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.

Review of Railsea by China Miéville

Title: Railsea
Author: China Miéville
Published: 24 May 2012 (first published 1 May)
Publisher: Macmillan
Genre: YA, action-adventure, science fiction
Source: review copy from Pan Macmillan SA
Rating: 8/10

Sham ap Soorap doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but for now he’s working as a doctor’s assistant on a moletrain called the Medes. The crew hunts the giant moles that burrow beneath the earth of the railsea – a land covered in endlessly lopping rails that can take you anywhere, but never in a straight line. Trains travel the railsea likes ships do the ocean.

Sham likes the travel but he doesn’t like the killing; what really excites him is salvage, the treasured junk of the railsea, left behind by previous generations and visitors from other worlds. When the Medes comes across a wrecked train,. Sham goes aboard, eager for treasure, and finds the catalyst for an epic adventure – footage of open land with only a single rail running through it. The very thought of such a place is dizzying. No one knows what lies beyond the railsea; it’s like travelling to the end of the earth.

Sham would immediately follow every clue from the footage to find the people pictured in it and learn more about that terrifyingly singular rail, but his captain isn’t remotely interested. Like many railsea captains, she’s chasing a ‘philosophy’ – a monstrously huge creature that, like a conventional philosophy, “embodies meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world” (85). In a homage to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Naphi’s philosophy is a giant ivory-coloured mole named Mocker-Jack (there was a real-life Moby-Dick named Mocha Dick). For Nahpi, the mole is a symbol, a “burrowing signifier”, and by chasing it she learns more about what it represents to her. She is literally on the hunt for knowledge.

Captain Naphi would never abandon her ivory philosophy, so Sham finds a way to make her obsession serve his. His actions spark a quest to travel beyond the boundaries of the known world, and captures the dangerous attention of pirates, salvors and anyone else who desires the treasures at the end of the world.

It could be said that this is China Miéville’s second YA novel (after Un Lun Dun), but I’d say it defies age. Sham and some of the other protagonists are teenagers, but don’t assume the ideal reader should be the same age. Instead, think of Railsea as a quintessential action-adventure novel about a daring journey of discovery and self-discovery. Out of the Mieville novels I’ve read, this is one of the most fun to read.

The plot is slow at first, but this is Miéville – his bizarre worlds deserve a proper introduction. Although it feels like fantasy, Railsea is a sci fi novel set on a far-future Earth. Our own time is described as “astoundingly long ago” (98) and the world has changed vastly. It has a steampunk feel thanks to the trains and odd tech, but I think of it more as junkpunk, because the world is defined by junk. This isn’t as bad as it sounds; junk is salvage, treasure, and there are explorers who spend their lives on the rails in search of it. The junk of our age is the ancient “arche-salvage”; more recent stuff is called “nu-salvage”. The most prized salvage, is “alt-salvage”, the weird, often incomprehensible objects left behind by aliens who used the planet as a dumping ground.

Their brief visits also changed the very structure of the world, its ecosystems, and its wildlife. Humans inhabit the railsea and the landmasses within it, but there are several other layers above and below. These are dominated by strange, mostly dangerous creatures. Some are gargantuan versions of our own animals and insects (there’s no full explanation for how this happened), while others are entirely alien. This might be a future world, but it has the sense of danger that characterises the old world, full of monstrous beasts normally found only in myth. People see the ground between the rails as poisonous, which comes across as silly superstition until Sham finds himself alone on the ground and is suddenly terrified of the creatures that could burrow up from beneath to eat him.

On the whole, Miéville’s worldbulding is simply lovely. In addition to the main narrative, there are lots of beautiful little infodump chapters in which he tells us about his world as if we were travellers, students and poets enraptured by the railsea. He also waxes lyrical about the story itself – the narrative, the point of view, the characters. This is very much a novel about storytelling and about myth. Early on, Miéville explains the structure of the world and mentions the littoral zone – the shore between the railsea and the land. To this he adds some local sentiment:

“Give me the inland or give me the open rails,” say both the railsailor and the landlubber, “only spare me the littoral-minded.” (29)

I love the wordplay here. The disdain for the “littoral-minded”, I think, is also an expression of disdain for the literal-minded, who I interpret to be those who cannot appreciate fantasy, sci fi, myth, or any other fiction that eagerly wanders beyond the factual. And perhaps it is also a warning against those who fail to appreciate metaphor and symbol, tools that make compelling, meaningful stories and which Miéville brings to life with his gargantuan philosophies.

The characters also have to face the problem of taking their own myths literally. This altered world comes with fresh creation myths, gods and religions. Who created the railsea? A common belief is that it was put in place by gods and is protected and maintained by fearsome angels. Another theory is that a fight between the gods are the start of the world caused the railsea to rise out of the earth. But can they really take this at face value? In the voyage to a realm beyond the railsea, the characters also find themselves exploring these myths and their origins.

And now, it must be said, that this quest makes for an absolutely fantastic story. The journey/quest/voyage is one of my favourite plots, and after a slow start, Railsea moves with the exhilarating speed of a runaway train. The novel also has some wonderful characters. My favourites were the unbelievably bold and determined Shroake siblings who head out into the unknown before anyone else and are never put off by what they might find or the many people who will try to kill them. The most adorable character is undoubtedly Sham’s pet daybat, Daybe, who is described at one point as a “brave and determined mouse-sized bodyguard”. You come to love and admire these characters, and then the novel throws them into thrilling, life-threatening, life-changing adventure. Miéville frequently writes the most enjoyably cerebral stories, but in Railsea he also delivers sheer unbridled entertainment. I think it’s definitely one of Miéville’s most fun, charming novels, and it’s an excellent introduction to the rest of his work.

Of course, it has the signature features that are the reason I love this author – the weird world, the metafictional musing, and an inventive way with words. Miéville, as always, makes up his own words to fit his world, and reading his wonderful writing always makes me think about language and meaning. One particular quirk in Railsea is the use of the ampersand – & – instead of the word ‘and’. It is used throughout, even at the beginning of sentences. It’s a little jarring, even annoying at first, but there’s a little chapter that explains exactly why it’s used, and you can’t help but like it after that.

If you know anything about my tastes, my enthusiasm will come as no surprise. Miéville is my hero and I will read anything he writes. I will admit that he’s not for everybody, but if I can take a stab at being objective, I’d say that Railsea is a more accessible, utterly gorgeous, exciting book and you should read it.

Buy a copy of Railsea at The Book Depository

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author:
Joe R. Lansdale
Published:
25 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:
 adventure, thriller, drama
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles.  Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.

To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.

But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.

It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:

I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.

 

I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.

Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.

I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.

In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository