Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.

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The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow

The Doll CollectionTitle: The Doll Collection
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: short stories, horror
Rating: 8/10

Dolls scare me. I couldn’t say why or what exactly it is about them that scares me, but I often blame the fact that I watched one of the Child’s Play movies when I was too young for all that gore. Another theory is that of the “uncanny valley”, which editor Ellen Datlow explains in her introduction:

The “uncanny valley” refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost—but not quite—like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects: our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

 

The problem with dolls, basically, is it that they’re “too human and still not human enough”.

The weird thing is that I actually like doll horror, perhaps because I like the thrill of horror and dolls can get to me without trying too hard or getting too gory. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read and review The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow. I find that short stories tend to deliver the most satisfying form in the genre, and these did not disappoint.

This is partly because Ellen Datlow curated this particular collection. Not only does she have decades of experience and multiple horror anthologies to her name, she’s also an avid doll collector. And she made one key editorial decision for this collection – no evil-doll stories. There are plenty of excellent ones out there already, she says, and the evil doll has become a bit of a cliché.

This immediately piqued my interest. Evil dolls are the most obvious choice, so how else might authors explore the theme?

Well some made use of the unnerving parallel between dolls and dead humans. In the opening story, “Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon, a man exploring the South Pole with his best friend finds two disturbingly featureless “bodies” in the snowy wasteland. He’s deeply unnerved by this mystery, but can’t bring himself to tell his friend as their relationship has deteriorated in the pitiliess conditions of the landscape.

In “The Doll Master” by Joyce Carol Oates – one of my favourites – a young boy is so distraught by the death of his little cousin, that he steals her doll. When his authoritarian father takes the doll away, he starts a secret collection of very disturbing “found dolls”.

“Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” by Stephen Graham Jones takes a slightly similar approach. A disturbed young boy identifies a doll with his stillborn sister, who he claims taught him to speak while she was in the womb. Her death has a profoundly grotesque influence on the person he becomes.

In other stories, dolls are used as tools to achieve otherworldly feats. As representatives of human beings, they often present a means of transcending our physical limitations, functioning as extra eyes and ears, or as vessels for our emotions or even our life force.

A particularly good story was “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey, in which two guys break into a home to rob the old man who lives there, only to find that there are strange little dolls watching from the corners and vicious booby-traps all over the house. It’s no surprise that the strange old man is ready and waiting for the thieves, and the story makes for a great piece of quintessentially grim, gory horror.

“In Case of Zebras” by Pat Cadigan was also impressive, but in a completely different way. It’s about a teenager sentenced to community service in a hospital; she handles seeing all the trauma cases pretty well, but one night she’s mesmerised by the incredibly realistic figurine in the hand of a heavily wounded patient, and she keeps trying to find out more about it. For me, the mysterious doll in this story was only a secondary concern; what I really loved was the voice of the fantastic main character.

Gemma Files also plays around with voice in her story, “Gaze”, which is partly composed of an online exchange between an antiques dealer who uses text speak and pop culture references, and a client whose full sentences and proper English stand out in stark comparison. The doesn’t have any dolls per se; rather, it’s about eye minatures ­– small framed portraits of a beloved’s eye, often decorated with pearls and jewels. The dealer is approached with an offer to buy an eye miniature that completes an extremely rare set of a woman with heterochromia (“2 dfrnt colourd eyes, kno th term. saw xmen 1st class 2”, the protagonist tells her client). As she goes through the client’s historical documentation, she finds a story about suspected witchcraft that suggests the eye miniature may be more than just a lover’s token.

In “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold”, Seanan McGuire explores the idea of a doll as “a vessel for the self”. An expert dollmaker crafts beautiful dolls into which she literally pours all the emotions she can’t contain. This is not because she’s an overly emotional person; she’s one of a long line of people whose purpose it is to absorb the excess emotion released into the world when Pandora opened that box (or something). I found this premise a bit silly, but I did like the idea of literally pouring emotion into dolls. It gives them a very dangerous kind of power that McGuire uses to tell a pretty good story. I also enjoyed the details about the craft of dollmaking.

