No Return by Zachary Jernigan

No ReturnTitle: No Return
Author: Zachary Jernigan
Published: 5 March 2013
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

This is the kind of book I find quite daunting to review. It’s differs from the norm, has a ton of worldbuilding, detailed plots, and plenty of character issues, all of which are hard to sum up in a review. I also happen to like it quite a bit, so add to that the task of making it look as good as I thought it was.

On the world of Jeroun, the existence of god is an absolute certainty. The deity Adrash, clad in divine armour, floats in orbit above the planet, trying to answer the ultimate question – “Return to Jeroun as mankind’s redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever.”

After twenty thousand years trying to change human nature, Adrash is inclined to destroy them. As an expression of his dissatisfaction he created the Needle – a line of spheres hanging in orbit above the planet. Humanity knows the spheres are weapons, and Adrash once threw two of them down to Jeroun in an event known as the Cataclysm.

Thus, Adrash’s dilemma is of equal importance to humanity, and society has been shaped by the question of how to address it. Adrashi sects believe Adrash is benevolent and the world can be saved by worshipping him. Anadrashi sects believe the god is their enemy and they need to place their faith in mankind. Each believes that the other puts the world in danger, so Adrashi and Anadrashi frequently express their faith by fighting each other, sometimes to the death. And now, as the world approaches the midpoint of the millenium, fighters from across the continent are travelling to the city of Danoor to take part in an epic tournament, where competitors will all fight to the death. The winner will take home money and fame, but will also have the chance to make a speech that will have major religious influence.

Vedas Tezul is a highly skilled Anadrashi fighter from the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits in the city of Golna. Although he hasn’t left Golna since he was a child, the master of his order sends him to Danoor to compete in the tournament. Joining Vedas on the 3-month long journey is Berun, a constructed man whose powerful body is composed entirely of spheres, allowing him to change shape. Berun is not interested in money or religion, but he’s passionate about fighting. Along the way they are joined by Churls, a woman who has developed her own deadly technique with a blunt sword, and who could use the tournament winnings to pay off her many debts.

Of course, road trips typically symbolise and provide the opportunity for personal journeys, which is certainly the case for our three companions. Vedas is struggling with issues about his faith. Shortly before leaving, one of his young students was killed in a street battle with the Adrashi, and it’s not the first time he’s seen a child killed in a religious fight. He should be able to just shrug it off, but he finds it deeply disturbing. Now that he’s away from the Order with nothing to do but hike all day he starts to question not just his faith but the things that he and others do in the name of faith.  Churls’s presence also raises the awkward problem of sexual attraction. She is attracted to him but keeps a respectful distance because they tend to antagonise each other. Vedas, at any rate, is a virgin who imposed a strict monk-like lifestyle on himself and it’s only now that he’s starting to realise how odd this is.

I really like the way Jernigan externalises this conflict in the black elder-cloth suit. All the Anadrashi warriors wear this suit (Adrashi wear white) and it’s made from the skin of elder corpses. The elders are extinct but their bodies do not rot, are magical and highly valuable – the bones are ground to dust and used as currency or drugs, and their skin is used to make cloth and leather. Elder-cloth suits like the one Vedas has forms itself to the wearer, regulates temperature, protects the body, assists with minor biological functions and can grow horn armour according to the wearer’s wishes. The wearer never needs to take it off, and Vedas has been wearing his for the past 20 years. So on the one hand, Vedas’s suit has become a part of him, while also representing his faith and function. Berun however, is unimpressed and sees Vedas as “half-finished… like a man who had never become comfortable in his own skin”. And this of course is true too, because Vedas is increasingly at odds with the person he’s become.

Berun’s insights seem remarkably perceptive for an automaton, but he was created by a famously brilliant wizard, so he’s more sophisticated than other constructed creatures. Still, he is tormented by questions of his own individuality and freedom. His creator is supposedly dead, but Berun is not sure if he is still somehow controlled by his creator, if he’s been programmed to behave in certain ways. He’s been having dreams in which he’s told to kill Vedas, but although he doesn’t particularly like the man, he sees no reason to murder him either, and battles to be his own person, not his creator’s puppet. Churls, besides grappling with her awkward attraction to Vedas, is haunted by her secrets. Literally so, in the case of her daughter’s ghost, who possesses some odd powers.

All this is enough story for one novel, but in fact I’ve only described half the plot. On another part of the continent, two eldermen scholars (elder-human hybrids) are caught up in a power struggle over the Academy of Applied Magics. The Academy is the only institution on Jeroun devoted to outbound magic, which is essentially space travel. With spells, alchemy, and elder-skin suits, outbound mages can make individual journeys into space, and see Adrash hovering silently above the planet. Which is exactly what Ebn, head of the academy and one of the world’s most powerful mages did. Driven by desire for Adrash, she approached him, with disastrous consequences, and has now taken it upon herself to prove humanity’s worth to him.

She’s also silently in love with the younger elderman Pol, who lives with her in an odd domestic arrangement. Pol however is decidedly gay and more inclined to murder Ebn and take her place than have sex with her. He has no choice but to comply with her current plan to please Adrash, but in the meantime he has his own ideas for empowering himself.

The outbound mages bring me to one of the most interesting aspects of the book – the way Jernigan has made science and magic indistinguishable. I wouldn’t know whether to call this science fiction or fantasy because the way he writes his tech makes those categories irrelevant. Alchemy and spells have the feel of chemistry and engineering. A dragon launches mages into orbit. A cyborg is created by a wizard. A god cracks humanity from iron eggs.

And it’s fantastic stuff. No Return leaves you with the sense that you’ve just read something rare and exotic, and the satisfying suggestion that there can be much, much more.

