Daily Reads: 16 February 2015

I’m just going to avoid talking about how very very long it’s taking me to finish my current review, and instead give you a moment to appreciate the Joey Hi-fi cover of my current read – Fletcher by David Horscroft, published by Fox & Raven.

FletcherDavid Horscroft is a South African novelist and Fletcher is his debut, a postapocalyptic sf thriller with one of the most insanely violent main characters I’ve ever read. I took a break from all its bleeding and screaming to see what was happening on my favourite blogs.

I’ve been seeing the Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear floating around the internet lately, but, for no reason in particular, I didn’t take a closer look. However, I put it on my priority list after reading Bear’s guest post about writing an authentic prostitute character for whom selling sex is a job, not a definition of who she is. Yay for interesting, complex female perspectives 🙂

Then today I learned that Neil Clarke, creator of Clarkesworld magazine, is publishing a new digital-only sff magazine called Forever. I find this both exciting and kind of depressing. Exciting because I’m expecting more wonderful sff from it, and depressing because I feel like I’m being buried under all the short fiction I need to read. But the nice thing about this new magazine is that, for now, it will only have one novella and two short stories. That means I might actually be able to finish reading one in a month! I used to be able to do that with Clarkesworld, but they’ve since expanded to six stories a month, and I never get around to reading all of them. I know I don’t have to; it just feels good to finish the whole magazine.

Finally, there’s this nice, short personal essay by Haralambi Markov on writing queer characters in sff – the fear of doing it, and why you absolutely should do it. The essay is part of Lightspeed magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign. Can’t wait to check out that edition 🙂 Surprisingly, this brings me back to Fletcher, whose raving psychopath protagonist also happens to be openly bisexual… Lemme go see if I can finish that book tonight.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

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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 The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
Published: 
7 August 2012
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
7/10

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.

Up for Review 25/06/2012

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke (Orbit Books)

Marketing copy from Netgalley:

Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist. 


The undead matriarch of a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. A world where being nobility means being infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.

 

Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key-the prize in a very dangerous struggle.

God Save the Queen will be released on 3 July 2012 by Orbit Books. Follow the link to read the first chapter. You can check out the author’s website here.

___________________________________________________________

Advent by James Treadwell (Atria Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he carries contains a mirror safeguarding a portion of his soul and a small ring containing all the magic in the world. Together, they comprise something unimaginably terrible.

 

London, the present day. Fifteen-year-old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to the countryside to live with his aunt. His school and his parents can’t cope with him and the things he sees, things they tell him don’t really exist.
At Pendurra, Gavin finds people who are like him, who see things too. They all tell him the same thing: magic exists, and it’s leaking back into our world—and bringing something terrible with it.

 

     Advent is an epic novel with heart-stopping moments, notable as much for its atmosphere as for its pace and sense of place. With numerous themes deftly woven throughout the compelling narrative, this novel is a spellbinding return to old-fashion storytelling and impossible to put down.

Advent was published in the UK on 2 February 2012. The US edition will be published on 3 July 2012 by Atria Books. You can check out the author’s website here.

Review of The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Title: The Peculiars
Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Published: 1 May 2012
Publisher: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS Books
Genre: YA, adventure, steampunk, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Since she was a child, Lena Mattacascar has been called Peculiar. She has unusually long hands and feet, and each of her fingers has an extra knuckle. “[S]igns of goblinism”, the doctor said, and her grandmother never hesitated to tell her what a no-good goblin criminal her father was (he left home when Lena was five). Lena tries to pass her strange appendages off as “birth defects” but she’s desperate to know the truth about her father and her own genetics.

On her 18th birthday, Lena’s mother gives her two gifts left by her father – a small inheritance, and a letter. Motivated by her father’s words to her, Lena decides to use the money to travel to Scree, the supposed land of the Peculiars. She takes a train to the town of Knob Knoster, on the border of Scree, where she will need to buy supplies and find someone to guide her through the wilderness. One man who could help her is Tobias Beasley, an inventor and historian.

However, Beasley is rumoured to be an eccentric who might be involved in strange dealings with Peculiars. A young but determined federal marshal named Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on him and report anything incriminating. Lena agrees, and gets a job in Beasley’s library, working alongside Jimson Quigley, a young man she met on the train. It’s a pleasant, fulfilling life, but Lena finds some suspicious things in Beasley’s home, leading her to make decisions that put the people she cares about in danger.

The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.

It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.

Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.

Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on Mr Beasley for him. In exchange he promises to provide her with a guide to Scree and since he’ll be focusing on Beasley, he’ll take his attention off Lena’s father, Saltre’s other most wanted criminal. Plus, Lena will be helping her country. Lena agrees, although there’s absolutely no good reason for her to do so at this point. She doesn’t need Saltre’s guide if Beasley will help her (which he immediately agrees to do). Saltre didn’t promise to leave her father alone, just that he would ignore him for a bit. It doesn’t even occur to Lena that Saltre could later use her to lead him straight to her father. And since when does Lena care about her country? The government is opposed to Peculiars, and she’s clearly a Peculiar.

It gets worse once she meets Beasley. She’s welcomed into his home, given a tour of his magnificent library, and invited to lunch. Beasley instantly agrees to be her Scree guide, and to help her pay for the expedition he offers her a job in his library and a place to stay in his lovely home. She accepts, and basically begins an ideal life for a young woman in her society. She has a respectable job doing fulfilling work, she has the independence that comes with making your own money, she lives in a beautiful, stately home, all meals are cooked by the housekeeper, and there’s the potential for a bit of romance with her colleague Jimson. On top of that, Beasley has offered to help her achieve her goal of travelling into Scree and finding her father. Beasley has basically given Lena everything she could want at this point. And still the stupid bitch goes running to Saltre with any information she can find to betray Beasley.

Lena actually carries around a notebook and pen just in case she learns something incriminating, and at one point she endures physical pain and great anxiety to go creeping around Beasley’s house in the middle of the night and steal one of his books. Why? Partly because she has a crush on the handsome Saltre, and partly because Lena is easily duped by authority. Saltre is a marshal, and she believes everything he says. The government says Peculiars are bad, therefore they must be bad (even though that implies that Lena is bad too, since she’s obviously Peculiar). If Beasley is breaking the law he must be stopped, even if he is good and the law is designed to exploit people. Lena is such a twit; it takes quite a while for her to think outside the lines.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the reader had more of a chance to empathise with her, if we could see things the way she seems to see them. For example, if it looked like Saltre might actually have feelings for her, or if there was something potentially sinister about Mr Beasley. But no – while she’s blindly making the wrong decisions, it’s crystal clear to the reader what’s really going on. It’s so obvious that Saltre is a villainous government agent manipulating a vulnerable young woman to get what he wants. He’s going to turn on her the moment she ceases to be useful. It’s so obvious that Mr Beasley, on the other hand, is a good, kind man, and Lena is making a colossal mistake by betraying him. I know Lena is naive, but I just couldn’t take her side when people like Jimson and Beasley are so much more likeable.

Jimson is the one who tells Lena that the government is using the Peculiars for political gain. Although he refuses to believe Peculiars exist, you know he’s right about the government. Lena is critical of Jimson for being too rational and scientific, but he usually comes off as a much smarter person in contrast to Lena’s tendency to dismiss evidence in favour of rumour, assumption, and arguments from authority. Jimson and Lena find things that cause them to be suspicious of Beasley, but Jimson takes into account the fact they’ve only ever seen Beasley act with kindness, so he suspends his judgement until they have the whole story and is careful not to do anything rash. Lena on the other hand, runs headlong into doing something rash. This puts everyone in danger, but she has the audacity to criticise Jimson for doing nothing while she took action!

The crap thing is that if it weren’t for Lena being so damn stupid and ungrateful, the story would stand still. It’s her weakness and poor decisions that jumpstart the plot and finally move it out of Knob Knoster and into Scree. It’s a much better book from that point on, but it’s only the last quarter or so. Lena still does some moronic things, but she at least seems to have learned a little from her mistakes and is able to stand up for herself. There’s more danger and adventure in Scree, and of course we learn more about the Peculiars and the government’s operations. Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late. There’s potential for a decent sequel, but The Peculiars is average at best.

Buy a copy of The Peculiars from The Book Depository

Up For Review

Check out some of the books I’ll be reviewing over the next few weeks.

Death of a Saint (Mall Rats #2) by Lily Herne (Puffin Books)

After having a lukewarm reaction to Lily Herne’s first novel, Deadlands, I’m happy to report that I found the sequel, Death of a Saint to be a much better book. Even though it’s a lot longer than its predecessor, I tore through it in under two days. Review to follow on Thursday.

Secrets. Everyone has them. But what if your secret is something so unthinkable that you can’t even admit it to yourself? Lily Herne returns with Death of a Saint, the next instalment in the Mall Rats series.

Exiled from the city enclave for crimes against the Resurrectionist State, teen rebels Lele, Ginger, Ash and Saint — aka the Mall Rats — are hiding out in the Deadlands, a once-prosperous area now swarming with the living dead. With the sinister Guardians breathing down their necks, the Mall Rats face a stark choice: return to the enclave and try to evade capture or leave Cape Town in search of other survivors. But what if the rest of South Africa is nothing but a zombie-infested wasteland? Will they be able to survive on the road if all they have is each other, or will their secrets tear them apart?

After all, only Lele knows the shocking truth as to why the dead leave the Mall Rats unscathed — knowledge that she can’t bring herself to share. And she’s not the only Mall Rat harbouring a dangerous secret…

Death of a Saint was released on 1 April 2012 by Puffin Books, and the series has been rejacketed. The third book is entitled The Army of the Left. Thanks very much to Candice at Penguin SA for my review copy.

