Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and Other Stories

Review of Alastair Reynolds’ short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Reviewing short story collections is hard, even when it’s a collection by one of my favorite SF authors. Reynolds in fact has two collections out this fall, of which this is the first.

Reynolds’ forte is telling atmospheric stories – often with strong philosophical underpinnings – which nonetheless qualify as hard science fiction. His stories therefore are usually pretty heavy stuff, but no less enjoyable for that. He works the edge of the “posthuman” milieu which has become popular these days, although he often write straight-up space opera.

My favorite story? Maybe “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, which takes place in a universe with wormhole travel among stars which humanity has taken advantage of. The wormholes seem to end at the edge of the Aquila Rift, but of course the universe doesn’t end there, so eventually someone ends up going beyond it, by accident. This story I think perfectly encapsulates the sense of otherness which is often present in Reynolds’ stories, and the sense of loss that seems to come with being immersed in the other.

Reynolds tends to write a lot of far-future space opera, and two stories in here occur in the same such universe: In “Hideaway”, a small remnant of humanity is on the run from the cyborg creatures which have taken over the species. Their backs to the wall, they end up in an unusual star system which tantalizingly contains the seeds of escape. It’s followed up with “Merlin’s Gun”, concerning the hunt for a weapon which might be used to defeat the enemy. Both tales leave some story elements hanging – deliberately – but it’s the setting and characters and their approach to their dilemmas which is what drives the stories: How far will you go in the pursuit of your goals, and what are you willing to pay to achieve them?

Reynolds provides illuminating afterwords to each story, and he observes that the future of reporter Carrie Clay is perhaps a rather nice one to live in. In “The Real Story”, she interviews the men (?) who first stepped on Mars, decades after they accomplished the feat. It’s a neat little tale of ambiguity and – again – sacrifice and loss. In “Zima Blue” she interviews the foremost artist of her age, and learns something about art, humanity and memory. Reynolds turns the neat trick of taking what seems (to me) like a trite central idea and dressing it up into a rather elegant story.

The story that perhaps best shows Reynolds’ penchant for grandiloquent explorations of the nature of the universe is – naturally enough – “Understanding Space and Time”. It begins as a “last man standing” tale of loneliness verging on madness, and ends on a too-large-for-mere-words scale of understanding reality. Both parts of the story are interesting, although not fully successful, to my mind. It’s quite a page-turner, however.

Of course, not all the stories grabbed me – not unusual for a science fiction collection. I think sometimes the atmosphere overwhelms the story, or maybe is the whole point of the story, and the piece doesn’t come together for me. I think this was the case in both “Enola” and “Angels of Ashes”, for instance. On the other hand, “Signal to Noise” is a straightforward character yarn about (just barely) parallel worlds, but I found it rather routine. None of these were bad, but they were a few notches below the stories above.

The limited edition contains one more story written specially for this collection, which is pretty annoying since I don’t have the limited edition. Hopefully “Digital to Analogue” will be collected in another volume sometime.

Zima Blue is a better-than-average short story collection, and if you enjoy Reynolds or like dark space opera, then it should be right up your alley.

Heroes

Debbi and I have been watching Heroes since its debut, and haven’t missed an episode. We’ve watched it faithfully for one fundamental reason: It airs on Monday, and Monday is the one night of the week when we typically have nothing else planned. By contrast, it didn’t take long to bail on Jericho, since that airs on Wednesdays, which is both comic book night and gaming night.

Heroes features a world in which some humans have developed super powers, and so far it mainly involves the characters finding how in what ways their life has changed as a result. Two characters have learned that in a month New York City will be destroyed in what seems to be a nuclear blast, and the key to preventing this is to save a cheerleader from Texas. (The series’ tag line is “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”) There are several forces working at cross purposes to this, or so it seems, and the main characters themselves are often of mixed or dubious moral character.

The pacing of Heroes is extremely slow, with a great deal of time spent on the characters’ personal problems and foibles rather than moving the overall story along, and since several of the characters are either dull or not very likeable, this means that the feel of the show is one of “Something interesting happens!” followed by 20 minutes of “I wonder if they’re showing poker on ESPN2?”

