Iron Angel

I bought Iron Angel by Alan Campbell last summer at the recommendation of a friend and fellow aspiring writer. It sat on my shelf for a while (I have a pretty depressing backlog right now, and that doesn’t even include a host of more literary works I know I should read at some point), but the time came for me to dive into a good fantasy novel, and there it was waiting for me.

Fantasy stories are subject to the same standards of criticism as any other genre — characters, plot, compelling language, and so forth — but there are a couple of genre-specific criteria against which they are measured as well. Foremost among those is world building. Fantasy writers get to throw out all the rules that govern our universe (except the rules of human interaction) and build new worlds from scratch. Anne Rice built such a compelling world that there have been (probably) hundreds of stories set in it by lesser writers who do not possess her world-building skills.

Mr. Campbell has built himself a hell of a world here. It’s a sort of Steam Punk/Fantasy mashup. Mashups are all the rage these days, but it’s still refreshing to find one that’s actually done well. Here we have a world with magic and whatnot, and also giant steam-powered war machines (imbued with human souls). The world is an Earth sandwich, with an unresponsive heaven above, expansionist hell below, and angels and demons slugging it out on mortal man’s turf. From the human point of view, there’s not a whole lot of difference between an angel and a minion of hell.

The cover of the book says “By the author of Scar Night.” In fact the book is a sequel. Had I stumbled into the middle of a series? The answer to that was a pretty clear ‘yes’. In the first chapters the author went to great lengths to bring me up to speed on the events of the previous book, and while a crash course is never as fun as a well-paced story, I was nevertheless encouraged by the author’s effort to make the book I was holding a stand-alone story. Specifically, I was confident that there would be an end to at least one major story line by the time I reached the back cover of the book.

About halfway through, I began to worry. Characters had been introduced but not revisited for hundreds of pages. The vectors of the characters’ storylines were parallel. I became more worried after a part of the story that goes like this:

Leader of Good Guys: You must not be caught! I’ll sacrifice myself so you can get away!
Unlikely Hero: OK.

Unlikely hero wanders through hell, avoiding capture. There is a section where he outsmarts a magical door. It’s a nice anecdote, the sort of thing that the Odyssey is composed of, but when the little mini-story is over, the larger story is advanced… not at all. (As I recall, Odysseus didn’t learn much either.) Then, to top it off:

Unlikely hero gets caught.

Now, the unlikely hero’s adventures could have been meaningful. UH might have learned a key fact that he could use later, or he could have an experience that would teach him about himself — he could find strength or expose a weakness. In this case, none of that happened. He had interesting adventures, but in the grand scheme, they mattered not at all.

After I got through that part, I started to worry. Spending so many pages on anecdotes that don’t move the plot does not indicate an author who intends to put any sort of closure at the end of the current volume. I checked the cover again, for anything like “Book two of…” but there was nothing to warn me that this book was dependent on others. OK, no worries; the story is entertaining and the prose is solid if not magical, Just enjoy the ride.

As an aside, in a long adventure story, ‘solid’ is often preferable to ‘magical’ when it comes to the prose. When you’re spinning a yarn, you don’t want your language upstaging your story. You want the words to disappear, the same way the letters do.

On we went. Campbell pulled out some pretty cool inventions, and a transparent train that bugged me immensely. Still, the story vectors were starting to converge, the sudden appearance on the scene of a new secret society was handled with brevity and grace, and it all came down to a final cataclysmic battle. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First I have a brief quibble about economics. Humans are slaughtered in this book. Lots of them. Legions of them. And down in hell their souls are chewed up and spit out, presumably reduced to ultimate nonexistence. At the rate things are going, the world would be depopulated in short order, and not long after that, hell would run out of souls to play with. I think on our current Earth, we send about 8500 souls down to hell on any given day. Iron Angel’s world is much less populous, yet the folks down in Hell chew through souls like they’re peanuts. Somewhere in there the demand curve has to kick in, and human life becomes more valuable in the eyes of both angels and demons.

