Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.

Three Parts Dead readalong part 3 (final)

Three Parts DeadAnd so we come to the final part of the Three Parts Dead readalong. It’s been a relatively short one, compared with the longer books and more intensive discussions I’ve had with previous readalongs, but I’m so glad that I finally got started with this series. Clearly, I’ve been missing out.

Our host for this part is Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow, so be sure to head over to her blog for links to everyone else’s.

SPOILERS for the whole book, of course.

_____________________

So we finally got all the facts behind whodunit – and how, and why… What did you think of the epic(sized) reveal scene? 

Pretty awesome for the most part! Things got really exciting from the moment Cat called in the Blacksuits to take down Tara and the Stonemen; I could just imagine the doom-laden thumps of them landing on the building before they broke in. Of course the fight that followed was rather one-sided, but eventually Tara steps up and starts saving the day with her incredible lawyering :)

I was wondering what the hell was up with that flying Cardinal. Admittedly, I thought that was a bit ridiculous until he burst in and starting battling Denovo. No surprise to find out that Denovo was behind the whole thing, although I feel a bit daft for not guessing at the possibility of stealing a god’s power to become a god. We’ve been told from the beginning that soulstuff gets passed around on a daily basis and that gods just have a lot more of it, with more skill at manipulating it. The God Wars involved humans wresting power from the gods, and of course Denovo has his own godlike scheme of attaining power by stealing it from his underlings. How did I not see this coming?

I also made a couple of bad guesses as to how things would turn out. For a little while, it looked to me like Tara was going to be transformed into Seril and Abelard would become Kos. There was never any time for a romance to develop between them, but it had seemed ike a possibility, so it seemed fitting that they would turn into this divine power couple. In retrospect though, that would have been a terrible ending – the book addresses issues of consent and using other people for your own gain (more on that later), and if Tara and Abelard became gods it meant they would lose at least a part of themselves.

Anyway, good ending. I absolutely loved the way everybody turns to attack Denovo.

My only criticism is that it’s a tad clunky in the way mystery novels often are – the villain and the investigator step up to explain the entire plot to us. It’s an explanation I badly wanted and needed, but it means there’s rather a lot of exposition in this scene

Oh, and David was a boring plot device.

 

Surprise! We found Kos. You’ll never believe where he was… Or did you?

Nope, didn’t see that coming at all! Which I guess is one of the reasons it was such a good hiding spot, but I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. What if Abelard had dropped his cigarette and was forced to light a new one (instead of passing Kos’s flame on by chain smoking)? He’s possibly the most addicted smoker I’ve ever come across, but there were several occasions in the book where I was sceptical about the fact that he still had his cigarette. I guess he hung onto it because of Kos’s influence?

 

Elayne Kevarian proved to be even more devious than we suspected. What do you think of this Craftswoman now that the dust is settling? Sympathy for Denovo, or victorious fist-pump?

Fist-pump, definitely a fist-pump. And a high-five. With a “Whoop!” for good measure. That guy was an ASSHOLE. I was disappointed by the possibility that Denovo would just rot in jail, and thoroughly pleased when Ms Kevarian killed him instead. Initially I was hoping Tara would be the one to take him down, but what Denovo did to Kevarian was much worse.

And I still like Elayne. I never thought that she was squeaky-clean. Same goes for Tara. I mean, they are lawyers.

 

I did a little checking and the second book in this series seems to feature a whole new cast, though it’s still set in the same world. Do you think this one wrapped things up for Tara, Abelard and company well enough, or are you wishing for more? For that matter, will you read on? 

I’d love to read about these characters again, but I’m satisfied with the way things were resolved. However, I would have liked to know a bit more about Abelard and Cat’s history.

And yes, I’d keep reading. I liked Gladstone’s characters, especially his female characters. He’s also got a really fascinating magical system here, and some wonderful worldbuilding. It’s clear that this world isn’t monolithic either – it’s much more realistic in that different places have developed in their own ways, with their own belief systems and politics. I’d love to see what else he’s come up with.

There were a few things that bugged me – minor issues with the writing that I would have liked to tweak, and details or conflicts that I wanted Gladstone to develop a little further. However, none of this was bad enough to really bother me, and it’s a fantastic debut.

