera documenting it all for an Internet that’s blinking out; Mark Spitz relies on the law of averages; some found religions; for others, the play’s the thing. Each acts out their most basic instinct, culturally speaking, as they do the needful of water and food and safety.

One of the most pervasive modes of the apocalyptic novel is that of the road trip: if you’re going to get the pulse of the country, you have to cover some ground. During the road trip, the protagonist finds all the signposts marred and twisted, the roads empty and menacing, snarled with cars, overgrown, rotting. During the road trip, the destination is an illusion; worse, in the apocalypse, so is the road. It is here we first meet Orpen of Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive: rolling a wheelbarrow through a quietly destroyed Ireland, with a dog called Danger at her side. (This name is occasionally unintentionally comedic.) One of her more uncomfortable parents — her Mam’s Maeve — is in the wheelbarrow, shaking out with sweats and so silent you mistake her for dead. Maybe Orpen talks to her like a superego, like Job’s unhelpful friends in his blackest hour. But she’s not dead: Maeve has been bitten, about to turn into one of the skrake Orpen has been trained to kill her whole life. Orpen holds onto her childhood by keeping Maeve alive; when Maeve turns, something like Orpen’s childhood will have to die.

When I read The Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, it seemed to me that when the Irish kill their homeland, the result in fiction is more autopsy than spectacle, a long landscape pan instead of a detonation. Ní Dhuibhne nukes Ireland to a hard nuclear crust, and then lays out the debris with a cold hand. (Lord, but her main character is chilly.) The cataclysm in Last Ones Left Alive is similarly remote in time from the events unspooling, and much of the novel is spent detailing an Ireland in a green dishevelment. The events of the novel move forward and back in time from Orpen and her wheelbarrow, moving from her upbringing on the secluded island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland, out onto the mainland and into Orpen’s matriculation. Though there are some interactions with the skrake — zombies in everything but name — it seemed notable to me how quiet this novel was for a zombie novel. In her youth, Orpen — named after the Irish painter best known for his depictions of WWI soldiers — often ditches her mothers to scratch about in the ephemera of that lost world in their island enclave. (She’s especially take by the graffiti and old newspapers referencing the Banshee: a fighting troupe comprised of women only.) Orpen has been raised in a safe kind of danger, drilled fairly mercilessly (especially by Maeve) but still protected from the real dangers of her world. There are no skrake on Slanbeg.

On the mainland, Orpen is pushing east toward the semi-mythical Phoenix City, where maybe her Mam and Maeve were from. (She doesn’t know much more than that; Mam and Maeve were always very closed mouth about where they were from, and why they left. She’s not Maeve’s biological child either way, and both Orpen’s parents drill her in the dangers of men.) She’s got the hyper-vigilance of the traumatized, spooking at every movement and worrying about the sound of the barrow’s squeaking wheel despite her enclosed upbringing. It’s an interesting mix: her safe upbringing that is nonetheless steeped in so much terror that she exhibits the earmarks of post-traumatic stress.

This reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s coinage of PASD — pronounced past — post-apocalyptic stress disorder. This neologism made me smile when I encountered it in Zone One — how clever — but I’m beginning to think it might be a real thing. Last week my son asked me to come out for a “porch talk” — he does this because he can find me smoking and I’m captive — and he burst into tears about the burning Amazon rain forests, the burning arctic, the geologically fast moving apocalypse we can find on the planet right now. I’m not going to be able to grow up and have children, he said to me, as he wept. I tried to soothe him, but I don’t like lying too much: There’s no reason it’s going to be “okay”, that blandest of reassurances, and the global environmental situation is well out of my control. I’d almost welcome just having to drill him in how to kill a reanimated corpse, because that is a concrete and discrete problem in the world: Either you kill or you die, but you don’t linger on in a worsening world, watching your possibilities narrow to ugly survival.

I was always irritated by religious fictions that brought down the conflict between good and evil into a fist fight. (I’m slagging, here, on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.) It always seemed like a cop out, even though I get the structural satisfaction of just punching evil into the floor. I’m a huge fan of punching Nazis — they fucking deserve it — but no country defeats them by individuals punching them one at a time. But I’m beginning to get why, beyond mere narrative catharsis, we write the apocalypse this way: half a generation past the panic, in a regrowing world swallowing up the vestiges of modernity.

The apocalyptic novel is about a country, not a city. In a city, your interactions with strangers might be colored by ties of consanguinity. I know I play the Name Game whenever I meet someone in Duluth, and though I wasn’t even raised here — my father was — it only takes minutes to find a connection. But the in the country, this won’t work. You’re going to rely on the broader cultural playbook between strangers, the one full up with the subtle gestures only the acculturated will understand. (Of course, those gestures are still going to fail as often as not. The Ireland she was raised in was right there off the coast, but she has never quite lived there. ) So yeah, it’s a fistfight, the kind we find between Orpen and people she finds on the road. It can come down to a fistfight once all the other fights have been lost. There’s something almost comforting about pushing past the world where children despair of a future bleaker than their past into one where everyday survival is a victory.

Davis-Goff is maybe a little too light in her allusions to the larger Ireland Orpen is moving though and into. I wasn’t quite clear how exactly the Banshees fit with both Maeve and Mam, and the ersatz family she encounters on the road. Is Phoenix City a Handmaid’s Tale style nightmare, or its opposite in sensibilities, if not particulars? But whatever, this is fine. Last Ones Left Alive is a credible sounding of the Irish apocalypse. It’s nowhere near as brutal as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s, but then that’s an impossible standard. The horror of Last Ones Left Alive ends up being a comfort; Orpen abides, like Ireland always has, and in Ireland’s particular way.

Review: Fray by Rowenna Miller

I was ambivalent about Fray’s predecessor, Torn by Rowenna Miller, and I continue to be ambivalent about the Unraveled Kingdom series. I do think that Sophie is in an interesting position in the novel. As a small business owner who has pulled herself out of poverty and now is betrothed to the crown prince, she’s more than capable of rubbing elbows with all manner of folk, if not comfortably, than at least credibly. But I’m less enamored by Sophie’s burgher judginess and almost willful naivete when it comes to effecting change in the brutally unfair government she lives under. She continues to evince a sort of conservative (lower case c) cowardice that I find distasteful.

After the street violence of Torn, Fray opens on the eve of a reform vote. The government of Galitha seems to be a sort of constitutional monarchy, but more in line with 19th Century Russians than 18th Century English. (I don’t say 19th Century English, because Galitha is maybe only at the very beginning of an Industrial Revolution.) By which I mean, the nobility, who make up the governing body, are bloody brutal bastards. A labyrinthine bureaucracy has a stranglehold on most commerce, and both city workers and farm laborers are kept right on the edge of the most abject poverty. The country is a tinderbox, and the ruling class does not comprehend just how much danger there is of the whole thing erupting into very serious violence, despite being given a taste of the edge of that anger at the close of the last novel.

Sophie herself is in a precarious position. Though she began a love affair with the crown prince at the end of Torn, and they are engaged to be married, his family largely ignores her due to her ignoble birth and wrong ethnicity. (Sophie is a member of a persecuted minority, but this mostly feels like window dressing to me. The way it tends to come up is Sophie commenting to herself about her Otherness, and not in constant, casual microagressions in every interaction she has.) Though I did credit her several panic attacks about what marrying into the royal family will do to his standing — she is the type to offload her true anxieties onto other people — I had a hard time believing the royal family of this backwards country would do anything but work him over until he married someone “respectable”. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened between Charles and Diana, and that monarchy is only a figurehead.

Add in the fact that a distaff relative — who happens to be in a committed relationship with another woman — is being severely pressured to marry a man for political reasons, and the world begins to look like its bending to either the needs of the plot, or Sophie, or both. I am always willing to give some latitude for the sake of the story, so this isn’t a cardinal sin, but it could become one with time. Because the other problem is that Sophie regularly and almost compulsively puts the desires of her wealthy friends over her family, her people, and her neighborhood. Her brother — one of the leaders of the resistance — was denied entrance to the university due to class and race, and he has since poured his prodigious talent into tract-writing and rabble-rousing. He’s absolutely not wrong about anything he says about the injustice of the world.

