December 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
Disclaimer: Yes, I have worked out how to insert gifs into WordPress posts.
The Bone Season was one of the first books I reviewed when I first started my blog. I’d heard the buzz about the girl who was poised to become the next J. K. Rowling, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her book.
Shannon was only twenty-two when The Bone Season was published. We are just about the same age, and I was so jealous! Not only had this girl managed to write a manuscript, but she had scored an unusual deal – seven books, based on a debut. The last person to do so successfully, at least that I could think of, was…well, you know who it was.
The first time I read The Bone Season, I was completely underwhelmed. It was messy and sprawling, and I didn’t get much of a sense for any of the characters, including the protagonist. The world building was choppy and shallow at first, and then unnecessarily detailed as the book progressed – a quality that I find difficult to overcome. The most unforgiveable aspect of this much-anticipated book was much simpler than all of that. It was the way in which the author introduced the reader to the world of Sheol I.
Fantasy authors should show readers their world, not tell them about it. I can’t remember who said this, but I think that they were spot on. For two thirds of The Bone Season, Shannon condescends to tell the reader in lengthy, sometimes clumsy paragraphs, all about Scion and Sheol I. The story grinds to a halt while the reader is, quite literally, lectured about the various caste systems of each society (different, but equally detailed), about the seemingly endless types of voyants, and the many translations of the terminology used by each level of each caste of each system.
Reading The Bone Season for a second time, I can feel Shannon’s relationship with her world. Her passion for it, her desire to bring her readers into Sheol I, is alive in the pages of her book. This is a wonderful thing, but for the first two thirds of the book, she falls into the same trap that Robert Jordan did toward the end of the Wheel of Time saga – both Shannon and Jordan created rich, detailed worlds, but in doing so, forgot about the stories that brought them there in the first place.
Like Jordan, I think Shannon could experience some issues with pacing, but hers will be in reverse. Robert Jordan forgot what was happening in WoT, and went rambling with his characters. He led us through his immersive landscape in the process, but his readers were left wondering about what was happening to their beloved protagonists. Pacing in The Bone Season is quite different – it’s all very quick. In the space of one book, the author tells us about the establishment of a fascist government in London (Scion), Scion’s failure to take root in Ireland (the Molly Riots), the existence of an ancient and formidable race called the Rephaim, the troubling relationship that they have with Scion, the existence of an underground city under their control, the criminal world of the rebel voyants, the history of the rebellion against the Rephaim, when and where the language of Scion came from, and all of the many ways in which one can be clairvoyant.
Fascinating stuff, but it feels irrelevant, because there is no accompanying story – at least, not for the first two thirds of the novel.
Prior to and during my reread of The Bone Season, I have been reading another book. Shrewd readers will have already made the connection between my gripes about world building and Robert Jordan, and will have realized that this book is Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.
The second in his Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance is a testament to Sanderson’s complete control over his world building. If you’ve read The Mistborn series, you’ll know that Sanderson does not get lost, even when it seems that that is exactly what is happening. You pay attention to every detail, to every interlude, because they might become pivotal at some later point in the narrative.
It’s really unfair of me to compare The Bone Season to yet another master of the fantasy genre. First, it was J. K. Rowling, and now it’s Brandon Sanderson, who is probably my favourite author. At first, I felt bad, like I’d fallen into the trap of disappointing myself again – but then I saw it in a new way.
Samantha, if you’re reading this: I’ve been harsh on you, I know. But that’s only because I think you can take it. It’s only because I’ve been comparing you to Brandon Sanderson and J. K. Rowling.
Yes. Sanderson and Rowling. I see it. Roshar, The Final Empire, Hogwarts – and Sheol I.
Now that I’ve finished The Bone Season for a second time, I’ve taken a step back. I’ve been reading it so closely this whole time that all I could see were its faults. But this is one part of your writing, and there’s so, so much more to it.
Readers, in the final third of The Bone Season, Paige steps off the page. Her spirit unspools itself and slams into your dreamscape, and suddenly, you’re there with her. Warden, Paige’s brooding Reph keeper, is revealed to have a depth of character that I did not expect of him. A rebellion has broken, and its second wave is brewing. Paige is in a kind of triumphant state of shambles, and everything is up in the air. She’s got a million choices to make, and whichever way she turns are the tips of the many swords surrounding her.
I’m about to start book two of the series, and I promise you now, Samantha – I’m in for the long haul.
February 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.
The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.
Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.
Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.
Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.
Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.
Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self. And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.
