Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

blue-is-a-darkness

Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

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The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out 🙂

 

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.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel TherouxTitle: Strange Bodies
Author: Marcel Theroux
Published:  2 May 2013
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Strange Bodies is framed as the testimony of a man named Nicky Slopen, an academic who died several months before writing his story, and who dies again – for good? – at the end of prologue. He claims to be Nicky in a different body, his family and his old life forever lost to him because he no longer looks like the man they know.

After being incarcerated in a mental institution, Nicky started writing his testimony, a story that begins when a famous music producer asks him to authenticate some letters written by Samuel Johnson. As far as Nicky can tell, the style matches Johnson’s exactly, and he believes the letters are real until he takes a closer look at the paper they’re written on – too modern. But the question of authenticity becomes increasingly blurry when Nicky meets Jack, the man who wrote the letters. Jack appears to be some kind of idiot savant; his penmanship and writing style somehow match Johnson’s perfectly, but he spends most of his time locked in a room because of his inability to handle everyday life. Jack insists that he is Samuel Johnson, and is deeply distressed by the unfamiliar modern world he finds himself in.

Nicky, of course, is absolutely certain that the man is insane, no matter how much he behaves like Johnson (on whom Nicky is an expert). For the reader, Nicky’s conviction is deeply ironic, given that his mental-institution narrative shows him trapped in the exact same dilemma – his consciousness is housed in a strange body that prevents him from laying claim to his original identity. The truth of this is taken as proof of madness. Exactly how he ended in a mental institution, in another man’s body, is the subject of the latter part of the story.

Body-swapping is hardly a new concept in sf, but Theroux takes a more metafictional, literary approach than most. The how and why of Nicky and Jack/Samuel’s predicament is only explored in the last third or quarter of the novel. There’s a lot of action/thriller potential, but Theroux keeps the pace slow and steady, focusing on Nicky’s personal dramas and existential ideas. Theroux also takes a fairly close look at Jack/Samuel’s character, whose behaviour matches everything that Nick knows about him – his style of speech and writing, his religious beliefs, his culture. The novel is essentially a reflection on consciousness and human existence. What makes you who you are? Can you be the same person in a different body? In a different time and culture? Does the previous owner of Nicky’s new body still linger in the flesh?

I won’t get into the hows and whys of the ‘strange bodies’ because they occur so late that they constitute a spoiler, but they do make up the most interesting part of the novel. That said, this part is also written rather clumsily in comparison to the rest – all of a sudden you’re faced with long tracts of info dumping, and if you don’t find it interesting it’s going to be a chore to read.

Another glitch is that it requires a quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that Nicky found the time to write his testimony, which, of course, amounts to an entire novel. I think he wrote most of it during the periods he was allowed to use his therapist’s computer, and he still found time to hack into her files and read her case notes on him.

He asks us to “forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography” because of the constraints imposed upon him, but he nevertheless gives us a detailed – and rather boring – personal history, in addition to the relatively lengthy main story. This story – his mental institution narrative interspersing the main narrative about how he ended up there – is neatly structured, suggesting that Nicky somehow found the time to do a bit of editing and fill in the gaps that would naturally form when you tell a long story like this.

Overall, it’s not a bad book and it has some interesting ideas, but the story as a whole isn’t particularly compelling. Whether the novel is able to captivate you on a philosophical level is a matter of personal interest. For me, it’s kind of vague and failed to leave much of an impression. I don’t have much to say about it now, and I know I’m going to forget most of it in a couple of months.

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

By Blood We LiveTitle: By Blood We Live
Series: The Last Werewolf / Bloodlines
Author: Glen Duncan
Published: 6 February 2014
Publisher: Canongate Books
Genre: fantasy, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

By Blood We Live picks up two years after the events of Talulla Rising. The 20 000-year-old vampire Remshi wakes up to find that he’s been asleep all this time, much to the dismay of his human partner Justine. They’re still trying to sort out their issues when they’re attacked,and Remshi is forced to turn Justine in order to save her life. Through Justine’s blood, Remshi recovers his memories of his obsession with Talulla, who he believes is the reincarnation of his only love, a werewolf named Vali who died 17 000 years ago.