 

Consent and Power

I liked the way the book raised issues of consent and power. There are multiple examples – Cat’s connection to Justice; Tara’s connection to Ms Kevarian; Ms Kevarian’s manipulation of Abelard; Tara’s manipulation of Shale and Cat; Denovo’s connection to his students; Denovo’s use of the Cardinal and Shale; and Denovo’s first experiment with Ms Kevarian, using their sexual relationship to gain power from her devotion. The whole plot is based on the giving and taking of power from others, often without their consent or beyond their control.

One of my favourite scenes was when Raz woke up to find Cat feeding him and criticised her for not getting his consent. What does she know about his feeding preferences? Maybe it’s been years since he drank a human’s blood and now she’s essentially forced it on him. Granted, Cat’s not in total control of herself in this scene, but I don’t think the issue of consent would occur to her even if she had been. She’s operating on the assumption that he’s a vampire, therefore he must want her blood. I think it’s also important to consider that this is not simply about food. In Cat’s first scene, her vampire addiction is strongly associated with sex and drugs, suggesting that giving her blood to Raz is akin to sexual assault or forcing him to take drugs. And lets not forget that she’s doing all of this purely for her own pleasure.

The issue becomes even more tangled when we take into account the fact that Cat only went to Raz because Tara manipulated her. How culpable is Tara? And what if it had been a more serious issue, such as actual sexual assault? I’m also reminded of the scene when Ms Kevarian pulled Tara into a dream without her consent; when Tara questioned it, Ms Kevarian replies bluntly, “You are my employee and my apprentice, Ms. Abernathy. You’ll find there is little I cannot do to you, your notions of the possible notwithstanding.” Tara lets the issue drop, but I was actually hoping she’d wrestle with it a bit more, because WHAT THE HELL?

I think it’s apt, then, that at the end Tara decides that her own actions during the case were too unethical for her to continue working for Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. Although I really wanted her to be a kick-ass lawyer for a powerful firm, I admired the way she’d reflected on her actions and chose different path despite the fact that she enjoyed the work. I wouldn’t say that she’s as bad as Denovo, but in her field of work, manipulation does pose quite an ethical conundrum, and I think Tara is wise to think about it carefully before working for the firm full time.

 

Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones and AllTitle: Bones & All
Author: Camille DeAngelis
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: young adult
Rating: 7/10

Maren is a cannibal. There’s a hunger inside of her that she cannot control and no matter how many times she tells herself she’s not going to do it again, she inevitably does. She avoids making friends, but then some boy – it’s almost always a boy – tries to get close to her and she devours him.

Her mother has become an expert at packing up their things and getting out of town as quickly as possible, but the strain eventually becomes too much for her. The day after Maren’s sixteenth birthday, her mother abandons her. Not knowing what else to do, Maren decides to track down her father, who she suspects is also a cannibal. Along her impromptu road trip, she meets other cannibals like her, and tries to come to terms with being a monster.

Well, this was certainly something different. Not weird per se, but it certainly puts a different spin on the usual tale of a teenager discovering herself. Unlike most YA protagonists I’ve read, Maren is undoubtedly a monster. She’s a serial killer and what’s more she her victims are mostly lonely children who were just reaching out to another loner in the hope of making a friend. When she gets older, her interactions with her victims start to become overtly sexual, but none of them ever do anything without her consent. You’re not allowed to feel better because she kills a potential rapist – she’s a bad person who kills innocent people.

Which is not to say that you won’t like Maren – DeAngelis has written her as a surprisingly sympathetic character, and I liked her a lot. I think it’s because you really have an opportunity to engage with the struggles she’s going through. She knows that what she does is horrific, but it’s something she cannot control. When her mother abandons her, it’s perfectly understandable, but you can also understand Maren’s pain and fear. It occurs to her that her mother must have been afraid of her and she concludes that her mother never loved, just felt responsible for her. Now, at only sixteen, and she has to continue her life alone.

As she wanders, scraping by on crime and charity, you have to wonder what her life is going to be like. She has never formed a long-lasting relationship with anyone except her mother, and it’s quite possible that she can’t. It’s only when she gets physically and emotionally close to someone that she feels compelled to eat them, so she usually stays away from people – especially men – for their own safety.

On the road, however, she meets two other cannibals. The first is Sully, a strange old man who apparently only eats people who have already died, and keeps the hair of his victims in a neverending braid. Sully is pretty creepy, but Maren is inclined to trust him because he is the first cannibal she meets, he’s kind to her, and teaches her a little about what she is.