But I would argue that there is such a thing as too much awesome, and that is the problem with No Return. There’s so much going on that I can’t even scratch the surface of it in this review. It’s overwhelming. Even though I love all the characters, the story, the tech/magic and other worldbuilding, a lot of it could use more page-time, more in-depth exploration. The novel is the first in a series, but I have to wonder if it was initially meant to be a standalone because if feels like Jernigan threw everything he had into it, with no hope of a sequel. And I guess that’s actually possible, given that it was published just before Night Shade Books did their much-discussed crash-and-burn. There are enough ideas here for an entire trilogy or more, and enough plot for two novels.

Both the Vedas/Churls/Berun and Ebn/Pol stories are interesting, but except for the concerns about Adrash, they have absolutely nothing to do with each other and they never intersect. The novel also opens with a glimpse of a society of mindless immortals that no one knows exists and never comes into play, then ends with what is basically a novella about Adrash. All great reading, but it lacks cohesion. Perhaps the structure of the story was supposed to mirror the Needle or Berun’s body, both of which are seen as whole but composed of many individual spheres. If so, I’m not sure if that was a good idea. I enjoyed reading it, and it didn’t bother me too much but something doesn’t feel quite right.

I would have preferred a more streamlined novel, with more in-depth focus on certain elements. The novel relies very heavily on infodumping, perhaps because it’s the author’s first, but perhaps partly because he doesn’t have the room to flesh things out. Similarly, some of the character development – especially with Vedas – seemed to come more from descriptions of psychological states rather than behaviour. Then, near the end, the epic tournament that Vedas, Churls and Berun spent the whole novel travelling for turned out to be a major disappointment.

That said, I would love to read more stories set in this amazing world. Preferably stories that are given their own space, but either way, more please. Even a collection of short stories would be cool, about the origins of the mindless immortals who live on elder corpses, the Baleshuuk who mine elder corpses, the days when humans still knew how to navigate the ensorcelled ocean teeming with monsters, the story of Churls and her daughter, Berun and his creator, and Adrash, Adrash, Adrash. After reading N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy I’ve realised how much I love stories of complicated gods who are as much human as they are divine, and the sections about Adrash were some of my favourite in the book.

According to the author’s website, the second (and final) book is entitled A Shower of Stones and will be published in 2015, by Night Shade Books. I look forward to it.

A note on the cover: a bit of whitewashing there, assuming that guy is Vedas, because he’s supposed to be very dark skinned.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The PanopticonTitle: The Panopticon
Author: Jenni Fagan
Published: 23 July 2013
Publisher: Hogarth
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: contemporary, YA
Rating: 8/10

The Panopticon is the kind of novel that can start one of those debates about the boundaries of YA. It would certainly have the YA moralists up in arms. It’s not often that I read a book – any book – where a 15-year-old girl mentions fighting, fucking, and wanking on the first page.

But, nevertheless, Anais is only 15. She frequently narrates experiences from the past few years, too. There are also several other major characters around her age. And the experiences they have are strongly influenced by the fact that they are teenagers. Based on this you would assume that it’s a YA novel.

What complicates matters is that all of them have lived the kinds lives that more privileged teenagers would be sheltered from, and perhaps not even allowed to read about. Anais was born in a mental institution, and has been in 58 different placements since then. She was once adopted by a prostitute, but the woman was murdered. Eleven-year-old Anais found the body.

Following countless run-ins with the cops, she’s been accused of putting a policewoman in a coma. While she awaits trial she’s been placed at the Panopticon, an institution built according to Foucault’s famous design – a circular prison built around a central observation tower that allows inmates to be observed at all times. The twist is that inmates can’t see when they’re being observed, which means they have to assume that they’re always being observed.

The tower at this Panopticon is empty, but the institution operates on the rule that the ‘clients’ aren’t allowed to close their bedroom doors during the day, “to create a more trusting environment”. This fits rather neatly with Anais’s belief that she is the subject of “the experiment” – an ongoing study in which she is constantly observed and cannot escape. The goal of the experiment is to break Anais, which will happen if that cop doesn’t wake up. There is little Anais can say in her defence because she had a antagonistic relationship with the policewoman, she was caught wearing a shirt covered in blood, and she was so high on drugs that she can’t remember what happened that day. She’s currently in the kind of care where she gets an allowance and is allowed to go out and do her own thing, but if she’s found guilty, she’ll be transferred to a secure unit and locked up 24/7. Anais would rather be dead than locked up for good.

It already sounds like a hard story to face, but those are just the bones of the plot; I haven’t even gotten into all the details that hit you in the gut. Like the fact that Anais has been doing hard drugs for years, and now complains that she’s “getting old” because she didn’t get come-downs and hangovers before she was a teenager. She’s been charged with dealing drugs and fighting, among a hundred other offences. Sexually she’s extremely active, but not always with her consent. At 15 she’s already had sex with boys, girls and older men, and taken part in a threesome. Sex can be loving and fun for her, but it’s also a form of escapism, and on several occasions it was rape. She has an older boyfriend, of sorts, who is currently in jail. She plays this game where she imagines knowing who her mother is. She’s been failed by everyone – her parents, the social care system, the law, the police, her social worker. Even the one decent care worker at the Panopticon is too powerless to give her the help she needs.

It’s little different for the other ‘clients’ at the Panopticon. Like the young lesbian couple – Tash and Isla. Isla is mother to twins, who she unknowingly infected with HIV. She cuts herself, as if trying to cut the infection out. Tash turns tricks in the hope of raising enough money for all four of them to move into an apartment together. Cute guy John prostitutes himself too. Brian, the only person on the ward who actually seems insane, is loathed by everyone and often beaten, so you can only imagine him getting worse. Not that a rosy future seems likely for anyone else, Anais least of all.

