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.

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The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural EnhancementsTitle: The Supernatural Enhancements
Author: Edgar Cantero
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: gothic, mystery, adventure
Rating: 6/10

Our protagonist – known only as “A.” – inherits a huge mansion from an American “second-cousin twice-removed”. A. had never even heard of Ambrose Wells until after the man committed suicide by throwing himself from his bedroom window at the age of 50. Incidentally, Ambrose’s father threw himself from the same window, at the same age.

Now A. finds himself incredibly rich, having gotten Axton House and all its contents. He moves in, along with his ‘companion’ Niamh (pronounced “Neve”; it’s gaelic), a mute teenage punk with blue and violet dreadlocks. Since A. is only 23 he figures he’s got 27 years before Axton House can drive him to suicide, and he and Niamh enthusiastically face the building’s many mysteries – the strange deaths of its previous owners, rumours that the House is haunted, the disappearance of the butler who worked there all his life, the coded messages left by Ambrose Wells, a secret society that met at the House. It’s a House with “supernatural enhancements” (an Edith Wharton quote). Soon, A. starts having disturbingly vivid dreams and nightmares, always featuring the same people, images and events, and these gradually start to affect his health and sanity. There is also an unexplained break-in at the House, after which Niamh gets a dog who she prudently names Help.

A. and Niamh go to great lengths to record their experiences. A. keeps a diary, a dream journal, and regularly writes letters to an Aunt Liza, detailing everything that happens to them and the steps they’re taking to solve the mystery. Because she’s mute, Niamh communicates using a notebook, and in her spare time she fills in the other speakers’ parts of the conversation, so that she’s basically got a written record of all her conversations. She also buys a voice recorder and video camera, and – when the situation in the House gets more threatening – she sets up surveillance cameras everywhere. These documents, as well as transcriptions of notable audio and video recordings, are what make up the narrative of The Supernatural Enhancements.

The blurb claims that “[w]hat begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in Cantero’s wholly original modern-day adventure”, and this is one of the few occasions where I’d say the blurb is spot-on.

At first the book has a creepy tone, when A. starts to see the rumoured ghost in the bathroom. However, the ghost turns out to be a relatively minor issue, an entry point to grander schemes. As A. and Niamh investigate, the creepy ghost story gives way to mystery and adventure with a bit of action and quite a lot of danger.

What makes the book “wholly original” is, I think, the strangeness of the story that unfolds, a kind of charming metafictional humour (more on that in a bit), and partly the way virtually everything about this book adds to its mystery – the plot, the setting, the characters, the narrative structure, the writing style. I’ve already explained as much of the plot as I can without starting to spoil it. The size and grandeur of Axton House alone gives it an air of mystery, but A. also notes that the house seems to exist in a different time:

when you’re near enough to touch it with your fingertip, it just feels old. Not respectable old, but godforsaken old. Like a sepia-colored photograph, or Roman ruins that miraculously avoided tourist guides. This house ages differently. It’s like those bungalows that endure decades, but are awake only three months a year in summer, so that they live one year, but age four. This happens to Axton House and the things within, “all of its contents.” They stand on the brink of the twenty-first century, but their age pulls them back. Maybe that’s why everything in it is or seems anachronistic; a newspaper in it is outdated; any accessory falls out of fashion; Ambrose Wells lived in 1995 looking like a gentleman from 1910s London. I am starting to feel it myself—like time is running faster than me, and I have to catch up. Like I’m stuck on the bank of a river while the space-time continuum keeps flowing. Like I’m being forgotten from the universe.

A. and Niamh are rather mysterious themselves. We don’t know what A. was studying when he left university in Europe for the States, or where exactly he’s from, although apparently Niamh’s English is better than his. We don’t know exactly why he’s only referred to as “A.” while Niamh gets a name rather than just a letter. We’re told that Niamh comes from Dublin and that she’s had a shit childhood, but little else. It’s not even clear what their relationship is. They sleep in the same bed, but for safety rather than intimacy.

Then there’s the fact that the story is composed only of documents – A.’s diary, his dream journal, Niamh’s notebook, letters to Aunt Liza, transcripts of audio and video recordings, excerpts from academic journals, and news articles. Who compiled this and why? Do these accounts differ from ‘reality’? What would we be reading if we got an omniscient third-person POV? Also, why does A. write so many letters to Aunt Liza? She almost never replies, and it’s not stated whether she is A.’s aunt or Niamh’s, although both seem to have a good relationship with her.

