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Chasing the Stars

September 5, 2016

I was promised “gender-swapped Othello in space!” when I picked up Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars, and while I don’t exactly feel cheated, I somehow did not expect to get a version of the story that, like the movie O, gives the Iago figure a motive. And then…

Oh, Malorie Blackman, “thou hast not half that power to do me harm/
As I have to be hurt.”

… this version of the story shows Desdemona getting the chance to explain how the handkerchief (in this version, the necklace) was lost. This version also completely exposes the Iago figure’s villainy, in addition to his motive.

Chasing the Stars ends with the most inane dialogue imaginable, the Othello figure saying
“You promised to love me for ever and it was implied, though never stated, that I wouldn’t try to kill you”
and the Desdemona figure still unable to forgive, speaking his parting words
“you take care of yourself, OK?”
The beautiful, haunting words of one of the most passionate plays in the history of the English language reduced all the way down to these. Really?

And it started so well! I liked the science fiction handling of the racial aspect of the play when the Desdemona figure, Nathan, reveals that he is a “drone” and the Othello figure, Vee, (gender-swapped but not race-swapped, evidently) responds “Like you could be a drone! They’re just sub-intellect labourers doing all the menial, manual work that’s too filthy or hazardous for normal people to do” because she’s never been a slave, never seen “The Anthropophagi and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

The relationship between Nathan (Desdemona) and Anjuli (Cassio) is very nicely set up—on the prison planet where they were both drones, Nathan says,
“Anjuli had befriended me, shown me the ropes and taught me which guards and supervisors to avoid like primate flu and which ones were still relatively human. And she’d actually saved my life once. I would’ve sunk without trace if it hadn’t been for her and we both knew it.”
Similarly, the relationship between Vee and her Iago is very well set up and fits the science fiction theme interestingly, although aspects of it are a surprise that it would entirely spoil the book to reveal.

Let’s talk about the writing, though. I was bothered by the occasional needless use of words like “amongst” in sentences like this one: “The only thing I hadn’t shared with any of the others was the executive command code which allowed me amongst other things to lock out or lock down any computer function at a moment’s notice.” Then it accelerated. I started seeing “whilst” in sentences like “Nathan, you’d better make the most of her whilst you’ve got her” and “He was locked out whilst there were people inside the conduits.”

So I was less inclined to give this author a pass for quoting bits of Othello like “Beware the green-eyed monster which mocks the meat it feeds on” without any reference to what the second part means in this space-age context. I was also complely unprepared to forgive the author of a 2016 novel for using Wash’s famous phrase from the 2005 movie Serenity, about being “a leaf on the wind” in this clunky sentence:
“Aidan made that craft dance like a leaf on the wind.”

It’s not that bad an updating but boy, did it make me angry. Desdemona would never leave Othello. Othello would never leave her. The ending of this particular story is always that when Othello no longer loves Desdemona, then “Chaos is come again.” It’s not just another day in the universe, you know?

Shadow and Bone

August 31, 2016

For a recent trip by plane, I was glad to have all three of Leigh Bardugo’s novels that tell the Russian-flavored fantasy tale of Alina Starkov, who finds out that she is a “Grisha,” someone who can do magic. The first of these is Shadow and Bone. In it, Alina finds that she can make light, but she is attracted to the power of one who can make darkness, and the results of her actions in the trilogy are predictable but entertaining, as she learns to use her power while honoring her alliances.

The plane ride was only an hour, which is about how long each book took and how long my (direct) (this is rare!) flight was from Columbus to Raleigh-Durham, NC, so I had another book to read at the motel where I had a pisgah view of the pool in August—it was filled with water, but closed and surrounded by dirt and equipment. This was the trip I took to help Eleanor move, as Ron made the four-day drive with her from Tucson, AZ to Chapel Hill, NC and then had to fly back as soon as they arrived because he had a “retreat” at work that he couldn’t miss (and then he spent the rest of the week dealing with what I hadn’t been able to get cleared away from the tree falling on our deck and part of the roof in the one day I was home after it happened).