Some of my favourite stories, though, were the ones where dolls were not merely used as representatives of humans, but were actually invested with a sense of humanity. When dolls become people, some truly horrifying possibiilities open up. Suddenly, dolls can see and hear things that no one else records. But far worse than this is the appalling cruelty we inflict on things assumed to be lifeless.

This is perfectly illustrated in “The Doll Court” by Richard Bowes, in which a man finds himself in the nightmarish situation of having to atone for the crimes he committed against dolls. The judge in the doll court is Debbie the Doll Detective, a character from a series of novels he read as a child, about a doll who solved crimes, often taking advantage of the fact that people assumed she was an inanimate object.

I really liked “Heroes and Villains” by Stephen Gallagher, in which a ventriloquist’s doll tells the sad truth of his owner’s death years before. To me, ventriloquist’s dolls are even more terrifying than other dolls, but Gallagher gives this one a gentler touch, while depicting the art of ventriloquism detailed authenticity.

My absolute favourite story was “The Permanent Collection” by Veronica Schanoes. An old Shirley Temple doll describes how deeply she was loved by the two girls who owned her, and how she remained connected to them even after she’d been packed away in a box for years. Later, she ends up in a private collection at The Doll Hospital, whose owner enjoys mutilating his dolls and can hear their screams of agony. It’s an incredibly sad, touching story. You really get a sense of how much dolls mean to some people, especially to children, which in turn just makes it so much more horrific when those dolls are abused

Another poignant tale can be found in “After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz, a postapocalyptic story in which two children leave their camp to explore a blighted landscape. There’s a fair amount of barbarity to their postapocalyptic lifestyle, which includes making shrunken-head dolls out of all the babies who die in their community. I struggled to get into this story at first, but at the end it broke my heart.

These last two stories by Schanoes and Siemienowicz and the one by Gallagher illustrate one of the things I love about this collection – they really demonstrates the range of the horror genre. You’ve got gory stories like Richard Kadrey’s and “Doctor Faustus” by Mary Robinette Kowal (in which a demon uses a dead human body like a hand puppet) – the kinds of tales most people probably think about when they think of horror. Then you’ve got the more subtle psychological horror that some fans (myself included) usually prefer to the bloodier stuff. But then you’ve also got stories like the ones by Cadigan and Files, which to me are more about voice and character than straight-up creepiness. There’s also a rather cute (if you can ever apply that word in this genre) story called “Miss Sibyl-Cassandra” by Lucy Sussex, about a doll designed as a fortune-telling party gimmick, wearing a skirt made of slips of paper with fortunes written on them. And then of course there are the beautiful, tragic stories by Schanoes, Siemienowicz, and Gallagher where the horror is bound up in the emotion you feel for the characters.

All in all, I am very pleased with this anthology. The writing is strong throughout, and although I didn’t love every story (well, you never do) none of them left me feeling completely cold (although, admittedly, Genevieve Valentine’s very subtle story “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” had me rather confused). I also wanted to add that every story comes with a photograph of a doll. Most of them gave me a fright as they flashed onto my Kindle screen when I turned the page after dark. But of course, dolls scare me.

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just CityTitle: The Just City
Series: Thessaly #1
Author: Jo Walton
Published: 13 January 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, mythology, fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Across the ages, a few hundred people pray to the goddess Athene to live in Plato’s republic, the Just City. In response, Athene conducts an experiment. She brings together all those who prayed to her, to design and build the Just City, of which they will be the Masters. She sets it on the island of Kallisti, also known as Atlantis, so that the city will be destroyed. No trace of it will be left to screw with history, but it could “leave legends that can bear fruit in later ages”. Using her time-travelling abilities, she helps the Masters collect all the literature they need, and rescue original works of art for the education of the citizens. To populate the City, they buy 10080 ten-year-old child slaves to train and educate to be their best selves, thus producing a just city ruled by philosopher kings.

Among the children is Athene’s brother, the god Apollo, in the form of a ten-year-old boy. Apollo couldn’t understand why the nymph Daphne would rather be turned into a tree than have sex with him and decided to live as a human to understand this strange idea that other people have their own desires that are just as important as his own.

Apollo – living as the boy Pytheas – learns a lot from his friendship with Simmea, a Libyan girl who loves the City and always strives not only to be her best self, but to understand what that means. Apollo and Simmea frequently clash with Kebes, a child who hates the City because no one ever gave him a choice about living there.

Kebes is in the minority because for most, the City is a utopia or at least a far better home than the times and places they came from. Maia, for example, used to be Ethel from Victorian England, where she was warned that her passion for reading and studying would cause her to be labelled a “bluestocking” whom no man would want to marry. In the Just City, however, she can do fulfilling work by learning and teaching what she loves most. Most women feel similarly liberated.

But it’s definitely not a utopia, as many realise from the very beginning. It suffers from the flaws and absurdities in Plato’s work, as well as the circumstances of its creation and simple human imperfection. Then, when Socrates is brought to the City against his will, he starts questioning everything about it in his classic style.

I’ll admit that I’ve never read a word of The Republic. Presumably those familiar with Plato will get a lot more out of The Just City, but I loved it anyway, and I think anyone who likes philosophy would enjoy it too. Much of the book is made up of philosophical debate, whether internal or between characters, as they reflect on the creation of the City, its ability to fulfil its ideals, and their own places in it. The City itself is a magnificent setting for a novel, with its beautiful architecture, fine art, delicious food and wine, expansive libraries… Basically, I want to live there, except perhaps for the bit about the naked wrestling and weird breeding practices (more about that later).

However, the most interesting thing about the novel is not the way the City lives up to Plato’s ideals but in the many ways it fails to be just or good, because these tend to be the most though-provoking aspects. Firstly, the way it was created leads to fundamental problems. The Masters are all people who prayed to Athena to live in Plato’s republic. The circumstances of history mean that most of the people who would have the education and inclination to do such a thing are men from the ancient world, most of whom are old and come from very conservative times. Thus the Masters suffer from a distinct gender imbalance and lack of diversity, so the City is heavily influenced by people who are used to being in power, have no respect for women, and think it’s perfectly fine to keep slaves. Even though Plato argued that women can be philosophers too, they end up having less say in the way the City is run, and their personal lives are affected by it. For example, it’s decided that the Masters should not have any children, but the responsibility for preventing contraception seems to be the women’s alone. When the issue of rape arises, the City suddenly seems a very backward place, not a philosophical utopia.

One of the biggest problems is the text that led to the whole experiment. All the Masters admire The Republic, of course, but many of its principles are what we would consider fascist. The children are not allowed to acknowledge the truth of where they came from; they have to repeat the Noble Lie of having been born from the earth in the City. All texts and artworks are carefully chosen to suit Platonic ideals. The children are forbidden from reading The Republic because it would reveal the extent to which the Masters (and the future philosopher kings) have to lie to and manipulate them. Slavery is forbidden, but only insofar as it is considered immoral for one person to own another; the work reserved for slaves still needs to be done. Athena provides robots from the future to do this, but this is only meant to be a temporary solution until the children have grown up and a worker class of inferior minds is identified. In fact, the Masters are expected to categorise all the children according to a hierarchical system, with the best philosophers at the top.

It gets worse. When the children get older and the girls reach childbearing age, the Masters start the breeding programmes that Plato described, and it becomes abundantly clear that “what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring”. Ditto for what he knew about what it’s like being a woman (i.e. a female human being and not, say, a baby-making machine).

So far I might have made this seem like a very cold, analytical novel, but it isn’t. It’s the characters who grapple with these issues in their daily lives, so that the philosophy becomes a very personal, engaging thing. I cared about all the POV characters – Simmea, Pytheas/Apollo, Maia – so I wanted to know how philosophy affected their lives and what they thought about it. And Walton has chosen characters that present some of the most interesting perspectives.

As one of the Masters, Maia experiences the deep-seated inequality among the people responsible for building the City, and worries about the way they’re raising the children. Apollo, as the boy Pytheas, experiences all this as a god in human form. He has all his memories and knowledge, but has none of his powers. He’s read The Republic and knows, for example, that Plato was wrong in his ideas about the soul. He can also compare being a god with being a human, and compare the way the gods think about humans to the reality of living as a human.

Simmea is essentially the City’s perfect citizen – highly intelligent, analytical, focused, hard-working, creative. She knows how much worse her life would have been if the Masters hadn’t rescued her, and she’s wholly invested in the core ideals of the Just City. At the same time, she’s smart enough to think critically about it, even if that if it means facing uncomfortable truths. Together, Simmea and Apollo also reflect on various kinds of intimate and sexual relationships, between themselves and with other people. The Just City doesn’t allow for any kind of close, long-term sexual relationship, which is terrible on the one hand, but also gives room to explore other ways that intimate relationships grow between people.

Then there’s Kebes. He’s an unlikeable oaf (especially since we never read from his POV) but he articulates one crucial problem – the children were not given any choice in becoming part of the Just City. At first it seems like Kebes is being unnecessarily rebellious, since the children were saved from slavery and now live what many would consider an idyllic life. But Kebes doesn’t seem so unreasonable when you consider the fact that no one is allowed to leave the City (and they’d have nowhere to go, either). In fact, he gets flogged for trying to run away. He’s considered a troublemaker by the Masters because he doesn’t buy into their idea of his ‘best self’ (another problem with the City – you can criticise it if you’re trying to make it better, but you don’t have the freedom to reject its ideals completely).

The story spans about a decade, pensively exploring its way this thought experiment. I know this sort of thing wouldn’t be for everyone, and lots of people might find it dead boring. It’s mostly ideas and debates, with a meandering plot. But that’s part of what I like about it. Intellectually, it’s very engaging, but I also find it to very soothing. It’s easy to follow the various trains of thought, to see characters backtrack through their thoughts to examine their assumptions, or see how a new experience changes the way they think. It’s a kind of meditation, but one that caters to a contemporary sff reader. I think the basis of its appeal is captured by Maia, when she expresses her admiration for Plato in response to Socrates’ criticisms of him:

I think he invited us all into the inquiry. Nobody reads Plato and agrees with everything. But nobody reads any of the dialogues without wanting to be there joining in. Everybody reads it and is drawn into the argument and the search for the truth. We’re always arguing here about what he meant and what we should do. Plato laid down the framework for us to carry on with. He showed us—and this I believe he did get from you—he showed us how to inquire into the nature of the world and ourselves, and examine our lives, and know ourselves. Whether you really had the particular conversations he wrote down or not, by writing them he invited us all into the great conversation.

The Just City has a similar effect. For that, and it’s many other lovely qualities, I recommend it very highly.

Up for Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

I’m really looking forward to this philosophical fantasy novel.

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton (Tor Books)

“Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.”

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

 

The Just City will be published on 13 January 2015 by Tor Books

Links
Publisher’s website
Author’s website

Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias ShadowTitle: Delia’s Shadow
Author: 
Jaime Lee Moyer
Series: 
Delia Martin
Published:
 
17 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Genre:
 
historical fantasy, romance, mystery
Source: 
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
2/10

The setting is San Francisco, 1915, and Delia Martin is returning from a a self-imposed exile in New York. For most of her life Delia has seen ghosts but after the great earthquake that rocked San Francisco in 1906, there were so many that she couldn’t handle seeing them all, and fled. For some unknown reason, she didn’t see ghosts in New York, until one started haunting her – a young woman who also came from San Francisco and was murdered there by a serial killer 30 years ago. The ghost – referred to as Shadow – wants Delia to help solve the mystery of her death and stop the killer, who is stalking San Francisco’s streets again.

Delia is rich and could have any house she wanted, but prefers to stay with her best friend Sadie. Coincidentally, Sadie is engaged to Sergeant Jack Fitzgerald, who is investigating the serial killer with his good friend and partner Lieutenant Gabe Ryan. And it just so happens that Gabe’s father worked on the first case thirty years ago, so Gabe immediately spotted the killer’s pattern and realised they are hunting the same man. Sadie tries a bit of matchmaking with Delia and Gabe, and they all go to an international fair together, which is fortunate because it gets Delia and the detectives together right away. When the men learn that Delia sees ghosts, they share their own experience of seeing a ghost, which miraculously happens to be the same ghost haunting Delia! Shadow has been causing Delia to have dreams of her encounter with the killer, which is advantageous, because it means Delia can prove it’s the same ghost right then and there.

Luckily for Delia, everyone believes her about the ghosts, and they go to see a psychic who just so happens to have a tent at the fair. It’s a good thing that the psychic – Isadora – is the real deal and knows everything she needs to know about helping Delia deal with Shadow and figure out what happened to her. But of course Shadow can’t just lead them straight to the killer because then this would be a short story, not a novel. So Delia, the detectives and Isadora try to find the killer through the information they get from his victims’ ghosts. In the meantime, Delia and Gabe start falling in love.

I didn’t mean to write the plot summary like that, but I lapsed into snark mode because Delia’s Shadow is just so contrived and silly. It falls horribly flat in every way – as a mystery, as a romance, and as a ghost story. It’s not unnerving, tense, engaging or charming. Despite the fact that two of the major characters are policeman in charge of the serial killer case, there’s almost no detective work, like following clues, trying to understand the killer’s motives, how that influences his choice of victim, predicting what he might do next, etc. None of the interesting stuff that draws readers to crime novels. At most, they figure out that he’s following an ancient Egyptian ritual, but this is of no importance whatsoever. Gabe and Jack rely almost entirely on Delia and Isadora to make any progress in the case. Their only real job seems to be sending other policeman to provide a 24-hour guard service for Sadie and Delia, Isadora, and even Gabe’s landlady (because the killer might attack people close to the detectives).

Equally absurd, is the fact that they have the resources for 24-hour protection. Isadora gets a police guard right after they meet her at fair, based on the fact that she also saw Shadow and understands the connection to the killer. How the fuck does Gabe justify this to his squad? “Please protect this psychic. She saw the ghost of a woman the killer murdered 30 years ago.”

Mind you, no one ever questions Gabe’s decisions, and he and Jack are portrayed as exemplary detectives. Nevermind that there’s a killer running loose while the best policemen take Delia and Sadie shopping.

And then there’s the romance. I don’t usually enjoy romance, and I didn’t realise it would be a major feature of this plot. Also, it’s SO BORING. Gabe is still in mourning after his pregnant wife’s death in the earthquake, and neither nor Delia are looking for romance. Still, they hit it off immediately and their relationship progresses very quickly and smoothly. That’s part of the problem – it’s just too easy. Another problem is that, because the serial killer poses a danger to all the major characters, the romance – and the story in general – involves an awful lot of fretting about everyone’s safety, how terrible it’d be to lose someone to the killer, how difficult it is for Delia to see ghosts, how brave everyone is being, how very very dreadful this whole situation is. Basically a whole lot of mundane thoughts that people in this situation would naturally think about, but that don’t make for thrilling reading. A better author would have made it succinct but forceful. This is just a stream of blah blah blah.

And it’s all very traditional too. The men go out to investigate (not that they achieve anything), and make it their responsibility to protect the women. The women mostly stay at home wringing their hands, and only go out when escorted by men. Whenever Delia makes a major effort to get useful information from the ghosts, Gabe is there to hold her hand and catch her in case she swoons (which she often does).

No shortage of female stereotypes here. Sadie is a collection of them – she’s charm incarnate, likes matchmaking, and has a reputation as a gossip, but is a loving, caring person at heart. She makes little contribution to the story, except to connect everyone who does (Jack, Gabe, Delia and Isadora, who is also a friend of hers), and to be a perpetual damsel in distress

Delia annoyed the crap out of me with all her trembling, crying and worrying. And let’s not forget Annie, the black housekeeper, who is not just a female but a racial stereotype as well. Annie is happiest when she has people to feed, you can immediately tell she’s black because of her sentence structure, she sings hymns while working in the kitchen, has a forceful but caring personality (no one would dare refuse a plate of her pancakes!), and is full of wisdom.

Not that the male characters are any less cliche. Jack and Gabe are sturdy old-fashioned men, brave and strong and kind, worrying about their women and often sharing a chuckle over how smart and charming the girls are. Our villain is the very simplistic evil psychopath who kills people because of something that happened in his childhood.

The climax to this tedious story is predictable and surprisingly short. The killer only appears on the page for about five seconds. You get the sense that he was almost a sideshow, or an excuse for the drama and romance that characterises the story.

Honestly, this book got progressively worse as I read, and it continued to worsen the more I thought about it. Besides all the issues I’ve discussed, it’s riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. And it has so much padding. Like descriptions of clothing and decor that are probably meant to build the historical setting, but which are totally irrelevant and will be forgotten the moment after you’ve read them. Or all the affection, concern, random observations and other useless blathering that comes out of the characters’ mouths. The author wastes words, and I felt like I wasted my time reading them.

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.

The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla

The World of the EndTitle: The World of the End
Author: Ofir Touché Gafla
Translation: from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Published:  First published 2004, Tor edition published 25 June 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: mystery, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

Ben Mendelsshon is a righter. In intellectual circles he’s known as an epilogist. What he does is ‘right’ other writers’ work by write endings for them. But the one ending Ben cannot handle is the death of his wife Marian in a freak accident. The couple were deeply in love and had what seemed like the perfect marriage. Unwilling to give up on it, Ben commits suicide in the hope of being reunited with Marian.

The afterlife he finds himself in is neither heaven nor hell. It’s just another world – the Other World – where all the dead keep on living in something similar to a standard, westernised city life, with a few decidedly odd differences, like the fact that there are no clothes so everyone walks around naked. Each individual is given an apartment based on the date and time they died, but when Ben goes to Marian’s apartment, he learns that if was left abandoned.

Desperate to find his wife but clueless as to how to do it, Ben enlists the help of Mad Hop, a passionate detective (whose nickname is based on his favourite fictional detectives – Marple, Dalgliesh, Holmes and Poirot). While they track down Marian, interlinking narratives play out in the world of the living. A famous artist who was once asked to paint Marian’s portrait has a stroke and ends up in a coma. His wife Bessie remains hopeful that he will wake up, while a socially dysfunctional nurse tries to convince Bessie to switch off the life support, as she does with all patients in that condition. The nurse, Anne, has fallen deeply in love with Ben, after seeing him in the gym on her daily walk home from work, and his unexplained absence upsets her.

In a more romantic love story, a man and woman begin an online romance based on their shared love of Salman Rushdie’s writing. Inexplicably, the woman is named Marian and recently divorced her bastard of a husband. Her presence is just as perplexing for the reader as her absence is for Ben. Is Marian dead or alive? Nothing quite makes sense.

It’s a convoluted mystery with loads of characters (I’ve mentioned fewer than half of them), but the story is actually fairly easy to follow. Gafla starts out with a bunch of seemingly disparate narrative threads and slowly begins to weave them together into a story that’s much bigger than it seemed at first. Ben’s search for Marian is still at the heart of it, but other characters’ lives and actions play into it in myriad ways that only the reader – who sees all the POVs – has the scope to appreciate.

It avoids being confusing at least partly because Gafla writes vivid, memorable characters. It’s clearly one of the things he loves most about writing fiction, and one of his greatest skills in the craft. His characters all have their own stories and quirks that are interesting in themselves, full of love, loathing, humour, horror, weirdness and wonder. So, when a character suddenly pops up several chapters after they were first introduced, they tend to be easily recognisable even if you’ve forgotten their names.

