The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

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Crux by Ramez Naam

CruxTitle: Crux
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 August 2012; this edition published 2 April 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
7/10

Contains spoilers for book 1, Nexus. If you haven’t read it, you can check out my review here.

In book 1 of Ramez Naam’s posthumanist sf series, the key question was how best to introduce Nexus to the world. Do you give it to everyone or reserve it for an educated elite?

Kaden Lane made the democratic choice and uploaded the code for all to access. Now it’s out there, it’s open-source, and people are discovering all the fascinating possibilities of being able to connect your mind with others’. Unfortunately, it presents just as much opportunity for abuse, so Nexus gets used as a coercion tool for things like theft, slavery, murder and rape. All it takes is a programmer with the right tools to hack someone’s brain.

Kade is painfully aware of this. In Nexus, he proved himself to be a man who thinks carefully about the consequences of his actions and takes responsibility for them. Knowing that his work is being used to for such terrible crimes kills him, so he spends his days monitoring the use of Nexus, identifying abusers, and hacking their minds to stop them.

This is possible because he and his partners, Ilya and Rangan, wrote a “back door” into the Nexus 5 code before the ERD stole it from them. Kade has since changed the passwords, so the ERD continues to hunt him down. They want to eradicate the use of Nexus in the general population, while using the technology for their own purposes. The back door is the crux on which the story rests. It’s a good thing only because it’s used by someone as golden-hearted and dedicated as Kade, but will he always use it in the right way, for the right reasons? And who is he – or anyone – to decide what “right” is? It’s a simple question when, for example, Kade hacks a mind to stop a rape, but the prospect of the ERD hacking minds for the sake of state security is terrifying.

So Kade is on the run in Thailand, along with his friend Feng, the Chinese ex-solider who worked as Su-Yong Shu’s bodyguard. Su-Yong Shu was killed at the end of Nexus, but now exists as an uploaded consciousness, vastly intelligent but going insane without the sensory input of a body. She’s kept isolated on a server deep underground while her husband Chen tries to torture her into giving him one last scientific breakthrough before she self-destructs. Ling, Su-Yong’s eight-year-old posthuman daughter/clone is desperate to rescue her mother, but she cannot access the server and, in a moment of intense frustration, she reaches out with her mind and cripples Shanghai with what looks like a massive cyber attack.

Meanwhile, Sam Cataranes is hiding out in Thailand as Sunee Martin after abandoning the ERD in favour of the posthuman movement. Now Sam’s working with Nexus kids and discovering their boundless potential.

Such potential is also of interest to Shiva Prasad, a billionaire philanthropist who has worked hard to solve the world’s environmental problems but came to the conclusion that it’s now impossible for humanity to solve the problems it created. He wants to use Nexus to create a hive mind intelligent enough to find the necessary solutions, but for that he needs Kade and the back door.

Meanwhile, back in the US, ERD’s Neuroscience Director, Martin Holtzmann, faces a personal and moral dilemma. He took Nexus at the end of book 1, but he’s using it in secret because it’s illegal and he works for the organisation that’s trying to prevent the public from using it. It gets worse when he’s put in charge of experimenting on autistic Nexus children in an attempt to find a “cure”. The work disgusts him – not only is he fighting a technology he’s embraced, but he’s torturing children to do it. To cope with the stress, he uses Nexus to create an app that tweaks his body chemistry and releases opiates into his system. Unsurprisingly, he ends up with a drug addition.

The pressure to “cure” children with Nexus comes partly after a group calling themselves the Post-human Liberation Front (PLF) tries to assassinate the US President by hacking a Secret Service agent (another way of abusing Nexus – forcing people to work as soldiers and assassins, or simply hacking into their minds to spy). The PLF targets anti-Nexus political figures, but in doing so it exacerbates people’s fears of posthumans.

 

Crux is exactly like Nexus in that it speculates about the potential of an evolutionary technology while considering its moral implications and using all that to fuel an action-packed plot. It’s smart and entertaining, and Naam does a pretty good job of handling a large cast of POV characters. The narrative hops around a lot, but that didn’t really bother me.

