The Passage by Justin Cronin

Title: The Passage
Series: The Passage #1
Author: 
Justin Cronin
Published: 
First published 8 June 2012; this edition published 17 may 2011
Publisher: 
Ballantine Books
Genre: 
horror, post-apocalyptic, science fiction, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
4/10

The Passage is an excellent reminder for me to be wary of bestsellers. Some are just as wonderful as the hype suggests, but most end up being dull, conventional blather that is simply easy for a lot of people to like. If your idea of a really good book is something that surpasses the norm in terms of writing, characters, or ingenuity, then don’t read The Passage.

The plot is familiar. The military experiments with a virus that’s supposed to create supersoldiers, but creates monsters instead. The monsters escape and start killing people while infecting others. Soon, North America, and possibly the world, is overrun, with small groups of humans trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Humanity’s only hope lies in a unique test subject who got all the benefits of the virus and none of the human-devouring aggression.

Well thanks, but I’ve seen all the Resident Evil movies. They’re fantastically stupid, but it’s much more fun to watch Milla Jovovich kick zombie ass than slog through 800 pages of unnecessarily detailed, slow-paced pseudo-horror.

Like many readers and reviewers, I only enjoyed the first 250 pages, in which Cronin sets up the main plot (yes, it takes that long). Through a series of emails, we learn that a scientist named Lear to the jungles of Boliva, hoping to find the cure for all human ailments. He’s accompanied by soldiers and researchers, almost all of whom die horribly when attacked by vampire bats. However, the mission achieves its goal when Lear returns with a man infected with the virus they were looking for.

Thus begins Project Noah, so-named because Noah lived for over 900 years in the bible. The virus is supposed to make people similarly near-immortal, and because it’s a military initiative, the main, narrow-minded goal is to “weaponize” the human form, accompanied by a vision of “the American Way as something truly long-term. As in permanent”. To test the virus, twelve death-row inmates are recruited with the promise of immortality.

So we’ve got jingoistic hubris, twelve murderers who get eternal life instead of death, and a virus from crazed vampire bats. Obviously things will go horribly wrong. The test subjects are turned into sparkling bioluminescent vampires with skin like diamonds “so hard it made Kevlar look like pancake batter”. One of them also has psychic powers that he uses to manipulate the guards into letting them out, and thus begins the vampire apocalypse.

Unfortunately it takes almost a quarter of the novel for us to get that far, or even encounter a scene that you could actually call horror, because there are parallel plots telling the detailed stories of Wolgast, Carter, and Amy. Brad Wolgast is an FBI agent whose job it is to recruit the death-row inmates for Project NOAH. He and his partner Doyle head off to pick up the last of the inmates – Anthony Carter, a small, shy, and slightly retarded black man, who is actually innocent of killing the rich white woman whose lawn he used to mow.

After recruiting Carter, Wolgast and Doyle are sent to pick up (ie. kidnap) Amy, a six-year-old girl recently abandoned at a convent by her destitute mother. How Project NOAH found out about her or why exactly they want her is left to your imagination. Amy has been taken in by a nun with some sort of psychic power who just knows that their destinies are entwined. Amy herself has a special power, but we’re never told what it is. Wolgast and Doyle nab her, and although Wolgast tries to escape with her, she ends up at the NOAH base where she’s infected with the virus, shortly before the vampire apocalypse begins.

I enjoyed the novel up until this point. It’s very slow, and you get far more detail about the characters than you need, but it was interesting enough. It takes a long time for the main plot to get going, but with 800 pages and two sequels in the works, I figured Cronin could take his time. Then, to my dismay, the plot jumped forward 92 years and completely failed to ever be quite as interesting as the first part.

A tedious series of diary entries explains that a colony of survivors was established in California, forming a society that has lived there ever since. There are a lot of subplots involving families, friends and romantic attachments, as well as a lot of information about how the colony is run, but the gist of the story is that the machinery supplying the electricity is getting worn down and when the lights go out the vampires will come and everyone will die screaming. Amy eventually comes back into the story, having wandered alone for almost a century. She holds the key to ending the vampire apocalypse, and a group of young colonists embark on a journey to take her to Colorado, following a faint radio signal asking anyone who finds Amy to take her there.

It was a bit jarring to jump from one set of characters to another, with a completely different plot that’s even slower than the first. I also found that I didn’t care much about these new characters. Cronin gives us lots of details about their backgrounds and current situations, and yet most of them remain dull. I got very impatient waiting for Amy to come back into the story, but when she did I was disappointed. She barely speaks and is mostly passive, just like her six-year-old self in the first part. She’s a century-old woman in the body of a child, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she behaves. Amy is potentially the most interesting character, but she’s kept in the background and is unable to answer any pressing questions for either the reader or the new characters, who know nothing about how the vampire plague began. She’s supposed to be the “girl who saves the world”, but not because of any action she takes. Her power lies only in what she is or what she’s made to be, and it’s the other characters who must take action and manoeuvre her into position like an inanimate tool.

I wasn’t too impressed with the vampires either. They’re more like vampire zombies, because they become mindless bloodsuckers. The first vampires are known as The Twelve (which is also the title for the second book), while the rest are their descendants, a hoard known as The Many. None of them manage to be particularly scary. I was really hoping that Amy at least would be creepy, but she is consistently bland.