The writing style or voice is also very odd – a somewhat pretentious old-fashioned style used by A. and whoever did the audio and video transcripts. The story is set in 1995, but A. writes like a character from a 19th century gothic novel. This is not a flaw – Cantero does it self-consciously, as a kind of joke that happens to put you in the right frame of mind for a gothic mystery in a giant haunted house. Niamh actually laughs at A.’s prose too, declaring his opening paragraphs to be the “[w]orst beginning ever written and saying he reads too much Lovecraft (he’s not that bad, and he’s quite funny, but you get the point). A. himself mentions several times that this whole story is a bit overdramatic, but it’s clear that this is the point – it’s entertaining.

I have to say though, that the writing style doesn’t always work for me. Some parts of the book were enjoyable to read, while other bits were tedious. The scenes composed mostly of dialogue read very quickly and clearly, even when characters are infodumping. A.’s letters are good too, focused but also amusing. His diary is ok. I found his dream journal tedious, but I generally find dream sequences a pain to read.

The occasions when I completely disliked the writing style were in some of the passages of description provided for the video recordings. The style is very similar to A.’s and sometimes it gets far too lavish for the content. It tends to draw your attention away from the action, and can be very boring to read. Here are some examples:

An extremely indecisive second lingers by, pondering whether to elapse or not, and finally does.

Droning brightness saturates all whites in the image, swelling in a luminous aura like icy embers.

An autumn carpet of white and sepia paper sheets lies over the gallery like war propaganda from an enemy fighter.                              

This style is ok when it’s just a line or two, but for the longer descriptive passages I would have preferred clear, simple prose to allow the action to take centre stage. If Cantero is trying to imply that A. wrote this, with his signature verbosity, then purple prose makes sense, but it still hurts the story. Other pieces of writing dragged the story down too. The academic articles were a bit dull, and there were some very long, dense explanations of code-breaking that I eventually gave up on and just skimmed through.

On the whole, I thought the book was… ok.  It could be playful, exciting and tense, but at other times it dragged or just lost my interest. I liked A., Niamh and their utterly adorable dog Help, but it can be difficult to keep track of other characters. The big reveals didn’t resonate with me much, although I enjoyed the climax and the way Cantero leaves you with fresh questions to ponder at the end. If you’re looking for a gothic adventure, thrilling but not too dark, you might enjoy this.

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price

The Flight of the SilversTitle: The Flight of the Silvers
Series: The Silvers Saga
Author: Daniel Price
Published:
 
4 February 2014
Publisher: 
Blue Rider Press
Genre:
 
science fiction, thriller, adventure
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
7/10

The world as we know it ends when the sky crashes down on frozen corpses. Shortly before the end, three mysterious strangers give bracelets to a handful of people, saving them from certain death. The bracelets form a protective shell around the chosen few, then transport them to an parallel-universe Earth whose timeline diverged from ours in the early twentieth century. Here, anti-gravity technology is commonplace and time can be manipulated by common household appliances.

In alternate San Diego, six “Silvers” are brought together because of the silver bracelets they each wear. Sisters Amanda and Hannah Given have never gotten along but are relieved to find each other in this familiar but alien new world. Zack is a witty cartoonist who would have been in New York but travelled to San Diego for Comic-Con. Mia is a smart but insecure 14-year old girl. David is a gorgeous 16-year-old genius from Australia. Theo Maranan is just as gifted but ended up a jaded alcoholic.

Shortly after their arrival the Silvers are taken to a a research facility where they are given food and shelter but also studied (with their consent). Soon, each of them begins to display miraculous abilities. Hannah can move many times faster than normal speed. Amanda can produce strange projections from her hands that can function as weapons or tools. Zack can rewind or fast forward the chronology of objects like food. David can reproduce images or sounds from the past. Mia keeps getting notes from her future self to guide her through the present. And Theo… well that’s a secret.

The Silvers’ powers are pretty cool, but it’s nothing new in this alternate world where scientists have developed the technology to manipulate time. Kitchens have rejuvenators to refresh old food. Restaurants and movie theatres slow time so that you can relax for an hour while only a few minutes pass pass. No one is limited to only 24 hours a day. What’s amazing about the Silvers though, is that they don’t need machines to manipulate time.

All of this is awesome, but I wasn’t that impressed. It’s fun, but futuristic tech and special powers are pretty standard in sff. More importantly, I didn’t like the way some of the characters were depicted (more on that later), and there were little things that bugged me about the writing, like the way the POV kept jumping. I figured I was in for another decent-but-forgettable novel, and I was annoyed that it was over 600 pages long.