The individual characters have their own story arcs which cross but rarely directly relate. Here’s how I feel about each of them:

  • Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere) is the cheerleader, who heals from almost any wound. She spent the first episode documenting on videotape her attempts to kill herself, and then changed her mind – a change in motivation which made no sense at all. Her stepfather is the man in horn-rimmed glasses (Jack Coleman) who is investigating powered individuals, and who was described in one episode’s promo as “the face of evil”, but this week’s promo suggests he’s a more ambiguous figure. Claire’s arc is deadly dull, being mainly a boring little soap opera.
  • Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) is a Japanese businessman who can teleport and freeze time. He jumped to New York in the future just before the bomb blast, then returned to the present and flew to America with his friend Ando (James Kyson Lee) to try to stop it. Since then they’ve gotten delayed in Las Vegas encountering several other characters. Oka is hands-down the actor who comes out the best in this series, and his character is the most likeable, which does a lot to keep his arc interesting even though it’s been stalled out for several weeks.
  • Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) is a telepathic policeman who’s having trouble with his marriage. He’s also working with the FBI to investigate a serial killer who seems to have powers (apparently telekinesis). His professional life is interesting, his personal life varies between boring and painful, so his arc is a Jeckyll-and-Hyde one to watch.
  • Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is the son of a man who was trying to learn about the powered individuals springing up around the globe. He travels to America from India after his father’s death to find out what he knew. Unlike the others, he has no powers that we know of. Although he’s gotten involved with a woman (Nora Zehetner) working for the horn-rimmed glasses man. When Mohinder is around, the story tends to move forward a little, and he seems like a good guy, and Ramamurthy is an engaging actor, so I am encouraged when he’s on screen.
  • Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) is a prospective New York Senator who can fly, but who is not interested in using his powers. His wife is paraplegic, and Petrelli is kind of a slimeball, involved with a mobster and cheating on his wife on a trip to Las Vegas. He also treats his brother like crap. I hate him as a person, so when he’s on screen I mostly hope he’ll get his comeuppance.
  • Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is Nathan’s brother. Peter thinks he can fly, too, but his actual abilities are somewhat different (I won’t spoil them here). He’s a good guy who is getting involved with the destruction-of-New-York element, but other than a subway encounter with one of the other characters, he hasn’t had a lot to do yet. I’m hopeful, though.
  • Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) is a single mother to Micah (Noah Grey-Cabey) whose reflection in the mirror has a mind – and powers – of her own. She lives in Las Vegas and was an Internet stripper before her debt to the mob sent her on the run. Most recently, her husband D.L. (Leonard Roberts) has shown up and taken Micah away. The story around Niki’s powers is interesting, but her personal problems got old really quickly, around the second episode. Overall a net minus.
  • Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) is a painter and drug user who paints pictures of the future, including the destruction of New York. Other than meeting Peter, his story has gone nowhere at all.

You can see the common thread here, right? There’s a lot of soap opera plotting going on and it’s just plain boring. The series feels like it’s stuck in its prologue and can’t manage to get the main plot moving. In retrospect, the first episode seems almost entirely redundant. When I think back over the episodes to date, it seems like there’s a lot more motion than progress, and it feels like a series badly in need of editing down to fewer episodes.

The series bend over backward to portray the characters as flawed but not evil, but the writing doesn’t feel consistent. It feels like the writers want us to be able to root for any of the characters, but also not to be able to see what’s coming. Consequently, several characters feel like they’re being pulled in different directions for no good reason; the characterization often feels made-to-order rather than natural.

To me, what drives the interesting bits of Heroes is a set of questions: Who is Claire’s father, and what’s he doing? Who is the killer the cop is tracking? Who’s going to blow up New York, and why? And, of course, why are people developing super powers?

So my fear for this show is that it’s going to fall into the trap of The X-Files and Smallville and (I hear) Lost of not really resolving things. If most of the questions in the preceding paragraph aren’t satisfactorily resolved this season, then I’ll know that the show isn’t serious about telling a story, but just wants to string us along. I bailed on The X-Files in its third season when I realized it wasn’t serious about going anywhere. A series with ongoing storylines needs to deliver a payoff in a timely manner or else it just feels like a cynical effort on the part of the producers and writers: “Keep watching, because something might happen at any minute!”