Did I tell you that a tree fell on our deck while Ron was gone? Walker and I were in the part of the house nearest where it fell. We heard it falling—a very big noise—and I froze. I should have run to the farther part of the house, but it sounded like it was coming down all around, and my intellect was not in charge of my body for those few moments. The trunk smashed up some benches and outside furniture, and it made a hole in the roof above Walker’s room (where he was when it fell) and tore off the gutter, but we were pretty lucky. Part of the reason it didn’t do more damage to the house is that it fell on the electric line, which is suspended among the trees in the woods in back of our house. When the trunk fell, it was caught by the line for a moment, and then it smashed the pole and the transformer, which burned on the ground and sent arcs up the wires in back of the house (this was at 10 pm). The fire department came, and the electric company, who just shook their heads and said they would be back to see about it in the morning. The next morning, the tree company came at the behest of the electric company and refused to take down the other two enormous trunks of the tree, which they told me is rotten at the heart and will eventually fall on the electric line. Instead, they trimmed an oak so it had no leaves, and left it lying all over the ground. Ron hired a different tree company to come and haul away the fallen trunk, but he and a friend who wants firewood have been trying to chop up the oak pieces on the ground. We may eventually have to hire the tree company to come back. In the meantime, though, we had an expensive plumbing emergency (it’s an older house), so we’re leaving things alone for a while.

One of the things I liked most about Shadow and Bone is the way it creates an entire culture, complete with mythical creatures. I had to look some of them up, because it’s not clear which are mythical only in the fiction and which are mythical in our world, too. There is “Morozova’s herd,” for instance, which is a herd of magical white deer that appear only at twilight, and they are compared to “unicorns and the Shu Han dragons.”

In the second book, Siege and Storm, they go hunting the firebird, and Alina learns more about the effort it takes her opponent, the “Darkling,” to create monsters called “nichevo’ya,” which he makes using “Merzost,” described as “a corruption of the making at the heart of the world.”

In the third book, Ruin and Rising, they try to discover the secrets of an early Grisha named Morozova without uncovering the forbidden mysteries that led to his destruction:
“He’d killed animals and then brought them back to life, sometimes repeatedly, delving deeper into merzost, creation, the power of life over death, trying to find a way to create amplifiers that might be used together. It was forbidden power, but I knew its temptation, and I shuddered to think that pursuing it might have driven him mad.”

There’s a delightfully smart and adventurous prince named Nikolai who keeps turning up to help save Alina until it’s her turn to save him and her country. I love the scene where she is trapped at gunpoint by Luchenko’s gang and one of them mentions the prince:
“’I saw the prince when I was in Os Alta,’ said Ekaterina. ‘He’s not bad looking.”
‘Not bad looking?’ said another voice. ‘He’s damnably handsome.’
Luchenko scowled. ‘Since when—‘
‘Brave in battle, smart as a whip.’ Now the voice seemed to be coming from above us. Luchenko craned his neck, peering into the trees. ‘An excellent dancer,’ said the voice. ‘Oh, and an even better shot.’
Nikolai then shoots all the bad guys, of course, and swings down from the trees.

The end of all three books has to do with Morozova’s use of “Merzost” to bring back his daughter:
“It wasn’t healing. It was resurrection.”
His actions have far-flung consequences, into succeeding generations. Only Alina, in the end, can disperse his power so that her country and everyone still living who she cares about can be saved.

It’s a good adventure, wrapped up nicely. Just the thing to read while traveling to set up a daughter’s new life and trying to get your own back on track.

Welcome to Deadland

August 29, 2016

Welcome to Deadland, by Zachary Tyler Linville, was on the new shelf in the SF section at the Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, so I picked it up and started leafing through it. It starts out interestingly, with a mysterious man in black intentionally infecting people on a train with some kind of virus, and then it alternates “Before” and “After” chapters following two sets of main characters.

398 pages later, though, I was sorry I’d picked it up. The story has nothing new to say about zombies or zombie-ism spreading as a virus, it’s badly written, and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. When I got to the end, I discovered that most of the movement towards revealing the secrets and bringing the action to a head is directed towards a sequel, which I will not be reading.

The zombies in the “after” chapters are pretty standard-issue:
“A horde of the infected block the path in front of them….A rancid smell drifts from the horde, repugnant….It’s a mixture of old blood, rotting flesh, body odor, and human waste. The infected mill around in different states of haggard anger, snarling and growling while bumping or pushing one another.”

In an early “before” chapter, one male character who is attracted to another comes out to him:
“His voice shook from his nerves and discomfort. ‘I’m gay.’
Neither Ellis nor Asher said anything while the declaration lingered between them, the admission soaking into their minds. Ellis looked up at Asher, the fear he once felt was etched into Asher’s face.”
In addition to the fact that this author is telling rather than showing, I’m a bit irritated by the repetition of comma splices as sentence structure.

In the last “after” chapter, we are told that “Brandon’s features matched the animalistic nature that had consumed Mark.”  I guess this kind of writing happens because saying it more simply would reveal the cliches even more clearly.