But then along came Evan Rander, and everything changed. I’m not going to tell you why, because it’ll be better if you find out for yourself. It suffices to say that this book might have a slightly slow start but once it gets going it’s an entertaining read. Evan is just one part of that. The story gets much more interesting when he joins it, then goes into action overdrive when the Silvers are attacked by enemies they didn’t know they had and are forced to go on the run. The rest of the book is a well-paced thriller with lots of engaging drama as the Silvers try to function as a group while adapting to their new powers, living in a parallel universe, and the constant danger they find themselves in.

I didn’t think the characters were all that great at first, but each of them is trying to cope with personal concerns, and as a group their interactions get more complicated. Amanda is a devout Christian whose beliefs clash with Zack’s agnosticism, David’s scientific mindset, and all their new powers. Hannah has a tendency to view the guys as people she could sleep with and Mia takes an immediate dislike to her, assuming that she’s just another bimbo, like the ones who broke her brothers’ hearts. Having just lost her entire family, she’s annoyed that the Given sisters fight so often rather than appreciating the fact that they have each other. David has terrible social skills and is more willing that the other characters to harm or kill the people who threaten them. Zack hopes there’s a chance of finding his brother in New York, since both of the Given sisters were saved. Theo is still struggling with his alcoholism. These and other issues develop throughout the novel, becoming just as important as the characters’ powers.

It’s a nicely rounded novel that develops in a satisfying way – good story, good characters, a good read. It’s also got pretty solid worldbuilding that unfolds smoothly and gradually, making it a fairly light read, and a great option for readers who are new to the genre. However, Flight of the Silvers falls short in a few areas, one of which is related to the worldbuilding.

This alternative America is an isolationist society. Politically, its development has been completely different and it’s cut itself off from the rest of the world. Early in the twentieth century, there was a “systematic purge” of immigrants. Now, only four hundred highly qualified immigrants are allowed in per year. Foreign news, movies, and presumably other media, are banned. As a result, American society is extremely racist and xenophobic, and also shows signs of being quite sexist. More so than it already is, anyway. One telling moment was when the Silvers first saw the scientists at the research facility – 18 men, 1 woman, all white. At first I thought it was the author’s bias, but it’s a reflection of the society.

This is fine, but most of the time it’s just one of the background details because, except for Theo, all the Silvers are white and society’s prejudices don’t hinder them. Even Theo doesn’t have a problem. Some minor characters refer to him as the “chinny” – Chinese – but not to his face. Why not include some POC characters among the Silvers and make this aspect of the world important to them? As it stands, it’s only an issue for Melissa Masaad, a British-Sudanese police officer tasked with tracking down the Silvers. Her dark skin, dreadlocks and ‘exotic’ features make her particularly conspicuous as a senior police officer in this version of America, but she seems to manage by being brusque and more authoritative than her peers.

The fact that Melissa is a woman is more of an issue for her than her race, and this brings me to the problematic way the women are depicted. All the major female characters – except for 14-year-old Mia – are described in terms of their physical beauty. Melissa is gorgeously exotic. Amanda is tall and slender while Hannah as short and busty, but both are clearly stated to be sexually attractive to men. Each sister feels that the other is more attractive. When they meet the male Silvers later, their sex appeal comes up again.

It’s not their beauty that bothers me per se, but rather that they all happen to be beautiful and their sex appeal is one of the most notable things about their characters. Because hey, we really don’t have enough sexualised female characters in fiction do we? Which is why we also need them to behave in gratuitously sexual ways, like when Melissa takes off her uncomfortable, lacy bra in front of 22 male officers, or lies on a desk in front of a male colleague while wearing a short skirt.

The way Hannah is depicted is of particular concern. The size of her breasts comes up A LOT. It tends to come up in people’s first impressions of her. It’s probably been a major influence on her character’s eager sexuality. Evan seems incapable of speaking about her without referring to her big breasts in some derogatory way. Hannah’s chest get mentioned so often that it’s one of her defining characteristics. David is a genius, Zack is snarky, Amanda is uptight, and Hannah has big breasts.

Her breasts are a personal issue for her as well. She ranges from being annoyed or angry when they attract unwanted attention, to wondering why they aren’t getting more attention, or explicitly using them to get attention.

