The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansTitle: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 9 May 2013
Publisher: Canongate Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It’s about matter and antimatter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human.

An unnamed alien is sent to earth in the guise of a forty-three-year-old mathematician named Andrew Martin. The aliens kidnapped and killed the real Andrew Martin shortly beforehand, after he proved the Riemann hypothesis – “the most significant mathematical puzzle the humans had ever faced”. It’s a breakthrough that would have “advanced the human race beyond anyone’s imagining”.

But the aliens – Vonnadorians – don’t want such a greedy, violent, narrow-minded species to achieve space travel and go around exploiting other planets and killing other beings. So they’ve sent an unpopular underling to do the unpleasant task of destroying all knowledge of the proof – wiping it from any computer, and killing anyone who might even know that it was solved. LIke Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver.

Despite the Vonnadorians’ sophisticated technology however, they can only turn themselves into clones of humans, not replicate their memories. And their understanding of humanity is actually very unsophisticated and deeply, deeply cynical.

Thus, the new Andrew Martin is essentially a “forty-three-year-old newborn on planet Earth”. Or rather, a weirdly rational and extremely pessimistic newborn. He arrives naked and utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk around Cambridge without any clothes on. He stops at a petrol station and reads a copy of Cosmopolitan at the shop to educate himself, giving him a very skewed idea of humanity that focuses rather heavily on orgasms.

The new Andrew’s clumsy attempts to be human are often funny, but it gets a lot more serious when it comes to his wife and son. The original Andrew was a distant and uncaring father who always chose his work over his family, and as a result the alien Andrew’s extremely odd behaviour is not just baffling but hurtful to them.

Not that alien Andrew is happy to be on Earth. At first the only creature he can get along with is the family dog, Newton. He finds everything about humans repulsive and ridiculous, from their protruding noses to their feelings to their clothes. He’s shocked that they actually have spend parts of their short little lives reading instead of just instantly consuming books in capsules – “No wonder they were a species of primitives. By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead”. He criticises the news for being only news about humans (and not one of the other millions of species on the planet) and generally only about war and money rather than “new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons”. He can’t believe that the buildings and cars are all dead and stuck to the ground.

His home planet is, of course, completely different. They have no names because they never prioritise the individual over the collective. Their mastery of mathematics has given them immortality, telekinesis and many other gifts. The cars and buildings are living beings in beautiful, complex shapes. They have no weather, no fear, no war, no suffering etc. And they can’t just let the universe do what it wants to do, because [they] will be inside it for eternity”. Hence halting the progress of dangerous species like humans (and probably many others, from the sound of it).

The interesting thing is that the Vonnadorians have achieved many things that humanity desires, like highly advanced technology and immortality, but the novels forces us to look askance at these things when juxtaposed with primitive humanity and all its terrible flaws.

Because, of course, Andrew slowly becomes more and more human, and learns to appreciate humanity. It’s illogical and chaotic, but there’s a beauty in that craziness. As Andrew sees that, he reveals the darker side of his supposedly utopian home – that the Vonnadorians never enjoy anything, never feel anything, don’t care about each other. Despite their vast understanding of mathematics and everything that comes with it, they are stagnant in their understanding of other species and cultures. Andrew’s masters, who are constantly watching his progress, are unable to understand his growing empathy for humans, particularly his ‘wife’ Isobel and ‘son’ Gulliver. He doesn’t want to murder them for the greater good, but his masters won’t give him any choice in the matter.

This novel has frequently been lauded as inspiring and heartwarming, and it’s easy to see why. It wholeheartedly affirms the wonders of human life, despite all its shortcomings and failures. It’s sf aspects are not particularly impressive, but it’s got a feel-good aspect to it that I don’t often encounter in the genre, and it’s the kind of well-written, emotionally charged book that you can give to people who scoff at sff to show them that it’s not whatever cliche they assume it to be.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person though, and there were times when I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of a Disney movie, particularly in the way alien Andrew becomes a far better father and husband than the original ever was. There’s also a very soft fluffiness in that his growing appreciation for humanity is made so easy by the privileges of Andrew Martin’s life. He’s extremely intelligent, well-educated, has meaningful work as a professor at Cambridge University, lives in a large, comfortable home, enjoys good food and wine. He doesn’t live in an impoverished country, doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter, medical care, political unrest, or a high crime rate. He doesn’t have to deal with the prejudices or other difficulties that might arise from being black, gay, female, poor, disabled, etc. Andrew Martin is a straight white male from an intellectual elite living a cushy life in a first-world country. The only way you could make it easier for him to appreciate being human would be to make him young, gorgeous and athletic too

So, Andrew’s supposedly inspiring insights into the beauty of humanity can sometimes be rather trite or narrow-minded. As a result, It wasn’t a profound and meaningful read for me, as it seems to have been for some people.

That said, it has an optimism that I find charming and perhaps even important. Whether or not your life is anything like Andrew Martin’s it helps to be reminded to appreciate the little things or the way the bad things in life can be good for you. Haig also does some really beautiful things with his story, by entwining mathematics and poetry with Andrew’s awakening. One of the reasons he learns to love humans is the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is frequently quoted amidst other lovely bits of literature.

And, overall, The Humans is just a nice book to read. That might sound bland, but amidst the horror, grimdark, and dark fantasy, the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic fiction, it helps to be reminded that the world isn’t always as bleak as the Vonnadorians assume.

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

Parasites Like UsTitle: Parasites Like Us
Author: Adam Johnson
Published: originally published 2003; this edition published 19 June 2014
Publisher: Black Swan
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 2/10

As a rule, blurbs typically include some degree of bullshit. It can be difficult to sum up the plot in just a few words, and make it sound enticing at the same time, so you tweak it. You throw in words like “haunting”, “thrilling”, “hilarious” because people will pay for those kinds of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the book can deliver them.

I’m totally fine with that. You don’t put time, effort and money into getting a book on the shelf and then tell people that it’s just ok, that it’s definitely not the next Harry Potter but hopefully the same market will buy it. As a reader, I know you need to tell me these things. I can see through them and make my own decisions.

But don’t fucking lie to me about the entire fucking plot because it’s going to piss me the fuck off.

Much like the blurb of Parasites Like Us. It is, perhaps, the most egregious example of a misleading blurb that I have ever come across. Here it is:

After trashing his cherry ’72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse. Hank, a professor of anthropology back in the days when there were still co-eds to ogle and now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth, decides to record the last days of human civilization for whomever – or whatever – might replace us.

This is what’s wrong with it:

 – The blurb describes events that occur so late in the novel that it’s basically a spoiler. However, I can understand why these things are in the blurb because almost nothing else interesting happens.

 – Hank trashes his car over a third of the way into the novel rather than near the beginning as the blurb implies.

 – The car is yellow, not cherry-red. This is of no consequence whatsoever, but seriously, could the blurb writer not even get that right? Did he or she even read the book? [Thanks H. Anthe Davis for pointing out in the comments that "cherry" in this context actually means "pristine" not "red" so I was unfair to criticise the blurb on this point. A pity it's such a minor point that has no power to help matters at all.]

 – “snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn”: Actually, what they find is 12 000-year old maize. And Hank’s grad student Eggers, for god knows what reason, decides to make popcorn with some of it. So the maize is old, but not the popcorn per se. Also, the blurb makes it sound like Hank is the only one to eat it, but he isn’t.

 – “Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse”. It’s not fair to say that Hank unleashed the apocalypse. The skeleton holds something that unleashes the apocalypse, but Hank and his grad students can’t be blamed for finding and excavating what would have been a famous, groundbreaking piece of evidence. Their methods are unbelievably shoddy and, given more time, they might have unleashed the apocalypse, but instead someone else does it by thoughtlessly smashing an object found on the skeleton.

 – “now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth”. “Now”? This suggests that most of this book takes place after the apocalypse. But while Hank indeed is writing it after the apocalypse, the actual event only begins in the final quarter of the book, and it’s a bit longer before everyone dies off leaving the final few. Also, there is no confirmation that everyone else on the planet is dead, or even that everyone in the country is dead. Admittedly, the fact that Hank thinks he’s one of only twelve remaining humans might be an indication of what an arrogant and stupid person he is.

Personally, I would describe the book as a story about an academic in mid-life crisis. He had five minutes of fame from a book that no one reads anymore. He pines for his absent mother and dead stepmother. He lusts after his grad student, Trudy. He’s uncomfortable with his father’s hedonistic nature. It just so happens that he’s writing about all this after surviving the apocalypse, but aside from a few comments on the way life has changed, this is not particularly important until the apocalypse actually arrives much later.

Hank and his grad students, Eggers and Trudy, specialise in the Clovis, a people who inhabited North America 12 000 years ago and consumed everything in sight, destroying themselves and driving 35 animal species to extinction. When Eggers finds a Clovis burial site, the three of them decide to excavate it illegally, hoping to keep the glory for themselves and protect the skeleton from being bulldozed by a local construction project before they can acquire the proper permits.

However, for his thesis, Eggers is spending a year living like a Clovis man. So he walks around in filthy stinking animal skins from the abbatoir, eats squirrels and bugs, never brushes his teeth, etc. Basically, he tries to live using only what a Clovis man would have had. So when he finds the Clovis skeleton, he insists on excavating it WITHOUT MODERN TECHNOLOGY. They scrape at the bones with bits of antler and Eggers makes up his own system of measurement because he can’t use the metric system. Trudy and Hank play along, but then sneak away a few bones when Eggers goes to pee. I am no archaeologist, but this makes me cringe.

However, it gives you an idea of the absurdity of this book. All the characters behave in weird, inexplicable ways. It’s intentionally absurd (I assume) but not in a funny/entertaining/illuminating kind of way, like you’d expect from comedy or satire. More like a “what the fuck is wrong with these stupid people and why am I reading about them” kind of way.

I would say this of Hank more than anyone else. Hank is an insufferably ridiculous, self-important little shit. He believes he is writing this story for the future generations of human beings, and he says stuff like:

“I am the past. “

“A new day had dawned in science, and though I didn’t understand it yet, I was the Adam of anthropology.”

“forget not that you are all descended from me, that I myself am the source of your laws”

He calls women’s breasts “num-nums” and chases after a busty Russian botanist trying desperately to prove to her that he’s not “a buffoon of a man, a scientific huckleberry”. But he really is just so unbelievably lame, as the author keeps emphasising this to the point where it becomes utter torture to read. Hank doesn’t tell a story so much as blather on about all his personal crap. Half the time I don’t know why this moron does the things he does but I can’t say that I ever cared.

The only remotely interesting thing he brings to the text is a comparison between the Clovis and contemporary humanity – both destroyers of their environments, with the implication that humanity will end up as dead as the Clovis, thanks to their own stupidity. On the other hand – criticising humanity’s over-consumption in apocalyptic fiction? Not exactly a fresh perspective.

It needs to be stated that I didn’t hate this book just because of the blurb. It’s just terribly boring. And very very silly, but not in the way I expected. I’d say that the blurb is written to attract one kind of audience while the book caters to a completely different one. If you like absurd novels about academics in mid-life crisis, this might be a great book for you, spiced up with a bit of spec fic. If you wanted a quirky book about the apocalypse, you might be left wondering why you’re reading about an absurd academic and his stupid mid-life crisis instead. Obviously, I’m in the latter group. Worst book I’ve read this year.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubTitle: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Published: 3 June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 9/10

For years the twelve Hamilton sisters have been prisoners in their own home. They are the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to have a son, so he keeps them hidden from the world. No one except his staff knows how many daughters he has. He hasn’t even met some of them.