Overall, I feel that the series isn’t very original from a comic book superhero standpoint, and not very lively from a character drama standpoint. It has the potential to be a good series, but it needs to live up to that potential sometime soon, or I’m going to lose interest, even if it does air on Mondays.

Another view: Scott Marshall

Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (2)

Review of the second five-volume Amber series, by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The Second Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

I remember reading Trumps of Doom around when it came out, having just blasted my way through the first Amber series. And then a few years later reading the series again through Sign of Chaos when it was the latest book. And now, almost 20 years later, I’ve finally read the whole Amber series (modulo a few short stories).

The second series features Merlin, the son of Corwin, who was the hero in the first series. Like the first series, this one is narrated by its hero. Merlin is just as calculating as Corwin was, which probably suggests that the overly-analytical feel of the narrative is just Zelazny’s writing style. Merlin was conceived through deception, and was raised in the Courts of Chaos by his mother. Consequently he possesses the powers of chaos magic, but being of Amberite blood he’s also walked the Pattern and so has the skills of Amber as well. Though he feels more at home in the Courts, he’s recognized and welcomed in Amber, especially by Random, his uncle who is the new king.

What makes this series fun – for me – is how much of it occurs on our Earth, where Merlin has been living for seven years while he becomes a software engineer. He falls in love with a woman named Julia, and becomes good friends with a man named Luke. However, he reveals some of his nature to Julia, scaring her off, and finds that Luke is actually a not-too-friendly fellow with some surprising powers of his own. Also, someone has tried to kill him on April 30 for each of the last 7 years, and the day the book begins launches him on a considerably larger adventure than foiling a murder attempt.

The first two volumes are a lot of fun in unravelling Merlin’s life from several different directions, and making you wonder how it’s all going to come together. Unfortunately I felt Zelazny didn’t maintain the illusion of a tight plot the way he did in the first series. In the ninth book the whole thing falls apart and just feels blatantly improvised. Luke – originally one of the heavies – I suspect was so interesting a character to the author that he ends up patching up his friendship with Merlin, and not very convincingly. And the strands of Merlin’s troubles in Trumps resolves itself into a very different story by the time Knight rolls around. Knight centers around a metaphysical confrontation that Merlin has in a strange Shadow world, while Prince focuses on the central tension between Chaos and Order and Merlin’s role in the realm of Chaos. All the while the shadow of Merlin’s father – who has been missing since the end of the first series – hangs over the story, but the ultimate resolution to this was just not satisfying. The story goes considerably far afield from where it starts; when it was about Merlin’s private little war potentially spiralling out of control, it was fun, but when it resolves into a long-running conflict between two powerful entities, it feels trite.

How did this happen? Well, my understanding is that Merlin’s story was originally going to be a 3-book series, and it expanded to 5 books. I think it would have been better served had Zelazny limited it to 3 books and forced the plot into a less grandiose resolution. Instead we’re presented with an extensive look at the structure of the universe of Amber and I just didn’t find it all that interesting. I think the story got caught up in trying to seem cool (or maybe profound) rather than be good.

The second series is an interesting counterpoint to the first in a couple of ways, though: First, while Corwin was the ultimate insider in Amber – being the preferred choice of some for the throne, and right in the thick of all events – Merlin is really an outsider, allowed in the clan due to blood, but with divided loyalties and not having grown up around his Amberite relatives. So Merlin’s story doesn’t feel like “an Amber series”, but rather the story of someone who visits Amber from time to time but mostly spends his time elsewhere.

Second, if Corwin’s story was about a man who starts out sure of what he is finding out that in fact that’s not who he is at all, then Merlin’s is about a man who’s not at all sure what he is and finding out that he’s actually well-suited for something he never expected nor was interested in. Father and son travel opposite paths.

Merlin’s story ends with a number of dangling threads (as opposed to Corwin’s, whose story felt complete in its five volumes), and I’ve heard that Zelazny planned to write a third series, which never materialized due to his unfortunate death in 1995. So the gestalt of Amber feels unfinished (and I’m not really interested in reading an Amber series by some other author, though one exists).