That said, I felt like I was reading a lesser version of Nexus. The speculation I enjoyed so much in the first book feels pretty standard now. It’s all still pretty cool, but the book is so full of ideas that many of them get little more than a mention.

The overall positivity regarding Nexus also makes the book feel a bit light on substance, and this is something that bothered me in the first novel too. While I love that the series is optimistic about new technology rather than basing the plot on what goes wrong with it, that optimism occasionally eschews a more complex debate. It can also get annoying. Sometimes the novel feels like it’s just gushing about how super awesome Nexus is without developing much in terms of plot or character. Granted, Nexus is awesome, but raving about it isn’t necessarily good for the story.

It also tends towards melodrama. I felt like Crux was constantly using children to tug at my heartstrings, manipulating me in favour of Nexus, while turning me against the evil detractors and their (often justifiable) fears. Nexus can “cure” autism, allows parents to communicate with their babies in the womb, and lets adults experience the beautiful wonder of children’s minds. It helps children learn faster by absorbing knowledge from other children and generally just makes them sweet and fascinating and delightful. Anyone who opposes the use of Nexus or threatens the children in some other way is very easily converted into a villain simply because we all have to think of the children. And, well, yes we should, but I’m not fond of this particular cheap writing tactic.

We do see some of the bad sides of Nexus though (besides the coercion), and it gives you something to think about. Martin Holtzmann develops a drug addiction without even having actual drugs (that could be a novel in itself). The autistic Nexus children see those without Nexus as not being real people, and instantly ostracize a child who doesn’t have it. A class – or species – conflict is definitely coming. Ling takes out an entire city because of a tantrum. The novel, perhaps a bit too conveniently, avoids dwelling on the amount of death and destruction she so easily causes, thereby glossing over the consequences of having Nexus in a young or unstable mind. Nexus children won’t necessarily be as wholesomely wonderful as the ones Sam takes care of, but the novel almost always portrays them that way, with Ling as an anomaly.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much of Crux. It’s still a strong, smart sf thriller and I’m kind of taking the things that make it cooler and asking, why couldn’t you tell me more about this? And yes, it gets melodramatic and some of its moral debates are simplistic, but no more so than loads of similar stories that I love. It didn’t do much to expand on the posthuman issue set up in Nexus, but that doesn’t make the topic any less interesting. So, if you liked Nexus, it’s worth seeing where Crux takes the story.

 

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustTitle: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Author: Claire North (pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who also writes as Kate Griffin)
Published: 8 April 2014
Publisher: Redhook Books
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 9/10

As I go through my notes and highlights for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August I realise that this is *the* best book I read last year. It’s elegant and beautiful and pensive, which is not something I can often say of books that also happen to be fantastic thrillers. I kind of want to read it again right now, but I’ll settle for writing a review that I hope can convey what a wonderful book this is.

At the end of his eleventh life, Harry August is about to slip into his usual cosy, morphine-induced suicide when a little girl arrives to tell him that the world is ending. Both he and the girl are kalachakra – those who journey repeatedly through their own lives. When they die they return to the time and place of their birth and live again, with all the memories of the lives that came before. Because Harry is about to die and travel back to his birth in 1919, he can send the message about the impending apocalypse back through time, as later generations of their kin have been doing.

Harry’s first question is, why does it matter that the world is ending? Everything dies, after all. But the problem is not only that the world is ending, but that it is ending faster – it happens earlier and earlier every time. The fact of this suggests that one of the kalachakra is causing it by using their knowledge of the future to change the past. And as the apocalypse moves back in time it permanently kills kalachakra along the way, because if they ever fail to be born once, they are never born again.

It’s only about halfway through the book that we see Harry start to deal with this issue because for him it poses a complex ethical dilemma that the reader can only understand by first learning the story of his previous lives. So Harry takes us back to his very first birth and on through the lives that follow.