Then there’s Lee, a 19-year-old cannibal who’s been on the road since his tendencies forced him to leave home. Lee is a lifesaver for Maren. Besides literally saving her life a few times, he becomes her first real friend. In another YA novel, you would expect this to develop into a romance, especially since Lee and Maren are travelling together and often share the same bed, but they’re both very careful around each other. They’re serial killers who don’t want to jeopardise their relationship. That said, their connection is a little beacon of light in this otherwise grim tale.

And yeah, I absolutely loved it. I don’t usually care about coming-of-age stories, but this one is very unconventional. I also enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical experience of reading about this truly monstrous person who I never had trouble empathising with.

The book does have some flaws though, and despite the fact that I was willing to overlook them, I think they’re worth discussion. Firstly, there’s the cannibalism itself. It’s not gory – in fact it’s barely described – but it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. When cannibals like Maren devour people, they don’t eat in any normal sense of the word. It’s not a case of them taking one bite after another and getting full. They can consume an entire human body – Bones & All – in only a few minutes, and still be hungry afterwards. They don’t seem to gain any mass from the process, and yet whatever remains of the victim can be stuffed into a small plastic shopping bag. Although the book doesn’t have any overtly speculative elements, there’s definitely something other involved here, so maybe Maren really is a monster from the myth and folklore she studies.

It helps to know this before you start reading, because otherwise certain things can be quite confusing. For example, Maren’s first victim is her babysitter, who she eats when she’s just a baby. I couldn’t imagine how a tiny child could possibly overpower an adult and reduce her to a pile of bloody bones, but that’s what happens. Later, she starts eating children from school, again without any apparent difficulties. I wondered how a young child could hide a body until I realised that there were never any bodies left to hide.

This brings me to a second problem with the book, which is that Maren never gets caught. She kills a string of young boys, and each time her mother gets them the hell out of town and they start up in a new place. It slightly more believable once you understand that there are no bodies so these might be treated as missing persons cases rather than murders, but that’s not enough. Unless Maren drinks all the blood up quite quickly, she’d probably leave enough of a mess to make it clear that she killed her victim. But even if she executes a clean kill every time, her subsequent departure would be highly suspicious. A child disappears, and immediately afterwards, Maren is taken out of school, her mother leaves her job, and they get out of town? You wouldn’t have to be a cop to see a link, and Maren’s mother never changes their names, so they’d be easy to track.

Admittedly, the cops probably couldn’t prove or even guess the truth, but it still feels like the entire issue gets conveniently swept under the rug. And while I like the book enough that it doesn’t bother me, I can’t ignore it completely.

Nevertheless, I had a great time reading this. Maren is a wonderful character, and I was fully invested in her journey.

Three Parts Dead readalong part 2

Three Parts Dead

Hey everyone! It’s week 2 of the Three Parts Dead readalong, and this part covers everything from Chapter 8 to the end of chapter 14.

Our host is Susan from Dab of Darknessso you can head over to her place for links to the blog hop (although I will also add them to the bottom of my post, once I have them all).

Exciting things are happening in Alt Coulumb, so let me get into these questions:

SPOILERS BELOW!

1)Throughout this section, we learn little tidbits about our main characters: Tara & her time at the Secret Universities, Kevarian and her past works, Abelard & his childhood. What fascinated you the most? 

Tough one… I certainly want to know more about Raz’s relationship with Ms Kevarian, and her role in turning Seril into Justice. It’s ironic how the Blacksuits and the Guardians/gargoyles worship the same entity, and are mortal enemies for the same reason.

I liked the depiction of Abelard’s childhood; I find the mixture of engineering, faith and religion very interesting.

However, I’m glad we finally have Tara’s backstory. I had it a bit wrong, assuming she was the one doing something ingenious but unethical, when in fact she was a victim of Denovo’s brain-drain scheme. Which of course explains her aversion to mind-control techniques and the way Justice can bend people like Cat to its will and insert info in her mind whenever it feels the need. I can’t believe Denovo’s tactics are allowed in Court though; surely that’s against the rules somehow?

 

2) So many conspiracies! Someone tried to burn out some of Raz’s memories, there were super secret contracts between the dead Cabot and Kos and some unknown third party, and Abelard found a hidden altar in the heart of Kos’s church! Do you think they are connected? 