The police hate her. Her social worker buggered off to India to save elephants and has a very low opinion of her anyway. She’ll never get a fair trial, and she’ll probably spend the rest of her life locked up for something she doesn’t think she did. The experiment, she thinks, is on the verge of defeating her.

I thought the novel would have a spec fic element because of the way the experiment is described in the blurb, but early on it becomes clear that the experiment is a delusion. The term “psychotic schizophrenia” comes up, which would no surprise considering Anais’s ongoing drug use. The experiment is an interesting comment on Anais’s experiences, however, and a twisted version of a teenager’s narcissism and identity crisis. Her life is so fucked up, and has always been so fucked up, that it seems like there must be some malevolent force trying to see how far she can be pushed before she breaks. Surely it can’t all be random?

In addition, the experiment helps Anais cope with the circumstances of her birth – she’s never known anything about either of her parents (her mother supposedly ran away after giving birth), and doesn’t know anyone she’s related to.

Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem—I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next. (It’s a Scottish novel, in case you’re wondering about the spelling.)

She feels like nobody has ever wanted her and nobody cares about her, or at least not anyone who can help her. With the experiment, however, she can replace the idea that her mother abandoned her with the idea that she never had parents but was grown in a lab. The scientists running the experiment care about her a great deal, even if it’s just because she’s their test subject. In a sick way, the experiment gives her life some purpose, albeit a purpose imposed on her by invisible observers. When she considers the possibility that the experiment is just a delusion, it’s even more heartbreaking that if it were real:

What if there was no experiment? What if my life was so worthless that it was of absolutely no importance to anyone?

It’s painfully easy to see how Anais has come to feel this way, but on the other hand she’s created her own identity, and her fate became important to me as the reader. I don’t easily identify or even empathise with delusional drug addicts facing prison sentences, but I really liked Anais. Aside from the swearing and belligerent attitude, she’s not what what you’d assume a juvenile delinquent to be, with her taste for vintage clothing, her soft heart, and her strong moral code. Anais is a good person, but most people would never notice that, and she knows it. There’s a scene where she’s interrogated by a woman who has already decided that Anais is a criminal who needs to spend the rest of her life in jail. Anais knows there’s no point trying to prove otherwise, even as she rages against the way she’s been perceived:

“[…]Do you have anything to say?”
Aye. Aye, I do. It’s this: here is what you don’t know—I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

Anais does have class and guts and soul, and you see it in the intimate first-person narrative, and in the relationships she forms with the other teenagers at the Panopticon. They become a little family of sorts, supporting each other through the miseries of their lives. The sad reality is that none of that goodness is guaranteed to save them from further suffering, and this book is full of the horror and tragedy of abandoned teenagers in the real world. Mercifully, Fagan avoids graphic descriptions of the most difficult scenes – Anais often seems too disturbed or traumatised to describe something in detail, or she’s so high that it’s hallucinogenic. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being shocking or heartbreaking, and you should be warned that this book contains self-mutilation, rape, and death. Caring about the characters makes it more hurtful and as the reader (or at least as an adult reader) you know exactly what’s going on even if Anais doesn’t state it outright.

The narrative can also be difficult for some, but for different reasons. There isn’t much of a plot and very little is resolved. There’s almost nothing Anais can do about her situation except wait and see if the cop wakes up. The ending leaves us unsure as to what will happen to her. It suits the story though – Anais does not live in a world of certainties or structure, so it makes more sense for questions to remain unanswered. The best thing about the book is simply meeting Anais and witnessing what becomes her climactic struggle against the experiment, which matters to her whether or not it’s real.

As to the YA question – I think it’s a grim but incredible book for a reader of any age, including teenagers who think they’re up to the challenge. I never liked having my reading censored, but besides that Anais is a great character partly because she’s a teenager. I’ve read quite a few YA novels with characters who happen to be teens but could easily be 10 or 20 years older. Fagan however, does a great job of making this book about being a teenager, specifically a teenager in a particularly tragic set of circumstances. For that, and lots of other reasons, I highly recommend it.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodTitle: The Year of the Flood
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #2
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury (my edition)
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, literary
Rating: 8/10

The Year of the Flood‘s plot runs parallel to Oryx and Crakebut it’s set in the pleebland slums, rather than the secure, sterile Compounds of the scientific elite. The pleeblands are where everyone else lives. It’s violent, and rife with diseases and infections (some of which come from the Compounds who test viruses or make money selling cures).

The story follows the God’s Gardeners, believers in a green religion founded by Adam One, with leaders known as Adams and Eves. The Gardener’s faith is a pacifist, eco-friendly interpretation of the Christian Bible. They are strictly vegetarian, respect the lives of all creatures, shun technology, recycle absolutely everything, avoid the processed food and medications produced by corporations, and spend their days living a quiet agrarian existence amidst the chaos of the pleeblands. They lament the gross environmental destruction wreaked by Corporations, and await the Waterless Flood – the apocalypse.

Of course, we know from Oryx and Crake that this Flood will take the form of a plague designed by Crake. It comes in Gardener Year 25, which is when the novel opens. Toby is hiding out at the AnooYoo Spa where she was working. Many of the treatments are edible or at least useful, she’s got a rifle for protection, and draws on her Gardner knowledge to grow food. Ren is locked inside the quarantine room of Scales and Tails, the strip club where she worked. Being locked up saved her from the riots that followed the outbreak of the plague, but now she’s counting on her childhood friend Amanda to find her and unlock the door before she starves to death.