Even though Sophie ostensibly understands what a raw deal he and most of people like them have been given, she’s constantly frustrated by his disquiet. When violence flairs up in the streets, she blames her brother despite the fact that social inequity is everywhere and that anger is *inevitable*. When the reform bill passes, and then Sophie and the crown prince slowly come to the realization that the nobility is slow-walking any true reformation, I was like, oh my god, OF COURSE that’s what they’re doing. Why is this a surprise? Your brother has always and ever been right, you just refuse to hear anything he has to say. Moreover, even the rich assholes pretty much told Sophie and the prince to their faces that they would cripple the reform. Her middle of the road whataboutism is infuriating. Sure, maybe your boyfriend is a good guy, but its clear to me, and everyone else in the country, that the ruling classes are ripe for having their heads separated from their necks.

But! Then the book will mess with Sophie her bougie preconceptions, so I end up being on the hook for more. I keep hoping for a big SYKE! turns out Sophie is a revolutionary! moment, but then the alternative might be more interesting: a portrait of someone, who, like the rest of us, worries about the news of babies in cages and hopes for incremental change, but can’t be arsed to actually do anything but worry. Shudder. That’s a horror story right there.

Review: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

In the third of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity novels, Wolf Rain, she returns to origins: back to the Sierra Nevada region where the SnowDancer pack of Changeling wolves rules. The previous two novels – Silver Silence, which takes place in the Changeling bear packs of Russia and Ocean Light, which explored the secretive BlackSea pack of water changelings – struck out into unexplored groups and places to uneven results. Ocean Light especially felt like it was lacking, so it feels like a good move to head back to familiar ground. We know a lot of people in SnowDancer, and when we ran into them, mostly they weren’t just hanging around canoodling and being sooooo in lurrrrrve, which I find happens often in romance sequels. This always sets my teeth.

The novel kicks off with emotionally isolated SnowDancer lieutenant Alexei (whom I’m fairly sure has popped up before in previous novels?) following an anguished psychic broadcast in the middle of nowhere SnowDancer territory. He finds a hatch to a bunker inside a cave, and inside the bunker he finds a Psy woman (named Memory) grieving over her dead cat. They gtfo of there, with Alexei provoking the Psy to anger to keep her moving. He identifies her as an E, the empathic designation, which she balks at: she has an affinity with monsters, in her mind. She nonetheless submits to interviews with such talents as Sascha Duncan, a cardinal E and shield technician, and sets up residence with other Es in the SnowDancer territory.

Since childhood, Memory has been in the clutches of one of those psychopath villains Silence produced in batches since she was maybe eight or nine. Silence, a widespread form of social conditioning used by the Psy for several generations to remove all emotion, has fallen, but the Psy, and by extension Memory, are on a long road to wellness. In some ways, her arc is one of the entire race, post-Silence, a road map out of the recrimination and self-loathing that comes from discarding Silence. The E-built “honeycomb” is fine and all, but they cannot be doing all of the emotional work for the entire race. Wolf Rain addresses head on the problems the Psy face in a post-Silence world, and is probably more mythology-heavy than its predecessors, which I count as a good thing.

Alexei’s trajectory is maybe less interesting, but then I’m just way less into Changeling psychology in general, so it could be me. I find the whole predatory dominant thing – which Alexei embodies to a T – rather tiresome, and the whole “mate for life” trope endlessly frustrating. A biologically based unbreakable bond absolutely destroys any real emotional agency. People have vastly different emotional makeups, and even worse, one’s character changes over time. I don’t get how “mate for life” isn’t anything but an emotional prison when two people bond in their 20s, and then get tethered to one another permanently despite divergent interests and concerns as they age.

Moreover, both mate-bonding and pack-bonding lends the Changelings a form of emotional perfection that can really mar any story that relies on emotional growth. They’re often cast as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which makes them hard to relate to, and limits their emotional range. (I mean, that may be the ultimate thrust of the series, in a way: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. They’re aspects of humanity split out, and the series finds them coming back together.) Alexei’s experiences actually calls some of this Changeling bonding stuff into question; just because two people are mated, doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly, horribly wrong. I still have my reservations, but some of my issues are addressed, and credibly.

Memory’s experience as a sub-designation E mirrors Alexei’s grapplings with the Changeling emotional makeup. Though (of course) her self-image was completely twisted by her Psy captor, she’s still not like the other Es we’ve met, who are stereotypically soft and feminine, true nurturers and providers. Memory is made out of anger and vengeance; it is what got her through her captivity. She is willing to cut a bitch if a bitch needs cutting. I really, really like the idea of an empath who is sensitive to the darker registers of the human emotional experience. It’s more neatly dealt with in Wolf Rain than I would prefer, but that it’s acknowledged at all is aces.