I assume so! Unless Gladstone is throwing out red herrings. I’ve read a few stories where major plotlines turned out to be unconnected, playing on the characters’ and readers’ expectations that they would be connected. Which is interesting in a way, but I do love to see everything come together.

 

3) This question is just for fun & came about from discussion over at Violin in a Void last week. Abelard is a chain smoker and his worship of Kos keeps him safe from any ill effects of said smoking. If there were multiple deities who could protect you from ill effects of different vices (alcohol, illicit drugs, gluttony, etc.), which vice, if any, would you pick? 

My first instinct was GLUTTONY! I will eat ALL THE CHEESE! But being able to indulge myself all the time might actually spoil the pleasure of eating, which, as far as I’m concerned, is one of life greatest pleasures.

Alcohol… no. Where’s the fun in not being able to get tipsy or drunk sometimes? Not interested in drugs or smoking. I enjoy being active, so not sloth.

Ah well, I guess it’ll just have to be lust then. Assuming that “drama” is one of the ill effects I’d be protected from :D

 

4) Stonemen! Will Tara be able to win over Shale and gain his assistance? Will Justice’s Black Suits face off against them, potentially destroying the city? Discuss!

Stupid Shale! Can’t he see that Tara could help him? I think Tara can handle him, but she’s been fairly successful in her endeavours so far, despite ending up in hospital, so I worry that this time she’s not going to get through the fight without getting hurt.

A Blacksuit-Guardian throwdown certainly seems likely, but at this stage I have no idea how this will all play out. I’m more curious about the THING that Abelard released at the hidden altar, whether Kos will be resurrected, and what Kos will be like if he’s resurrected. Seril became the Stone Men’s mortal enemy when she was resurrected/remade, and that doesn’t bode well for Abelard and his religion.

 

5) The Courthouse of Crafts is a strange place. Feel free to comment on it. Ms. Kevarian tells Tara, last minute, that she will be the one to face Denovo. Calculated way to boost Tara’s confidence? Or a cruel way to test her?

A test, I think, but not necessarily a cruel one. Ms Kevarian is demanding, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call her cruel (yet) and I think she’s too much of a professional to torment Tara for the sake of it. Rather, I think she understands how much of an issue Tara’s history with Denovo is, and she wanted her to face him head on, not giving her a chance to overthink it and maybe cower later. If Ms Kevarian had gone up against Denovo, it may have also have set a precedent of her taking on the bigger battles, and Tara needs to prove that she can handle this sort of thing on her own, not rely on her boss to protect her. And it’s possible that Ms Kevarian simply had more faith in Tara’s skills than her own; Tara nearly took down Denovo before, and she understands how he works.

The Courthouse of Craft – well, as someone who is terrible with direction, I quite like the idea of a building that takes you straight where you need to go!

 

Randoms
 – I love the way Tara keeps psyching herself up for the job at hand, controlling her fear and insecurities. She knows what she needs to do, and she knows how she could fail, so she’s preparing herself for battle. Which, apparently, means reading a lot :) Who said lawyers can’t be cool?

– I’ve wondered a bit about the gender dynamics of this society. It seems pretty egalitarian, but I find it a wee bit odd that they use the terms “Craftsmen” and “Craftswomen” instead of a gender-neutral term like “Craftspeople” or “Crafters”. And there’s a moment when Denovo says “Put not your trust in things, but in men,” then adds “And women” (p.167). So perhaps an egalitarian world that’s only recently evolved from a more sexist society? Enough that we don’t see any discrimination, but the language hasn’t quite caught up yet. Which I find a bit incongruent, but it’s nice to be able to read a fantasy world where it isn’t assumed that women must somehow be considered inferior.

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow

The Doll CollectionTitle: The Doll Collection
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: short stories, horror
Rating: 8/10

Dolls scare me. I couldn’t say why or what exactly it is about them that scares me, but I often blame the fact that I watched one of the Child’s Play movies when I was too young for all that gore. Another theory is that of the “uncanny valley”, which editor Ellen Datlow explains in her introduction:

The “uncanny valley” refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost—but not quite—like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects: our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

 

The problem with dolls, basically, is it that they’re “too human and still not human enough”.

The weird thing is that I actually like doll horror, perhaps because I like the thrill of horror and dolls can get to me without trying too hard or getting too gory. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read and review The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow. I find that short stories tend to deliver the most satisfying form in the genre, and these did not disappoint.