She even brings her breasts up as a topic of conversation when she’s alone with two of the male characters, and is pleased when one of them mentions that her sister Amanda is almost flat-chested. A little later, she considers mentioning her breasts again, just so she can enjoy the positive attention. And she has a personality to match this stereotypical idea of female beauty – she’s ditzy, promiscuous, and flirtatious.

I don’t think this is necessarily an unrealistic portrayal of a sexy woman, because sometimes women do act and think like this. Most of us grow up being taught to think of the sex appeal of our bodies, particularly the size of our breasts and how much we flaunt them. For Hannah, who receives and enjoys a lot of attention from men and whose body is important in her work as an actress, sex appeal will naturally be an important part of her character. However, I think it’s overdone. There’s more to her than her looks, but it’s hard to get past that when she’s constantly being objectified.

There are also little things about the writing that bug me. The characters are often referred to by a description rather than their names. Hannah is “the actress”, Zack is “the cartoonist”. Amanda is “the widow” although I don’t know why she’s not “the nurse” or “the Christian” since both are far more relevant to her character than her unhappy marriage. Theo is repeatedly referred to as Asian even though it’s specified that he’s Filipino. At the same time, David is not referred to as the Australian.

On a more structural note, the multiple POVs (not only the Silvers’ but many of the other characters who play important roles) mean that the reader often knows more than the main characters, and you have to wait patiently for them to figure things out. There’s one crucial issue that’s hinted at throughout the book, but the reveal is being saved for the sequel.

Which, it must be said, I would very much like to read. Flaws aside, this was still an entertaining and engaging book and I really want to know what’s next for the Silvers. Yes, there are gender and race issues, but I’ve read a lot worse. I think these could just have been handled with more nuance and they didn’t have too much of an impact on my overall enjoyment. So please, don’t make me wait too long for The Song of the Orphans.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical GirlTitle: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
Author: 
David Barnett
Published:
 
10 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor
Genre: 
steampunk, alternate history, adventure, metafiction
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl takes place in a steampunky alternate world: the America lost its War of Independence and remained a part of the British Empire, where the sun has not yet set and airships fly between continents.

In the tiny fishing village of Sandsend, Gideon Smith dreams of a more exciting life than one spent fishing. His imagination goes on exciting travels and adventures with World Marvels and Wonders, a penny dreadful magazine that publishes the tales of Captain Trigger, the Hero of the Empire. “Lucian Trigger was an agent of the Crown, charged by Queen Victoria herself with tackling the more unusual threats to her globe-spanning empire” and he’s aided by a band of adventurous friends. Gideon has read, re-read and memorised all of Trigger’s stories and at the age of 24, Gideon believes in Trigger like a 5-year-old believes in Father Christmas.

So when the entire crew of his father’s fishing boat vanishes and Gideon suspects a supernatural cause, he actually calls the magazine and asks to speak to Captain Lucian Trigger about “a most urgent matter!”, “an emergency!”. Obviously Gideon just gets laughed at, but he finds an ally in the author Bram Stoker, who happens to be in a nearby town doing research for his next book. Stoker however, is looking for vampires and inspiration. Gideon believes that he’s chasing the wrong monster, so he packs up and leaves for London to find Captain Trigger.

On the way he finds the house of Albert Einstein’s father, an amazing inventor. Einstein has disappeared, but he left behind a beautiful automaton named Maria. Maria is being sexually abused by Einstein’s servant, so Gideon takes her with him to London, a city that she’s dreamt about even though she’s never seen it.

When Gideon finds Captain Trigger, he’s disappointed – Trigger is a sickly old man who stays at home writing about the exploits of the real adventurer, his lover Dr John Reed. But Reed has disappeared on a journey related to the Gideon’s own mystery, and Trigger is now inspired to join Gideon on a quest to find him. Soon they find themselves embarking on an adventure that would suit Gideon’s beloved penny dreadfuls – a crazy caper with a motley crew of companions fighting a horde of ancient monsters.  They travel to exotic locations and encounter great danger as a mission of love and revenge turns into a desperate plight to save the world.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure with lots of mystery and action, full of tropes like ancient artefacts with incredible power, monsters awakened from a centuries’ long slumber, beautiful women, sinister villains and a dashing hero. According to author David Barnett in an interview with My Bookish Ways:

It was inspired, really, by a love of old-fashioned adventure, both the Victorian type and the pulp-ish Indiana Jones-style escapades. I wanted to write something like that but with modern sensibilities – explore the nature of heroism

By modern sensibilities I assume Barnett is referring to inclusive things like the fact that Trigger is gay and the hero of the magazine stories is his lover. Two of the women in the novel – the dirigible pilot Rowena Fanshawe and Countess Dracula – are capable, independent and sexually liberal, possessing strengths that make them equal to or more powerful than their male counterparts. Dracula’s wife Elizabeth actually goes around liberating other women from their social and physical constraints in a decidedly unconventional manner. There is also some criticism of the power of the British Empire and the practice of slavery.