Punctuating this present-day narrative are the Gardener Years 1-24. Each year/section begins with a sermon from Adam One and a hymn, then follows the stories of Toby and Ren. The Gardeners rescue Toby from a rapist who was certain to kill her. She’s not a true believer, but she adapts to their lifestyle and finds a home. Ren went to live with the Gardeners as a child, when her mother ran away from the Compounds with a Gardener named Zeb. She later made friends with Amanda, a smart, tough pleebrat, and invited her to join the Gardeners.

It’s not as dramatic as Oryx and Crake, since it covers the same time period, and focuses on the people who are disempowered and, unlike Jimmy, have very little contact with the forces that define their society. And I prefer Oryx and Crake if only because it had the kind of impact on me that very few novels could ever match. Nevertheless, The Year of the Flood is a superb piece of painfully dystopian science fiction in its own right, and a beguiling literary novel. Oryx and Crake was a bit different for Atwood in that it had a male protagonist. With The Year of the Flood she’s back in her element with two female protagonists and a larger cast of female characters. Like Oryx, they live in a world where sexual predators are a constant threat, and Toby’s story of sexual abuse is reminiscent of Oryx’s, as is Ren’s decision to become a sex worker at Scales and Tales. Ren actually sees Oryx when Crake brings her to Scales and Tales late in the novel, and Ren immediately recognises her as a fellow sex worker, charming the people around her while hiding her own identity. In that moment, she seems to understand more about Oryx than Jimmy was ever able to.

Ren has her own disappointing experiences with Jimmy, who becomes her lover when they’re teenagers but eventually gives her his damaged-boy-who-can’t-commit speech. Toby also spots Jimmy as Snowman, leading the singing Crakers from the Paradice Dome to the shore. They’re so bizarre that Toby assumes she must be hallucinating. I think it’s the first time we see Jimmy from another perspective, and the first of several occasions when we get a fresh perspective on exactly how dysfunctional Jimmy/Snowman is.

The novel often intersects with Oryx and Crake like this, filling in little details. Besides Jimmy and Oryx, we encounter other familiar characters like Glenn/Crake, Jimmy’s mother, Bernice (Jimmy’s crazy roommate who set his shoes on fire), and MaddAddam. There are lots of familiar details of the world – Extinctathon, Happicuppa, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, pigoons – and a few new things, like liobams (a lion/lamb splice) and Mo’Hair sheep (genetically engineered to grow human hair in a wide range of colours, although the wigs sometimes smell like meat).

As a child, Glenn had a connection to the Gardeners, many of whom are scientists who escaped the Compounds, and it’s clear that his actions were strongly influenced by their ideas. Adam One describes how the Waterless Flood will wash away the “Exfernal” world, destroying what man has built so that the natural world can flourish again, which what Crake attempted to do with his plague. His design for the Crakers also reflects the Gardeners’ lifestyle in some ways – they’re purely vegetarian, non-violent, and live happily with the bare minimum of industry. In some ways the Crakers are a perfected version of the Gardeners, who they smell bad, look scruffy, complain about inconveniences, need technology, and often break their own rules.

Obviously the one thing Crake didn’t like about the Gardeners was the whole idea of religion, which he tried (and failed) to eradicate in the Crakers. And although the Gardeners have many admirable ideas, their faith still suffers from the kinds of absurdities and hypocrisies common to religion. They’re wary of writing, but use the bible. They consider knowledge to be poisonous, but benefit greatly from the knowledge of the scientists among them. They rely on things they scavenge, which in some cases means living off things they consider evil.

Not surprisingly for a small community full of social misfits and outcasts, they also have problems with sexual harassment and abuse, but women and children are told to keep quiet about these things. Sharing personal problems is discouraged, some serious psychological problems are dismissed as a form of meditation, and voicing doubts is taboo. Toby in particular finds this troubling, but because she lives in constant terror that her rapist will find her and kill her, so she has no intention of leaving the Gardeners.

But then again, Atwood hasn’t written a world where anyone’s figured out clean, noble answers to the massively complicated problems plaguing society. It’s easy to be thoroughly evil – like a corporation that razes rainforests to plant coffee or a man who rapes women to death – but fixing a world full of these evils is almost unimaginable. A few people, like the man/group MaddAddam that is created in this novel, are bold enough to rebel. Only Crake, the mad genius, actually takes any major action, countering a million horrors with one massive one.

Most people, like Ren and Toby, are caught up in this world they have little control over, and the appeal of The Year of the Flood is this grassroots perspective. Which is not to say they’re weak – Amanda, Ren and Toby all show amazing resilience and adaptability, unlike Jimmy, who was always a bit unstable and degenerated into a sickly, naked nut job waving a gun at three strangers on a beach. If the ambiguity of that ending bothered you, by the way, rest assured that The Year of the Flood will take you back to that beach and resolve that scene, leaving the final book, MaddAddamto pick up the story from there.  As always with Atwood, it’s beautifully written and a pleasure to read, but also brutal and terrifying. This trilogy envisions one of the most disturbing futures I’ve ever read, but the books are so amazing I can’t look away.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonTitle: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 10 April 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

An alien ship crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. The polluted waters become pure and salty-sweet, and teem with fantastical marine and alien life. Just before the event, three people wander towards each other on Bar Beach – Adaora (a marine biologist), Agu (a soldier) and Anthony (a famous rapper). Then the sea itself rears up to swallow them for a meeting with the aliens that changes their lives forever.

When they awake on shore a shape-shifting alien is with them, in the form of a woman who  Adaora names Ayodele. They take her back to Adaora’s home laboratory to conduct a few simple tests and decide what to do. But the situation quickly spirals out of their control.

