Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Death is for the Weak

Robert Jackson Bennett “City of Stairs” (Broadway Books, 2014)

Every once in a while you come across a book that seems to touch on so many pieces of the zeitgeist that it’s actually shocking.  

I don’t want to spend time talking about the plot for City of Stairs.  It’s not that the plot is uninteresting.  To the contrary, I found myself deeply invested in the plot as it chugged rapidly along.  It’s just that there’s always a ton of plot discussion.  And quite frankly in some way that’s the least interesting part of this book.

There’s a school of thought that says that SF is always in dialogue with itself.  Books are having a lengthy meta-conversation.  Haldeman is answering Heinlein.  I’m sure that you’ve heard this view.  City of Stairs is listening and commenting on a bunch of conversations at once.  It’s a fantasy that ignores Western European settings.  Its primary characters are people of color, with a woman at the center.  It’s concerned with colonialism, religion and spirituality, with family and heritage.  There’s just so much going on.

And if you’re one of those people who aren’t interested in any of that (and there are some), know that there’s plenty of action.  There’s big bad magic and characters that are willing to go after gods themselves.  There are artifacts and spells.  There’s an elaborate history to the world.

Sold yet?  I hope so.  I thought that Bennett’s last book was one of the best of the year, and City of Stairs is even better.  With every book he’s growing more assured.  This is an exciting book.  Do yourself a favor:  stop reading reviews & go on & read this one already.

The death of billions is as nothing to us Doctor

George Mann “Doctor Who:  Engines of War” (Broadway Books, 2014)

George Mann has been given an exceedingly difficult assignment.  Write the first book about the adventures of the War Doctor.  Keep in mind that we only know hints from other doctors, and what was shown on the anniversary special.  The special that only told the very end of the War Doctor’s story.  

The problem then is how to write a story that feels like the Doctor, but doesn’t feel like a generic doctor. Mann has written other Who novels, so the basic concept is simple enough.
Did he pull it off?  I have to give him a mixed score.  The story itself is solid enough. The Doctor discovers that the Daleks are developing a new temporal weapon that they can use to wipe out the Time Lords and everything they’ve ever done.  He has to stop the Daleks while dealing with less than helpful Time Lord culture on Gallifrey. 

The Doctor, unfortunately does not seem as distinct as I would have liked.  There are a couple of moments where he seems angrier than usual, but for the most part I think that we could have substituted another doctor into the story & had everything work the same way.  Perhaps I’m judging harshly and no one could have given a distinct War Doctor.  But that seems clearly what the goal should be.  

Another issue that I have is the treatment of Cinder, the book’s companion.  She’s a young woman raised during the war by a resistance cell.  We are introduced to her as a tough fighter.  Killing Daleks is what she does.  Yet later she’s abruptly captured and tortured on Gallifrey, of all places. Not only is this a violation of her character, but it is not even used for any real dramatic purpose.  Why is she treated this way?

On the whole, Engines of War was a fun read and an entertaining look at a rather mysterious period of Doctor Who.  Who doesn’t want a glimpse into the Time War? 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Act Normal

Daryl Gregory “We Are All Completely Fine” (Tachyon Publications, 2014)

What happens after the final reel of the horror film has played out?  The monster has been killed for the final time.  The police and ambulances have come & gone.  What happens to the survivor?

We Are All Completely Fine is all about the survivors.  Years after their respective stories, the lone survivors meet in group therapy.  PTSD is perhaps the least of their problems.  We have Stan, who survived a cannibalistic family (a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Martin who insists on wearing glasses that allow him to see the monsters (They Live), Barbara who was mutilated by a fetishistic killer (basically every serial killer movie ever), Harrison the former teen monster killer (maybe 80s vampire movies or a gender flipped Buffy), and Greta who wears long black clothing to cover the intricate scars that cover her body.  

At this point a less talented writer would have probably told the obvious story.  It would have been an anthology style story where we learn the backstory for each person.  Perhaps at the end we’d find them all facing a threat – maybe the therapist?—that they would need to work together to overcome. 
Fortunately Daryl Gregory has some chops and a great imagination.  In a sense all of that happens.  But not at all like this.  Gregory does tell us the backstories, but they are not told like horror stories.  The intent is not to provide the reader with scares.  Rather the horrific stories are told in the service of character and voice.  And tonally, he writes not like a horror writer at all.  The tone is light and humorous.  This keeps the story from getting drug into some sort of torture porn.  The pages fly by and the story is over before you realize it.

Perhaps surprisingly, We Are All Completely Fine is outrageously entertaining.  My only complaint is that it is just a novella.  I could have easily read a longer work in this world.  

An excerpt can be read at