However, what stands out most of me in Barnett’s quote is the word “pulp-ish”. Because pulpy is a word that frequently came to mind as I was reading. To say the novel “was inspired […] by a love of old-fashioned adventure” is a very inviting way of describing it. I thought of it as more of a homage to the penny dreadful, falling on the sillier side of sensational. This style just didn’t work for me the way it did in, say, the equally ludicrous The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton. It’s supposed to be fun, but it takes itself a little too seriously and still has old-fashioned tropes that could have been ‘modernised’.

The characters travel to Egypt where they meet a Ugandan guide who plays the funny, jolly foreigner with an odd way of speaking English. The female characters Fanshawe and Elizabeth might be independent, but too much emphasis is placed on their sex appeal. One of the male characters, a crude, overweight journalist named Bent, seems incapable of talking about any of the female characters without some reference to sex or their bodies. Maria, meanwhile, is a terribly pathetic damsel in distress (more on her later). And there’s Gideon, the traditional hero – a young man of humble origins, driven to heroism by the desire to avenge his father and save a girl.

I found it difficult to like Gideon. It’s possible to see him as adorably naïve but I just thought he was a twit. In fact the author wrote him as “a bit of an idiot” or at least “naïve and a dreamer” at the start, who will hopefully become “a bit more likeable and appealing as the story progresses” (My Bookish Ways). I don’t know if Barnett is referring to just this story or Gideon’s progression across forthcoming books, but I never warmed to him. A 24-year-old man who believes that his favourite adventure stories are the absolute truth just because they claim to be so? What a dope. It’s fine at the beginning of the book (after all, Gideon comes from a tiny village), but towards the end Gideon still can’t believe how much of Captain Trigger’s adventures are fictionalised despite many of the lies being revealed. Not that it really matters, because the story supports a more sensational view of the world. Gideon is deluded, but it’s his delusions that allow him to be a hero, as if this story were his own personal fantasy.

His greatest skill is memorising Captain Trigger’s adventures. Often, when he and his companions are in trouble, he thinks of a comparable situation from one of the stories, and employs whatever escape plan the characters used. And it works. Fiction serves reality, and because Gideon can quote or enact the fiction, because he’s so determined to live out his hero fantasy, the other characters start to look to him for guidance even though almost all of them are more experienced than he is.

And to be a true hero Gideon needs Maria – a suitably pathetic female character. The title suggests she is little more than a thing, and this is appropriate. When Gideon finds her, she’s being sexually abused by Crowe, a man who sees her as a mindless automaton. Crowe is a pervert, but you can’t blame him for not recognising Maria’s intelligence; she pretended to be mindless with him, never speaking because she “would not waste words on that scoundrel” who “would have merely heaped more insults upon me and enjoyed my pain yet further if he thought I […] could feel”. This sounds a bit thin to me, and as we later learn, Maria didn’t have to put up with Crowe at all – physically, she’s extremely strong. But somehow, she never knew this about herself so she’s in dire need of rescue.

When Gideon escapes with her, Crowe accuses him of theft. Gideon rightly points out that he’s liberating Maria, but Crowe has no reason to see it this way. Maria could easily prove her sentience at this moment and leave her abuser with a cutting remark, but she remains silent, which is her tendency for much of the novel. Entire scenes go by where Maria is present but never speaks. As one character states, “She’s a pretty little thing, but barely says a word and doesn’t even know her own name.”

And the plot treats her as a thing too. She was made using an artefact that the monsters seek for their secret plot, and until this is discovered she’s like a toy following Gideon around. Later she is abducted then rescued, but after her return no one asks her about her experience. It’s like they saved an artefact rather than a person. One character says to Gideon, “Hey, what’s a hero without a damsel in distress?” and that basically describes the rest of Maria’s role. Besides being an object within the plot, she’s there to be rescued by Gideon so he can be a proper hero, and to be beautiful so he can fall in love with her, which in turn serves to drive him to action.