But although they never get to go out in the daylight, the sisters go out dancing in New York’s jazz clubs every night, from the Salon Renaud and the Swan, to the Kingfisher club they eventually call home. Jo, the eldest, the “General”, is the one in charge of every outing. She calls the cabs, watches over her sisters and decides when to leave. She’s the only one who speaks to their father, so she’s the one who has to break the news when he decides to marry them off, basically selling them to men of his choosing.

The girls might not know much about the daylight world, but they know a lot about men, and they know exactly what kind of men would marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house all her life – men like their father. As their leader, Jo needs to figure out a way to save her sisters, and for once it seems she can’t do it all by herself. She’ll have to turn to a bootlegger she met ten years ago for help. She’ll also have be extra careful to keep their dancing a secret, after a newspaper report about dancing girls and gin makes their father suspicious. Not only are their outings a defiance of his will, but their behaviour will spoil his plans “to sell them off one at a time as untouched goods who had never been so wild as to go out dancing”.

In case you haven’t realised it yet, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is based on the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And was exactly what I wanted it to be – a relatively quick light read but with an in-depth psychological portrait of Jo and her sisters, and a close look at the whole idea of these trapped girls and women who escape into a vibrant world every night. It perfectly balances introspective character studies and the relationships between the sisters with the excitement of the dancing in jazz clubs and the tension of the threats posed by their father. It’s the kind of novel that makes me feel an intense and varied mixture of emotions, and I absolutely loved reading it.

I’m also glad that it eschewed the use of sexual violence. I kind of assumed that it would be an inevitable and discomforting part of the story, given that it’s about twelve beautiful girls and women who go dancing and drinking every night, but Valentine does not victimise them in this way. On the contrary, the Hamilton sisters are pretty street smart. They could drink most men under the table, and you don’t see them flopping around drunk and helpless. They learn how to read people and handle them, so they can spot trouble or soothe a tense situation. We don’t know the full extent of their sexual experiences (there are only references to little flings and heartbreaks) but whatever they do, you never get the sense that they’re not in control.

The girls’ strengths actually go a long way in making this a pleasant read. It could be really depressing, but the way the girls handle themselves, whether they’re having fun, being sold to men like property or alone and terrified, makes it satisfying rather than disturbing. You tense up and worry at the challenges they have to face, but every little triumph makes you smile.

This is particularly true with Jo, whose character we get to know in the greatest detail. Jo is in the incredibly difficult position of being the girls’ guardian. The blurb suggests that she’s the closest thing to a mother that they have, but the novel specifically says otherwise. It’s Ella with her kind, nurturing nature, who is more like the mother figure. Jo on the other hand is strict and commanding. Jo snaps her fingers and her sisters obey. She speaks to their father and enforces his commands. After a failed affair with a young bootlegger, Jo stopped dancing, deciding that it was too dangerous for her, no matter how much she wanted to. The result is that her sisters think she’s heartless. It’s even suggested that she’s just as much their jailer as their father is. Jo finds this deeply hurtful, especially since it’s already occurred to her.

As the reader however, you see how much Jo’s ‘heartlessness’ has done for her sisters. She describes her nickname “General” as ” the mortar that let her stand in both places at once and not fall”. She can only be the amazing sister they need by also being an authoritarian leader. It’s only because she’s so strict and careful that her sisters are able to go out every night and not get caught. She protects from their father, and it’s only when some of the girls actually have to be in Mr Hamilton’s presence as he starts trying to marry them off that they realise what a monster Jo has been fighting with on their behalf. She was the first one to learn to dance and start teaching her sisters. She initiated the first trip to a jazz club (imagine doing this when you almost never go outside), but everyone remembers it being Lou, the second eldest’s idea, because it’s hard to imagine Jo being so spontaneous.

You also see Jo trying too hard, sacrificing too much, wanting her sisters to need her because she’s become so wrapped up in her identity as the General. So part of the story involves her giving in to the things she wants, and being a sister rather than a General. It can be quite sad, but it makes for great reading. I also like the way Valentine wrote Mr Hamilton’s character. Again, she exercises restraint by not making him grossly monstrous. He’s quietly evil, with a very calm, polite manner that makes his cruelty stand out like an unexpected slap.

Overall, the book is also just beautifully written, and I highlighted many quotes on my Kindle. It’s one of the few that leaves me satisfied but also sad to leave behind because I’m not going to find another book like this any time soon. However, that does give me good reason to re-read it a few times :)

Short Story Review: The Screams of Dragons by Kelley Armstrong

STPSpring2014-425x561I never paid much attention to Kelley Armstrong because it looked like her books are mostly of the paranormal romance variety, but I’ve just started reading Subterranean Press Magazine, and she has the leading story for the Spring 2014 edition (you can download the whole edition for free in epub or mobi format, or read the story on the Subterranean Press website). I now have to take another look at her books, because “The Screams of Dragons” is fantastic.

Bobby is a strange, unsettling little boy. He’s cold and distant. He never laughs, never plays, never feels happiness, except in his dreams of golden castles and green meadows. He also dreams of screaming dragons, after he hears a story about a king who suffers three plagues, one of which is the screams of fighting dragons.