Meanwhile Talulla and the twins are still with the pack from the previous book. Talulla is still with Walker, but their relationship is strained. She never loved him like she loved Jake, and things were never the same after Remshi came to see Talulla and said he’d come back for her.

There’s an outside threat too. WOCOP is no more, but they have been replaced by the Militi Christi, a militant Christian group determined to wipe out werewolves and vampires for the glory of god. The werewolf population has exploded since the virus was cured, and Talulla and Madeline started creating new wolves. The world is turning against both vampires and werewolves, and when Talulla learns of a possible cure, she has to decide if that’s something she wants for herself and her children.

Like the previous two books, By Blood We Live has everything that has come to define this series. Loads of gory violence, most of it involving monsters eating humans. Lots of musing on the psychological experience of being a monster who eats humans and absorbs their memories along through flesh and blood. Conflict with a human organisation whose aim is to kill monsters. There isn’t quite as much sex as before, but there is something new – a vampire having sex with a transformed werewolf (it was really only a matter of time).

However, there are some crucial differences in By Blood We Live. There are two vampire narrators, so for the first time we get some insight into their experiences. While Talulla and Jake spoke of the Curse and the wulf, Remshi speaks about vampirism as the Lash. We also have four narrators total – Remshi, Justine, Talulla and Walker. Justine leaves Remshi shortly after he turns her, believing that he’s going to leave for Talulla anyway. She decides to track down the people who abused her as a child, now that she has all these new vampiric abilities. Remshi goes after her while trying to track down Talulla at the same time. Talulla has been given the book that Jake was looking for, which describes the origin of the werewolf race and apparently gives the cure. However, the pages detailing the cure have been removed; to get them Talulla will have to meet with the vampire who sent her the book. At any rate, she has more immediate problems – the Militi Christi are trying to kill her family. Poor Walker knows that he’s relationship’s about to end, thanks to a dead werewolf and a mythical vampire. He’s well aware of Talulla’s awkward attempts to get him to have sex with his maker Madeline so that she won’t feel so guilty about leaving him.

There’s an interesting moral quandary regarding the attempt to wipe out werewolves and vampires. One of the defining characteristics of this series is that Duncan doesn’t hide the monstrousness of vamps and weres but emphasises and explores it. It’s impossible for them to exist without killing humans so obviously peaceful co-existence is impossible and violence is inevitable, as Talulla explains:

Here was the core of monstrosity: if you were a monster the human world had nothing to offer you but the just demand for your death. And since they were, in the last analysis, your food and drink, what could they be but right? There was no argument you could bring against them. All you could bring was your monstrous enmity.

Because the vamps and weres are the protagonists, the reader has the opportunity to empathise with them, but they’re still the bad guys. They’re murderers who can’t make any moral objection to the attempts at their genocide. I thought Duncan made a fantastic moral dilemma out of this in the previous book – Talulla was tortured, experimented upon and almost raped, but she admitted that nothing those people did to her was any worse than things she’d done. She wanted to survive but she couldn’t really complain about the violence per se. She was a monster attacked by other – lesser – monsters.

In this novel, Duncan sets up a similar dilemma although I found it less interesting. The Militi Christi are, in one sense, the good guys, because they’re trying to save humanity from a terrifying danger. However, they’re a bunch of militant Christians, and that already sets off lots of alarms. Then you get a closer look at them, and to no one’s surprise, they’re a bunch of ridiculous hypocrites. My problem with this is that’s it too easy to dislike them and side with our monstrous protagonists. WOCOP was also unlikeable, although in different ways. Given that there’s a very good reason for humans to want to wipe out werewolves and vampires, I thought it would be more complex and engaging to have an organisation the reader might actually side with.