Although, in this story human extinction is a real possibility, and that’s pretty cool. It’s just that neither side is making good use of available resources.

So: the final cataclysmic battle. I don’t want to give away too much, but…

SPOILER! SPOILER!
It wasn’t final. It was a trap! The “book” (actually a volume) ends with the bad guys pulling a major coup and the real evil army arriving on the scene. We ran out of pages with not even a pretense of an ending. AAAAHHHHHHH!
END OF SPOILER

So here we have a peeve of mine — a book that does not have an end at the end. At least most of the time when this happens the publisher has the grace to put “Book 2 of the Steampunk Angel series” or something like that on the cover. Not this time. “By the author of” does not communicate that you are not buying a complete story. Quite the opposite. This was not a novel. It was not a story. It was a well-written fragment. In the back pages where they tried to sell me the next installment, I found the words “book three.” HA! They knew all along it was simply an episode in a series, they just didn’t put that information on the cover.

Why would they hide that fact? There’s only one reason I can think of. They want to trick people like me into buying volume two. Man, this gets my goat. Mr. Campbell probably had no control over this; he wrote a big-ass story that took three volumes to tell, and sold it to unscrupulous people who actively hid that fact to the naïve book-buying public.

So, here’s the label I would put on the cover of this book: WARNING: This well-written and downright clever work has study hall at the beginning and CONTAINS NO END! The next book will have an end, we promise — and if you read this volume study hall next time will be really easy.

Personally, I think I’ll wait for the box set.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

1

Fox Dreams

I started reading The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. I read for perhaps half an hour before turning off the light and going to sleep. The next morning I awoke with all sorts of memories about elegant Japanese gardens gone partly wild, about foxes transforming into people, about magic and desire.

In fact, I had memories of far more events than were the book. There was something about the language and the setting that fed straight into my dreams, and all night my sleeping self continued to explore that world. Pretty sweet!

2

The Windup Girl

A while back I put up an episode called “Something New to be Afraid Of“, in which I wondered out loud about the power that agribusiness is gaining through genetically modified foods. I didn’t realize at the time that Paolo Bacigalupi was way ahead of me, not just in time but also in fear level.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacagalupi takes place in the future, after fossil fuels have been nearly exhausted. Agriculture is now one of humanity’s main sources of energy as well as how we feed ourselves. The crash from the energy-intensive civilization we enjoy today was swift and brutal. Once-great nations have been nearly depopulated, and hunger is everywhere. Genetic modification is one of the primary tools mankind is using to survive. For instance, we have genetically modified animals that are very efficient at converting vegetable calories into useful work. Many humans are used this way as well, and would not eat otherwise.

Genetic modification is also making things much worse. Where I worried about companies manipulating markets, forcing farmers to buy their seed stock year after year, in The Windup Girl agribusiness has gone the next logical step: unleashing plagues on countries that refuse to do business with them, plagues that only their products are immune to. Whole families of plants are now extinct (there are no peppers, no tomatoes anywhere in the world). Seed banks have been destroyed in the social upheaval and many plants are irrevocably lost. In the words of one “calorie man” in a moment of hubris, “I’ve been inoculated for diseases that haven’t been released yet.”

Man’s tinkering is not limited to plants; there now exists a breed of supercat than can change color and become almost invisible. House cats are now extinct and there are few birds left. Perhaps the lesson of the cats is why modified humans are sterile.

Tucked away in a far corner of the globe, one tiny nation has managed to resist the agricultural conglomerates. Thailand’s independence was hard-won; the people of the country must be prepared to raze villages and quarantine thousands, burn entire crops and even forests, to keep the plagues at bay. Now times are changing. International trade is picking up, and internally the ministry charged with protecting Thailand is suffering for its own success, becoming marginalized.