The dragons start keeping him awake, but he thinks it best not to tell anyone about them. Instead, he tells his grandmother about the good gold and green dreams of castles and meadows, which are beautiful but leave him sad and frustrated when he wakes up. This turns out to be a dire mistake. His grandmother decides that Bobby is a changeling, and she uses cruel, folkloric methods to prove it. The evidence seems perfectly clear to her, but makes no sense to anyone else because Bobby reacts to the tests like any other child would.

You feel a brief sense of relief that the grandmother is dismissed as a superstitious fool, but things only get worse for Bobby. His family comes from some unnamed ethnic group, and his parents – who try to portray themselves as modern and educated – are ashamed when people start to see them as ignorant peasants. His grandmother starts abusing him, making up reasons to beat him or send him to bed hungry. His irritating little sister Natalie (he calls her the Gnat and she really is a horrible little thing) delights in his grandmother’s abuse and sometimes tries to make it worse. His parents don’t want any more trouble so they just ignore it all.

Rather than get angry, Bobby just tries to bear it, and even feels sorry for how fearful and desperate his grandmother can seem. But the abuse takes its toll. He is different, and starts to feel like he doesn’t belong in the family. The only place he does feel, if not happy then at least content, is in the town of Cainsville, where his mother’s family comes from. In Cainsville, people appreciate difference. The adults there take Bobby seriously, talk to him like an adult, and treat him as special. The residents seem particularly unusual themselves and either have supernatural powers or treat such things as the norm. Hannah, a little girl that Bobby likes to play with, can communicate with animals. Her friend Rose has some kind of prophetic sight. Bobby isn’t that unusual – he doesn’t have any powers as far as he can tell – but he fits in in Cainsville in the way he can never fit in at home or at school.

However, Bobby does get increasingly strange and undoubtedly sinister, if only in self-defence. It’s understandable, based on the way he’s treated by his grandmother and his sister, the bullying at school, his parents’ refusal to help him or even acknowledge that anything is wrong. At the same time, you have to admit that his dreams are strange and is connection with the mysterious town of Cainsville seems important. You have to wonder if there’s something seriously (supernaturally?) wrong with Bobby, or if he’s just an odd kid corrupted by people who torment him or ignore his suffering?

I could never answer that question and that’s one of the things I like most about that story. You can’t unravel the mystery of Bobby’s psychology and you’re left to wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t told his grandmother about the dreams, if she hadn’t abused him, if his parents tried to help him, if the people of Cainsville had taken a more active role in his life instead of just asking if everything was alright at home (he always says yes), if Bobby made different choices, if, if if.

The way things turn out makes for a great story in itself though, and there are lots of things I loved about it. Firstly, a creepy child, one of my favourite horror tropes. And this is a horror story – a psychological one. That’s another thing I like about it. Armstrong uses just the right amount of restraint, achieving the ideal balance (for me, at least) between revealing information and hinting at underlying terrors. It produces tension throughout the story, making it an excellent read.

Omens“The Screams of Dragons” is a prequel story to Kelley Armstrong’s novel Omens, a paranormal mystery. It’s the first in her Cainsville series and the second book, Visions, is due to be published in August this year. While I’m still not keen on her paranormal romance titles, Armstrong obviously knows how to tell a good story, so Omens immediately went onto my tbr list.

One last thing before I go – I’m really excited about Subterranean Press Magazine. How did I not notice it earlier?! I’ve been following Subterranean Press for a while because they publish collector’s editions, which I’ve recently started investing in. So far, I’ve only bought Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, but I kicked myself for missing out on the trade edition of her collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams, (although there’s still a limited edition for $60) and I’ve got my eye on Equoid by Charles Stross.

Anyway, I knew Subterranean has free fiction available on their site, but I never got around to reading any because I prefer reading on my Kindle than a computer. But they have a quarterly magazine that you can download for free, in either epub or mobi format. They amount of talent they’re showcasing is just incredible, with stories from some of the best authors in the field – Catherynne M. Valente, Ted Chiang, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, and loads more that I can’t wait to discover.

The Light of Kerrindryr by H. Anthe Davis

The Light of KerrindryrTitle: The Light of Kerrindryr
Series: The War of Memory Cycle #1
Author: H. Anthe Davis
Published: 11 May 2013
Publisher: self-published
Source: review copy from author
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

Cob is a 17-year-old slave doing physical labour for the Crimson Army of the Phoenix Empire. He’s been a slave since the age of 8, as a consequence of his parents’ heretical belief in Dark faith. The idea is that punishing the children of such heretics is an effective conversion tool, and this strategy worked perfectly with Cob. He converted to the faith of the Imperial Light, and his devotion means that his tenure as a slave will end when he turns 18 in 5 months time.

Unfortunately, Cob is robbed of that freedom when his friend Darilan, a freesoldier, frames him for murder and chases him from the army camp. Cob finds himself doubly condemned, both for murder and running away.

Alone in the wide world for the first time, Cob turns out to be hopelessly ignorant. He’s illiterate. He grew up on a strict diet of Imperialist propaganda that he swallowed whole. He travelled with the Crimson Army, but he viewed every new place through an Imperialist perspective and doesn’t understand the nuances of people’s beliefs and cultures. Almost every time he speaks to someone he finds his beliefs challenged. People hate the Phoenix Empire and its Imperial Light religion and for good reason. The Light is not what he’s been told it is. The Dark is not the evil he believes it to be.

Cob doesn’t want to hear it, but the people who tell him these things are also the ones who help him because they oppose the Empire. He toys with the idea of returning to the Crimson Army and trying to set things straight, but then Darilan is sent to hunt him down with a contingent of soldiers. Darilan’s motives are a mystery – first he chased Cob away, then chases after him with terrifying zeal. Because of course, Cob is not just an ordinary slave. There’s something about him that the Empire wants under its control, and as a result, Darilan will chase him across the world.