This is a fascinating and engaging story in itself specifically because Harry carries the increasing weight and knowledge of all his previous lives with him (it’s partly this factor that makes the novel superior to Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which is based on a similar concept). In addition he is something known as a mnemonic – a kalachakra who remembers everything with perfect clarity. This has several advantages, one of which is that it makes Harry an excellent narrator who can capture the essence of what it means to kalachakra.

Naturally, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s an extremely difficult thing to deal with at first; in his second life he goes mad with the memories of the previous one, and commits suicide at age seven. In his third life he turns to religion for answers and, finding none, turns to science in his fourth life. There’s no rush – he has centuries to ponder existence. With his knowledge of the future and his accumulated education, it’s easy to become wealthy in later lives, but that doesn’t save him from having to live through childhood over and over again. It also raises some uniquely disturbing problems. How, for example, does the mind deal with pain and trauma in this scenario? When you cannot forget anything, and you have centuries of experience from which the most horrific moments never fade?

In addition to these sorts of psychological conundrums, Harry is faced with a multitude of ethical questions. What should he do with his knowledge of the future? Should he help people, or is it dangerous to interfere? Could he change history or is he ultimately powerless? But if he can’t or shouldn’t change the world, then what is the point of him, and of the kalachakra?

These questions plague Harry for much of the book. He gets some insight when he joins The Cronus Club, a global network of kalachakra whose main purpose is to use their abilities to generate enough wealth to support new and existing members (e.g. extracting young kalachakra so they don’t have to waste decades pretending to be kids). The Club is very strongly opposed to changing history because doing so ended the world once before. Harry initially agrees, arguing that “[c]omplexity should be your excuse for inaction” (52). But as Harry goes from one life to the next, he becomes unsure – what does any of this mean if they never choose to act, to change things?

These ideas aren’t just food for thought – they are integral to the second part of the novel, as are Harry’s experiences (some of which are pretty harrowing). Having told the most important parts of his life story, Harry then moves on to the pacier business of investigating the impending apocalypse, and the novel goes from being a kind of philosophical historical sf to a literary sf thriller. Although Harry is, in most ways, a pretty ordinary guy, being able to educate yourself for centuries and use knowledge of the future to get rich means that he has considerable skills and resources for mounting an investigation. He also happens to live at the right time in history to do something, and being a mnemonic gives him a unique advantage that determines the way things play out.

Now, one thing I love is that Harry doesn’t simply decide to save the world because that’s what you do. He can act, but he needs to decide if he will, and how. At this point it’s abundantly clear that life has very different meaning for kalachakra. Pain is significant but death is not because it just leads to rebirth. They don’t generally care about the deaths of normal, linear people, because those people will all be back again in the next cycle of their lives, even if the world is totally destroyed. They take the permanent deaths of kalachakra very seriously because the kalachakra are special, but for centuries Harry has been questioning their importance, their meaning. And when the importance of the kalachakra is called into question, we return to the question Harry posed at the very beginning – why does it matter that the world is ending? If it’s ending because one of the kalachakra has chosen to act on their knowledge and experience, is that necessarily a bad thing? The kalachakra are essentially immortals but they’re just cycling through the same lives. Are they seriously going to sit around preserving the status quo forever?

Harry wrestles with these issues as he investigates the accelerating apocalypse, and it all comes to bear on his decisions when he finds out what’s going on. This is the best thing about this book – the way Harry’s lives build on one another to drive his decisions and thus the story. The author takes the idea of the kalachakra and delves into the depths of what it means to her main character. The narrative is suitably non-linear, so that we get a sense of how Harry experiences time – all those lives piled up, cross-referencing each other across centuries. Then she puts him into a dire plot in which the things we’ve learnt about him are crucial to the understanding the choices he makes and the eventual outcome.