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about these two, but luckily they’re not really the main characters. The novel has a fantastic title but it’s a bit misleading because the narrative frequently switches its point of view between the many other major characters, particularly Bram Stoker and the misanthropic journalist Bent. It becomes a bit overwhelming at the end though, with frantic switches in POV to see various aspects of the action. I also have to add that Bent’s swearing gets extremely irritating. Not because he swears all the time – I don’t mind that – but because at some point he stops saying “fuck” and uses “eff!” and “effing” in almost every sentence. Drove me batshit.

A few remarks on world building. Steampunk Victorian England is always fun and I happily accept clockwork women who are almost indistinguishable from real women and dirigibles that can fly from one continent to another. There are some other issues that bugged me though. Because America’s revolution failed, France never gave them the Statue of Liberty. Instead they gave it to Britain “to celebrate the defeat of the Yankee rebels in 1775”. Which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. No one was liberated so the statue (known as “The Lady of Liberty”) is pointless. In addition, France had freed itself from its own tyrannical monarchs, so why would they honour the monarch whose empire prevented America from doing the same? Then, for no reason other than sheer hubris, the Taj Mahal has been dismantled and is being rebuilt in England. This gargantuan task acts as a display of Victoria’s indomitable power, but I find it both unnecessary and bizarre.

At times, the novel is critical of this kind of power, but its overall stance is ambiguous, if not supportive of the British Empire. While a few characters rail against its unethical practices, the majority work to preserve its world dominance. Gideon’s determination to become a hero becomes a rather unthinking endeavour to protect Queen and… Empire.

If this book really does “explore the nature of heroism” as Barnett claims, then it makes some discomfiting observations. Firstly there’s something deluded and deceptive about heroism. There are heroes performing heroic acts, but this always involves lies and fiction in some way. It also needs a weakling like Maria to be threatened so the hero has an opportunity to be heroic. And at the end of the day, what heroism does – or at least the sort of heroism found in this novel – is preserve an imperious status quo. On the bright side, a few things suggest the the second and third books will have a more rebellious kind of heroism, which could make them more interesting than this one.

There are things I liked. Bram Stoker was an enjoyable character, and I liked seeing him find inspiration for Dracula, only to learn the ‘truth’ about vampires and take an alternate path. While I criticised the way Fanshawe and Elizabeth are oversexed, I have to admit that I do like how sexy they are while also being skilful and powerful. And at times the absurdity of the plot really was just as fun as intended. If you enjoy this sort of old-fashioned, penny-dreadful, Indiana-Jonesy sort of caper, you could have a lot of fun with this. I think maybe it’s just a little too old-fashioned for me.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea Change by SM Wheeler

Title: Sea Change
Author: 
S.M. Wheeler
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Published:
 18 June 2013
Genre: 
fantasy, YA, adventure
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 4/10

Sea Change… it looked so very lovely and turned out to be so very awful. How did it all go wrong? I wasn’t deceived by hype; there is none. I wasn’t deceived by the enticing blurb, which turned out to be a fair approximation of the book. And the story is mostly what I expected.

Lilly is a lonely young girl living with unhappily married parents. As commoners who have been given titles and property, they are awkwardly conscious of living up to their new nobility. Much is expected of Lilly as well, but the townspeople think she’s witch because of the large red birthmark on her face. As a result she grows up without any friends, except for Octavius, a kraken.

Lilly meets him when she’s eight years old and he is just a little octopus, small enough to sit on her shoulder. She asks him not to be a monster – not to eat human beings. He agrees, in exchange for her company and conversation. They remain friends for years, swapping stories about humanity and life in the ocean. Octavius remains a constant while Lilly’s home life falls apart. At fifteen, she leaves home, but Octavius has disappeared. She offers a troll “Anything that is mine” as payment for learning where Octavius is. After making a terrible sacrifice, she learns that he was captured and sold to a circus, unable to defend himself because of the promise he made to Lilly not to harm humans.

Devastated, Lilly goes on a quest to free her friend. The circus master wants a coat of illusions in exchange for the kraken. To get the coat, Lilly must rescue an undead tailor from the bandits who captured him. To free the tailor, she must help a witch retrieve her skin, which means living with the bandits who stole it from her. The quest is a dangerous and she undergoes more than one ‘sea change’ (profound transformation) for the sake of her friendship with Octavius.

 

There are many things I love about this story: the friendship between a lonely young girl and a sea monster; the journey and quest plot; the fairytale style of the quest. When I read it, I found otherf things that weren’t mentioned in the blurb, like the interesting things the plot does with gender and sexuality, or the way it doesn’t shy away from shocking content.