This is partly because Ellen Datlow curated this particular collection. Not only does she have decades of experience and multiple horror anthologies to her name, she’s also an avid doll collector. And she made one key editorial decision for this collection – no evil-doll stories. There are plenty of excellent ones out there already, she says, and the evil doll has become a bit of a cliché.

This immediately piqued my interest. Evil dolls are the most obvious choice, so how else might authors explore the theme?

Well some made use of the unnerving parallel between dolls and dead humans. In the opening story, “Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon, a man exploring the South Pole with his best friend finds two disturbingly featureless “bodies” in the snowy wasteland. He’s deeply unnerved by this mystery, but can’t bring himself to tell his friend as their relationship has deteriorated in the pitiliess conditions of the landscape.

In “The Doll Master” by Joyce Carol Oates – one of my favourites – a young boy is so distraught by the death of his little cousin, that he steals her doll. When his authoritarian father takes the doll away, he starts a secret collection of very disturbing “found dolls”.

“Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” by Stephen Graham Jones takes a slightly similar approach. A disturbed young boy identifies a doll with his stillborn sister, who he claims taught him to speak while she was in the womb. Her death has a profoundly grotesque influence on the person he becomes.

In other stories, dolls are used as tools to achieve otherworldly feats. As representatives of human beings, they often present a means of transcending our physical limitations, functioning as extra eyes and ears, or as vessels for our emotions or even our life force.

A particularly good story was “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey, in which two guys break into a home to rob the old man who lives there, only to find that there are strange little dolls watching from the corners and vicious booby-traps all over the house. It’s no surprise that the strange old man is ready and waiting for the thieves, and the story makes for a great piece of quintessentially grim, gory horror.

“In Case of Zebras” by Pat Cadigan was also impressive, but in a completely different way. It’s about a teenager sentenced to community service in a hospital; she handles seeing all the trauma cases pretty well, but one night she’s mesmerised by the incredibly realistic figurine in the hand of a heavily wounded patient, and she keeps trying to find out more about it. For me, the mysterious doll in this story was only a secondary concern; what I really loved was the voice of the fantastic main character.

Gemma Files also plays around with voice in her story, “Gaze”, which is partly composed of an online exchange between an antiques dealer who uses text speak and pop culture references, and a client whose full sentences and proper English stand out in stark comparison. The doesn’t have any dolls per se; rather, it’s about eye minatures ­– small framed portraits of a beloved’s eye, often decorated with pearls and jewels. The dealer is approached with an offer to buy an eye miniature that completes an extremely rare set of a woman with heterochromia (“2 dfrnt colourd eyes, kno th term. saw xmen 1st class 2″, the protagonist tells her client). As she goes through the client’s historical documentation, she finds a story about suspected witchcraft that suggests the eye miniature may be more than just a lover’s token.

In “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold”, Seanan McGuire explores the idea of a doll as “a vessel for the self”. An expert dollmaker crafts beautiful dolls into which she literally pours all the emotions she can’t contain. This is not because she’s an overly emotional person; she’s one of a long line of people whose purpose it is to absorb the excess emotion released into the world when Pandora opened that box (or something). I found this premise a bit silly, but I did like the idea of literally pouring emotion into dolls. It gives them a very dangerous kind of power that McGuire uses to tell a pretty good story. I also enjoyed the details about the craft of dollmaking.

Some of my favourite stories, though, were the ones where dolls were not merely used as representatives of humans, but were actually invested with a sense of humanity. When dolls become people, some truly horrifying possibiilities open up. Suddenly, dolls can see and hear things that no one else records. But far worse than this is the appalling cruelty we inflict on things assumed to be lifeless.

This is perfectly illustrated in “The Doll Court” by Richard Bowes, in which a man finds himself in the nightmarish situation of having to atone for the crimes he committed against dolls. The judge in the doll court is Debbie the Doll Detective, a character from a series of novels he read as a child, about a doll who solved crimes, often taking advantage of the fact that people assumed she was an inanimate object.

I really liked “Heroes and Villains” by Stephen Gallagher, in which a ventriloquist’s doll tells the sad truth of his owner’s death years before. To me, ventriloquist’s dolls are even more terrifying than other dolls, but Gallagher gives this one a gentler touch, while depicting the art of ventriloquism detailed authenticity.