So far, the Psy-Changeling Trinity novels have been slightly shaky, but Wolf Rain gets back to basics in a satisfying way.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Book Review: Perfunctory Affection by Kim Harrison

Sometimes I feel out of step with other readers. I thought THE DRAFTER and its sequel were both excellent novels. The mid-apocalyptic Detroit setting was well detailed. The characters' backstories came out organically as the reader's understanding of the world deepened (and the reader's experience mirrored the protagonist's confusion, at least in the first one.) Also, drafting was just a cool concept, and spy drafters even better. Alas, I felt like those things were absent in PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION. The setting is an indistinct college town in Anywhere, USA, and the mechanics of the magic at play here are rote. Worse, I didn't feel much from or about the characters either.  

PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION starts in medias res as a woman, Meg, barrels down a road in her car, castigating herself for trusting various people. She gets into an accident (which reminds her, briefly, of an older accident that ended in blood on the road) after a man jumps in front of her car. They argue, then we jump back 3 days, and begin following Meg through her day. First stop is to her psychiatrist, who appears to be helping her through social anxiety and agoraphobia, stemming from the death of her mother and a brutal car accident. Meg is put on a new highly experimental drug called Fitrecepon (hint: anagram solvers are a thing) and then sent out into the world. Meg is to keep a diary and watch for paranoia and changes in diet and sleep patterns.

Which is where I run into my first set of problems. From here, Meg goes out and spontaneously makes friends with a visiting professor (Meg is an art teacher, apparently), at which point they become joined at the hip and spend the entire weekend together with escalating intimacy. I think Meg's weird toad-eating and subservience to her new friend Haley is right in line with her dismal self esteem and her fervent desire to overcome her anxiety. I think she also would be hungry for a drug to be a magic bullet, which is how she treats it, even after Dr. Jillium's warnings. But Dr. Jillium should have her license revoked for how she handles a highly experimental drug (which is apparently not even in trials, it's so experimental, which is not how any of that works.)

My mother's best friend has cancer, and last month they decided to try a new chemo drug on her. She went into the office and was hooked up to the rig, where they pushed a few secondary drugs first. Then they hung the bag with the drug in it. Jay watched the drug run down the tube to her hand, and the moment the drug hit her bloodstream, she went into anaphylactic shock. They had to do the whole Pulp Fiction epi pen to the heart thing right there as her husband watched on in horror. This and other terrible side effects of, really, any drug are always possibilities; ask me about how contrast dye makes my body break out in hives! When Meg blows off keeping a diary of the effects of the drug, that should have been the end of it, right there, day one.

The opening bit also blows any sense of creeping dread we may feel. Haley, Haley's roommate, Meg's boyfriend, Austen: they are all under suspicion by the reader, which made me read a lot closer for tells and slip-ups by the characters. Of course Haley and her friend-boy are not to be trusted; we have that knowledge from the first. Meg's escalating paranoia about Jillium and Austen reads exactly like a side effect, which no one seems to see but the reader. That all is not right with Meg's sense of what is real and what isn't is telegraphed so loudly that I had the twist figured well before it hit. While I don't think that's a bad thing in all instances -- sometimes the tension between what the reader knows and the characters do can be a cool effect -- in this case it made me skim a bit until I could get to where Meg catches up.

I don't want to land too hard here. This may come off as a bitchy thing to say, though I don't mean it that way, but PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION is readable as hell, and I was halfway through before my brain started screaming about Dr. Jillium. The novel moves along at such a fast clip that I didn't have any time to start nitpicking, and even when I started, I was compelled to read to the end. I am not in any way a completist, and abandon at least half the books I start. Meg's genuine rush at overcoming some of her anxiety is well rendered, and I think in general her mental illness is dealt with sensitively (though I'm a little unsure about that ending.)

So, on the balance PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION was a nice read on a Sunday, but I just didn't think it was up to the quality of THE DRAFTER, which of course no one read because the world is deeply unfair. The cover is also aces.


I received my copy from Netgalley.

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format — The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games – har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.