And I still hated it.

Why? The writing is the main reason. It’s terrible. Wheeler goes for a kind of Shakespearean style that doesn’t quite work. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is wrong with it; it’s just wrong. It’s also inconsistent, veering from  casual to absurdly stiff and formal. More importantly, it’s confused and confusing. Too often it’s unclear who characters are talking to or what they mean. Character motives and plot details tend to be vague and as a result, lots of things just seem to happen at random.

And although I liked the various elements of the plot, reading it was… pretty boring. It might have been the pace. It sort of plods along without anything feeling particularly exciting even when it’s momentous. It became extremely tedious when Lilly found the bandits and lived with them as their servant for about five months. At this point I seriously debated giving up. It reminded me of the sloppier kind of indie novel – clumsy and unfocused, giving the impression that the author never invested in beta readers.

There were lots of things I would have asked the author to reconsider, like how Christianity can be a dominant religion in a world with magic, trolls, witches, talking mythical creatures, zombies, automatons, and a sentient mule in the body of a boy. How Octavius survives on dry land, not only during trips with Lilly but for several months at the circus. Or why Lilly doesn’t fully confront the sacrifices she has to make to free Octavius. The latter is a major problem – Lilly endures so much, and the story can be can be brutal, but in ways that could make it incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. However, I don’t think that either Lilly or the narrative as a whole really confronts what happens to her. It’s not ignored, but I think the author could have done so much more.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by a novel with so much potential. This should have been the kind of book I immediately bought in hardcover as an entertaining, gender-bending, heart-warming, heart-breaking, overall mind-blowing piece of fairytale-inspired fiction. Instead I was relieved when it was over.

HOWEVER, I have to add that there are reasons you might want to read it anyway, especially if you’re interested in gender/sexuality, especially in the YA genre. This is actually something I wanted to discuss in detail, but that requires spoilers and would make this review unnecessarily long. What I’m going to do then is write a separate post about those issues. If you just wanted a basic review, this is all you need to read. But if you’ve read the book, dnf’d it but are still curious, or you’re willing to read a few spoilers (I won’t reveal all) to decide if you’d like to read it, I hope you’ll check out next week’s post and let me know what you think.

Up for Review: Sea Change

I love the promise of adventure and heartwarming friendship in this story about a girl and her kraken.

Sea Change by SM WheelerSea Change by S.M. Wheeler (Tor Books)

NetGalley Blurb:

The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.

Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly’s quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.

A powerfully written debut from a young fantasy author, Sea Change is an exhilarating tale of adventure, resilience, and selflessness in the name of friendship.

Sea Change will be published on 18 June 2013 by Tor Books.

Links:
Goodreads
Read an excerpt
Macmillan Publishers
Tor Books: Website | Facebook

About the Author
Can’t find much on Wheeler, except this from her Twitter profile: “I specialize in obsessive writing and reclusive behavior.” Which explains it.
Website (more like a writing journal)
Twitter: @SMWWrites

 

Review of The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose ClarkeTitle: The Assassin’s Curse
Series: The Assassin’s Curse #1
Author: Cassandra Rose Clarke
Published:
 02 October 2012
Publisher:
 Strange Chemistry
Genre: fantasy, YA, adventure
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate parents, raised in the violent, seafaring lifestyle of a pirate. She dreams of one day captaining her own ship, although that seems unlikely now that her parents have arranged her marriage to the son of another pirate clan. Tarrin of the Hariri. Tarrin is “the most beautiful man [Ananna] ever saw” and looks like a god from a temple painting, but Ananna distrusts beautiful people and when Tarrin shows his disdain for her family name, she decides to run away. Ignoring Tarrin’s warnings that his family will send an assassin to kill her for this insult, Ananna steals a camel and disappears into the city.

She hides out for a short while, but the assassin comes after her as promised. They are fighting it out in the desert when a snake appears. It’s about to bite the assassin and save Ananna’s life, but she’s so shocked and scared when she sees it that she kills the snake, saving the assassin’s life instead and activating a curse. The good news is that Naji, the assassin, can no longer kill her – the curse forces him to protect her from harm because every time she gets hurt or even finds herself in danger, he experiences physical pain. So of course if she dies, he will too. Ananna is not obliged to hang around, but after seeing the suffering that she could cause by leaving Naji, she decides to travel with him and find a way of ending the curse.

Ananna and Naji’s world is rich with magic and bursting with the potential for adventure. Naji comes from an elite order of assassins who reside in The Mists, a mysterious Otherworld that exists in the same space as the normal one, but is invisible to it. Naji is skilled in the magic of blood and darkness and can move unseen by leaping from shadow to shadow. Ananna has always been untouched by magic, although her mother is a water witch and tried her best to teach her daughter the craft. Instead, Ananna takes after her father and frequently recalls his advice in times of trouble. She’s a quick-fingered thief, is deadly with a blade and perfectly at home when running a ship.

Her quest with Naji takes them across the desert, the ocean and to a magical floating island. They fight magical beings and cutthroat pirates, proving to be deadly young warriors. Although Naji has to protect Ananna in order to protect himself, she has to look after and save him a lot of the time as well, especially after he’s incapacitated from using too much magic or suffering the pain incurred by Ananna’s injuries. I was surprised but pleased to find that Clarke didn’t entirely romanticise the idea of Ananna as a pirate by glossing over the violence of her lifestyle for the sake of a YA audience. At seventeen, she’s familiar and comfortable with violence. She’s kills people, she’s used to being cut and bruised, and she doesn’t make a fuss about it. That’s not to say it’s a violent book – it still has a very gentle YA feel. The characters don’t make a big deal of the violence and none of it is very graphic, so the tone remains light.

There’s a delicate touch of romance to the story, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of “growing romantic tension” advertised in the blurb. Any attraction between our two protagonists is completely one-sided. The story is narrated by Ananna, and she finds herself drawn to Naji in the same way that any seventeen-year-old girl would find herself attracted to a mysterious guy who she spends a lot of time alone with. He’s also perfect for her in terms of looks: Ananna distrusts very good-looking people, but although Naji is handsome, his face is marred by an ugly scar, so Ananna sort of gets the best of both worlds with him. Naji however, remains taciturn throughout the novel, and the only romance he acknowledges is the one that once existed between him and a river witch named Leila. He doesn’t smile, he barely speaks to Ananna unless he has to, and doesn’t show any interest in her beyond their quest. He’s not mean, but he’s more like an estranged brother than a potential boyfriend.

I was surprised that the feisty, garrulous Ananna didn’t make more of an effort to get Naji talking. Because Naji, for completely inexplicable reasons, flat out refuses to give Ananna any proper information about the curse that’s changed both their lives, where they’re going to end it, and what they’ll have to do to achieve that. And like Ananna, Naji is also being chased by people who want to kill him, but he doesn’t provide the details. In contrast to her tendency to be hot-headed and smart-mouthed, Ananna is willing to just follow Naji around and wait to see what happens, even though she could easily coerce him into telling all. I’m not sure why Clarke makes her characters act this way. Normally when authors make characters withhold information, it’s to force them to maintain a sense of mystery that could easily be lost. But this is not a mystery novel and it doesn’t need the suspense. When Naji does eventually reveal tiny bits of his plans and the details of how he was cursed, it makes no real difference to the story. So why hide these things in the first place? If anything, they could have given the story a greater sense of purpose.

This is one of many small problems that spoil the book. Ananna generally speaks well of her parents, so it’s unclear why they basically sold her off in marriage at the age of seventeen. After running away, Ananna expresses sadness at leaving her parents as well as frustration regarding the arranged marriage, but she never thinks about this extremely troubling issue for very long. After activating Naji’s curse, you’d think she’d be calculating enough to realise that having a skilled assassin to protect you is very useful when there’s a clan of pirates out to murder you, but she lets her pride and her temper get the better of her and almost leaves to fight her battles alone. The problem with the Hariri doesn’t end up being nearly as dire as expected though – after the fight with Naji and another battle out in the desert, they practically disappear from the plot. The story mostly concerns the quest to end Naji’s curse, but it moves very slowly. There’s plenty of action and adventure so it’s not boring, but this basically fills up the long spaces between the very brief pieces that actually move the main plot along.

Then the book ends without resolving anything. This didn’t bother me too much. The end approached without the characters having made any real progress in dealing with the curse, so I assumed the bulk of the story was being saved for the sequels. But mostly it didn’t bother me because this is one of those books that I don’t feel much of anything for.  It’s just a quick easy read to pass the time and, in my case, finish a reading challenge. I couldn’t help but notice the flaws, but they didn’t elicit more than a shrug. Naji and Ananna’s adventures were enjoyable and I liked them both, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out how they solve their problems, so I won’t be reading the sequel. But at least I didn’t hate it, and this review was a lot easier to write than most.