My absolute favourite story was “The Permanent Collection” by Veronica Schanoes. An old Shirley Temple doll describes how deeply she was loved by the two girls who owned her, and how she remained connected to them even after she’d been packed away in a box for years. Later, she ends up in a private collection at The Doll Hospital, whose owner enjoys mutilating his dolls and can hear their screams of agony. It’s an incredibly sad, touching story. You really get a sense of how much dolls mean to some people, especially to children, which in turn just makes it so much more horrific when those dolls are abused

Another poignant tale can be found in “After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz, a postapocalyptic story in which two children leave their camp to explore a blighted landscape. There’s a fair amount of barbarity to their postapocalyptic lifestyle, which includes making shrunken-head dolls out of all the babies who die in their community. I struggled to get into this story at first, but at the end it broke my heart.

These last two stories by Schanoes and Siemienowicz and the one by Gallagher illustrate one of the things I love about this collection – they really demonstrates the range of the horror genre. You’ve got gory stories like Richard Kadrey’s and “Doctor Faustus” by Mary Robinette Kowal (in which a demon uses a dead human body like a hand puppet) – the kinds of tales most people probably think about when they think of horror. Then you’ve got the more subtle psychological horror that some fans (myself included) usually prefer to the bloodier stuff. But then you’ve also got stories like the ones by Cadigan and Files, which to me are more about voice and character than straight-up creepiness. There’s also a rather cute (if you can ever apply that word in this genre) story called “Miss Sibyl-Cassandra” by Lucy Sussex, about a doll designed as a fortune-telling party gimmick, wearing a skirt made of slips of paper with fortunes written on them. And then of course there are the beautiful, tragic stories by Schanoes, Siemienowicz, and Gallagher where the horror is bound up in the emotion you feel for the characters.

All in all, I am very pleased with this anthology. The writing is strong throughout, and although I didn’t love every story (well, you never do) none of them left me feeling completely cold (although, admittedly, Genevieve Valentine’s very subtle story “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” had me rather confused). I also wanted to add that every story comes with a photograph of a doll. Most of them gave me a fright as they flashed onto my Kindle screen when I turned the page after dark. But of course, dolls scare me.

Three Parts Dead readalong part 1

Three Parts DeadApologies to fellow readalong bloggers! I’m a bit late with the first post after having to work on an unexpectedly long assignment for the course I’m doing. But hey, I managed to finish this post before going to sleep, so I call that a win :D

For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is my first post for the readalong of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone. Like my previous urban fantasy readalongs (the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch and The Inheritance Cycle by N.K. Jemisin), this one looks like it’s going to be a great read with fascinating, quirky worldbuilding and complex characters.

If you’d like to follow the readalong or participate, you’ll find the schedule here. Part one only covers the first 100 words or so (the Prologue to the end of Chapter 8 [Edit: that should be the end of Chapter 7]), so you can catch up easily. However, this post will contain spoilers for those chapters; you’ve been warned!

Our host for this part is Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog, and I’m going to tackle her questions without further ado:

[Edit: So I stupidly misread the schedule and read all the way to the end of Chapter 8 when I should have stopped at Chapter 7. As a result, this post also includes comments about Chapter 8. Apologies if I’ve spoilt anything for you!]

1. Max Gladstone isn’t holding any hands here, we’re dropped straight into the world (which is a bit ironic given the start – but I’ll get to that) and expected to pick up and run with it.  Are you enjoying the style and, more to the point,  what ‘reveals’ have been the most surprising for you so far?

This kind of style might mean I have to work a bit harder as a reader, but I like it. Getting all the necessary worldbuilidng in a nice, clear infodump can be great when that infodump happens to be an awesome story in itself, but most of the time it’s more like pausing to read a Wikipedia article. So yeah, I like the way Gladstone is building his world as the story develops. I also find it very intriguing – the world is unfolding much like the mystery in the plot, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Surprises? Quite a few!