Because, honestly, I’ve gotten tired of this monster formula now and I want something to shake it up. It was good in The Last Werewolf and it was great in Talulla Rising, but it’s old in By Blood We Live, especially since I read all three books within a short space of time. I know all about how the Curse (and now the Lash) makes you enjoy being evil. How “It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them.” God’s dead but irony’s still rollickingly alive. The great mathematical silence. How werewolves and vampires are like libraries because they absorb the memories of their victims (this is actually awesome, but I often wish Duncan would do more with it). Remshi seemed liked an interesting badass guy in the previous book; here, he’s actually quite a nice guy, but also quite boring.

That said, this book is not without its merits. The way memories are absorbed through the blood becomes really twisted when Justine drinks the man who sexually abused her, and in doing so gains his memories of the abuse, seeing herself through his eyes. Drinking/eating people is compared to reading, and Remshi warns her of the danger of it:

Reading a book is a dangerous thing, Justine. A book can make you find room in yourself for something you never thought you’d understand. Or worse, something you never wanted to understand.

Each of the books has at least one really horrific moment, and this is the one that stood out for me.

I also like that the characters are struggling with the possible truth of myths, dreams, patterns and prophecies. They’re all cynics who don’t believe in god, religion or fairytales, so when they’re faced with the myth of the origin of werewolves, prescient dreams, Remshi’s prophecy about joining the blood of the werewolf (which he wrote himself), and the patterns and connections that appear after feeding, they feel absurd. While they have to admit that they’re all fairytale creatures themselves, they’re disgusted by belief in dreams and prophecies, especially when it seems like they really are caught up in some cosmic plan. It’s amusing in a macabre sort of way.

Appropriately, the prophecy also gets entwined with the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning. I’m not familiar with it, but Talulla describes it as a poem about going on and on without hope, on a quest without any clear purpose. This applies to Remshi in particular, but is starting to characterise Talulla’s journey as well. How can she and her children live on in a world that wants them dead? It’s a question I paused to think about a few times during the book.

Ultimately though, the flaws outweigh the merits for me, and I judged this to be my least favourite book in the series. I didn’t hate it; I just found it a bit boring. If the series continues, I doubt I’ll continue reading it. And there is a definite possibility for a fourth book, which could focus on an all-out war between humans and the werewolves and vampires. Which, admittedly, could be interesting. And maybe I just need a break from this sort of style and content to appreciate it more. We’ll see.

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.

Review of Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellTitle: Murder as a Fine Art
Author: 
David Morrell
Publisher: 
Mulholland Books
Published: 
7 May 2013
Genre: 
historical, crime, mystery, metafiction
Source: 
NetGalley
Rating:
 6/10

London, 1854. A killer steps out onto to the streets to create a masterpiece of murder, a perfectly planned tableau of horror designed to evoke great pity and utter terror. His work is a realisation of the gruesome essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincey, which details the brutal Ratcliffe Highway murders “that terrorised both London and all of England in 1811” but portrays them as a work of art.

Thomas De Quincey himself is in London with his daughter Emily, promoting his books because he desperately needs money. De Quincey became famous – or infamous – with his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, detailing his addiction to laudanum – a combination of 90% alcohol and 10% opium that in Victorian times was commonly administered as a painkiller, even to children and babies. De Quincey’s addiction is partly responsible for his literary success – he claims that laudanum opens up other realities, showing him new perspectives that he puts into his writing.

But it’s also affected his health and he currently drinks enough to kill several people. Considered by many to be a degenerate, he’s the first person that Detective Ryan and Constable Becker of Scotland Yard suspect. But as Emily – a strong, outspoken woman – points out, her father is too old and frail to go around murdering entire families. In fact, De Quincey might be part of the murderer’s plans – he and Emily are staying in London at the expense of a mysterious benefactor who lured De Quincey with the promise of resolving a very personal mystery for him. And of course, the murderer has been inspired by De Quincey’s writing.

Although Ryan and Becker are shocked by De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and more than a little horrified at his fascination with the murders, they are sensible enough to see past De Quincey’s reputation and Victorian sensibilities. With De Quincey and Emily’s help they hunt down the master serial killer whose unbelievable acts of violence are reducing London to a state of terrified chaos.