In summary, the complete Amber series is at its best inventive and fun, but suffers from haphazard plotting and a too-analytical narrative style. It’s entertaining, but feels a little too improvised at times. The first series is well worth reading, but the second isn’t essential.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Review of the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Review of the graphic novel Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by various artists. Published by DC Comics.

  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

    • by Bill Willingham, Todd Klein, Charles Vess, Michael Wm. Kaluta, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, Mark Buckingham, et. al.
    • HC, © 2006, 144 pp, DC Comics, ISBN 1-4012-0367-1

Released last week, this graphic novel features characters from the ongoing Fables comic book series, but you don’t need to be reading the series to enjoy it!

The premise of Bill Willingham’s Fables is that the homelands of many classic fairy tales have been conquered by a mysterious Adversary, and many fables have escaped and are living in our world in New York (city and upstate). The framing sequence here sees Snow White sent as an ambassador to a Sultan in the middle east, to warn him that the Arabian fables’ lands may be next. Instead, she ends up playing the part of Scheherezade and telling the Sultan stories of her friends’ lives in their homelands to stave off her execution.

The framing sequence is charming, but as an illustrated text piece it drastically underutilizes the skills of Vess and Kaluta (I had similar misgivings about Vess’ illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust). But it’s the tales that Snow is telling that make up the meat of the book.

The book leads off with John Bolton’s piece, which is about a couple of very-well-known characters (no, it’s not a big mystery, but I won’t spoil it for you), and is the longest and best piece of the book. Bolton has been one of my favorite painting comic book artists and has been for years (for instance, I love his work in Gaiman’s The Books of Magic), and while his stlye has evolved, his sheer skill is not diminished; his work here is gorgeous, and unlike some painters, he’s also skilled at laying out a graphic story. (Some artists – to my eyes – seem to draw some stiff pictures that just don’t flow as a story; Bolton does not have that problem.)

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1001 Nights is sort of a primer to Willingham’s overall approach to Fables: Start with some well-known (or not-so-well-known) fairy tales, and either explore the ramifications of the story by considering what happens after it ended (or before it began!), or put it in a world with other such tales and meld them together into a larger whole. So here we see the early life of the Big Bad Wolf (appropriately drawn in a rough, wild style by Mark Wheatley), and a nasty witch of some reknown (in an eerie style by Esao Andrews – one of several artists here I’m not familiar with). While these contortions tickle the geek in me due to their cleverness, they’re also just good entertainment.

The witch story, actually, is the one story in the volume where I wasn’t fond of the artwork. It’s the one story illustrated by two artists: Andrews and Tara McPherson. In the case of each artist, it’s the stiff poses and relative lack of detail that turn me off. It’s not that their art isn’t expressive, bit it didn’t feel as fully-realized as that of the other artists.

The thread running through most of the stories is that this is backstory for the characters in Fables, and we get many different pictures of characters fleeing their homelands when they’re conquered. Such tales are typically grim, but “Fair Division” – featuring Old King Cole – is charming and heartwarming despite this, which is fitting considering its main character. It’s also wonderfully drawn by Jill Thompson, an artist whose style changes almost every time I see her work. Sometimes it like it and sometimes I don’t, but she brought her “A” game to this yarn, and it’s a fine bookend to Bolton’s story at the front.

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Whether or not you read Fables, you can enjoy this volume. It’s pretty to look at, fun to read, and worth coming back to. (But I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to wait for the paperback.)

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Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (1)

Review of the first 5-book story of the Amber series by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The First Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels have become classics of the fantasy genre. The series consists of two cycles of five novels each, plus some short stories. I first read the series back in the 80s, and last read them before the second cycle was complete. Recently I decided I was really in the mood to read them again, not only to complete the series for the first time, but to see how well they held up after all this time.

The answer is, “pretty well”. I was pleased to find that they’re a quick read, a fun read, and still contain some surprises of the “I should have seen that coming” variety.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe the series without giving away some of the first book: Our hero, Corwin, is a Prince of Amber. Amber is the first among all alternate realities, the other all being shadows cast off from the prime world. Amber has been ruled from time immemorial by Oberon. Oberon had over a dozen offspring, who have engaged in internecine competition for thousands of years, and Corwin is one of these. Amber is embodied by the Pattern, a magical design which can be walked and if one is a true child of Amber will confer on that person the ability to shift through all the various Shadows simply by travelling and willing it so. Such children also are immortal and immensely strong, with superhuman constitutions.