First off, I’d like to mention that this is one of the best quality self-published novels I’ve read. Whenever I pick one up I brace myself for errors, weaknesses, and the kind of overall confused weirdness that typically characterises books that haven’t had enough critical readers, haven’t had a thorough scrubbing from a good editor, or should never have left the author’s brain.

The Light of Kerrindryr is not like that. It’s got some errors, but nothing major. It has the feel of a serious, structured endeavour rather than an early draft, and it doesn’t turn into an increasingly random mess as has been the case with some indie and self-published novels. There are two things in particular that I want to talk about – Cob, and the worldbuilding.

Cob’s character goes through a standard kind of hero’s journey – orphan turns out to be a chosen one with special powers – but mostly I was interested in the psychology of his character even though I didn’t like him because he’s a daft, self-righteous little git. He starts out being rigidly religious. Even though the Empire killed his father, imprisoned his mother and made him a slave, he believes wholeheartedly in the Imperial religion, blaming his father for his ‘Dark’ beliefs rather than the Empire for its intolerance. He’s proud to be an Imperialist, grateful that the Empire saved him. He accepts slavery the same way that other people accept having to go to high school. He says he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his fellow slaves if they acted against the Imperial Light. He doesn’t mind that the Imperials mages routinely brainwash people to keep them controlled. When a woman offers him food an shelter he accepts it reluctantly, thinking guiltily that he should instead kill her cat and burn her books because she’s obviously witchfolk. The Empire offers Cob nothing but slavery and death, but he sees it as offering purification and salvation.

He knows very little about the world so people are always explaining things to him (a useful way of explaining things to the reader too) and he scoffs whenever their information contradicts what the Imperials told him. It’s not surprising that he reacts with hostility or even violence when his beliefs are challenged, although I feel particularly unsympathetic to him when he’s hostile toward the people who help him, often at great risk to themselves.

So yeah, Cob can be a stupid asshole, but that’s alright. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to like the main character; I just need to understand them. What I like about the way Davis wrote Cob is that you know why he does what he does even when you want to slap him, but he’s not so vile that he makes the book unpleasant.

And sometimes I really felt for him. He might have chosen the Empire over his parents, but he describes them as quasi-hermits who never spoke much so they probably didn’t have a strong bond. They seemed to fail him while the Empire seemed to save and support him. His whole world falls apart when Darilan betrays him, and while he might seem stupid for wanting to go back to being a slave in the camp, you can also understand that he wants to return to a familiar, structured world. I want him to be smarter and more open to different beliefs, but you can’t demand that a character fit your desires and most people find it difficult to change their beliefs, especially so suddenly and drastically. And Cob is forced to go through all this because he’s being used and manipulated. The poor boy has very little agency and no one really seems to care about him (not that he ever helps matters).

The one thing I admired about him was his friendship with Darilan. And it is a friendship, despite Darilan’s betrayal. For years, Darilan was a kind companion to Cob in an otherwise lonely life, and when Cob was severely injured by a wraith arrow, Darilan sat at his bedside until he recovered. Cob isn’t so stupid as to go running into Darilan’s arms when the man starts hunting him, but he never forgets that Darilan was good to him. Darilan himself turns out to be an interesting character, although it would spoil things for me to say why.

Let me get on to the worldbuilding. It’s pretty extensive, and keeps going throughout the book. There are loads of locations, descriptions of sociopolitical relations between those locations, Imperial politics, religion, myth, magic, culture, etc. What I need to admit though, is that a lot of this goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy specifically because it’s extremely detailed in ways I don’t necessarily enjoy or even care about. Two major exceptions are The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I devoured the worldbuilding in those books because it’s particularly vivid and unusual but I get the impression that these series are unique in the genre. I like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I find the amount of detail in those books increasingly tedious and too easily forgotten. I don’t ever want to read Tolkien again.

But I know epic fantasy fans love long books with lots of detail. And this is a long, detailed book – it’s listed as being 446 pages on Goodreads, but my Kindle shows over 10 000 locations, which puts it something more like 800 pages. This is not something I appreciate, but I feel bad because I get the sense that the author put in a lot of effort and yet I’m never going to remember how the architecture of one town differs from another or the specifics of the creation myth.

That said, I liked was the novel’s ability to surprise and impress me with its worldbuilding and plot. The world just keeps growing, opening itself up to you. Several times when I thought it was becoming a bit too conventional or dull, something new and interesting would be revealed. The characters will be riding along on their horses, which turn out to be weird breeds – Tasgard horses are powerful lion-tailed omnivores with sharp canines; Ten-Sky horses have striped coats, short spiral horns and split-hooves. I thought all the people were human until suddenly ogres, goblins and other creatures popped up. Cob is not the only character who is more than he appears to be. And in among the fantasy are elements that feel more like sci fi, giving the book a more interesting feel.

However, there are things in which I wish the author had more surprises and nuances to reveal. Like in the Phoenix Empire, which is irredeemably evil. I don’t like this; I prefer the moral complications of grey areas, and the Empire… well. Under Imperial rule, cats are killed because they’re believed to be witchbeasts who spy for the Dark. It’s illegal for commoners to own books. Mages brainwash people as a matter of routine. The Empire is a fanatically religious, propagandising, cat-killing, slave-owning, book-burning, brainwashing monster. There’s no hope here.