In Thai street markets, plants long thought lost are starting to reappear. The only possible conclusion: Somewhere they have a seed bank, a treasure of incalculable value (especially to agribusiness).

This story contains a whole bunch of conflicts, between old and new, survival and altruism, pride and duty. The characters are complex and interesting, from the Calorie Man sent from one of the big agricultural companies, to the wily Chinese man just scraping by but always hoping to get back on top, to the cast-aside New Person, a genetically modified woman whose life, well, sucks. Then there’s Kanya with her divided loyalties, who must make a decision that will echo for eternity. Add corrupt politicians, a powerful slum lord, mutating plagues, and a rogue genetic engineer, and you’ve got yourself a fine stew.

Everyone in this story has tragedy in their pasts. Entire families massacred or lost to disease. They are not exceptional; to live in this world is to live with tragedy. Thailand’s past, its history and legends, remain current and meaningful, and inform the actions of the principals in really interesting ways, becoming a template for how once more the Thai must stand against a much more powerful foe.

These are not gentle times, and not gentle people. When things get ugly the author does not pull his punches, including graphic (but heartbreaking) depictions of sexual humiliation visited upon Emiko, the windup girl. The writing is powerful at times, always clear, and the characters change organically, adjusting to circumstances and learning, without needing any sort of epiphany or magic wand to propel them.

I did have a couple of quibbles, in particular: Where are the windmills? It seems like every derelict tower in Bangkok would have a big ‘ol windmill on the top, and the dike keeping the much-higher ocean at bay would be lined with them. Solar panels would be everywhere as well.

In the big picture those things didn’t matter that much; this was a fine read, a real page-turner with language that wasn’t afraid to get down into the gutter with its characters. I really enjoyed it.

Wow – did I just write an entire book episode and talk only about the book? Can this be? Of course not. Let’s talk about sequels.

While I look forward to the next novel Mr. Bacigalupi writes, I hope it’s not a sequel to this one. Well, let me rephrase that. I find the world he’s created to be fascinating and I’d love to visit it again, but a sequel to this story would face problems similar to sequels for The Matrix (should anyone be so foolish as to attempt one). IF there was a sequel to The Matrix (or, God forbid, two of them), the first thing the writer would have to do would be to limit the power Neo had at the end of the first movie. Essentially they would have to rewind the story a little, revoke the payoff of the first movie, and pretend his dramatic little speech never happened. Otherwise the fight between Neo and the Agents would not be compelling – and, let’s face it, Agent Smith makes that movie. Overwriting the end of the first film would be a cheap-ass thing to pull off, so I’m glad no one has tried.

While such a gimmick would not be so immediate in The Windup Girl Goes goes to Omaha, a genie or two have been let out of their bottles, and it would be lame to try to stuff them back in. So, “sequel” as a continuation of this story – I hope not. “Sequel” as an exploration of the changing world set in motion by the events in this book, I wholeheartedly look forward to.

Larger-than-usual disclaimer: I have met the author of this book, and he seemed like a good guy, so I might be a little biased. My bias is expressed in that had I not liked the book, I might not have reviewed it. No worries in this case.
If you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

1

Novel: A Novel

According to the back cover of the book, George Singleton is a ‘master of the comic short story’. He has been published in some pretty impressive places, and I like humorous prose, so despite some rather negative things my sweetie said about the book, I secretly held hopes that her negative experience was more an issue with Singleton’s style and that I would enjoy the ride.

Novel is written in the first person, narrated by a man named Novel who spends a significant chunk of the story trying to write a novel. Because of a divorce surrounded by an odd series of events, he finds himself in the backwater South Carolina town of Gruel. Gruel is populated by an odd assortment of characters, but it is a dying town. The locals are convinced that Novel’s novel will put them on the map, and rekindle the economy of the town.

The book is written in a rambling, meandering style that took me along with it. Believe me, I know rambling. The opening two-thirds of the book is about our narrator bumbling along, becoming increasingly paranoid, and telling and retelling his history — which changes, evolving in a very interesting way. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in the opening 75%, which is to say we haven’t really got to the plot yet.

Mr. Singleton’s humor shows through, as do his short-story leanings. In a short story he wouldn’t have had time to beat some of the jokes into the ground with such force. (For instance, his adoptive older siblings are named James and Joyce, and “James, Joyce, Novel” is worked pretty hard.) Other parts seem like they’re in there to set up some sort of comic payoff, but never come through.

One of the jokes Singleton beats on quite often is “Books about writing novels say never to do…” and then in the next sentence he breaks that rule. He breaks a lot of rules in this book, and seems to think that pointing out that he knows he is breaking the rule makes it all right. Usually what he accomplishes is to demonstrate by counterexample that the rules exist for a reason. Rules are made to be broken, but not just so you can point at the rule like a proud three-year-old who just broke a vase.

The town has secrets, lots of secrets. As we learn more about the people of Gruel, we discover that they are not the simple, naïve country bumpkins we first thought. Oh, no, not at all. That’s pretty cool. But wait — under a veneer of obtuseness, their plan for Novel is woefully simple-minded. How do these savvy people ever buy into it? The contradiction is never resolved, in fact, Singleton is caught in his own trap. All the characters he introduces are against the grand scheme for Novel. He can’t show us any of the people who think the plot is a good idea, because they would betray the inherent contradiction.

At the end, lots of things happen. Everything comes to a head, people are coming out of nowhere (James and Joyce? But why?), and our boy Novel is in the thick of it. Then a Huge Coincidence occurs, and everyone shrugs and goes home again, nothing changed, nothing resolved, and a lot unexplained; humor pistols loaded in the first act lie undischarged in the third.

The book grinds to a stop leaving a big a pile of unresolved events that we had passed, that I assumed would have some sort of significance. Just why the hell did the owner of the surplus store want Novel to find the knives buried behind the hotel? As I closed the book, I felt like there was some big explanation I’d missed (notwithstanding the big explanation that was provided). I suspect it never left the author’s head and found its way to the page.

I mentioned in a previous review that just because an author is writing a farce doesn’t mean he can just throw out a new coincidence whenever he loses momentum; everything still has to hang together and make sense in that farcical context. I don’t think Mr. Singleton has learned that lesson yet.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

2

Overqualified

It all started here. Joey Comeau needed a job. Somewhere along the way he began to exercise a little more creativity than perhaps is optimum in job application cover letters. Some are hilarious, some are poignant, some are just plain odd. None of them are bound by any sort of requirement to tell the truth.

He didn’t get any of those jobs.

After the police showed up on his doorstep one morning, he stopped actually sending the cover letters in. He continued to compose them, however, and post them on his Web site. He didn’t really want any of those jobs, anyway. Somewhere along the way he got the idea that he could use this form to tell an actual story. Each letter would in itself be significant, but when strung end-to-end they would reveal a larger story, at first hinted at and subsequently revealed.

Put another way, it’s “take what you’re doing already and repackage it in a way that you can sell.” And thus, Overqualified was born.

It is a book of moments, beads on a string that form a larger pattern. Some of those moments are pretty powerful. Some of them aren’t. They go by quickly and before you know it you’re at the end of a brief autobiography told in nuggets of nonsense.

I was a little disappointed, I guess, that many of the supposed cover letters in the book had no ties to the job being applied for. One of the fun things about the letters I linked to above is the cleverness with which he twists the job descriptions, and the decidedly odd ways he represents himself as a candidate. While it does happen occasionally in the book, I missed that cleverness much of the time.

Of course, before there was a larger story to tell, the letters were all about cleverness. The book has a larger purpose and I suppose that means trade-offs.

Comeau certainly has a gift with language. The words he chooses are often evocative as well as descriptive, and a sense of tragedy grows as we move along. He’s at his best when he’s both funny and poignant, as near the end when he applies to be a tour guide, revisiting the scenes of past failures. That bit alone is probably worth the cost of admission.