Perhaps part of it is that the book is aimed at a younger audience? Certainly it pushed me away harder than my youngest child ever has with passages like this one from a “before” chapter:
“She wanted him to check flight prices. She didn’t want Asher on the road in case of a snowstorm. Standard mom worries.”

And what place does food snobbism have in the “after” chapters of a zombie novel?
“Rico’s stomach growls and he retrieves chicken noodle soup from his stash. Most of the flavor is overpowered by an abundance of sodium, but it sates his hunger.”

I think I could have read a book that started out like this one and been less angry at the end if there had been a plot resolution. This author’s ambitions are just too big for his material.

Have you ever been irritated by reading an entire work of fiction and finding out at the end that you’d have to read a second and then maybe even a third to get any resolution to the plot that was set up?

Shadows of Paris

August 24, 2016

A love letter to Paris disguised as a novella, Eric Lehman’s slim volume entitled Shadows of Paris begins in the shadow of Notre Dame and ends with a view of rough, cobbled streets and the banks of the Seine.

Appearing unexpectedly in my mailbox at Kenyon, the book is also a kind of love letter because it’s written by one of my former students who has become a writer. That makes me very proud, however little I might have had to do with it. So I am far from an unprejudiced reader.

Let me tell you about the story. There’s this guy William who doesn’t speak much French but has taken a job teaching in Paris on the spur of the moment. There’s some mystery about why he is so unmoved by his surroundings, spending his days at a school near Les Halles and his evenings in an apartment on Rue Tiquetonne. When his boss gives him an assignment to start reading some of the great works of French literature in translation, he begins to find “the keys to Paris, the keys to literature, the keys to life.”

And there’s this girl, Lucy, who works in a bookshop specializing in English translations. William and Lucy meet and feel an instant attraction; his first reaction is “She was another man’s wife, for Keats’ sake.” They reveal their darling originality to each other, like when William explains that he says “for Keats’ sake” because his father used to say “for Pete’s sake” and “at some point I asked who is this Pete? And why are we worried about his state of being? So, I changed it to a more appropriate homophone, the poet who died so young.”

William and Lucy spend a few weeks dancing around the fact that she has a husband and then they find out all about the checkered parts of each others’ pasts and fall in love. That part’s predictable. What’s fun are the glimpses of Paris you get along the way—perhaps especially if you are predictable as a tourist.

The first (and so far the only) time I went to Paris, we stayed in an apartment near Les Halles and the first meal we had in what we thought was a real sidewalk café was at a place called Au Pied de Cochon, which Lucy’s husband, when the three of them have a meal together, describes as “for tourists.” We remember it as the place where we learned the French for “the bill,” which is “la addition,” and which you have to ask for before they bring it, so polite are the waiters about letting you sit and watch the people go by on the sidewalk for as long as you like.

If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ll recognize something; William and Lucy travel all around the city. As William’s boss continues to talk to him about French literature and Lucy continues to wander around the city with him, William opens himself up to more of French life, until finally he says “as we crossed the Seine at the pedestrian Pont des Arts, heading towards the Louvre, I actually stopped and spun around, taking in the grandeur of the city.”

While William falls in love with Lucy and with Paris, readers of Shadows of Paris will enjoy being there with them. And at the end, William is, like the readers, longing from afar for Parisian sights and sounds.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

August 22, 2016

I had half an hour at the gate and then an hour-long flight from Columbus to Raleigh-Durham NC and I read the script of both parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in that time. It was pretty entertaining, just right for a short flight.

Already on page 34 there is a mention of necromancy (by any other name, but let’s call the desire to go back in time to resurrect someone from the dead what it is). A long-bereaved father appeals to Harry, asking “how many people have died for the Boy Who Lived? I’m asking you to save one of them.”

The action of the play centers on alternate universes created by Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpius who are (surprise!) best friends in the universe where the play begins and ends. Scorpius is always having to react to rumors that he is not Draco’s son, but Voldemort’s. Albus is always having to react to people who treat him as his father’s son more than a person in his own right. Together, the two boys live up to their faith in each other, while separately it seems they might drown amid the false expectations of others. At one point, Scorpius says
“I know the–Voldemort thing isn’t–true–and–you know–but sometimes, I think I can see my dad thinking: How did I produce this?”
And Albus replies
“Still better than my dad. I’m pretty sure he spends most of his time thinking: How can I give him back?”

As Walker said to us, after finishing reading the script about 2 am on the night of its midnight release, some of the characters don’t sound quite right. The funniest instance of this is when Ron offers to be the one to transform into Voldemort:
“I mean, it won’t be–exactly nice being Voldemort–but without wishing to blow my own trumpet–I am probably the most chilled out of all of us and . . .so maybe transfiguring into him–into the Dark Lord–will do less damage to me than–any of you more–intense–people.”

But as fanfic authors, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne do create some new voices for the progeny of the famous trio (Hermione and Ron’s daughter has a peripheral part). I like the way the less-famous sons playfully aggrandize each other. At one point Scorpius says:
“Turns out Malfoy the Unanxious is a pretty good liar.”
And a minute later:
“Only you and I have experienced how dangerous this is, that means you and I have to destroy it. No one can do what we did, Albus. No one. No (slightly grandly) it’s time that time-turning became a thing of the past.”
Albus: “You’re quite proud of that phrase, aren’t you?”
Scorpius: “Been working on it all day.”

There’s a self-indulgent scene in which portrait Dumbledore admits to Harry that he loves him, has always loved him, that reads like fan wish fulfillment.

However, I was extremely glad to get to Harry’s line about how he hasn’t been a good parent. In this age of Mama Mia-style Baby Boomers trying to always stay on center stage, it’s refreshing to hear a character say:
“We have both tried to give our sons, not what they needed, but what we needed.”

Maybe it’s time for the Harry Potter generation to start writing some of their own plays and stories.

The 5th Wave

August 15, 2016

Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is the first book in a YA SF trilogy, followed by The Infinite Sea and The Last Star. I read all three of them last week; it didn’t take long and the first book had a lot of promise. Unfortunately, I wasn’t excited about the nebulous are-they-aliens-or-are-they-us ending that dragged out in the last two books.

The series is YA because the protagonists are young. Only young people are left on earth after the fourth wave. The action seems like it’s SF because it begins between the third and fourth wave of an alien invasion, with a girl named Cassie who says
“time was flowing in reverse. The 1st Wave knocked us back to the eighteenth century. The next two slammed us into the Neolithic.
We were hunter-gatherers again. Nomads. Bottom of the pyramid.
But we weren’t ready to give up hope. Not yet.
There were still enough of us left to fight back.
We couldn’t take them head-on, but we could fight a guerilla war. We could go all asymmetrical on their alien asses. We had enough guns and ammo and even some transport that survived the 1st Wave. Our militaries had been decimated, but there were still functional units on every continent. There were bunkers and caves and underground bases where we could hide for years. You be American, alien invaders, and we’ll be Vietnam.
And the Others go, Yeah, okay, right.”

The 5th wave is made up of human children who are trained to kill, and then told that the other remaining human children who are not wearing a tracking device are aliens. We follow a little group of child soldiers who discover that those without the tracking device are not aliens, and then—for the lengths of two books—watch them fight bloody battles with everyone they meet because they can trust no one.

The children try to stay “human” by remembering how to love each other and not descend completely to survival mode, but the aliens make that harder and harder, escalating the kinds of “tests” these child soldiers undergo until it’s impossible for the reader, let alone the children, to tell who might be human and who might be alien. We never do really get a satisfying answer to who the aliens are and what they want.

The young characters’ attitude towards their lost civilization reveal the author as some kind of uber environmentalist who regards civilization as a blight upon the earth. Here’s one example:
“Really neat that human beings conquered the Earth, invented poetry and mathematics and the combustion engine, discovered that time and space are relative, built machines big and small to ferry us to the moon for some rocks or carry us to McDonald’s for a strawberry-banana smoothie. Very cool we split the atom and bestowed upon the Earth the Internet and smartphones and, of course, the selfie stick.
But the most wonderful thing of all, our highest achievement and the one thing for which I pray we will always be remembered, is stuffing wads of polyester into an anatomically incorrect, cartoonish ideal of one of nature’s most fearsome predators for no other reason than to soothe a child.”

As if the ridiculousness of ending with the selfie stick and this description of a teddy bear aren’t enough, later the author makes his meaning even more plain:
“The debris will settle. Rains will bathe the scorched and barren ground. Rivers will revert to their natural course. Forests and meadows and marsh and grasslands will reclaim what was cut and razed, filled and leveled and buried beneath tons of asphalt and concrete. Animal populations will explode. Wolves will return from the north and herds of bison, thirty million strong, will again darken the plains. It will be as if we never were, paradise reborn, and there is something ancient inside me, buried deep in the memory of my genes, that rejoices.”

So if you want an alien invasion story that is supposed to make you side with the alien but never reveals anything about him, turning your sympathy into twisted environmentalism at best and nihilism at worst, this is the series for you!