Murder as a Fine Art is a metafictional intersection between historical fiction and commercial crime thriller. Morrell’s inspiration comes from the “novel of sensation”, a literary trend that was surprisingly popular in the conservative Victorian era, bringing the darkness of Gothic fiction into the homes and neighbourhoods of ordinary citizens, as he explains in his introduction. And that’s what this novel does, placing a particularly violent killer in the midst of London’s society. It’s full of historical trivia and passages describing the scene – the “notoriously thick fogs” composed of mist and smoke, the noise of farm animals amidst the sound of carriages – and although Morrell tends to reply heavily on info dumps, I found them quite interesting. The novel also offers the satisfaction of unfailingly good protagonists (even De Quincey’s laudanum addiction is useful) chasing after an irredeemably evil villain.

It’s all very black and white, but I didn’t mind as far as the good guys were concerned. While I prefer twisted heroes, sometimes it’s comforting to have the fantasy of smart, dedicated people always doing the right thing and sacrificing themselves for the greater good, barely undermined by their weaknesses. De Quincey’s the troubled genius, the one whose best equipped to track down the murderer but also so incapacitated by addiction that he could be an easy target. He wasn’t quite as memorable as I expected him to be – he’s the major historical figure driving the narrative after all – but he’s likable and amusingly snarky at times. Detective Ryan is a committed policeman, but he’s Irish and he has to struggle against the prejudice that tends to arise when the Londoners spot his red hair (his deliberately coarse appearance doesn’t help either). At one point he is attacked by an angry mob that assumes that the murderer must be a foreigner and goes after Ryan when they see the colour of his hair.

Becker, who plays the good cop to Ryan’s bad cop, actually looks much more respectable than his superior. He’s so determined to earn the rank of Detective that he risks his life just to protect a set of footprints that Ryan asks him to guard.  Emily is particularly charming as a forthright, practical woman despite Victorian constraints imposed upon women. One of the most memorable things about her character is her very practical decision to wear “bloomers” under her dress instead of the complicated and very heavy whalebone structure that respectable women don. The bloomers allow Emily to move easily but are considered scandalous because it means the movement of her legs is visible under her dress. Emily doesn’t care; she chooses function and comfort over silly sensibilities. The downside to her character is that she’s the ‘exceptional woman’ and the only interesting female character. Nevertheless, she was my favourite.

I was less pleased with the irredeemably evil villain. The fact that he’s thoroughly evil doesn’t bother me; it’s the way he’s progressively degraded as the story progresses. At the beginning, the artist is ruthlessly organised and controlled, but also able to think on his feet and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. His justifications for the murders are ‘pure’ – it’s not about revenge or monetary gain, but something more philosophical. He’s enacting and enhancing De Quincey’s rendering of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, in a ways that evoke the greatest level of pity and sorrow, thereby throwing society into tumult.

In his first set of murders, he chooses a shopkeeper and his family because of how sad and unfair it is that innocents and honest, hardworking people should be killed so horribly. He closes all the doors in the house so that whoever comes in will uncover a series of horrific sights one by one. He knows that the community will be driven to panic by the apparent senselessness of the crime; anyone could be the next victim when its got nothing to do with money or revenge. Considering all this, the murders do seem like artworks in a way, and the murderer like an artist.

Once the artist’s identity is revealed however (or once you guess; it becomes increasingly obvious), his image starts to deteriorate. His motives are muddied by personal obsessions. His intellect and slick control are too easily undermined by our unfailingly smart and noble protagonists. He becomes boring. I often see this trend in mainstream film, probably to cater to a longing to see evil fail under the forces of good – a previously powerful villain is reduced to a pathetic, desperate mad man. That’s understandable, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying because I love a good villain. I love it when they’re highly intelligent and focused. Even when I expect or want them to be defeated I don’t want them reduced to fumbling dopes just so the heroes can kick just them in the teeth.

But, as I said, this is still a commercial crime thriller; it’s not going to be unconventional. And as commercial crime thrillers go, it’s not bad at all, with its well-researched historical setting, social critiques, and metafictional intersections. It’s a quick fun read, but with substance. Recommended, if you’re looking for a strong crime thriller.