Adaora, Agu and Anthony want to protect Ayodele and help send out peaceful messages to Lagos and the world. Adaora’s maid Philo tells her boyfriend Moziz about the alien, and he and his friends decide to kidnap her and make her print money for them, assuming that if the technologically advanced aliens can shape-shift, they can make money. Moziz’ friend Jacobs is in on the money-making plan but also has hopes for living openly as a transvestite, as an LGBT student organisation tries to use the shape-shifting aliens in a campaign for inclusivity. When Adaora’s newly religious husband Chris finds out, he tells his priest Father Oke, who tries to make the aliens part of his congregation. Many try to flee the city, where people react to the alien presence with riots, looting and violence. The aliens in turn react to humanity with curiosity and kindness, but also devastating brutality.

It’s a story in which Lagos itself is part of the narrative. Adaora suggests that the aliens chose the city because “If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.” It’s a city of contradictions. With all its walls and gates, Chris says “It’s secure but there is no security.” Adaora describes it as a city where everyone wants to leave but no one ever goes; people want to return as soon as they step out. The city is “riddled with corruption” but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The writing is flavoured with Nigerian culture – there are lots of local words and expressions, and some of the characters speak in pidgin English, which takes some getting used to. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but I didn’t find this until I’d finished, amd it could be highly impractical for eBook readers who want to flip back and forth.

Culture, social circumstances, religion and folklore also play a major role. Adaora is having serious personal problems with her husband Chris, who has become convinced that Adaora is not merely a marine biologist but a marine witch (the worst kind) and that the home laboratory he built for her is a witch’s den. It was when he turned to physical violence that Adaora stormed out and went to Bar Beach where the ocean engulfed her.

Chris isn’t the only one to thinking of witches though; many Lagosians see the aliens from the perspective of traditional beliefs, of which witches and shape-shifters are a part. Adaora mentions that she wishes her grandmother could have seen the aliens, because she believed in shape-shifters. Of course not everyone is optimistic – lots of people think the aliens are evil and at the very least they’re a threat to deeply ingrained beliefs. When more of the aliens emerge and take human form, the violence escalates, but it’s also influenced by poverty and hardship. As Agu notes, people are using it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations.

Creatures from myth and folklore also appear. I thought they were the aliens in other forms, but they’re the creatures themselves. One of my favourite scenes is when a gravelly monster – the personification of a dangerous road – rises up and faces an alien in the form of a Nigerian soap opera celebrity.

Thus science fiction and fantasy become entwined to the point that you can’t fit this book neatly in either genre. Aliens are the stuff of sf and Ayodele describes her race as being technology, but since we have so little understanding of how they do things that their abilities feel like magic. Like the way they alter the marine life in the ocean by giving the creatures what they desire. A swordfish in the opening chapter becomes a big, badass monster (this chapter is the story “Moom!” in Okorafor’s collection Kabu Kabu). The aliens hack into human technology so that crystal clear video broadcasts appear appear on TVs, computers and phones, even if i goes beyond the devices’ capabilities. It’s sci fi that feels like fantasy. Adaora talks about taking refuge in science, but she, Agu and Anthony have all had powerful, fantastical abilities since childhood, none of which she can explain in scientific terms.

Not that Adaora has the luxury of studying the aliens or her abilities; there’s too much going on although there isn’t actually much of a plot. The A’s – Adaora, Agu and Anthony – have vague goals which include getting the sickly Nigerian president to negotiate with the aliens, but these plans are frequently thwarted so progress is slow. In addition the story frequently hops to other POVs, many of which do not contribute to the main plot but add texture and colour to the bigger picture.

And there are loads of POV characters – the three A’s, Adaora’s husband Chris, their kids Kola and Fred, Adaora’s maid Philo, Philo’s boyfriend Moziz, his friend Jacobs, Jacobs’s prostitute sister Fisayo, a mute child, Father Oke. And those are just recurring characters. We also hear from a 419 scammer, a bat, and a seven-legged spider.

It’s a riot of a story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Anthony mentions, Lagos rhymes with chaos, and the city is chaotic even on an average day. The arrival of the aliens sends it into overdrive, and the novel gives us a large, detailed sketch of what that looks like. You get the sense that this is a massive, wild story that can’t be easily contained, so Okorafor chose to depict it as such rather than going for a more traditionally streamlined narrative. And she handles it pretty well – it’s fairly easy to keep track of the of everything.

But, admittedly, I struggled to get invested in the story. I’d start to engage with a particular character’s struggles, only to be whisked off to see through other POVs. The three A’s and Ayodele get the most page time, but I found them to be the least interesting characters. In all the chaos, I was never sure what would happen and or what I wanted to happen; I just sat back and watched it unfold. It’s all open-ended, and the novel closes without any major resolutions. It’s more like the beginning of what will be a long, epochal story, and Okorafor didn’t intend to write a sequel. What’s also frustrating is that we never see the aliens in their ‘true’ forms, never learn what happens when they speak to the humans underwater, and only have a vague idea of what they want. It’s a contact story focused almost entirely on the human reaction in Lagos.

I wouldn’t say this is badly written in the way that some novels with too many characters and POVs are. It’s a kind of planned chaos, rather a story gone amorphously out of control, and I have no criticisms of Okorafor’s writing. So I can appreciate what she did with novel, even if I didn’t get as wrapped up in it as I would have liked to. Time will tell if it’s made enough of an impression on my that I’ll start to admire it more, or if it’s going to fade from memory. But hey, that gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover drove me to buy the book in print, so I’ll probably read it again one day.

Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores edited by Greg Ketter

Shelf LifeTitle: Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores
Editor: Greg Ketter
Published: 3 October 2012
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

In 1977, Greg Ketter opened a bookstore mostly so he could get his own books more cheaply. 25 Years later, he still runs an independent bookstore and publishes work by authors he likes. As the 25-year anniversary approached, he decided to put together this sff and horror anthology “in which the bookstore was a character, a major component of the story, a true motivating factor”. He rejected those that were simply set in a bookstore, as well as stories that were book-oriented but did not have a suitably strong bookstore element.

The very first story actually seems like it should be in the latter category though, because its about fantastical book that just happens to be in a bookstore. In “From the Cradle” by Gene Wolf, a widow is looking for a new owner for a book that belonged to her husband. The story is told from the POV of a shop assistant who later becomes the store owner. Every time he brings this book out of its display, it flips open to a story that resonates with his own life. The store, however, is just a means of bringing the protagonist into regular contact with the book, and it could easily have been written differently.

Most of the stories in Shelf Life are true to Ketter’s rationale though. Not surprisingly, most of them use the romantic ideal of the old, cosy, often mysterious indie store where book-loving protagonists almost always find the perfect read, often with the help of a slightly eccentric owner or sales assistant. I find that this ideal bookstore is a bit of a fantasy in itself, although I’ve never had the pleasure of going to an indie bookstore in the US or England, where almost all of these stories are set. Other common tropes come up too, like seemingly vast bookstores full of treasures, bookstores that defy the laws of physics or have taken on a life of their own, and of course many characters wax lyrical abut the charm and beauty of a great bookstore. There’s an entire introduction by Neil Gaiman doing exactly that.

“A Book by it’s Cover” by P.C. Cacek is set in Nazi Germany and features a bookstore that has come to life like a golem because of all the ideas inside it. It’s gained the magical ability to turn people into books, with both wonderful and disastrous consequences.

In “Lost Books” by John J. Miller a broke writer is offered a home in a bookstore by the owner, an old man who he finds unnervingly familiar. He later recognises him as a famous Egyptian warrior from 4000BC.

In “One Copy Only”, Ramsey Campbell’s rather overwrought prose tells the tale of a bookstore that hits all the fantasy ideals – it’s a tumbledown old place known only to an tiny, passionate clientele, with an owner who recommends the most amazing books. It also has an otherworldly reading room, where the most favoured customers can read books that don’t exist anywhere else.

“Pixel Pixies” by Charles de Lint is a sweet fae story about a hob living in a bookstore that gets overrun by pixies from the internet.

These stories were all nice, but the only one I really loved was “The Hemingway Kittens” by A.R. Morlan. This might just be the cutest story I’ve ever read. A bookstore owner gets a pair of cats to kill the rats in her store, but they become permanent residents, beloved by the customers and extremely good for business. Years later, the third set of bookstore cats is provided by her quirky assistant Rik. He gives her two beautiful [Hemingway Kittens or polydactyl cats], which have have extra toes, giving them hand-like paws. The two kittens, named Jay and Zelda, display an uncanny intelligence, as if they actually understand speech and can read the books. I have to admit that there’s one aspect of these story that’s deeply implausible (no, it’s not the idea of cats who can read) but I found it so utterly charming that I didn’t care.

About halfway through the anthology though, I started to get bored. Either the less interesting stories got shoved in the back, or I just got increasingly tired of the theme. These stories sometimes had interesting ideas, but I didn’t like any of them that much, and I had to rely heavily on my notes to recall what they were about.

There are several more magical bookstores. In “Ballard’s Books” by Gerard Houarner, a man spends many years of his life search obsessively for a mythical bookstore that he once heard his father and uncle talking about. “Books” by David Bischoff features a suspicious secondhand bookstore full of priceless first editions being sold for only a few dollars. “Escapes” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman uses the idea of a books and a bookstore as an escape from life, particularly for the new employee, a woman who’s run away from her abusive partner. The magical bookstore offers both comfort and protection. In “The Cheese Stands Alone” by Harlan Ellison, a man stumbles across a decidedly creepy bookstore full of people who are just standing still, staring at the books in their hands. An very old woman tries to make him choose a book as well.

Most of the other stories are fantasy as well. “I Am Looking For a Book” by Patrick Weekes is the only humorous story, about a sorcerer or something looking for a book of power (or something) in a modern bookstore, only to be thwarted by unhelpful staff and caramel raisin biscotti. There’s a kind of story-vampire in “The Glutton” by Melanie Tem. Rather than feeding on blood, she lives off the stories people tell, but eventually drains them dry. This one’s also not really about the bookstore – it’s just a good place for the ‘vampire’ to feed. In “In the Bookshadow” by Marianne de Pierres, demons start appearing in a bookshop because too much soulless commercial crap is being sold. Based on that logic there should be demons in all the biggest bookstores, but perhaps this particular bookshop is being punished because it has the look and feel of an old-fashioned store but the manager is running it more like a chain store. In “Non-Returnable” by Rick Hautala, a bookseller keeps trying to return a book she ordered to the publisher, but it keeps coming back and also seems to be drinking her blood.

Finally “Shakespeare and Co.” by Jack Williamson was my least favourite story, a bit of dystopian sci fi with far too much boring infodumping. Also, it’s not about the famous bookstore in Paris, as I had hoped.

I would have liked to see a bit less nostalgia in this collection, and a bit more about about bookstores that aren’t magically quaint. Those might be the kinds of stores we love most, but it’s not the only kind we love. Online shopping has its own pleasures and conveniences (we don’t all live close to wonderful stores stocking everything we want), and I thought a story like “The Other Amazon” by Jenny Davidson (Clarkesworld Magazine, December, 2006) would add some variety. It’s about a woman with a serious Amazon book-buying habit, who one finds that she’s able to buy books that haven’t been written or published, but will be or could have been.