Stiletto

August 8, 2016

I picked up Stiletto because I enjoyed The Rook, Daniel O’Malley’s first novel about a supernatural government agency keeping England safe from monsters. By the middle of Stiletto, though, I wasn’t enjoying it as much–the middle is slow going, as if it could have used a bit of judicious editing (at 580 pages it could afford to lose a few). The end, though, is fabulous, and I was glad I’d kept reading.

One of the thing O’Malley could have done sooner is the title reveal. Who is the stiletto? How is the stiletto related to the rook? There’s a good answer, but it doesn’t have to be kept secret so long. In fact, I will reveal it to you right now, for your reading pleasure. The plot of the novel concerns whether a partnership between the Checquy (or as their enemies call them, the Gruwels) and the Broederschap (or as their enemies call them, the Grafters) is possible. In the end, it turns out that it might be, as a main character of the novel, a member of the Broederschap named Odette Leliefeld, is being described by her friend, a Checquy pawn:
“You’re a Pawn….A Pawn of the Checquy. You might not have taken the oath yet, but that’s what you are. You’re a tool, to be used and directed for the good of the people. Sometimes you’ll be a scalpel, cutting out disease. Sometime you’ll be a sword, and you’ll take on threats with all the strength you can muster. And sometimes, Odette, you’ll be a stiletto, a hidden weapon that slides quietly into the heart.”

The conversations about supernatural events are as wonderful as ever, like this bit of cocktail party chatter:
“The last party I was at ended very badly. And didn’t you once attend a dinner in Bhutan where everybody except you left having been rendered completely sterile?”
“And they all became allergic to rabbits,” said the lady with some satisfaction.

I really enjoy the way the author integrates his fictional world into the world of fiction as we know it. This novel concentrates on what members of the Broederschap know, her own fictional organization that was the ultimate enemy of everyone in the Checquy, the people we sympathized with in The Rook:
“In the eighteenth century, a brilliant young student from the University of Ingolstadt caught the eye of members of the Broederschap. His work with galvanism and chemistry was deemed to have tremendous potential, and they recruited him. He was given a thorough grounding in the core principles of the brotherhood’s techniques, but he chafed at their restrictions and eventually went rogue, disappearing to pursue his own research. Agents scoured the known world for him, but it was years before five Chimerae were dispatched to the Arctic, where he had constructed and animated a monstrous being using cadavers and lightning. Four of the five troops were killed, but the rogue doctor and his creation also died out there on the ice.”

The characters discuss the fact that much of what the Broederschap can do “is still illegal in most countries. We’re talking genetic engineering, harvesting organs, cloning, weaponizing human biology.” They talk about why it has to be kept secret, saying “mainstream culture is not ready for what we can do.”

I enjoy the way the author waves a hand at the science, even extending this to his characters. When a young member of the Broederschap who has just cloned a mouse is asked how he did it, we get this conversation:
“Do you have any knowledge of microbiology and cellular formatting?”
“No.”
“Are you interested in learning about them?”
“God, no,” said Felicity.
“In that case, I took some mouse blood, put it in a tub of magic Grafter-slime, added some starch, and a new mouse grew out of it,” said Alessio.

There’s a great comic scene when Odette Leliefeld, the main character and a member of the Broederschap, fits a dress made of living material to her bodyguard (and Checquy agent) Felicity:
“she drew a finger briskly across Felicity’s bust and then back under. At her touch, the material gathered itself up, supporting and restraining. It occurred to a shamefully ungrateful part of Felicity’s mind that, if Leliefeld wanted to, she need merely flick her wrist, and the gown would clench about the Pawn and crush her to death. For all Felicity knew, it might then soak up all the blood and hoover up the bones.”

Some of the details we get about how various members of the Checquy and the Broederschap are deployed are fun, but the level of detail seems increasingly unnecessary as the novel goes on, like the long list of things that some sleeper units (literally, they’ve been asleep for two years and four months) have to do before they can go about the business of furthering the plot:
“A rota was worked out so that the flat’s single shower could be used as efficiently as possible. The first Chimera to emerge from the shower, an enormous man named Jan Kamphuis, was assigned the task of preparing breakfast for the others. He broke open trunks filled with a shiny agar and peeled away the gelatin to reveal perfectly preserved ingredients. Shortly, he was serving up bacon, eggs, waffles, and (him being Dutch) toast with chocolate sprinkles.”

Who uses Odette, and how and why is worth finding out, even if you do have to wade through too much detail to get there.

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