EDIT YEARS LATER: I still think about this book. Possibly you will, too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

3

The Reapers

When one is in an airport bookstore after spending ten hours on a plane with no reading material, still looking at another few hours before reaching one’s final destination, one doesn’t take chances. One buys multiple books, in different genres, to ensure that the remainder of the journey will pass smoothly. If the first novel fails to please, there is always another.

In the above paragraph, I am the One. Among the books I purchased that fateful day was The Reapers: A Thriller, by John Connolly. Yep, they put the genre right into the title, so there could be no confusion. That might be a good thing, now that I think about it, because the ‘thriller’ part of the book is a pretty simple revenge-begets-revenge storyline without too much actual thrill. Sure, there’s some suspense (not that much, though), along with plenty of violence and action — people are thrust into bad situations and have to dig themselves out. Ultimately, though, the narrative seems to exist not to thrill but to provide the author a framework to explore the soul (or lack thereof) of people who can kill a stranger in the blink of an eye. Are such men born or made?

Connolly has written several stories featuring a detective named Charlie Parker; in this installment the crusty ex-detective plays a subordinate role as the author focuses on Louis, one dangerous mo-fo to be sure. Gay, black, soft-spoken, likes country music, frighteningly cold-blooded. Louis is unusual even among killers; his ego makes no demands, even when he is motivated by revenge. He doesn’t need to see the person die, he doesn’t need to make it poetic, doesn’t need to gloat, as long his target’s heart stops beating. (Although the author glosses over one purely egotistical touch that allows the bad bad guy to get away at one point.)

How did Louis come to be this way? It’s a long story, or a short story, depending on how you look at it. The short version: some people are just born that way. The long version is told over several long flashbacks. As a young man Louis is witness to a particularly horrific hate crime. More crimes against his family follow. After Louis takes his revenge he is discovered and nurtured (or at least trained) by men who work for The Government (or do they?). Louis is retired now, the only one of his group to walk away without being killed. Or so he thought. (insert dramatic sting)

To be honest, after a while the long backstory sections started to feel redundant, as if Mr. Connolly was himself unsure of his thesis that just because Louis was a cold-blooded killer doesn’t mean he’s a bad man. At least for me, he was selling past the close. I got it about two flashbacks before Connolly was ready to trust me that I got it, and move on with the story. The rest started to feel defensive.

Naturally to bring out the best in Louis in this story he must be confronted by a rival of similar pedigree. Turns out that he and his rival have each failed to kill the other on previous occasions. Not a bad set-up by Mr. Connolly.

One of the best things about this book: No one is safe. Even people you like, some little more than innocent bystanders, are fair game. There’s no guarantee that everyone will live happily ever after. That’s critical if you aspire to the title ‘thriller’, and in this case you better not let your guard down until you’ve closed the book. Maybe I have to take back what I said about about it not having much thrill.

Still, did I really have to know the whole backstory of the hired goon who gets whacked? Three pages of backstory for his half-page of action? No, I don’t think I needed to know that. Did I need the detailed description of a rifle, just to have the bad guy choose the other rifle? No, that just came off as the author showing off. Should someone who goes into such great detail about firearms refer to ‘clips’ in an autoloading pistol? Absolutely not.

This sort of story thrives on detail, but let’s keep it to the details that matter, please, and make sure our terminology is correct. Louis would never say ‘clip’ when he means ‘magazine’, and neither should the author.

Overall, however, the rather straightforward plot was very satisfactorily balanced by the character study of the central personality. He is a complex person, a perfect storm of intelligence, physical ability, and near-complete dispassion toward his victims. Was this a thriller? I can’t say I was on the edge of my seat. Wasn’t thrilled, per se. I was interested, and I was wrapped up in the action, however, and I really liked the central characters and they way Connolly introduced them to me. Overall, a pretty good read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.