Corwin has been out of the game for many centuries, living on our own world as an amnesiac. Nine Princes in Amber opens with Corwin’s memory being jogged, and him going on a quest to recover it. Along the way he meets several of his relatives, some he likes and some he doesn’t. He finds that his father has gone missing, and his brother Eric – whom he likes least of all – plans to crown himself King of Amber, an ambition Corwin holds for himself.

Narrated by Corwin himself, the series features our hero confronting his past and his present, making mistakes and suffering the consequences thereof. Ultimately it’s about this extraordinary man evolving from a man of ambition and vengeance to one of duty and compassion. In this it resembles any number of “prince earning his throne” parables, but Zelazny never loses sight that it’s not really about the throne: It’s about Corwin and his relationship with his family. Corwin learns what he’s not, rather than what he is and by discharging his responsibilities to Amber he frees himself to live his own life.

The royal family of Amber are a capricious lot, often acting like little gods who use the mortals of shadow purely for their own ends. Backstabbing and calculating, their paranoia fuels the story’s writing style, in which Corwin is deeply analytical and even his emotions are carefully scrutinized by himself in the narrative. He regrets and loves and yearns, but his words are typically clinical and rarely heartfelt. In this regard Zelazny’s prose feels artificial. Corwin’s hatred of Eric and his mixed feelings about his father feel the most genuine.

Despite that, Corwin is a likeable protagonist and that makes the story, because you root for him. Though a flawed figure, you can see him growing as a person and coming around to where he’s trying to do the right thing when circumstances allow.

I’ve heard that Nine Princes was originally written as a standalone book, so it’s not too surprising that the story expands considerably as it goes on.

I think The Guns of Avalon is my favorite book in the series. In it, Corwin surveys the results of one of his acts in the first book, meets up with an old ally, Ganelon, with whom he has a checkered history, and meets another brother, who’s had an unfortunate encounter with some adversaries. It feels almost as fully-textured as Nine Princes, and is full of portentiousness. Corwin’s relationship with Ganelon is one of the best elements of the series, and is crucial – in more ways than one – to Corwin’s story arc. The book even ends on a dramatic note (although later books drop the ball when it comes to following through on it).

Unicorn and Oberon unravel the plot by the villains, and along the way reveal some more surprising characteristics of Amber and its universe. The most compelling thing is the depth of the machinations of the characters, which is especially impressive since I’m pretty sure Zelazny was making it up as he went along, so he had to retrofit events into what he’d already written in the first volume. Not everything works – one revelation about the Pattern seems rather superfluous, for instance – but it never detracts from it being a fun ride. Oberon finishes with a terrific and clever confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, and ends with a surprising revelation (well, it surprised me, anyway).

The epic’s biggest drawback is that Courts is a slim volume in both page count and content. It’s really a denouement to the end of Oberon – which is the emotional climax of the whole series – and it includes a lengthy trip by Corwin, a lengthy war between two armies (one of whom we barely know), and a couple more revelations that feel like too much too late. There’s some decent material in the final volume, but unfortunately it means the story ends with less than a bang.

I feel I should make some observation about the influence of Amber on the fantasy genre, but in fact I know little about it. Some say that Charles Stross’ series starting with The Family Trade is influenced by Amber, but other than featuring parallel worlds I think it bears no resemblance at all. It’s really more akin to “modern person thrown into a medieval society” stories such as H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, and – of course – Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve also heard Zelazny’s writing was a significant influence on Stephen Brust. But the Amber series doesn’t otherwise significantly resemble any other fantasy of the modern era that I’m familiar with.

The first Amber series is a big box ‘o fun, fast-moving and inventive. It’s not very deep, but it’s more than mere fluff. As escapist fantasy goes, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides

Review of the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

I’m a big fan of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. On Stranger Tides is the book he wrote immediately following that one, and it has all the classic hallmarks of a Powers book: A protagonist who walks through hell to emerge a changed man on the other side; a fantastic setting made real through a depth and breadth of research; a tightly-constructed plot; deftly-handled magical elements; and the degree of brutality one expects when fairly normal people are thrown into such nasty life-and-death situations. For all that, it’s not a great book, but it is solidly entertaining.