Gafla’s not quite so good when it comes to world-building though. Compared to our world, The Other World is a utopia of peace, technological advancement and immortality but it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The enforced nudity supposedly makes people “infinitely more trusting, developing a reputable, honest society where costumes, masks, and other props are unnecessary”, but it seems impractical. I’d want shoes and sports bras at the very least. And since people still put on plays and other forms of entertainment, what’s wrong with costumes? Also, it’s very fucking odd, but it seems like everyone adjusts to it far too easily after living in a world that requires clothing.

Another world-building issue is the godget – a remote control that each person carries on a strap around their neck. The godget has six buttons, each of which is used to control some aspect of your existence – making it your favourite time of day, effecting your preferred mode of sleep (dreams, no dreams, number of hours), providing updates on the previous world. The way it works is really stupid. For example, button two controls your personal climate, so you click the button once for snowy, twice for cold but not rainy, three times for cold and rainy, and so on with the final option at twelve clicks. How does anyone remember how all these options? A technologically advanced world like this one would have come up with a much more user-friendly device. And if they can give you recordings of your ENTIRE life to watch, how can they still be using video tapes? It’s clearly stated that the Other World advances with the world of the living, so there’s absolutely no excuse for tapes.

However, I would say that you shouldn’t worry too much about the world-building. The World of the End is the kind of novel where that particular lapse in logic can be frowned at and then shrugged off because it’s not the focus of the book. The Other World is there to allow a certain story to play out, rather than as a serious speculation of how the afterlife might function (although it’s an infinitely better idea than heaven or hell).

What you do get then, are ideas on what kind of life you might lead in the Other World, because it’s really just another kind of life. Without currency or any need to work, people tend to do things because they’re passionate about them, like Mad Hop who has “always investigated for the right reasons, unadulterated curiosity. Nothing satisfies me more than the clean annihilation of question marks.” Famous artists, writers and musicians continue to produce new work, often using the technology of later centuries. People can carry their obsessions from one world to the next, they can change with the times (the technology of the present is available to all the dead of the past, for example), they can opt for eternal sleep if they can’t handle eternity. And face with eternity, people’s relationships have changed. Ben has to face up to the possibility that Marian might not want to be with him anymore, since death nullified their marriage vows. And if he finds her, they will eventually part ways anyway.

Admittedly, these ideas aren’t explored in great depth because it would detract from the main story and there just isn’t enough room. As you might have noticed, there’s a lot going on here, and later in the novel there’s also a lot of musing on Ben’s predicament. There’s a metafictional touch when Mad Hop suggests that Ben’s anguish comes not from the fact that he hasn’t found Marian but from the possibility that he might not find her – he’s a man who crafted endings for a living, and he assumed his suicide would either lead him to Marian (a happy ending) or oblivion (the end to all his stories). He did not imagine that Marian could go missing while life went on in new ways. I quite liked this and some of the other little musings by various characters, but this is also where the books takes a turn for the worse.

At the start, it’s a tightly-written, clever story. After the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. It gets a bit long-winded, the living-world narratives keep expanding, and the search for Marian is too unstructured. Mad Hop doesn’t seem like a particularly good detective. He doesn’t do much investigating himself; most of the time he shows Ben investigative paths, like sending him to speak to dead relatives that Marian may have contacted. Then, there are times when Ben happens to mention key information that he didn’t know would be useful. Each time, Mad Hop gets angry at Ben for holding back, but Ben doesn’t hold back; he just doesn’t know what’s important because he doesn’t know how the Other World works. It should be Mad Hop’s responsibility to ask the right questions.

I was starting to worry that this initially wonderful book would leave me disappointed, but I was happy with the way it ended. It’s not exactly a nice, neat ending, but by this point in the book you should know not to expect one. What Gafla does throughout the novel is give us a sense of human life with all its complications, absurdities, joys and disappointments, and the ending is no different. He never descends into dreary realism – on the contrary, so much of this novel is totally bizarre – but he tends to balance happy resolutions with bad ones and non-existent ones. I quite like it and I’m glad I read this one. It’s something very different for both mystery and spec fic readers.