I would also have preferred more female characters. There are a few, most notably a 21-year-old woman named Lark who teaches Cob about the Shadow world, a parallel realm in which she is a kind of business person/diplomat. But Lark is one of very few women and the only one with a major role. As seems the norm in epic fantasy, this is a sexist world and the female characters are scattered. On the plus side, there are plenty of POC characters because this is an openly multicultural world, and that’s worth a lot in this genre.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but it’s similar to the worldbuilding in that it’s long and detailed (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but it has twists and surprises that I liked. Lots of different elements are brought into play, preparing the stage for an even more expansive and thrilling sequel. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book, but that’s because I think this book just isn’t for me. I have to admire it as a self-published novel though, one that I’d definitely recommend to epic fantasy fans.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeTitle: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Published: 22 May 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, thriller, fantasy or science fiction
Rating: 8/10

On 12 January 2012, a day that will come to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash within several hours of each other. One plane goes down in Aokigahara, an infamous Japanese forest where people go to to commit suicide. One plane goes down in the Florida everglades, one off the coast of Portugal. The fourth crash is the most destructive, landing in Khayalitsha, the most populous township in Cape Town, South Africa. There are only three survivors, one child on three of the four planes – Bobby in the US, Jess in the UK, and Hiro in Japan. Their survival should have been impossible, so the crashes not only cause a wave of shock and grief, but a flood of conspiracy theories and religious fanaticism.

And no matter how absurd some of these beliefs are, you start to feel that they might contain some truth. When Bobby, Jess and Hiro wake up, they’re not quite the same children they used to be, and strange things happen around them. After Bobby moves in with his grandparents, his grandfather Reuben starts recovering from his Alzheimers. Jess’s uncle – Paul Craddock – becomes her legal guardian, but his resolve to take care of her starts to crumble under the influence of her weirdly calm, sunny demeanour (as if she didn’t just lose her parents and twin sister) and the terrifying figure that appears at the end of his bed in the middle of the night. Hiro does not speak except through the unnervingly realistic surrabot designed by his father, a robotics genius.

Journalist Elspeth Martins endeavours to tell the story, and the novel consists almost entirely of the book she publishes – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The book is composed of a variety of materials cutting across a range of cultures and experiences – excerpts from Paul Craddock’s unfinished biography; online chats between Hiro’s cousin Chiyoko and a geek named Ryu who never leaves his room; news articles; and interviews conducted by Elspeth herself. Besides the main characters, we hear from people involved in the rescue efforts, other journalists, investigators, a domestic worker who lives in Khayelitsha, etc. Only at the beginning and the very end do we get more traditional bits of narrative that fall outside Elspeth’s book.

Black Thursday – and The Three as a whole – describes three key things. Firstly, the four terrible plane crashes on Black Thursday, and the grief that follows. Secondly, the three child survivors, seen mostly from the perspectives of their families. Finally, and most importantly, it describes the beginning of the global reaction, which rears up like a monster as terrifying as the children and destructive as the plane crashes. What we have is not just a macabre international incident, but what could be the beginnings of global collapse.

The novel starts out by thrusting you right into the terror of the Japanese plane crash. Pamela May Donald, a Christian from small-town America, is so nervous about travelling in an alien culture that she was too scared to use the toilet at the airport in case she couldn’t figure out how to flush it. Her anxiety sets the tone and intensifies as the plane goes down. She wakes up soon after it crashes, her body broken and dying, flames all around, corpses hanging from the trees of the suicide forest. In her final moments, she sees ghosts and a strange boy, and records a cryptic warning message on her phone:

They’re here. I’m . . . don’t let Snookie eat chocolate, it’s poison for dogs, she’ll beg you, the boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many . . . They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…

Pamela’s message becomes the catalyst for a wave of religious fanaticism. Pastor Len is the leader of her church (a small, conservative congregation), and after hearing the message he decides that Pamela is a prophet, the children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they need to find the fourth child because these are the End Times and the prophecies of the book of Revelations are coming true. Of course, he has been chosen to spread the word, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about taking care of Pamela’s dog although she also stressed this in her message. Pastor Len’s fervour is both disturbing and funny, especially when he says things like this:

It’s clear as a bell. How much clearer could the message be? The Lord is good, listeners, He isn’t going to mess around with obfuscation. (talking about how the crashes and the colours of the planes’ logos are obvious proof that the Four Horsemen are here)

His certainty is very similar to that of the guy who argues (with an overabundance of capital letters) that the Three are controlled by aliens:

The children have been IMPLANTED and they are watching us to see what we will do. THIS CAN BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION!!!!

I scoff at these guys, and yet there were times when I wondered if they were at least partly right. The problem is that you can’t be sure. This is not the kind of horror novel where the terror eventually steps out into the open and everything is explained. To be honest, I wanted more overt horror, but at the same time I’m one of those people who is usually disappointed when the monsters are revealed, and I have to credit the subtle, cerebral horror that Lotz has crafted.

It’s unclear if the children are truly malevolent or evil, but they are childish in ways that have their own terrible implications. And part of what’s scary about The Three is our alienation from the truth. As readers, our experience is similar to that of the characters and the fictional public in the novel – there’s so little we know, and so little that we can know. Elspeth’s book is our best source of information, and it’s full of people who don’t know what the fuck is going on even when they think they do. Horror stories usually have that one person who understands what’s happening, but no one on Earth understands the Three, except the children themselves (who might not be children anymore) and they’re not telling. We are held at a distance, with no hope of knowing the whole truth.

Unfortunately another problem is that some people claim to know the truth and can wield their crackpot theories in the absence of better explanations. Pastor Len and similar right-wing religious fanatics are the main problem here, and the Three represent a massive opportunity for them to grab at money and power. The Christian fanatics can be quite scary, but The Three also questions the tendency for all of us to indulge in conspiracies:

why are people so fast to think the worst or waste their time believing in frankly bizarre and convoluted theories? Sure, the odds of this happening are infinitesimal, but come on! Are we that bored? Are we all, at heart, just Internet trolls?

