Review of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

Title: Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Published: 05 March 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, space opera,
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Emperor Mollusk – the genius octopus from Neptune, home of the smartest, squishiest beings in the galaxy – has done it all. He’s destroyed worlds and conquered others. He’s pushed the boundaries of science and invented bizarre and dangerous things. He’s defeated every one of his enemies, including himself (a rogue clone). He even conquered Earth – a planet that had always resisted alien invasion – using global mind-control. He settled down to become the Terra Sapiens’ benevolent dictator, ending all Earth’s wars, solving the energy crisis and repelling the invasion of the Saturnites. No big deal for someone as smart as Emperor Mollusk.

But now it seems there might be a brain even more brilliant than his. Someone is out to get him…. Well, actually beings from all over the galaxy are out to get him, but this seems to be the plot of an evil megalomaniac and Mollusk will have to come out of retirement to stop him. At his side is Zala, his unwanted Venusian bodyguard. The Venusians want Mollusk dead too, but they want to be the ones to bring him to justice, so for the moment they’re trying to keep him alive. Together Mollusk, Zala, and Mollusk’s invincible pet cyborg ultrapede thingy, Snarg, travel across Earth and around the solar system, following the clues that they hope will lead them to the Sinister Brain behind it all. On their adventure they encounter such things as mutant dinosaurs, a giant blob monster and an immortal mummy Queen.

Good words for describing this book include “whacky”, “zany” and “preposterous”. It’s a totally tongue-in-cheek sci-fi caper, composed of equal parts action, humour and ridiculousness. It’s full of kooky sci fi tropes like death rays, giant bugs, and evil geniuses. The characters have names like “Blug”, “Kreegah” and “Snarg”.

It’s also intentionally, amusingly narrow-minded. Pretty much all the aliens come from the moons or planets in our solar system, and can speak English. They might look outlandish, but they’re still mostly based on stuff you could find on Earth – Mollusk is an octopus, the Saturnites are some kind of rock-people, the Venusians are reptiles with feathers. As you can imagine, the book is full of wonderfully silly lines like this:

The south wall disintegrated and a squad of jetpack assassins flew into the room.

 

Mutant insects were eating Kansas. Again.

 

Relations between Terra and Luna had been strained since the Lunans had eaten Neil Armstrong in 1960.

In the middle of all this craziness, are some rather good characters who you can take seriously even though everything else is a joke. I really liked Mollusk, who is the nicest intergalactic villain you could ever hope to meet. He might have conquered Earth by brainwashing all the humans, but he also stopped all the wars and prevented environmental catastrophe. Despite the terrible things he’s done in the past, his many experiences have made him a much more considerate being. He’s even making a serious effort not to kill people just for annoying him. The thing with Mollusk is that he’s not exactly evil, but rather far too smart. He’s in constant need of something to keep his mind occupied, so he goes around conquering planets, inventing things and, inevitably, taking on all the enemies he makes along the way. The only enemy he can’t defeat is boredom itself.

I also came to appreciate Zala, the Venusian soldier whose job it is to protect Mollusk so that her own species can take revenge on him. In many ways Zala is trapped by her race’s codes of honour and obedience and she finds it difficult to break out of her fearless soldier mould. However, she has a talent for unnerving Mollusk with insights into his personality:

“It must be irritating,” she continued. “To have that great intellect at your disposal and yet you’re not sure what to do with it. I’d imagine it must be quite a burden finding challenges worthy of it.

 

It’s amazing that someone who claims to be as intelligent as you are has spent more time designing doomsday machines and time radios than contemplating his own motivations.

 

Although Mollusk and Zala become reluctant allies in this adventure, I like that they remain enemies who can’t quite trust each other. It adds a bit of fizz to their relationship. Mollusk in particular is always keeping important information from Zala, with amusing results. Their banter is fun, especially with Zala’s tendency to make snarky remarks. That said, one of the downsides to the novel is that it didn’t find it quite as funny as I’d hoped. It’s a source of constant amusement but few laugh-out-loud moments. But then again, humour is a very subjective thing and I think I’m a tougher audience than most. Either way, Emperor Mollusk is a wonderfully ludicrous sci fi adventure and I’d recommend it to genre fans looking for a light read and a bit of a laugh.

 

Buy a copy of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain at The Book Depository

Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Title: The Rook
Author: 
Daniel O’Malley
Published: 
11 January 2012
Publisher:
 Little, Brown & Company, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
Genre:
science fantasy, mystery, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I was unsure about this at first, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted 🙂

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain without a shred of memory. Around her are dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. In her coat pocket is a letter from herself, written before her memory was wiped. The letter gives her some basic information, like what her name is and how to pronounce it (“Miff-unee” rhyming with Tiffany), as well as a few instructions. The first Myfanwy (from now on I’ll refer to this version of Myfanwy as ‘Thomas’) was warned that someone would consume her memories, so she made meticulous preparations for the person who would wake up in her body.