And it’s magnificent. Everything comes together beautifully. The slow and thoughtful first half transitions into a page-turning thriller. Harry comes up against an opponent who becomes both a friend an an enemy, someone he admires as much as he fears, and who forces him to grapple with all the questions he’s been asking about himself and the kalachakra. It’s such an accomplished novel – superbly written, poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, utterly absorbing. I want to relive Harry’s lives again, and again.

Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira GrantTitle: Parasite
Author: Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire)
Series: Parasitology #1
Published: 29 October 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, thriller, horror
Rating: 5/10

How is it that I read two novels about tapeworms this year? This isn’t going to become a trend is it? Because, eww. But at least Parasite isn’t nearly as repulsive as The Troop.

In the near future, SymboGen revolutionises medicine with the creation of a genetically engineered tapeworm it calls the Intestinal Bodyguard. Via one little pill, this parasite takes residence in your small intestine and performs all sorts of useful medical functions – administering chronic medication, secreting natural birth control, preventing allergic reactions, modulating brain chemistry, boosting the immune system etc. With the Intestinal Bodyguard, no one ever has to worry about having enough money for medication or missing doses. By 2027, almost everyone in the world has one, and there are even special models for impoverished communities where food is scarce.

But, unsurprisingly, having a parasite specifically designed to tinker with the human body has dangerous consequences. There are cases of what is referred to as “sleeping sickness” – people unexpectedly shut down, becoming completely catatonic. No one can figure out how to restore them. Later cases show increasing levels of violence. It’s basically the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, except the zombies are called “sleepers” and the problem is a tapeworm, not a virus.

For Sally Mitchell, the Intestinal Bodyguard brought her back from the dead, but in a good way. After driving her car into a bus, she ended up in a coma that no one expected her to recover from. The doctor was trying to convince her parents to switch off the life support when Sally miraculously woke up.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t really ‘Sally’ anymore – she’d lost her entire twenty years of memory, absolutely everything leading up to the car crash, including the basics of how to walk, speak, read, etc. She had to learn everything from scratch and her new personality is nothing like her previous one.

Six years later she calls herself Sal, has a job, a boyfriend, and functions like a normal person, although she is denied the freedom to live a normal life. SymboGen, pays for all her medical care and requires her to come in periodically for a battery of tests. She has to see a psychologist she hates. Despite being an adult, her parents have been made her legal guardians, and they won’t give her permission to move out. This puts Sal in a position that is both difficult and useful as the sleeper epidemic grows worse. She and her boyfriend Nathan (a parasitologist) take the initiative to figure out what’s going on and find a cure.

Parasite was nominated for a Hugo this year, and my rather uncharitable reaction to this was “WHY?”. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not award material. Granted, the Hugos generated quite an uproar this year because some of the nominees were there for ridiculous political reasons, but presumably Parasite wasn’t one of those. I have to wonder if it got nominated at least partly because Orbit made it available as a Read Now file on NetGalley. For those who don’t know, NetGalley is a site that distributes digital review copies. If a book is marked as “Read Now” it means that any user can download it without having to get approval from the publisher. Most Read Now books are obscure titles from small presses. As a Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) novel from a publisher as big as Orbit, Parasite would have been in demand anyway. As a Read Now available for months, it must have ended up on the reading devices of most of the sff fans on the site. And since it’s a select group of fans who choose the nominees, the Hugos are, in part, a popularity contest. Parasite might have gotten a head start simply because it’s written by a well-known author and a large group of influential readers got a free copy. Also, it’s got enough thought-provoking ideas to capture people’s attention, and it’s entertaining enough that most people would probably enjoy it. Since most of us only have time to read a few of the year’s latest releases, it could easily stand out.