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Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot)
This gorgeous cover was designed by Joey Hi-Fi, who used a similar style for the awesome Zoo City and Moxyland covers.

Miriam Black knows when you will die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim.

No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Blackbirds will be published by Angry Robot on 24 April in the USA and Canada, and on 3 May for the rest of the world.

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The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Normally, I don’t even look twice at books with these kinds of covers, but Lu and I are always looking for books to joint review, and when she requested this one I thought the story sounded interesting and it might give us something to discuss. But either way I’ll be reading and reviewing it soon.

This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance. On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar. On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears.

The Peculiars will be published on 1 May 2012 by Amulet Books.

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The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books)
I haven’t read a good horror novel in a while. I hope this one is creepy enough to get under my skin.

Strange things exist on the periphery of our existence, haunting us from the darkness looming beyond our firelight. Black magic, weird cults and worse things loom in the shadows. The Children of Old Leech have been with us from time immemorial. And they love us.

Donald Miller, geologist and academic, has walked along the edge of a chasm for most of his nearly eighty years, leading a charmed life between endearing absent-mindedness and sanity-shattering realization. Now, all things must converge. Donald will discover the dark secrets along the edges, unearthing savage truths about his wife Michelle, their adult twins, and all he knows and trusts.

For Donald is about to stumble on the secret…of The Croning. From Laird Barron, Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of The Imago Sequence and Occultation, comes The Croning, a debut novel of cosmic horror.

The Croning will be published on 8 May 2012 by Night Shade Books.

Thanks very much to NetGalley and the publishers for providing review copies!

March Round-Up

Overall, March was a decent reading month for me. I would have liked to read a bit more, but at least it was a big improvement on February. I’ve managed to shake my Skyrim addiction, at least for now, so I can give my books the attention they deserve.

The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine is actually a leftover from February, but since I didn’t really include in that round-up, I’m putting it in now. I must warn you – it’s terrible. I hated reading it, but at least that means you can avoid the mistake of reading it too.

Luckily, that disaster was followed by the rather good Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale – a thriller/adventure set in the old American South. I loved the Southern wit in the writing, and the sense of horror that permeated the story.

Next up was The Antithesis: Book 3α by Terra Whiteman, the fourth book in her series about the war between heaven and hell. I usually lose interest in series, even when I like them, but this one has managed to keep me hooked. Look out for an interview with the author and a giveaway some time soon!

I found some comic relief in Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez. It’s an utterly ludicrous mystery adventure featuring an super-intelligent octopus from Neptune who was once an interstellar warlord but has now settled down as Emperor of Earth. Now there’s a sinister disembodied brain trying to kill him… Good light fun for sci fi fans 🙂

My leisure read for the month was another sf comedy –  Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt. In the early days of this blog I wrote a short post about how we’re always saying how we want to read something by this or that author, but we never get around to it. I wrote that after reading the first few chapters of Blonde Bombshell in a bookshop and finding it both hilarious and engrossing. At the time, Tom Holt was one of those authors I’d been meaning to read for ages, but I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive. I later found a copy at a sale. I’ve read a few of his books since – they’re good reads, if not great. Blonde Bombshell was the same. Not as good as I expected, based on those first few chapters, and there were some huge plot holes, but it was still a nice break from reviewing.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo was a review book I received from Pan Macmillan last year. I’d enjoyed DeLillo’s White Noise at varsity, so I thought I might like more. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one at all, although I appreciated some of the subtlety of the writing.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente is the kind of book I always dream of reading. It was just unbelievably beautiful. I’d hoped to post the review last week already, but I haven’t finished it, thanks to a combination of laziness and finding it difficult to write reviews of the books I really love. It also meant I broke the Tuesday/Thursday review schedule I’d managed to stick to for the rest of the month 😦 There’s so much I want to talk about, so many passages I want to quote, that the review is way too long. I’ll post it once it’s refined and slimmed down. For now, just know that it’s an exquisite piece of mythical fiction.

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg is a 1994 publication that’s been re-published as an eBook this year. It’s a historical murder mystery based, in part, on an actual friendship between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is on a USA tour, lecturing on spiritualism and psychic abilities. During that time, a New York murderer is killing people in an imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. The victims are all linked to Houdini in some way, and Poe’s ghost starts appearing to Doyle. An interesting idea for a literary thriller, but sadly it’s not a very good book.This, and one or two other books, have made me think that maybe I should avoid books that are being re-published, because there may be a good reason they fell into obscurity. Review to follow soon.

April needs to be a really productive reading and reviewing month, as I’ll be going away for two weeks in May and won’t be blogging much then, if at all. I’ve just finished Germline by T.C. McCarthy, which I hope to review next week. On top of my tbr pile is Westlake Soul by Rio Youers, some weird fiction about a superhero in a coma, and Faustus Resurrectus by Thomas Morrissey, an urban occult thriller.

Now, time to get to work…