The operative theme here is “pirates”, as our hero – John Chandagnac – is on a ship in the Caribbean that’s captured by pirates. These being the early days of the 18th century (that’s three hundred years ago, for those keeping score at home), he’s pressed into their service, “service” in this case being to help the famous pirate Blackbeard assist a mad professor, Benjamin Hurwood, and his even madder doctor, Leo Friend, travel to Florida in search of a focus of magic energy. Chandagnac is rechristened Jack Shandy by the pirates, and he learns about sea travel and survival among this clutch of fairly amoral men.

Powers’ characters always have unique backgrounds, but that doesn’t always make them fully-realized characters. Shandy was a puppeteer, and is travelling to Jamaica to try to wrest his father’s inheritance from his uncle, but he’s really a pretty flat character. Okay, he does have a certain sense of nobility and honor which is both sorely tested and which gets him into profound trouble, but isn’t that true for many heroes? He falls in love with Hurwood’s daughter, Beth, but Beth is almost a nonentity as a character. Their attraction to each other never feels very plausible, either, as they don’t really know each other, and it feels like just a too-blatant instance of love at first sight. So it’s hard to take too seriously Shandy’s ongoing quest to save Beth.

It’s the villains who really make the story: Hurwood is obsessed with trying to bring his wife back from the dead, and has a gruesome plan to accomplish this. Friend is a despicable figure who’s just looking to gain personal power. And Blackbeard, well, is a notorious pirate with a clever plan for effecting his retirement as the age of pirates is driving to a close. Blackbeard is the most fun of these, as he’s more self-confident and even humorous at times. All three are deeply threatening, though, and Beth is caught in the middle of all of their designs, so, by extension, Shandy is too.

Powers’ drawing of pirate culture is arresting, and it seems he did plenty of research on pirates of the age and of Blackbeard’s exploits (confirmed and rumored) in particular, although I imagine that aspect of the book would be more rewarding to someone who’s also a pirate aficionado (unlike myself). There are some cool references to better-known people and places, too.

The story’s biggest weaknesses are the bits that aren’t fully explained, or that don’t seem truly plausible. Aside from the what I’ve already mentioned: Hurwood suffers flashbacks to his youth, for no apparent reason. Magic is thrown around a little too lightly, with even some of the also-ran pirates being proficient in it for some reason. Sometimes Powers substitutes his characters being unable to fully control their magic in place of a proper framework within which the magic seems believable.

But there’s plenty of action and adventure, and that’s what carries the book. Despite it’s flaws, it’s better than a “nice try”, and is a solidly entertaining read.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

To Be a Better Reviewer

One thing I hope to do in this new journal is to become a better reviewer.

I’ve been writing reviews for some years now, and lately have felt like I’m stuck in a rut. My review format is pretty standard:

  1. One or two sentence introduction.
  2. One-to-three paragraph plot summary.
  3. A few paragraphs of what I thought about the book.

After a while this format has made me start feeling as if I were Harriet Klausner, only slightly more insightful and a lot more cynical. (For those who don’t know, Klausner is the #1 reviewer at Amazon.com. It’s been conjectured that she’s actually a pen-name, perhaps for multiple reviewers. I don’t know that there’s any evidence for this, and there’s some evidence against it. In any event, her reviews are invariably positive – 4 or 5 stars – and have the consistent format of 2 paragraphs of plot summary and one paragraph of opinion. In other words, I find them bland.)

For me, the challenge in reviewing is that I both want to urge people to read books I enjoy, and discuss books I think are interesting. The former suggests that I keep my reviews spoiler-free, while the latter often requires that I include spoilers. (And both suggest maybe I shouldn’t review books I don’t like and don’t find interesting.) The solution to this, I think, is to write a review using the former approach, and then put any comments in the latter vein behind a Read More tag. (For the most part I hate it when people use things like lj-cut tags, but I think spoiler info is one of the very few legitimate uses of such things.)

And I’d like to break out of a standard reviewing format and get a little more creative.

Anyway, that’s the goal. I think it will take some thought and practice before I can properly execute it.