Naturally, a few of the stories in Shelf Life express disdain for large commercial chains, and that’s understandable, but as a booklover I still get excited when walking into those stores, I enjoyed working in one, and they’re an important source of books for many readers. The sales assistants might not be well-read and insightful enough to recommend the perfect book, but I have bloggers, and literary magazines, and Goodreads and my own judgement to help with that.

What about bookstores in non-Western settings? Or why not something completely off the charts? One of the most interesting stories I read last year was “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine, August, 2012) – an imagining of the ‘books’, ‘reading’ practices and literary habits of alien species. It makes me think – what might an alien bookstore be like? What would the idea of a bookstore be to beings who ‘read’ in a completely different way? That would really bring something fresh to Shelf Life. 

Anyway, I’m just throwing ideas around now. I think this collection could have been much, much better, but as it stands, it’s just nice. Quaint, a little stuffy. I’m sure most readers would find something to like or love here, but chances are the collection as a whole is not going to blow you away. It lacks the wild, expansive quality of sff, and is bogged down by too much of the same sort of thing. Maybe it’s best to read it slowly, a bite or two in between novels, rather than consuming it all in one go.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie WillisTitle: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 9 July 2013
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the most likeable short story collections I’ve read. Usually I like half to three quarters of the stories, or I have to go back and skim over some before writing my review because I’ve already forgotten what they were about. But I enjoyed almost all the stories in this collection, and I hadn’t forgotten them by the time I got around to writing the review.

They’ve all won a Hugo or Nebula award (or both) and they’re all on the lighter side of science fiction and fantasy, focusing on the characters’ relationship and personal dilemmas with just a touch of something speculative. Each story comes with a few comments from Willis. She admits to being wary of commenting on the stories, as that could spoil them in the same way that a magician’s trick is ruined once you know how it works. But having taken into account the potential for her comments to undermine the story, I think Willis managed to make them insightful without being detrimental.

And the stories themselves are great reads. In a speech transcription at the end of the book, Willis talks about why she reads:

But when the interviewer asked Beatrix Potter what her greatest wish was, she said, “To live till the end of the war. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s how I’ve always felt. It’s why I started reading in the first place: to find out what happened to Cinderella and to Peter Pan, to find out whether the twelve dancing princesses got caught and whether Peter Rabbit made it out from under Mr. McGregor’s flowerpot and whether the prince was able to break the spell.

I think this captures the appeal of Willis’s stories as well – they’re enjoyable because they hook you by making you want to know what happens. You could argue that this is the case for all stories, but I often find novels and short stories appealing for other reasons. Sometimes it’s the writing that grabs me, or I want to follow a quirky character. Sometimes I already know what’s going to happen but I want to see what spin the author will put on it. Other stories are about the ideas rather than any plot. These things all have their merits, and they apply to Willis too, but mostly I enjoyed her stories because they had that good old-fashioned storytelling appeal that just never gets old.

In “A Letter to the Clearys”, a young girl returns home with her dog after picking up a letter at the post office. It seems fairly mundane, except for odd hints at the dangers she faces while walking and the increasingly disturbing implications of this letter from family friends.

“At the Rialto” gives you the first taste of Willis’s wonderful humour. It’s set at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood, where a group of physicists are trying to have a conference on quantum physics but can’t get the model-slash-actress at the front desk to do anything useful, or find the right rooms for the lectures. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the whole experience functions as a reflection of quantum physics itself, with it’s counterintuitive nature and weird paradoxes.

“Fire Watch” is set shortly after the events of Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel story where history students are sent back in time as part of their studies. In this story, a student who has been training to travel with St Paul learns that he’s actually going to St Paul’s Church to work with the fire watch during the London Blitz of World War 2, putting out incendiary bombs when they hit the building. I didn’t love The Doomsday Book, so I wasn’t too excited about this story, and it left me a bit alienated because I’m hopeless when it comes to history and had never heard of St Paul’s or the fire watch. That said, I was almost in tears by the end, all because of two simple words. Any author who can have that effect on me immediately wins my admiration.

“Inside Job” was one of my favourites and the most compulsively readable story for me. It’s about Rob, a journalist who debunks New Age therapists in Hollywood. He works with Kildy, a gorgeous actress who defies all the stereotypes of being stupid and superficial, although Rob has never quite grown accustomed to the idea that she’s really as intelligent and as interested in his work as she seems to be. Kildy finds a new mystery for them to investigate – a trendy new spirit channeler who seems to be unintentionally channelling a ghost who shares Rob and Kildy’s scathing opinions of the channeling and other New Age crap. But the whole idea of channelling a ghost who doesn’t believe in channelling involves a rather troubling paradox and Rob faces the problem of not believing in something he might actually want to believe in while finally being forced to address his doubts about Kildy.

Admittedly, my other favourites were actually the ones with less emphasis on plot, and more on humour. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a delightfully absurd story about the poet Emily Dickinson, written as a parody of an academic paper complete with footnotes and references. The paper argues the theory that Dickinson chased away the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. After her death. It’s utterly ridiculous and loads of fun.

“Even the Queen” is also delightfully crazy, set in a world where women have done away with menstruation except for reproductive purposes. The narrator’s daughter joins a pro-menstruation movement – the Cyclists – that emphasises the essential femininity of doing things naturally. The best part of the story is a hilarious lunch meeting with a group of women and a representative from the Cyclists.

After “Even the Queen”, the collection took a bit of a dip and the last three stories were good but not great. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is a personal mystery about a man travelling around the London Underground, where he keeps getting blasted by terrible foul-smelling winds that leave him filled with fear. He and his wife are visiting London for the second time, and although they have much more money this time around, they just can’t find the same sense of fun and adventure that they enjoyed before. I liked the mystery and personal struggles at the start, but after a while it became a story about a man using the tube, and the final reveal was disappointing.