Thomas offers Myfanwy two options. She can change her name, flee the country, and live out the rest of her days drinking cocktails on some sunny beach. Or, she can stay, pretend to be Thomas and uncover the conspiracy that put her in this situation. Myfanwy is all for running away, but another attack from latex-gloved assassins gives her the determination to take the more dangerous option. To help her, Thomas wrote a series of numbered letters to Myfanwy, and put together a detailed research file containing the most important information for impersonating her previous self. Because if Myfanwy is going to find out what happened to her and why, she’s going to have to go back to  her extremely complex and demanding job and act like nothing is wrong.

As it turns out, Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook – one of the highest ranking members in a powerful secret organisation called The Checquy (pronounced “Sheck-Eh” or perhaps ‘Sheck-Ay’). The Checquy protects Britain from its many supernatural threats, and to do so it recruits and trains the ‘powered’ – people who have their own supernatural abilities. Myfanwy herself has an incredible ability, one that’s even more powerful than Thomas ever realised. And she’s certainly going to need it because the conspiracy that Thomas was investigating reaches to the highest levels of the Checquy, pitting Myfanwy against people with powers and resources more formidable than her own.

 

The Rook is one of those lovely books that has everything a novel needs to be both classy and loads of fun to read. It has great characters. It’s got a tense investigation to uncover a large-scale conspiracy. It’s got loads of action involving people with awesome supernatural powers. To top it all off, it’s full of wonderfully quirky humour. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll gnaw your fingernails.

The Checquy, its powered employees and the supernatural aspects of the world give O’Malley a chance to be really inventive, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. The institution as a whole is nicely fleshed out, so we get to see how it works, how the training facility operates and how it recruits the powered. Only a few of the powered have commonly used abilities – there’s a vampire, for example – but even these aren’t quite the same as the ones you usually find. Most of the other powered have more interesting abilities. There’s Gestalt, who was born with one mind but four bodies. The Checquy’s training gave Gestalt the ability to allow each body to act as if it were independent, so that it can actually do four different missions in different parts of the globe and yet be connected by its single mind.

Conrad Granchester “is able to manufacture a variety of chemical compounds inside his body and then vent them through his pores in the form of a fine mist”. He can emit anything from a deadly toxin to non-lethal tear gas. There’s Lady Linda Farrier, the ‘Queen’ of the Checquy Court, who Myfanwy first meets when Lady Farrier enters her dreams to have tea. The plot has room for lots of minor characters with unique powers as well, so there’s no shortage of clever fantasy content. This is approached in a sci fi manner though – the Checquy has a horde of scientists studying these abilities, and they’re spoken of in a scientific way, but remain very much supernatural, so I put this in the science fantasy genre.

The most interesting character is Myfanwy Thomas herself. She’s a wonderful, multi-layered character, not least of all because there are two versions of her. Thomas was almost pathologically shy and her life was consumed by work. Her home and wardrobe are the definition of wealth and quality, but lack any sense of personal style. Despite her deadly powers, Thomas’s personality (or lack thereof) made her so unsuitable in the field that she ended up in admin. Luckily, her organisational skills were so impressive that she earned a position in the Checquy’s Court, but even then, she’s so timid that she commands little respect.

Myfanwy on the other hand, shares her predecessor’s talents for processing information, but is much more open and assertive. She flexes her authority in situations when Thomas would have avoided eye contact while her peers walked all over her. She’s not afraid to use her powers or go out into the field, and she often expresses disappointment in the weaknesses of her previous self. Myfanwy is a stronger version who possesses the capabilities to dismantle the conspiracy that Thomas discovered, and build a life that involves more than work.

We can also thank Myfanwy Thomas for one of the novel’s best features – its humour. I don’t think this book would have been half as enjoyable if it weren’t so funny. In Thomas’s letters to Myfanwy, she reveals herself to be a witty, engaging writer so that even though the main purpose of the letters is exposition, they still manage to be entertaining. Her wit remained even after her memory was wiped, making Myfanwy an amusing character, especially as she struggles to impersonate Thomas at work.

On the more tragic side, are Thomas’s feelings about losing her memory, which she often expresses in her letters to Myfanwy. “The body you are wearing used to be mine” – her anger and sense of injustice comes across in her very first line, even as she’s helping the person who gets to take over her life. Having her memory wiped amounts to being murdered, because the person she is will cease to exist. This isn’t the kind of story where Myfanwy will eventually regain Thomas’s memories – there’re gone forever, along with the person who possessed them.

For the plot, this means that Myfanwy can’t hope for some cliché moment where she’ll get a flashback that will reveal the villain who attacked her. This mystery must be solved through a careful investigation. Thomas already did a lot of the work, but Myfanwy must finish the job with the constant awareness that her enemies are very close. To add to that, she has to do her regular job, some of which involves co-ordinating the teams that handle the supernatural threats around the country, giving us the chance to see the powered (almost all of whom have combat training) in action.

It all makes for thoroughly gripping reading, and I was enthralled. I loved almost everything about The Rook. My only criticisms are some nitpicking about bits where the narrative dragged a little, in contrast to its other amusing or thrilling parts. I devoured it and then longed for more. If could read books like this on a regular basis I’d never find myself in a reading rut. Fantasy thriller fans, don’t you dare miss out on this one.

Seriously, go and buy a copy of The Rook.