By the last quarter, I was getting very tired of the whole story, which started to feel increasingly random and chaotic, like a mad dash to the finish. Perhaps Cronin had been losing steam too. The worst part was the way the novel went from being light sci fi to some kind of spiritualist fantasy at the climax. For so long I’d been waiting patiently for proper explanations of how the virus worked, what made Amy special, and why the virus reacted differently to her. The novel has the opportunity to provide all of this information but gives none of it. We do find out what role Amy has to play in the vampire apocalypse, but it’s not a scientific explanation – it’s a vague, semi-Christian phenomenon with no connection to what we know about the virus. In fact, by this point in the novel, we frequently see science or sci fi falling away to be replaced by fantasy, spiritualism or general vagueness. The most annoying example is when an important ‘scientific’ character dies and allows a religious one to live so that we end up being given the latter character’s Christian interpretation of events instead of a detailed technical one. It’s extremely frustrating and totally unsatisfying. If Cronin is holding back all the interesting information for the sequels, then he’s doing this novel a huge disservice.

Why the hell is this so popular?  I kept asking myself this as I trudged on, and came up with a few guesses. It’s pretty easy to read, despite its length. With all the travelling the characters do, it functions as a kind of epic American novel, exploring the country’s landscape. The content focuses on domestic drama more than it does on horror or science, which I think makes it appealing to a wider audience. I dislike all the spiritual/religious stuff particularly since it doesn’t suit earlier parts of the novel, but I know I’m probably in the minority there and for some it probably makes the book more meaningful.

I have to admit that, for some stupid reason, I feel an urge to read The Twelve. I think my brain is still being manipulated by all the hype that surrounds The Passage. I better set it straight before I spend another week reading a boring novel that’s twice as long as it needs to be.

 

Buy The Passage at The Book Depository

Review of God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Title: God Save the Queen
Series: The Immortal Empire #1
Author: Kate Locke (pseudonym for Kathryn Smith)
Published: 03 July 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, urban fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

It’s the present day in an alternative vision of our world. History took a different turn in the 19th century when a mutation of the bubonic plague – known as the Prometheus Plague – turned Britain’s aristocrats into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Apparently they really did have better blood, because the rest of the human population died by the thousands. Society is now divided according to the level of plague in your blood – there are the aristos (fully plagued), the halvies (half-plagued hybrids born of human mothers and vamp or were fathers), and humans. Queen Victoria, a vampire, is about to celebrate 175 years ruling the still-powerful British Empire.

At both the top and the very bottom of the social ladder are the goblins. Technically they’re the most ‘aristocratic’, since they’re the most plagued, but as the most bestial of the races they’re hated and feared by all. They live underground and feed on any flesh, be it aristo, halvie or human.

Alexandra (Xandra) Varden is a member of the prestigious Royal Guard, a security force sworn to protect the aristos. Like most halvies, she was trained to fight in order to provide security services to the aristos, and Xandra was at the very top of her class. She’s an ass-kicking, corset-wearing, vampire halvie with hair as red as blood. Her father is a duke, and she’s unquestioningly loyal to queen and country. Her comfortable view of English society begins to crack and crumble when Xandra learns that her sister Drusilla (Dede) committed suicide after being sent to Bedlam, a notorious insane asylum. Refusing to believe that Dede would do such a thing, Xandra investigates the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding her ‘death’.

Nothing she finds puts her mind at ease. Conspiracies roil beneath the surface of British society, implicating the aristos in horrific crimes that Xandra cannot believe them capable of committing. A rebel group fights for democracy, denouncing the superiority of any race, calling the aristocracy a dictatorship. Such treasonous ideas go against everything Xandra believes, but in her stubbourn search for the truth she’s slowly forced to rethink her view of the people she loves, the races she’s judged and the ideals she’s based her life upon. She runs headlong into danger, romance, and an unbelievable new life.

With its cute, bold cover and enticing blurb, God Save the Queen gives a good impression of being loads of fun and just really cool. And when you read it you can’t help but imagine how awesome it would look as a movie because it really is full of cool, fun stuff. Xandra is a very sexy heroine with great hair (one of the advantages of being a halvie or aristo) in a rare, bright red colour (all halvies have colourful hair – indigo, pink, blue, etc.). She can rock a corset and kick ass in an evening gown. With a talent for violence and a wicked temper, she’s always getting herself into action scenes, often with a frock coat swirling stylishly around her. And speaking of action and style, Xandra also hooks up with Vex McLaughlin, the ultra-sexy Scottish alpha werewolf, who I imagined being played by Joe Manganiello (Alcide from True Blood) in a gorgeous tailored suit. Yum. God Save the Queen hits plenty of the right buttons with a bit of sex, lots of violence, alternate history, vampires, werewolves, corsets and really awesome hair, so it would have been a really great novel if it wasn’t so damn sloppy.

My first issue – it’s supposed to be very English, but it feels very American. It might take place in London in a world where the sun hasn’t set on the British Empire and an iconic English queen holds the throne, but it reads like it was written by an American, for other Americans, based on an American idea of England (although apparently the author is Canadian). Xandra uses words like “bollocks”, “knickers” and “fag” (as in cigarette), but it’s not going to fool anyone when ‘lieutenant’ is spelt “leftenant”, presumably to force American readers to use the English pronunciation. I think it’s weird to say “leftenant” too, but that just made me cringe. The novel lacks the right feels for its setting, and it doesn’t help that Xandra keeps making comparisons with American things (action movies, their eagle), as if to help US readers relate to this foreign fantasy setting. Is that necessary? And why would Xandra’s character be thinking of America? In this world, the British Empire reigns supreme; it can’t be assumed that the USA would have the same cultural dominance that it has in our world.

This brings me to my next issue – world-building with an alternate history. There are many interesting if awkward info dumps to explain how this science fantasy version of London came about – the biology of the plague, significant historical events, contemporary social structures, law, tech, etc. – but it’s not thorough enough. Locke devotes about half a paragraph to mentioning how the rest of the world looks, although Africa is entirely forgotten. Rather odd, since Britain has kept most of its colonies, but apparently a few extra decades of British imperialism and slavery aren’t worth any ink. London appears to be a multi-species but mono-cultural city where the aristocracy are so old-fashioned they hold balls every week and use horse-drawn carriages. Not that there’s any shortage of modern technology; humans and halvies use all the conveniences we’re used to – cellphones, cars, computers, tracking devices, DVDs. These things have different names and aren’t quite as slick as our own, but it’s hardly worthy of the term ‘steampunk’. Neither of the two World Wars happened, so why has technology advanced as if they did, especially when many aristos shun such things?

Look closely, or just attentively at God Save the Queen and you’ll notice that it’s rife with holes, inconsistencies and absurdities. How does Xandra ride a motorbike while wearing an evening gown with her hair pinned up? How does she manage to be stealthy with that striking red hair? If halvies and aristos age very slowly, then why have all the halvies in the novel aged like normal human beings?

Locke also commits many mystery-plot sins, making her characters ignore the obvious or suspicious, avoid pressing questions, withhold information or suddenly turn into morons, all to prolong the suspense. In the first chapter, Xandra goes to the goblin prince for information about her sister, because somehow the goblins know about everything that happens topside. If the novel stuck to that premise, it could have been a lot shorter. Dede commits suicide by setting herself on fire, which is such a dumbass way of killing yourself that I couldn’t believe Xandra was the only one to consider the possibility that her death was faked and a body burned to make identification difficult. Their brother Val is an investigator for Scotland Yard, but he just runs with the theory that Dede was “hatters”.

Xandra is right, of course, but she’s not always that sharp. Like when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her, but just can’t put her finger on why she looks so very familiar. Yes, really.

The novel seems to improve in the second half, perhaps because some secrets are revealed so there are fewer investigative shortcomings. Once the plot gets going there’s less opportunity to dwell on problems in world-building, and it probably helps that there’s lots of action and that Vex is so incredibly hot.

I also appreciated Xandra’s character, to an extent. OK, she’s a temperamental bitch, but intentionally so, and she has to deal with some major life changes. At the beginning she’s blindly patriotic and openly, unabashedly prejudiced. She tends to jump to conclusions and cling to them, so on the whole she’s rather close-minded. She’s clearly being set up to have her mindset challenged if not bludgeoned, and it’s pleasing to see that happen. She’s still a bitch at the end, but that’s ok. Good girls are overrated.

If you can avoid being fussy or demanding, God Save the Queen is a decent entertaining read. It’s annoying at the start, but it gets better and there’s a wonderfully satisfying demise for one of the villains. I like the ideas at the core of the novel, I just wish they’d been properly fleshed out. And yeah, I’d read the sequel, The Queen is Dead, due out in 2013. I like a good American action movie as much as the next person.

Buy a copy of God Save the Queen at The Book Depository.

Review of Carpathia by Matt Forbeck

Title: Carpathia
Author: Matt Forbeck
Published: 28 February 2012 (USA & Canada); 1 March 2012 (rest of the world)
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre: fantasy, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher
My Rating: 4/10

The first thing I need to tell you is that the official Angry Robot blurb for this book is misleading. This is what it says:

When the desperate survivors of the Titanic were rescued from the icy waters of the North Atlantic by the passenger steamship Carpathia, they thought their problems were over.

But something was sleeping in the darkest recesses of the rescue ship. Something old. Something hungry.

The lucky ones wished they’d gone down with the ship.

Based on that blurb, I assumed the plot went something like this: Titanic sinks. Survivors are rescued by the Carpathia. Unknown monsters start preying on the passengers of the Carpathia. Survivors must find out what the monsters are and kill them or be eaten. Reader gets to enjoy a combination of mystery and horror.

Lies!

Firstly, it’s only about a third of the way into the novel that the survivors actually board the Carpathia. Until then, you have to spend an unexpectedly long and boring amount of time with characters on the sinking ship and in the icy water, waiting for the rescue ship to arrive.

Secondly, the monsters don’t even wait for the Titanic to finish sinking before making a meal of the passengers. Soon after the distress call is sent, they hurry over to the vessel to feed on the poor survivors, who everyone will just assume drowned.

Finally, there’s no mystery about what the monsters are. They’re vampires. “[S]omething…sleeping… Something old. Something hungry” – that’s just marketing crap to build tension that the book wastes little time in dissipating. And I’d really been looking forward to that mystery.

To be fair though, this is a criticism of the blurb and my interpretation of it rather than the story; it doesn’t mean the book itself can’t still be good. Except it’s not. It’s lame. I wish Angry Robot had given Matt Forbeck that blurb and told him to write a story that fit it, because I found the blurb pretty enticing in a pulpy sort of way.

So what’s wrong with the novel? Well most of my issues with it are actually linked to the ways in which it departs from assumptions I made based on the blurb. It takes too long for the Carpathia to pick up the passengers, and in the meantime we’re treated to something that feels a like a novelisation of James Cameron’s movie after they hit the iceberg, with the addition of vampires who feed on the passengers. Instead of Jack, Rose and that other guy, you’ve got a love triangle between three lifelong friends, Lucy Seward, Abe (Abraham) Holmwood and Quin (Quincey) Harker. Hint fucking hint. Forbeck obviously wasn’t trying to write a mystery novel, or he wouldn’t have named all three of his leads after characters from Dracula. At first this seemed like a reference gone too far, but it’s later revealed that Bram Stoker is actually a friend of the Seward, Holmwood and Harker families. And *gasp!* it appears his novel was as much fact as fiction.

Even though you know what the monsters are the novel could still be tense, but again it’s not. Of course there’s danger, and plenty of gory action, but somehow there’s no sense of urgency. It’s just not gripping enough. One reason might be that instead of one main plot you have several subplots. There’s the sinking Titanic, a strand that ends a third of the way in. There’s a love triangle – Lucy is dating Abe, but Quin is in love with her. The vampire leader, Dushko, is in conflict with a younger vampire, Brody, who wants to do things differently, with the result that a fight between the vampires is as much of an issue as a fight between vampires and humans. Finally, there’s the plot that gets marketed as the main one – vampires killing passengers and crew. However, it’s not even all the vampires who try or even want to do this. Dushko had planned as discreet a journey as possible; it’s Brody who starts all the mayhem. Also, most of the vampires remain hidden in the ship’s cargo holds and don’t get the chance to attack anyone. There’s too much going on here, but none of it is quite exciting enough.

Another reason for the lack of tension is that the vampires were kind of lame. They’re the old-school kind who are vulnerable to garlic and crucifixes, have to sleep in coffins lined with the dirt of their homeland, and can turn into mist, bats or wolves. Shape-shifting abilities are awesome, but the rest amounts to weakness, much more so than in Dracula. One slap in the face with a crucifix and Carpathia’s vampires run screaming as their flesh boils away. The use of these traditional weapons is made even more disappointing by the fact you’re led to expect something more modern and innovative. Dushko is extremely concerned about the progress made by modern science, warning that humans are not as vulnerable as they once were. This sounded to me like the foreshadowing of some awesome steampunk weapons, but NO! – that might have been fun, so the humans stick to their stakes and crucifixes.

All this is bad enough, but there are also some glaring inconsistencies and oddities to annoy you just in case you might somehow start to enjoy the book. For example, when the Titanic sinks, the passengers swimming in the freezing water continue to converse as if they were still enjoying cigars and brandy in the smoking lounge. They keep talking about the cold, but they speak in calm, full sentences; no chattering teeth or any real sense that they’re at risk of freezing to death. The vampires on the Carpathia are moving, en masse from New York back to Europe because some of them were careless and and their killings risked exposing the whole group. I don’t know why they have to leave the entire continent and couldn’t just move to another city or state, or why they have to live in one large group instead of splitting up. When gearing up to fight the vampires, Quin goes to get the large crucifix that his mother insisted he pack – a miracle, since his luggage went down with the Titantic.

How could Forbeck (and the editors) be so sloppy and waste so much potential? The only thing he does satisfactorily is to depict the culture and sensibilities of 1912, at least for readers, like myself, who would only notice the most heinous historical inaccuracies. A lot of time I actually felt like I was reading some obscure pulp fiction that had actually been written in the 1910s.

If that sounds appealing, then you can order a copy of Carpathia, which is coming out on 28 February in the US and Canada, and on 01 March in the rest of the world. Otherwise, just ignore it.

Lauren & Lu review Spiral X by J.J. Westendarp

Title: Spiral X
Author: J.J. Westendarp
Published: 2010
Genre: Urban fantasy, crime, vampire fiction
Source: Pdf received from author for review

Plot summary
Cheryl Erickson is a sexy, wealthy 22-year old vampire hunter. She’s been staking vamps since they killed her father when she was 16 and now she’s part of an underground vampire-hunting force in Dallas with the help of her gay best-friend Virgil, who handles all the electronics. There’s a dangerous new drug on the streets called Plast, which awakens addicts’ most predatory traits, turning them into violent psychopaths. For some reason vampires are dealing Plast to humans, but no one has been able to find out why. Cheryl is determined to crack the case, but her investigation forces her to question and sometimes violate her own code of ethics.

General Impressions

Lauren: Spiral X  has all the right ingredients for an entertaining read – a feisty heroine, blood-sucking monsters, loads of action, and a rapid pace. But unfortunately it failed to interest me. Cheryl was hypocritical and far too cocky for me to like her or empathise with her, and all the action just didn’t do it for me. Clumsy writing dragged me down, and although it’s a short book I had to push myself to finish it. Read my full review here.

Lu: Never has a book deserved the words “action-packed” more! What a roller-coaster of events! What I enjoyed about this novel was the fact that it played in my head like a movie. The characters were believable, mythology understandable and there were twists and turns around every corner.

The author being male only helped this novel. He made fight scenes and car chases believable and understandable. How many times have you read a fight scene where you were unsure of what was happening and just got through it to see the end result? I’ve read too many to mention,  but not here!

Definitely a must-read if you are tired of paranormal romance and love triangles of which this book has none. Thank the heavens!

It has a kick-ass heroine that has lost some motivation along the way, which only makes her human. She makes mistakes, which is always a welcome change from the “I am the perfect heroine” scenario. Each character has depth and they are all fascinating! I can’t wait to find out what happens to Cheryl and I hope we get to see more of Rev.

Lauren: Hmm, are you saying only men can write good action scenes?

Lu: Lol I’m saying that so far these were the best action scenes other than Game of Thrones and Pillars of the Earth, which were also written by men. So maybe in my case it has just been a coincidence. Or maybe a lot of women who write young adult and paranormal fiction just don’t do action scenes well for me. But as I write this I thought of J.R. Ward. So maybe I have just broken my own stereotype 🙂

But what I do want to say is that J.J. Westendarp really writes kick-ass action scenes!

 

Cheryl

Lu: For once the main character wasn’t my favorite. I really liked all the supporting characters! Cheryl was kick-ass and all, but she was a bit inconsistent at times.

Lauren: Yes, I thought Cheryl was a hypocrite when she dumped her boyfriend for deceiving her in the same way that she deceives (and continues to deceive) him. I also disliked the way she implied that all women were weak and silly, but she’s like a guy and that’s why she can kick vampire ass instead of sitting at home like all the other “weepy little tarts” wondering why some guy isn’t calling her.

Lu: Hahah I didn’t pick up on this. You feminist you 😛

But I do agree that Cheryl is a hypocrite and a bit hasty with some of her decisions. I think Thom was just a arb character that didn’t really need to be in the book.

 

Writing

Lauren: Westendarp almost always opts for telling rather than showing. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s terrible here. Every time a new character shows up, or Cheryl goes to a new location, we get an infodump about it. I found it extremely irritating and disruptive. It’s like watching a movie and having to pause and read a character history every time a new person walks on-screen. Why not weave some of that information into the narrative? For example, Cheryl explains how much she loves hot sauce; instead she could be described eating a meal and putting lots of hot sauce on it. Cheryl explains that she and Tank have a casual sexual relationship, but it would be so much more interesting if we could feel some of the sexual tension between them through body language and dialogue. Characters feel so much more real if we get to know them through their speech and behaviour. Here it feels like I’m referring to a profile in the footnotes.

Lu: Strange I didn’t even notice this. I like knowing little tidbits about characters. I would rather know details than try and guess.

Lauren: I like knowing the details too; that’s what makes a character interesting. And sometimes long explanatory pieces can be absorbing, because you’re curious about the information. But here it’s badly done and clogs up the narrative, distancing you from the story. It’s like you have to stop, pull back, and access an information file.

I dislike other aspects of his writing too – repeating phrases within a short space, and misusing the term “begs the question” multiple times. He also introduces surprising bits of information that should have been mentioned earlier. For example, you don’t even know that Cheryl has a boyfriend until she sees him. At one point, Cheryl states that her relationship with fellow vampire-hunter Tank is “strained to the breaking point”, but that was the first I’d heard of it. Almost halfway through the novel, Cheryl mentions (in an infodump) that she has psychic powers that allow her to detect vampires. You think this would have come up ages ago, but instead it sounds like Westendarp made it up on the spot and didn’t bother working it in.

Lu: Ah, I see what you mean. As if he thought of it at that point but didn’t bother going back to mention or hint at it. Maybe it’s meant to be a mystery, that at the point that you find out this information you also get the backstory. It’s a bit like real life in that way. You find out someone is allergic to milk after you have fed them milk tarts with their eyes closed. Then you find out the backstory about how it started when they were 5 etc.

I have read a few books like this where you are thrown into a story and only get info “dumps” when something happens. I don’t mind it at all, but I can see how it can be a pain.

Lauren: I can forgive Cheryl not mentioning her boyfriend, because it’s not essential at that point and you could say that it’s realistic for this to happen. But it’s unrealistic for there not to be much tension between Cheryl and Tank, just before she says that their relationship is under a lot of strain, and it’s even more unlikely that she wouldn’t mention her psychic powers in the earlier encounters with vampires.

Lu: Maybe the psychic powers were an afterthought. We’ll never know unfortunately.

 

Vampires

Lauren: Westendarp has created his own vampire mythos. Vampires are not undead humans; instead, demons from hell break through the fabric between worlds and possess the bodies of humans who have died from vampire bites. I want to talk about that in a moment, but first, how do feel about authors reinventing the vampire mythos? So many seem to do it.

Lu: I enjoy new takes on mythos. This one was particularly interesting! To be honest I don’t mind what an author changes or adds to a myth, as long as it is clearly stated and makes sense in the realm of the novel.

Lauren: I don’t mind either, as long as it’s not something totally stupid like sparkling. In Spiral X it has an important impact for the plot and Cheryl’s morals (a theme that comes up now and then). These vampires are completely inhuman, so Cheryl can draw a clear line between vampires and humans. Vampires are evil demons and that’s that, so Cheryl doesn’t have any qualms about killing them.

However, she does profess to have strict rules about not killing humans and trying not to hurt them. Her stance is a bit shaky though – as you said earlier, she’s an inconsistent character. In the opening scene she’s trying to get information by threatening a man with a knife. He realises she won’t cut him and refuses to talk, so she decides that her ethics are of less importance than information and shoots him in the kneecap. A bit much, wouldn’t you say? But then later, she’s explaining why she won’t tolerate any violence against the drug dealers supplying Plast:

These guys probably don’t know they’re supplying vampires with the drug, if they even know the vamps exist. For them it’s business. A dirty, filthy business that hurts people, but business all the same. That doesn’t warrant violence, not from us.

Why is it ok to shoot some random guy in the kneecap just for information, but it’s not ok to use violence against drug dealers and murderers?

Lu: Hahaha sparkling.

I think we start where Cheryl has come to a point and sort of loses it and shoots the guy in the kneecap. Then she sees how upset Tank is and her morals change/strengthen. She sort of pulls herself right. We all do it, lets say you steal a salt and pepper shaker at a restaurant. Someone tells you that you shouldn’t do it, so you feel bad and sort of go in the opposite direction. From then on if you see someone eyeing the salt and pepper shakers you get defensive and preachy about how it’s bad to steal. If that makes any sense 🙂

Sjoe I’m full of random examples today!

Lauren: Lol, where are you getting these examples from?

My problem is that she doesn’t only adopt the moral stance about not hurting humans after Tank gets upset with her. She’s got that rule from the start, which is why she wouldn’t cut that guy in the first place. It just seems so ridiculous that she’d go from not wanting to cut him to shooting him in the kneecap. Why not just cut him a little as she was actually threatening to do? Her character just baffles me sometimes.

Lu: Probably because shooting him looks cooler? Than some random cutting…

Lauren: Haha, that or shock value, but neither is a good excuse.

 

Christian Theme

Lauren: This got me a little worried as it became more pronounced. I thought it might turn into Christian fiction. The feeling of gratitude that washes over Cheryl whenever she sends a vampire back to hell was a bit silly too. How did you feel about it?

Lu: That’s the one gripe I have. I only noticed it now when you pointed it out. It was weird and unexplainable. I must add that the Christian theme didn’t bother me. Reverend and Father Harold were some of my favorite characters.

Lauren: Yeah, Rev and Father Harold were ok; there’s nothing wrong with religious characters. I just didn’t like the sense that it was becoming an overarching theme – the vampires being part of an eternal war between God and the devil, good and evil. It’s too simplistic; it lacks the moral ambiguity that made the movie Constantine so interesting.

Lu: I can only hope that the author is working towards another plot that isn’t so obvious.

 

Would you continue reading the series?

Lauren: No. This novel was self-contained, so there were no loose ends I want to see tied up. Cheryl is not a character I want to follow either.

Lu: Yes. Particularly because the next book is about a hunter named Erika and it’s set in New York. It’s set after the whole Cheryl saga. So this could be interesting. Maybe the characters eventually meet up!

 

Buy Spiral X

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Lauren and Lu’s Reviews

Lu (from A Muggle’s Magical Book Blog) and I are very different readers. She’s easygoing, I’m demanding. She loves YA and paranormal romance, I don’t. I love sci fi and dark fantasy, she just dabbles. I want good writing and interesting ideas, while Lu is happy with a great story, interesting characters and a few twists. Together we’ll argue our conflicting points of view in joint reviews and you get the benefit of two perspectives instead of just one.

Spiral X by J.J. Westendarp

Title: Spiral X
Author: J.J. Westendarp
Published: 2010
Genre: Urban fantasy, crime, vampire fiction
Source: Pdf received from author for review
Rating: 4/10

Cheryl Erickson is a sexy, wealthy 22-year old vampire hunter. She’s been staking vamps since they killed her father when she was 16 and now she’s part of an underground vampire-hunting force in Dallas with the help of her gay best-friend Virgil, who handles all the electronics. There’s a dangerous new drug on the streets called Plast, which awakens addicts’ most predatory traits, turning them into violent psychopaths. For some reason vampires are dealing Plast to humans, but no one has been able to find out why. Cheryl is determined to crack the case, but her investigation forces her to question and sometimes violate her own code of ethics.

Spiral X is fast-paced and heavy on the action, spanning just a few days and nights as Cheryl goes on a relentless mission to find out what the vampires are up to and stop them. But although it has the ingredients for an entertaining novel, it failed to interest me. Despite being a meagre 201 pages long (pdf) I struggled to finish it. I can sum up my feelings with a shrug – it didn’t do anything for me; it was simply average, not terrible, but not good either.

Despite the fact that it’s about a vampire hunter, it’s surprisingly short on vampires. It’s some time before the reader encounters the first vampires, and Cheryl’s stake brings that to a quick close. People read vampire novels because they like vampires, whether they prefer evil monsters or angsty romantic heroes, so Spiral X disappoints a bit there.

Clearly Cheryl is the focus of the story, but she’s no Buffy Summers. Yes she’s sexy and feisty, which is what most of us want in our heroines these days, but she’s not emotionally engaging and in fact, I don’t like her or even care about her. Her character is a forced – super-hot, wealthy, and the best, most bad-ass vampire hunter around – it’s too much, too convenient. Of course, she’s got issues man, but most of the time her angst rings false or is simply annoying.

At one point she spits out this lovely bit of gender stereotyping, to explain why she and her partner Tank won’t talk about their feelings:

“It was weird, since women and emotional issues are synonymous with weepy little tarts wondering why the cute guy the occasionally slept with was suddenly giving them the cold-shoulder. The trouble was, I grew up sansmother so all I had to learn from was my dad and his friends. They weren’t exactly the type to express their emotions, and it rubbed off on me. Virgil was really the only person I had ever opened up to, so while I knew Tank and I needed to have a sit down to hash out our issues, I was doing the guy thing by not being the first to bring it up. (47)

Gee Cheryl, thanks for reinforcing all those stereotypes. How great that you were raised to be like a man so you didn’t end up a weepy little tart like the rest of us females, otherwise you might spend all your time waiting for some guy to call you instead of fighting evil.

This is one of several things that lower my opinion of Cheryl. Another is the way she treats her boyfriend Thom. She learns that he’s a police officer but he lied about his job so that she wouldn’t be worried about him. Cheryl finds this deception unacceptable and dumps him. Her excuse is that she can’t trust a Thom enough to one day tell him that she’s a vampire hunter.

Excuse me? You don’t trust him enough to stop lying to him? So you’re dumping him for doing the exact same thing to you that you’re (still) doing to him? Nice.

The vampires are actually a bit more interesting than Cheryl. It seems like everyone writing a vampire novel these days tries to add something new to the mythos. What’s wrong with the classic vampire? But anyway. Westendarp’s vampires are not the usual undead humans but dead human bodies possessed by demons. When a person is bitten by a vampire and dies, the bite leaves a supernatural ‘marker’ on the person. After sunset, the soul departs from the dead body, creating a small hole in the fabric between this world and the next. Using the marker left by the bite, a demon in hell can pinpoint the location of the departing soul and use the hole it makes to enter our world and inhabit the dead body.

The result is that Westendarp’s are completely inhuman. The person who inhabited the body is dead, the soul is gone and the vampire is pure demon in human packaging. When killed (by the usual means – sunlight, decapitation, stake through the heart), the demon is sent back to hell.

This is important for the novel in two ways. Firstly, it affects Cheryl’s morals. She can draw a very clear distinction between humans and vampires, and she’s got strict rules about not killing or hurting humans, even if they’re hardened criminals. Some of the tension in the novel arises when these morals are challenged. Cheryl often has to break her rules, sometimes more brutally than seems necessary. In the opening scene she’s trying to get information by threatening a man with a knife. He realises she won’t cut him and refuses to talk, so she decides that her ethics are of less importance than information and shoots him in the kneecap.

A bit much, I think, but then later, she’s explaining why she won’t tolerate any violence against the drug dealers supplying Plast:

These guys probably don’t know they’re supplying vampires with the drug, if they even know the vamps exist. For them it’s business. A dirty, filthy business that hurts people, but business all the same. That doesn’t warrant violence, not from us.

I find this a tad questionable to say the least, and Cheryl’s morals often seem shaky – at one moment she refuses to use violence against humans, at another she’s extremely brutal but considers it justified.

The second important thing about completely inhuman vampires is that they play into the novel’s increasingly Christian tone. At first, it’s nothing notable – Cheryl has to find a mysterious man known as The Reverend; a nurse gives Cheryl some spiritual comfort of the “God is looking after us” sort. As the novel progresses, the Christian message becomes more pronounced – angels, white light, God’s wrath, a biblical character, Cheryl being saved from death by a miracle. The whole vampire problem is framed as part of the ongoing battle between God and Lucifer. Vampires are demons entering the human world, and the humans need to be saved from them, but it’s not the usual situation where humans are damned after being turned into vampires, because their souls escape unscathed. The whole idea of an Eternal War is cool – the movie Constantine (2005), based on the graphic novel Hellblazer, was awesome. But unlike Constantine, Spiral X is not ambiguous about good and evil, and the demon-vampires aren’t even that scary. The arch-villain is the type who says things like “it would be far too easy to kill you now” and gives Cheryl ample time to kill him later.

I started to get worried that this would turn into Christian urban fantasy. Luckily it didn’t go quite that far – it’s more like urban fantasy with a strong Christian theme.  While I don’t mind, and sometimes enjoy, religious themes in fiction, they have to be balanced; I don’t like being preached to.

But if the Christianity didn’t bother me, the writing most certainly did. It’s not all that bad, but it needs an edit. Westendarp does an awful lot of telling rather than showing, dumping large amounts of info on the reader whenever a new character or location pops up. At other times, he does the opposite, suddenly dropping a titbit of surprising information that should have been mentioned earlier. For example, you don’t even know that Cheryl has a boyfriend until she sees him. At one point, Cheryl states that her relationship with fellow vampire-hunter Tank is “strained to the breaking point”, but that was the first I’d heard of it. Almost halfway through the novel, Cheryl mentions (in an info dump) that she has psychic powers that allow her to detect vampires. You think this would have come up ages ago, but instead it sounds like Westendarp made it up on the spot and didn’t bother working it in.

Another bad habit is the tendency to repeat the same phrase within a short space (like a few paragraphs). I got really, really irritated with the way Westendarp kept using and in fact misusing the term “begs the question”. This phrase actually refers to a logical error in which you assume the truth of a claim you’re supposed to prove. A very simple example: killing people is wrong because it’s immoral. However, many people use the phrase to mean “raises the question”, as Westerndarp does multiple times. Even if he didn’t misuse it, I would have been irritated enough by its frequency.

Because good writing is important to me, these flaws were constant distractions, always drawing attention to themselves and spoiling the book. Add to that a main character I don’t like or care about and action that fails to excite, and the only really good thing I can say about this book is that at least there weren’t any love triangles.

Buy Spiral X

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Review: Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Tim Waggoner
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication date: August 2009 (UK & Australia); October 2010 (US & Canada)
My Rating: 4/10

Buy it at The Book Depository

The tale is classic detective noir – the beautiful blonde damsel is in distress and needs the help of the smart, hardass detective with personal issues and a repertoire of bad and very bad jokes. But the damsel is a vampire/human halfbreed, the detective is a zombie, and it’s all set in Nekropolis, a city in “a distant dark dimension” where all the evil creatures came to live when they got tired of being hunted and hated by the inhospitable humans of Earth.

As Nekropolis zombies go, Matt Richter is unique. He doesn’t eat brains, and he still possesses a mind and will of his own. He makes a living doing “favours” for people (for some reason he won’t admit to being a detective) so he’s made a lot of friends and a few dangerous enemies in Nekropolis.

Unfortunately, the spells preserving his dead body aren’t working like they used to, so if he doesn’t find a solution soon, he’s going to decay. Which is why he agrees to help Devona, the gorgeous half-vampire in a skin-tight dress. Her father is one of the powerful Darklords who rule Nekropolis, and Matt hopes that by helping Devona find the artefact that was stolen from her father’s collection, she can persuade him to restore Matt’s corpse.

The clock is ticking, not only because of Matt’s dilemma, but because today is the Descension, Nekropolis’s most sacred holiday, commemorating the day the Darkfolk came to Nekropolis. The streets are full of partying monsters and at the end of the day the Darklords will perform a magical ceremony to recharge the “shadowsun” Umbriel. Chances are the thief who stole the artefact will use it at the ceremony, so Matt and Devona have to solve the case before the night is through.

So, there are 3 strands to this plot

  1. The Mystery – who stole the priceless artefact called the Dawnstone and why?
  2. The Drama – will Matt find a solution for his rapid decay or will he soon be dead for good?
  3. The Romance – Matt’s developing feelings for Devona, but can a vampire love a zombie?

All three of these are boring.