So the lesson here is for the big publishers – if you want your sff titles to be nominated for Hugo awards, mark them as “Read Now”. 😀

Anyway, Parasite. I was baffled by the award nomination because there’s so much about the novel that’s either problematic or just not great. It’s messy. The writing is bland. The characters are flat and their emotions are often unconvincing, coming off as melodramatic. They sometimes behave in ways that are silly or senseless. Sal can be surprisingly smart but also unbelievably stupid. There’s one scene where there are sleepers outside her house and she stands around in her bathrobe playing the brainless victim. There are lots of little things that bug me throughout, like when Sal is desperately trying to contact her boyfriend Nathan on a landline as if he no longer possesses a cellphone, or why she has a pathological fear of driving if she doesn’t remember her accident. Overall, this book reads like a B-grade thriller I picked up at the airport. A good B-grade thriller, but not much more than that.

There are two major issues that I want to discuss – Sal’s character, and the structure of the plot. I’ll tackle Sal first. In some ways, she’s fascinating. She’s a 6-year-old adult, trying to live a full life without actually having had one. Who would you be without a childhood? Who would you become, surrounded by people who remember you as someone else? What kind of friendships and sexual relationships would you have when you’ve only had six years to learn how to socialise?

Lots of potential for a complex character here, but Sal is mostly unremarkable. One character calls her the “poster child for dull”, and I agree. Sal talks about being six years old, living in Sally’s shadow and building her vocabulary, but it’s mostly just talk. She might have behaved strangely after coming out of her coma, but now she’s pretty normal and there’s nothing wrong with her vocabulary. She has a happy sex life. People often treat her as if she’s still weird or creepy, but for the reader there’s nothing particularly unsettling about her behaviour. Except the way she tends starts screaming if the person driving her around takes their hands off the wheel or their eyes of the road.

Not only do I feel that she should have been way more nuanced, but I thought the author missed out on an opportunity for serious struggles with identity. Sal is very confident about who she is, and although I’m actually happy for her, I find this unlikely. Her only real difficulties come from other people treating her as a bit of a freak, and her parents treating her like a small child with limited rights and privileges. But what if Sal had identified as male? What if she were gay? What if her parents were less accommodating, perhaps because of cultural or religious beliefs? What if she wanted to do things or live in ways that society found unacceptable? Instead, Sal is is straight, white, middle-class and well-adjusted, and even though her life was totally fucked up, she’s had as easy a time of it as you could hope for under those circumstances.

Then, the structure of the plot. The characters work their way up to two big reveals, one in the middle, and one at the end. However, the reader knows what the characters don’t, so it’s irritating rather than mysterious. You see, the tapeworms are the only notable thing about this future that differs from our present (another reason this book is a bit bland). It’s the technology upon which the entire story is built. So obviously it’s the tapeworms that are turning people into zombies. But this isn’t obvious to the characters and it takes half of a 500+ page novel for them to confirm it.

Then, once they’ve caught up to you, the story sets the process in motion again. When Sal is given the rundown on the connection between the tapeworms and the sleeping sickness, she learns a big shocking twist. For me, the twist was the first really gripping thing to happen in the novel, the first time since I started reading that I thought there was some award-worthy material here. Unfortunately at this point, Sal has had to absorb a lot of terrible new information, and just can’t deal with the new reveal. So she faints, and forgets about it. And because it has some devastating personal implications, she avoids facing up to it for the rest of the book. She keeps referring to something she should remember or figure out, only to get distracted or decide that she has more important things to focus on. Several other characters know all about this thing she’s avoiding, but none of them talk to her about it, even when they should, or have little reason to keep silent. There’s one character in particular who has absolutely no tact and yet she tiptoes around the issue for Sal’s sake in a way that seems absurdly out of character.

Of course, the thing Sal doesn’t want to confront is completely obvious to the reader (you could guess it at the start, if you’re paying attention), so once again you’re waiting for her to catch up. You wait until the final paragraphs, in fact. And this time the reason for Sal’s ignorance feels forced.

On the bright side, the second half is where the novel gets interesting in an award-winning sort of way by presenting us with some very strange ideas and ethical questions. Sometimes it’s hard to take those questions seriously, but at least they’re there. And despite all my reservations, I mostly enjoyed reading this. I huffed and rolled my eyes a lot, but I kept going because I wanted to know what would happen next. I have to give it some credit for having weirdly thought-provoking ideas, and I enjoyed taking a break with a novel that didn’t need me to try very hard. I’m thinking of reading the sequel, for fun. I just wouldn’t nominate it for any awards. If anything, I think the award nomination might actually be detrimental, because it raises expectations that the novel most likely won’t fulfil. Rather just go into it expecting an sf thriller and you’ll be fine.

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan

Talulla RisingTitle: Talulla Rising
Series: The Last Werewolf
Author: Glen Duncan
Published:
 
2012
Publisher: 
Canongate Books
Genre:
 
fantasy, thriller
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

Please note: This review contains massive spoilers for book 1, The Last Werewolf.

The Last Werewolf ended with a lot of drama. Talulla was revealed to be pregnant, something no one thought was possible. Grainer knew all about Ellis’s plans to subvert WOCOP, save the werewolves and kill Grainer, so Ellis got killed instead. It looked like Jake and Talulla would both get their heads cut off, but then Cloquet pitched up in a bit of a deus ex machina and shot Grainer as revenge for killing Cloquet’s lover, Jacqueline Delon. It suddenly looked like Jake would survive, but that seemed a little too good to be true so I wasn’t surprised when Grainer managed to kill him with one last shot before dying. Talulla escaped with Cloquet’s help, and he became her handler (like Harley was for Jake)

Book 2 opens on Cloquet and a heavily pregnant Talulla hiding out in a cabin in the woods. Being a pregnant werewolf is a particularly painful experience (“biology made me its punchbag”), but Talulla gives birth much sooner than expected. Unfortunately, her son is immediately kidnapped by vampires. Luckily they don’t hang around so they miss the birth of a twin girl.

Talulla names the baby Zoë and heads out, determined to save her son – who she names Lorcan. She assumes the vampires have kidnapped him for their Helios Project – based on the discovery that a werewolf bite can grant immunity to sunlight – but the truth is worse. A small group of fanatical vampires believe in a myth about an ancient vampire named Remshi, the oldest of their kind, who reappears every few hundred years and has the ability to walk in the sunlight. To reach his full power, he has to drink the blood of a werewolf. Talulla has only a short time to find her son before they sacrifice him.

Besides taking on vampires and looking after an infant, Talulla has to worry about WOCOP, which found itself a psychopathic new leader after the loss of Grainer and Jacqueline Delon. It’s a story that manages to be even more violent and intense than the first one. And I really like it that way.

 

If I had to pick just one thing I liked about Talulla Rising, it’d be this quote:

Keep reading, Lu, Jake had advised. Literature is humanity’s broad-minded alter-ego, with room in its heart even for monsters, even for you. It’s humanity without the judgement.

But, luckily, I get to say as much as I want about why I enjoyed this book. Although I wasn’t blown away by The Last Werewolf as many readers were, I liked it well enough and I was optimistic about the second book because I thought Talulla’s narration might be more to my taste. And it is. Jake was old-fashioned and philosophical, so while I liked his insights I found his style a bit overwrought and eventually tiring. Talulla, born in the 20th century, is a bit more straightforward and her story is much more dire, giving her less time for introspection. However, we still get some of Jake’s more literary insights as Talulla quotes from his journals. The best of both worlds. There’s even a note about Jake’s possible sexual relationship with Harley, which is something I thought should have come up in the first book.

For me, Talulla also better illustrates the realities and paradoxes of being a monster. It’s clearly an important theme for this series and a major part of Jake’s character, but they both knew Talulla was the better wulf. Also, we mostly saw Jake killing strangers or enemies, and we learned of all the charity work he’d done to balance out all the murders. Talulla has not yet had the opportunity to balance out her kills, she speaks more about how the kill is better for her when it’s worse for the vicim, and there is the ever-present threat of her killing people she – and the reader – cares about. Because for werewolves, “nothing compares to killing the thing you love”. Jake made an effort to be less of a monster by, for example, avoiding women he could fall in love with. Talulla, is forced to consider the full extent of her monstrosity. Is there anything, she asks herself, that she wouldn’t do?