“All Seated on the Ground” is, quite surprisingly, a story about how violent and disturbing Christmas carols can be. A group of surly aliens lands on Earth, but they don’t do anything except glare disapprovingly at the people who try to talk to them. People lose interest in them as all efforts at communication continue to fail, and the most recent committee is a hopeless hodgepodge of random specialists trying whatever ludicrous thing they can think of. A journalist, Meg, finally gets on the right track when the aliens respond to a Christmas carol, and she notices how the aliens have the same disapproving gaze as her aunt.

“The Last of the Winnebagos” ends the fiction on a stronger note. It’s quite a sad story set in a world where dogs are extinct and hitting an animal with your car is a criminal offence. The narrator is travelling for work when he sees a dead jackal on the side of the road, bringing back tragic memories of the death of his own dog in a car accident, while also getting him tangled up with a somewhat authoritarian animal-protection society.

The only story I didn’t like was the surreal “Death on the Nile”, about three couples on a rather miserable trip that takes them through Europe to Egypt. The narrator has elected not to say anything about the glaringly obvious fact that her husband is sleeping with one of the other wives, one husband is constantly drunk, another always sleeping, and the third woman is always reading to them from guide books. The premise sounds fine, but I found the unpleasantness of the trip too discomfiting to read and the increasingly surreal nature of the characters’ experiences just didn’t do anything for me.

The collection ends with three short speeches – Willis’s 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech, and two Grand Master acceptance speeches. In these she speaks about her love of books and reading, and the writers that inspired her. They’re nice pieces for tugging at the heartstrings of booklovers, but I personally would have preferred something a bit more academic. The speeches must have been wonderful to listen to on the occasion, but on the page they’re a wee bit fluffy. One would have been enough for the collection.

The one downside to this collection is that, unlike other sff, it’s a bit short on ideas. Only the Emily Dickinson story and “Inside Job” really have an sff-ish idea driving the narrative. In the other stories ideas are just vehicles or catalysts for character-based stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since sff readers often look to short stories for interesting ideas and experimental writing, some might find this a tad disappointing.

I didn’t though. It might not be the most thrilling collection but it’s got a lovely congenial sort of appeal and I think most of the stories are going to stay with me.

Guest Post: Anne Charnock on writing the POV of A Calculated Life

I recently read and reviewed A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock, and I liked it so much that I contacted Anne and asked her if she’d write a guest post telling us a bit more about her book. What struck me most about the novel was that it was a character study of Jayna, a human being designed to function as a machine, who tries to broaden her understanding of the world. I asked Anne to describe her experience of writing from the POV of this kind of character. 

Welcome to Violin in a Void Anne!

Charnock 2Thanks for inviting me on to your blog, Lauren! I’ll do my best to answer your question and I hope I don’t go off at a tangent.

Writing from the point of view of a hyper-intelligent human presented me with a significant challenge! From the outset I decided that my protagonist, Jayna, would be ‘an innocent abroad’. I set her out on a journey and along the way I wanted to reveal a gradual change in her worldview. Through the opening chapters of the novel, her natural curiosity shifts towards something more questioning; she becomes more critical. Ultimately I wanted Jayna to shed her innocence. I suppose it’s comparable to a coming-of-age story in which a young person becomes aware of their place in a larger, less-than-benevolent, world.

To be a bit techy first: I felt a first-person narrative would be doomed to failure. How could I possibly emulate her intelligence? A more experienced writer might attempt that challenge. But, instead, I adopted a ‘third-person limited’ POV. In other words, the reader follows only one character, Jayna, rather seeing the world from several characters’ POV. In fact, this limited third-person narration is fairly close to a first person POV compared to third-person omniscient narration. (Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day is a good example of a third-person limited POV and I used his novel as my guide when I redrafted my manuscript).

My strategy was to reveal Jayna’s worldview through her interactions with other people. Dialogue played an important role. The reader recognizes her misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A major strategy was to create situations that were tricky for her to handle. So In the first chapter she unwittingly upsets a colleague and in the fourth chapter she leaps to a wildly incorrect conclusion. She is aware that in her dealings with other people she’s ‘getting it wrong’ and she strives for improvement.

wrap cover

In your review of A Calculated Life, Lauren, you noted that Jayna has a fascination with children. I created an early turning point, in terms of her developing psyche, when a colleague brings her young son to the office. Soon after this event, Jayna asks herself what would happen if she acted like a child, lived in the moment, with no care for the consequences. Her resulting action is dramatic within the overall tone of the novel.

It was important that I revealed Jayna’s changing mindset through her actions, that is, by showing rather than telling the reader! I particularly enjoyed this—allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Having said that, I did reveal Jayna’s thoughts from time to time, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness.

You are perfectly correct in your review that this novel is a character study and that it is toned down and introspective compared to many other dystopian novels. Looking back I can recall many years ago watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young. This is one of my all-time favourite films. But even though I loved the all-action nature of the film with its male protagonist, Deckard, I was fascinated and haunted by Rachel, the replicant. I remember thinking at the time that Rachel’s story, rather than Deckard’s, seemed the more interesting, and certainly the most heart-breaking even though her story was less ‘dramatic’. Maybe an early seed for A Calculated Life was sown then.

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Anne’s Bio:

My writing career began in journalism and my reports appeared in New Scientist, The Guardian, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and Geographical, among others. I was educated at the University of East Anglia, where I studied environmental sciences, and at The Manchester School of Art.

Despite the many column inches of factual reporting, I didn’t consider writing fiction until my career turned to visual art. In my fine art practice I tried to answer the questions: What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? I wrote A Calculated Life as a new route to finding answers.

Where to find Anne:
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Check out the book trailer for A Calculated Life