The mystery is as straightforward as they come. The clue found at the scene of the crime allows Devona to guess immediately and correctly who the culprit is, so the next step is to track him down. Doing so reveals that this is not a simple case of theft but a conspiracy to claim power in Nekropolis, so Matt and Devona go from one place to the next in a dreadfully linear fashion to find out what the hell’s going on. There are no twists, no big surprises. Various dangers bare their teeth along the way, but it’s the kind of book where you know the main characters will be fine, so there’s no real tension. In most cases, Matt saves them by pulling something useful but unlikely out of his pocket, like a tub of expensive French glue with glitter in it.

Not that they come out of the fights unscathed. That might kill the drama. So not only is Matt threatened with permanent decay, he’s acquiring a collection of injuries that make him look progressively more disgusting.

Devona however, is lovingly concerned rather than repulsed, and she and Matt progress from never having met each other, to flirting, affection, “I’ve never felt like this before”, irrational jealousy and finally expressions of undying love, all in the single evening during which the plot takes place. Already it’s more nauseating than Nekropolis’s revolting assortment of monsters, but let’s not forget that Matt is a zombie. Call me provincial, but necrophilia is a big no-no in my book.

Anyway, the plot – why is it so boring? Because Nekropolis is not so much a story as a tour of the world and its creatures. Some of Matt and Devona’s encounters do little or nothing to forward the plot, serving instead to show off one of Waggoner’s inventive Darkfolk. And they’re worth a look – insectoid demons, genetically modified ‘lykes’ (lycans), Chihuahua/piranha crossbred vermin, a brothel owner whose gender changes every few minutes to name a fraction.

Also on display is Nekropolis’s ‘flesh-tech’ – organic technology such as the Mind’s Eye (a giant eye that relays transmissions straight to your brain, acting as a TV set), the handvox (a cellphone with an ear and a mouth) and laptops that “breathe, gurgle, and moan – especially when doing difficult tasks – and have even been known to burst blood vessels if asked to perform too many functions at the same time”.

But it’s overkill. There are too many characters, too many creatures, too many details, and it’s all compounded by the chaotic Descension Day celebrations which push the fantasy into dysfunctional overdrive. What initially seemed intense and interesting quickly became mundane. I also began to wonder how a society made up entirely of evil creatures could hold itself together.

On two occasions I felt as if I’d had reached the climax of the novel, but there were still plenty of places and creatures to see before I could get to the end. Consequently read the first half of the novel fairly quickly, and then took about a week to get through the rest although it’s a pretty easy read. If only Waggoner hadn’t been so overzealous with his world-building a put more of his effort and imagination into the story, this could have been really fun.

A sequel – Dead Streets – was published last year March in the UK and Australia, and is due to be released in the USA and Canada in March 2011.  And despite what I’ve said about Nekropolis, I’d read it. Why? Nekropolis had potential. It’s humorous in that bad joke kind of way, it’s gross in the morbidly fascinating way you keep poking at something that makes you go Eww! and I like detective characters like Matt – the hardass with a heart of gold. The world of Nekropolis is one I want to explore, just not at the expense of the story. So, Tim Waggoner, I’ll give you one more shot.

 

Buy Nekropolis at The Book Depository

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight (Twilight, #1)Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The absolute worst book I have ever read. A huge pile of atrociously written, misogynist, utterly ridiculous, boring crap.

Bella is the most annoying, whiny narrator I’ve ever come across, and Meyer’s pathetic, dead writing makes this even more unbearable. Bella is also a complete dismissive bitch to those who care about her and try to be kind to her, including her father. The only person she cares about is the unbelievably arrogant and emotionally immature vampire Edward. Meyer/Bella tells us he’s supernaturally beautiful and attractive (on almost every page) but I never felt it. I don’t think I could stand to spend 5 minutes with such an egotistical, anti-social person, nevermind share a bed with a body that’s ice-cold, hard as stone and has the skin tone of a corpse.

Bella and Edward’s relationship is based entirely on physical attraction (he’s beautiful, she smells good), so it made me gag everytime Bella/Meyer tries to forcefeed you the idea that it’s the greatest, most loving romance of all time. Even worse is the fact that Edward’s creepy, intrusive behaviour – such as breaking into Bella’s home, watching her sleep without her knowledge, dragging her by the collar into his car, constantly “commanding” her, and eavesdropping on her private conversations – is either interpreted as a sign of his great love or dismissed. Which sounds a lot like the excuses made for or by domestic abusers – he’s just overprotective, he did it because he loves me. And Bella seems happy to waive her right to privacy and choice as long as it means this man will always be in her life. Nor does she seem to mind that Edward lays the blame on her for any physical damage he might cause to her – it’s her fault for being so beautiful, for smelling so good, for being irresistable. He even says it’s her fault that a dangerous vampire becomes attracted to her and decides to track and kill her. Another line from the domestic abusers – she provoked me.

The (very poor) counter-argument from fans tends to be that this novel is just meant to be fun, you shouldn’t take it so seriously. Well if Twilight were just badly written, and all I had to ignore were the gaping plot holes (what happens when Bella gets her period?) or the long list of ridiculous plot devices (like sparkling or century-old adults going to high school over and over again), then maybe I could have just enjoyed the romance. But if I read a story that celebrated a rapist and his belief that women deserved it, or a story that vindicated a racist and his ideas about the inferiority of blacks, I couldn’t say ‘oh, it’s not meant to be great literature, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, just enjoy it’. I’d be disgusted, as I am disgusted with Twilight, and there is absolutely nothing in it to redeem its flaws. I remain shocked and saddened at its popularity, and what it implies about the sexist, antiquated views women and men still have about gender and their relationships with each other.