You also need to think about the way Elspeth’s book itself fits into this story. She makes it sound so noble and authoritative, claiming that it’s “an objective account”, and her motivation was to “to provide an unbiased platform for the perspectives of those closest to the main players”. At the same time, she warns readers “to remember that these accounts are subjective and to draw their own conclusions”.

“Objective”? “Unbiased platform”? These terms are deeply suspicious, even if Elspeth’s intentions are good. She’s limited in terms of what she can include in her book. Notably, none of the children get a an “unbiased platform” and are always seen through the eyes of others. And we don’t hear from people like Reuben (who experiences at least a temporary cure for his Alzheimer’s), the children who go to school with Jess, or the doctors who treat the Three. At the same time, many of the people Elspeth talks have already interpreted events based on the way things turned out, or are speaking with the understanding that their words will be made public. Elspeth also chooses what goes into the book, and edits the interviews she conducts, so how “objective” is all of this?

Then there’s the warning about subjectivity and the request that people draw their own conclusions. Sounds reasonable until you remember that people like Pastor Len drew their own conclusions from subjective accounts like Pamela’s last words. So while Black Thursday tells us most of the story of the Three, it becomes a part of that story too, with the potential to be just as dangerous as it is enlightening. As Lotz’s readers, we get to read just a little bit more at the beginning and the end, enough to get a glimpse of the terrifying big picture.

I also wanted to comment on the narrative structure. Because it’s made up of so many POVs and forms, the story moves slowly and thoughtfully. Lotz does a great job of making the interviews and other accounts seem realistic, which has loads of advantages but a couple of disadvantages too. When people tell stories they contextualise them by talking about themselves and their circumstances, and often draw out the details. This is partly why it moves so slowly, but it also gives the novel depth and texture. I really liked the bits of Japanese and South African culture and language that Lotz weaves into those parts of the stories. I learned the Japanese term hikikomori - “Someone who is socially isolated to the extent that they rarely (or never) leave their room” – and the emoticon ORZ (a figure kneeling with its head on the ground, indicating frustration or despair. The O is the head, R the torso, Z the legs).

There are loads of characters, but Lotz handles them very well by giving them distinct voices or at least intriguing stories. For example I enjoyed reading the interviews with Reba, a woman from Pastor Len’s church who claims to have been Pamela’s best friend but very obviously isn’t. There’s a short piece from a black South African domestic worker that does a fantastic job of relating class issues in the country, while other South African characters add a dose of humour with local styles of speech. Jess’s uncle, Paul Craddock (a gay English actor) is a bit bland, but his story is the creepiest as Jess unnerves him in ways that the other children’s guardians do not experience.

Several of the reviews I’ve read argued that the many POVs makes it hard to connect with the characters. Personally this wasn’t really a problem for me, not because I connected strongly with the characters but because I think having them at a distance is kind of the point and suits the story.

On the other hand the story is also necessarily incomplete and this did bug me a bit because I wanted to know so much more. In writing this review though, I started to better appreciate the balance Lotz struck between information and intrigue about the Three. Those kids are just one subject in the novel. The is also about us, the weird and warped ways in which we might react to an event like Black Thursday, and how the world could be changed by it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeTitle: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Published: 02 April 2013
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction
Rating: 8/10

This review contains some spoilers, but I have limited them to a section at the end, and I will warn you when to stop reading.

Ursula Todd lives life after life. The first time she’s born, on 11 February 1910, she dies almost immediately, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second time, the family doctor makes it to the house despite the snowstorm, and cuts the cord, saving her. She drowns at age 5, but in her next life a stranger rescues her. Sometimes she dies from the Spanish flu, while in other lives she tries to avoid catching it.

Ursula’s life continues in this fashion, beginning and ending countless times, giving her the chance to change the past and the future. At first, she only holds sway over the quiet life in Fox Corner, her parents’ estate in the English countryside. Then, in those lives when she grows into adulthood, she is thrust into the midst of World War 2, sometimes in London, sometimes in Germany. The question of Ursula’s many lives hangs over the narrative. What is the point of coming back again and again? Must she change history or is she trapped in it? Is she meant to help the people she cares about, or is her purpose political?

The fantasy aspect of this novel is really the only reason I wanted to read it. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, WW2 isn’t really my thing, and early 20th century English family sagas definitely aren’t. That said, Life After Life is a lovely book in more ways than I’d expected. Ursula’s rebirths add the interesting dynamic I’d hoped for, but Kate Atkinson seriously impressed me with her ability to make life in the English countryside compelling, even when you’re reading the third, fourth or fifth version of a scene.

The first thing to charm me was the character Sylvie, Ursula’s mother. She leads us into the story when little Ursula is too young for an intriguing POV, and her husband Hugh is too busy working or fighting in the First World War to give us much insight. Sylvie’s one of those wonderfully multifaceted characters who feel real because they’re a thousand different things in one self. Sylvie can be a good mother, sometimes a bad mother, sometimes caring, often indifferent, frequently snarky. She can be deeply conservative, but at the same time she has lots of rather rebellious thoughts about marriage and parenthood. It’s strongly implied that she’s had an affair, if not several, and it’s possible that some of her children are not her husband’s. She can be funny, cruel, secretive, cold, unexpectedly emotional. There’s a constant sense that there’s a lot about Sylvie we don’t know or understand.

She becomes increasingly stern and unlikeable as the novel progresses, but although I ceased to empathise with her, I still admired the skill and depth with which she was written. Equally intriguing is Hugh’s sister Izzie, who is introduced as a reckless sixteen-year-old who throws her life away by running off to meet her married lover in Paris. And although Izzie is quite reckless and flaky, we come to understand her as a woman who is too smart and headstrong to fit easily into conservative English society, and makes a life for herself instead. In one of the lives where Ursula lives in Germany and meets Hitler, she finds him terribly ordinary and says, amusingly, that “Sylvie would have made short work of him” while “Izzie would have eaten him up and spat him out”.