Throughout the book she thinks about being a “Very Bad Dirty Filthy Little Girl” – she’s always done bad things, and she’s always enjoyed it. Now, she’s faced with the prospect of killing and eating her own children and enjoying it even though she’d hate herself for doing it. She wasn’t sure if she wanted them, was worried that she wouldn’t love them and when the vampires take Lorcan she doesn’t make much of an effort to save him; the guilt of which haunts her from that moment on. She thinks about how everything would be easier if she knew for sure that he was dead and she didn’t have to risk her life to rescue him. She berates herself for thinking about sex (or having really good sex) while her son is missing. What kind of a mother is she?

She’s a bad person who gets a kind of superhuman (or rather, inhuman) enjoyment from being bad and although she doesn’t often feel guilty about her sins, it bothers her that she doesn’t have that guilt. It’s a tangle of self-conscious immorality from which she will probably never find any peace.

In addition, Talulla endures terrible pain and suffering at the hands of others – a monster at the mercy of other monsters. Although determined to do whatever is necessary to save herself, she admits that she is no better, and is arguably even worse that the people doing unspeakably cruel things to her. It’s just that she’s suddenly on the receiving end. And as the reader I like her and root for her because she’s the protagonist, but I also know she’d have lots of fun murdering and eating me, she’d enjoy it even more if she could make it extra painful and terrifying, and afterwards she wouldn’t feel guilty about it. At most she’d feel bad for not feeling guilty and I’d just be another ghost in her soul.

It’s because she’s so scary that I find Talulla to be a wonderfully dark, twisted character, and not only as a kind of literary exploration of the werewolf as a monster. She’s also an action hero, a dutiful daughter, a new mother, a friend, a lover, and all these things come into play. I particularly liked the scene where she and Cloquet join two special forces agents in a house with 5 butchered bodies. The agents are weirded out by the fact that she’s carrying Zoë, and leaves when the baby starts to cry. But Talulla needs information, so she starts breastfeeding little Zoë while she and Cloquet search for clues amidst the gore. It’s nothing if not practical. Later, Talulla leaves Zoë behind and boards a flight to go rescue Lorcan, but the flight has unexpected consequences for her as a new mother:

The flight’s other reality slap was that I’d given no thought to having suddenly stopped breastfeeding. By the time what would’ve been Zoë’s third consecutive feed had come and gone the unsuckled milk had started a knifey protest. Look, I know we’re on a mission – but would you mind if we tried to find somewhere that sells breast-pumps when we land?

I love that Duncan doesn’t make Talulla a weak, vulnerable woman in need of protection just because she’s a new mother. Lactating and looking after a baby are just two items in a list of other practical concerns like getting guns and booking flights. She heads out with a bunch of people – most of whom aren’t nearly as badass as she is – goes into dangerous situations and rips people’s arms off. She gets help when she needs it and sometimes needs to be rescued, but she’s just as capable of saving herself too. Another favourite, and unexpectedly touching scene is when Talulla’s trapped in a particularly harrowing and almost hopeless situation, and imagines her mother (who was also a “Very Bad Girl”) guiding her through the violent kill that’s required for her escape:

My mother said: Be accurate, angel. Believe you can do this, and be accurate. I’m so proud of you.

So yeah, I’m impressed with this book. It’s got everything I liked about The Last Werewolf – the monster/wulf themes, the violence, the sex, the action, the danger – and it improved on what I didn’t like – the overwhelming intensity of Jake’s style. It’s also got way more female characters (the details of which would constitute a spoiler) and does lots of interesting things with the idea of a woman as a werewolf. It’s not brilliant – there are small things that bug me and on the whole it just lacks a certain something – but it’s still a pretty amazing book. Definitely the best vampire/werewolf book I’ve read. I’m looking forward to the final book, By Blood We Live, which is actually being published TODAY.