  • technician monks (interesting combo of engineering and religion)
  • Vampires. Nothing new, obviously, but I didn’t expect to encounter them here. I admit I was a wee bit annoyed when I realised there were vampires, since they’ve become such a cliché, but so far Gladstone has proven himself with great worldbuilding, so I trust him.
  • A yellow smiley face on a coffee mug. Yeah, ok, I don’t know what to do about this one. It really throws me off
  • Smoking as an act of spiritual devotion to a fire god. Which actually makes a lot of sense. I also loved the contrast in the first scene of Abelard doing all his holy monk duties and then lighting a cigarette.
  • Tara’s skills in forensic pathology – very impressive!
  • Abelard being unable to understand the concept of a newspaper. This really says a lot about Alt Coulumb and how it relates to the rest of the world. Some excellent worldbuilding there.
  • Cat being Justice and using her power to awesome effect at the end of chapter eight. Not only does it lend an interesting dynamic to her character (who I’d sort of dismissed as a useful but hopeless junkie), it also makes the Justice more of a grey area (after I’d mostly dismissed them as being authoritarian and therefore probably evil).

2. At the start of the book Tara graduates and is cast out of school (literally from a great height) simultaneously – any ideas about why that might be?

Well, her successful attempt to examine Cabot’s body shows that she’s got a strong sense of curiosity and is not afraid to take initiative. That’s also demonstrated by the way she seems to have left home to study at the Hidden Schools, despite the fact that the people around her were a lot more parochial. So my first guess is that she studied and/or experimented with something that the Schools did not approve of. Presumably she was successful, or Ms Kevarian would not have hired her. However, there’s clearly something very dodgy or at least unethical about what Tara did, based on the circumstances of her graduation and the firm’s reluctance to hire her without a probation period.

It might have something to do with controlling other people. She’s skilled at bringing people back from the dead. Then there’s a moment when she considers taking control of the bouncer, but decides not to when she thinks back on her graduation. Soon after, she’s quick to figure out that someone is controlling Raz. Skills like that would be both highly desirable and extremely controversial.

3. I’m always interested in the magical systems and how they work and the one here seems to almost be a ‘payback’ type of affair.  What are your thoughts about the magical system so far, we do have a dead deity after all, not to mention it appears that regular everyday people can access magic as well as deities. Discuss please (if only to enlighten my tiny brain!)

Gah, it’s after midnight and I’m not sure my brain has the power to enlighten anyone else’s! Also, magic systems aren’t my strong point, although this one certainly does intrigue me more than most. It’s very “lawyerish” :) I don’t mean that in a bad way; if anything it makes the whole profession seem really cool in a way that is somehow more realistic than the flashy lawyer tactics you see in legal dramas. Craftswomen and men can negotiate with the fabric of the universe – or at least that’s my understanding. This allows them to do all sorts of mundane legal magic, but also gives them the power to kill and resurrect gods. In fact, it’s a way for humans to become god-like, with gods and humans separated by the level of their skills. I’m fascinated by the possibilities here.

What also intrigued me is that people use soulstuff for currency, and metal coins are the means of passing soulstuff around, but have little value in themselves. So if you made an excessive purchase or bargain, would you literally be selling your soul?

4. We’re only a third in but how are you feeling towards the characters so far. are you developing any favourites already, any sneaky suspicions of any of the characters or are you loving them all?

The only ones I’m suspicious of are Shale the gargoyle and Cardinal Gustave. Otherwise, I like all the characters so far, and I particularly like the fact that none of them feel like cliches. Abelard seemed to be a typically naïve young monk, until he grinned at the prospect of trawling through vampire bars in the Pleasure Quarter and hooked Tara up with Cat (how on earth do they know each other?). And as I mentioned in the first answer, I’m curious about Cat now that I know she’s also a Justice.

I like the way Tara seems to have risen above the circumstances of her birth, sometimes literally, like when Ms Kevarian is flying them over farms and village and Tara is thinking about how the people down there never saw much beyond their little homes. I think it’s also telling that after she falls from the Hidden Schools, she goes back to her backwater home, making her fall both literal and figurative. And then she is almost chased out with torches and pitchforks… She doesn’t seem to have too much to worry about though; she seems extremely competent and professional; I wish I was that skilled.

She reminds me a bit of Shara from City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett – like Shara, Tara’s skill lies in her ability to think and study, and that makes her powerful and dangerous, rather than any physical prowess or traditional martial art. In fact, Shara might have been inspired by Tara.

And now let me get some sleep while I still can. I’ll go blog hopping and round up the links tomorrow. Or rather, later tomorrow :)

Blog Hop! Go see what everyone else had to say:

Heather – The Bastard Title
Susan  – Dab of Darkness

 

Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.

Fletcher

Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)

 

Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!

 

David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.