Izzie and Sylvie stand out, but I liked all the characters you’re supposed to like – Ursula’s kind father Hugh, her practical sister Pamela, her loveable younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy, the maid Bridget. I loathed Ursula’s elder brother Maurice, but he’s so vile that no one in his family likes him either and at one point Ursula suggests that his existence is enough of a reason not to get married.

Ursula herself is not as distinct a character as her mother or her Aunt Izzie, but its fascinating to see her development across her many lives, how the little changes in each life play out. A minor decision might lead to terrible tragedy in one life, but go completely unnoticed in the next. Over the years and lives, Ursula seems to become a bit more cautious or sensible, changes her ideas of what she wants to do with her life, and her approaches to sex and marriage. There’s one very, very dark narrative in which Ursula is sexually assaulted as a teenager and has a horrible life as a result. I was so relieved when she finally died, and in the next life she’s notably assertive.

By the time the narrative gets to WW2, Ursula tends to face it head-on, in Germany or London, sometimes as part of a civilian rescue-crew, but never hiding out at Fox Corner with her mother (although she might consider staying with her mother worse than getting bombed). This part of the story made me miss the quiet English countryside of Ursula’s childhood, but only because it’s so poignantly graphic that I really felt for the characters. At no point does Ursula get the ideal of a happy life – whenever she makes it to adulthood her life tends to be full of tragedy, and even when it’s relatively nice she dies tragically. It can be quite depressing, but I didn’t find ti so dreary that it spoiled the book. Although the pace sometimes lagged, I always had a strong emotional connection to the story without feeling that the author trying to grind my heart into a pulp.

WW2 brings us back to the question of why Ursula keeps being reborn, and this is where I have some problems with the novel. We never learn how the rebirth happens, but that’s ok. What bothers me is that it’s a bit inconsistent. We know that Ursula retains some memories of the past, but do other people? Most of the time it seems clear that they don’t, but there are suggestions that some people do. Also, it’s unclear if Ursula or fate (or some other force) is controlling the rebirth. Sometimes external events allow Ursula to live, like the doctor making it to Fox Corner in time for her birth. At other times, a mysterious force compels her to act in a way that saves her life or even someone else’s life. Then there are times when it seems like her decisions alone change the future, although she doesn’t necessarily understand the significance of those decisions, which might be minor. At one point her life seems to change because she reads a German book instead of a French one, and ends up spending a longer time in Germany than in other lives. So what exactly is going on here? Does Ursula have some kind of superpower that allows her to keep tweaking things until she’s satisfied? Is fate using her to achieve some unknown outcome? Has the universe gotten stuck in a loop with Ursula at the centre?

This brings me to my next problem, which is that it’s never clear what the point of Ursula’s rebirth is. This is where I need to discuss some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the novel I’ll just leave you with this – whatever its flaws (which might include the ambiguous ending) Life After Life is a lovely read. I’m about to go on a bit about some theoretical issues, but none of that changes how much I enjoyed this book.

*****SPOILERS BELOW*****

Still, I think it’s worth adding this, especially since I would have given the book a higher rating if these issues were sorted out. In the opening chapter, a 20-year-old Ursula assassinates Hitler, suggesting that her purpose is to change history, or at least play a significant role in it. In the childhood of one the later lives, she accepts this purpose; she knows that she and her family will suffer during a coming war, she knows that she’s lived through it countless times already, and with this knowledge she devotes her life to killing Hitler before he can do any damage. But as it turns out, killing Hitler is just one possibility. Ursula’s done it before, leading to her death and yet another reincarnation. In the second-last chapter, Ursula doesn’t stop the war but her brother Teddy somehow survives (with fate altering the circumstances, rather than Ursula), which is at least a happy ending. Nevertheless, we end the story with another passage from 11 February 1910. We don’t see Ursula, although we don’t always see Ursula when we go back to her birth, so it’s fair to assume she’s being born again.

I can accept the idea that all this is a failure and Ursula is simply trapped in history, but that she could at least do something for her family, like save Teddy. Or even that she can’t save Teddy, that she has to accept the tragedy of death, including her own. But it just keeps going. And to my mind, the final chapter’s implication that Ursula will be born again makes this the beginning of a horror story.

The narrative always stops and starts with Ursula’s deaths and births, which implies that the world ends and begins with her, as if on a loop. Alternatively, there are many worlds, with a single Ursula hopping constantly across them. If she can control her rebirth, then she’s a megalomaniac who is just going to keep fiddling with the past and the future. If fate controls it, then presumably there’s a purpose, but it’s kept hidden from us. Or the universe could just be broken, somehow. Whatever the case, Ursula will eventually go mad. As her memories pile up, she’ll eventually be unable to distinguish memory from reality. She might end up with a string of lives lived out in mental institutions. She’ll be harassed by constant urges to do what she must to avoid disaster. She’ll be born with memories of being caught up in the bombing of London or Berlin (she already mentions this in one childhood), and of finding dead babies and broken bodies in the rubble. Eventually, she might just be born with full-blown PTSD, and if she can’t control the reincarnation but dies or kills herself in despair, she’ll be born again.

I know that I could just be overthinking this. It might just be an oversight by an author who doesn’t normally write fantasy. It’s certainly more of a historical novel than a fantasy novel, so the focus is not of the mechanisms of the fantasy. Maybe the author meant to imply that the next life will be Ursula’s last because she’s had enough. Or maybe she actually intended the horror story, which I have to admit would also be interesting. Still, I find the ambiguity here too problematic to give the author credit for it. The story seemed to be building up to a brilliant ending, but ended up being baffling instead.