I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!
I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!
Speaking of which, I have a Twitter also!
November 15, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’ve always had a weakness for medical thrillers. Back in high school, I went through a Robin Cook phase, and I’m not even embarrassed to admit that to you all. When I picked up PARASITE on one of my frequent trips to the bookstore, I was immediately drawn to the concept of medical parasites. Although I didn’t enjoy Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy, I decided to buy it anyway. PARASITE turned out to be the best second chance I ever gave an author.
After a car accident nearly killed her, Sally was reliant on life support. But just as her family were preparing to turn the machines off, Sal opened her eyes and sat up. The genetically modified tapeworm secreting tailored medication, vitamins and minerals in her gut had somehow brought her from a coma to consciousness. Sally Mitchell owes her life to the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard™.
Although she no longer remembers being Sally, Sal learns to walk, talk, eat and clothe herself all over again. Thanks to the Intestinal Bodyguard™, she has a second chance at life.
Sal is the first person whose implant delivered her from a coma. Now that she represents the enormous potential of the Intestinal Bodyguard™ Sal’s body has become highly valuable to the biggest company in the world… and SymboGen won’t let her forget it.
Sal isn’t stupid. She knows that SymboGen track her every move – she is simply too important for them to lose track of. Since her living memory only extends back six years, and given that she’d be dead without her tapeworm, she’s not really in a position to argue. But that doesn’t mean she trusts SymboGen, who have never really been forthcoming about why, exactly, her implant saved her.
At first, it’s a freak incident. A little girl in a shopping centre suddenly goes slack-jawed and loose-limbed, and even her mother’s frantic sobs can’t bring her back to reality. She seems to be sleepwalking, in a slumber so deep it ultimately consumes her. But then there’s another incident, and the “sleepwalker” became violent, lashing out at passers-by who got in his way. Another incident, and then another, until the “sleeping sickness” becomes a worldwide concern.
Nobody can figure out what’s caused it – except that all of the sufferers have SymboGen implants.
Sometimes humanity is the reason we can’t have nice things.
Sal is such a great character; she’s strong-willed and observant, shrewd, kind and caring. She also represents a fascinating dichotomy – she has an adult understanding of her life, and is treated as an adult by those around her, but can only remember being alive for six years. She is at once mature and naïve, and always dependent on those around her. With a medical doctor for a father, a sceptical parasitologist as a boyfriend, and the CEO of SymboGen as her protector, Sal is at the very epicentre of the sleeping sickness conspiracy. The world at large knows that it’s related to the implant, but Sal’s boyfriend Nathan suspects the company is withholding critical information from the medical community. Uniquely positioned to obtain this information, Sal begins to feel the pressure from all sides. And underneath it all, she’s worried. After all, Sal has an implant too…
Almost unintentionally, PARASITE raises some interesting ethical issues. If you wake up one day and don’t remember who you are, are you someone entirely new? Is there such a thing as cellular memory, and if there isn’t, do you have a right to the relationships and achievements of the person you don’t remember being? On the other hand, SymboGen has much to answer for. There’s no denying the fact their genetically modified Intestinal Bodyguards™ are evidence that the company has no qualms about playing God. But if something that hurts the few can truly benefit the many, is it right to withhold information about its potential danger?
I think what I found most interesting was the exploration of the ethics of the creators of the Intestinal Bodyguard™. A modified tapeworm spliced with the DNA of other organisms, D. Symbogenesis is the brainchild of three parasitologists. Pioneering the idea that parasites are our friends, Dr Steven Banks has fronted up SymboGen since the implant boomed. His mentality is gradually revealed throughout the novel in snippets of his interview entitled “King of the Worms”, published in Rolling Stone. Dr Cale was directly responsible for the final incarnation of the implant. She reveals her thoughts in excerpts of “Can of Worms”, her unpublished autobiography, where she dishes on the truth behind the world’s most important parasite. And the third doctor? Well. His thoughts come in the form of a suicide note.
“If you believed that D. Symbogenesis was the simple, easily controlled organism SymoGen described in their press releases and paperwork, you have been sold a bottle of snake oil.”
PARASITE is the best thriller I’ve read this year. This is mostly due to the fact that it was absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. I was waiting for it to eventually morph into a zombie novel, but it didn’t even come close.
The concept of people purposely ingesting parasites is a serious skin-crawler, and would probably have made for an interesting book by itself. But combined with cleverly-paced revelations, genre-melding narrative and characters that you can never quite trust, and you’ve got an unpredictable, completely engrossing page-turner.
Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I found PARASITE at Pulp Fiction. Did you know Pulp Fiction supply e-books too? Buy your e-copy of Parasite from Pulp Fiction here, for $11.99, and support my favourite bookstore.
Are you, like me, oddly fascinated by parasites? You’re weird. But we’re in this together. Check out Caustic Soda’s podcast episode on parasites. Be warned, though – Caustic Soda are not for the faint-hearted!
October 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
Werewolves have always been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. Occasionally, I allow myself to indulge in a mini-spree of lupine literature. When I requested that The Craving (the sequel to The Pack) be held for me at Pulp Fiction, my trusted source recommended that I give The Last Werewolf a try. Given my affection for werewolves and the fact that Pulp Fiction’s recommendations have never let me down, I didn’t need to deliberate too long before deciding to buy it, too.
The Last Werewolf is a punch in the gut. You think you know what to expect, but it floors you anyway. And even once the shock of it is over, you can still feel the persistent ache from the impact. It’s that good.
Now, there are a few things you need to know before you pick this book up.
Firstly, The Last Werewolf is NOT another post-Twilight foray into human-lupine relationships. There is no paranormal romance here, readers, and if that’s what you’re into, I’d advise you to leave The Last Werewolf on the shelf.
Jake Marlowe is (as you might have guessed) the last known werewolf in the world. For centuries, he’s been hunted by the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), but he’s managed to avoid being caught. Although he’d like to be able to say that this was due to his own cunning, the fact of the matter is that for the last fifty years, he’s had a man on the inside – his best friend Harley.
Now that he’s been confirmed as the very last of his kind, Jake has jumped to the very top of the wanted list. Harley, now in his seventies, begs him to flee from civilisation, but Jake refuses. After nearly three hundred years of life as a werewolf, he’s ready for the end. Tortured by the Curse that falls upon him with the turning of the moon, Jake is at the constant mercy of the wolf that shares his soul. He is a monster and a man at once, and the impossibility of this existence has readied him for death.
Unfortunately for Jake, this isn’t good enough for WOCOP. They’re ready for a fight, and they’re pulling every dirty trick they know to try coax the lupine aggression out of Jake. He’s not willing to play, though – the way he sees it, if WOCOP want his life, they can take it on his own terms. But then the impossible happens, and Jake finds that his priority is no longer to seek death – rather, he’s found a reason to stay alive.
Yes, there is love in this book. A huge, transcendent love. Romance, though? Not a skerrick.
Second thing to consider before reading The Last Werewolf: this book is heavy on the prose.I don’t mean that the author throws in one too many adverbs; in parts, The Last Werewolf reads like song lyrics (which is not all that surprising, given that Nick Cave’s recommendation is on its cover). It’s not an easy read, and you need to invest yourself in the novel if you really want to get something out of it. If you’re not keen on abstract, poetic prose, it’s not for you.
Duncan’s writing makes Jake’s experiences intensely personal. His observations, his actions and his thoughts are relayed to the reader with astonishing clarity and poignancy. In fact, Duncan’s narration is so intimate that the reader begins to truly suffer alongside Jake.
When I first started the book, I became quite bogged down in Duncan’s writing. It might even be fair to say that the beginning of the book is a little overwritten. However, I had been warned that this might happen, and I was determined to get past it. About a quarter into the story, something clicked for me and the author’s obsessively descriptive prose became the rhythm of the narrative. The beauty of Duncan’s writing contrasts sharply with the brutality of the story, and the book itself becomes an embodiment of the werewolf dichotomy – the hideous and the human, bound in a singularity.
In their cellular prison my devoured dead roused. (A consequence of eating people: the ingested crave company. Every new victim adds a voice to the monthly chorus.)
Lastly, The Last Werewolf is a very dark book. At its heart, it is a gritty exploration of a semi-suicidal mentality. It would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for the fact that Jake is a werewolf. The supernatural aspect allows the reader to distance themselves from the reality of such a mindset, given that it forces the narrative into the realm of the fictional. As his relationships are altered and developed, Jake’s psychological state changes, but it’s not an easy shift to endure. I became so emotionally invested in this book that I had to set it aside more than once. Unable to process any more devastation, I simply would have to close the novel and read something cheerfully trashy for a while, until I had prepared myself to re-enter Jake’s life.
Duncan demolishes the werewolf and builds it back up again, crafting an explosively convincing portrayal of a very modern monster. A highly literary, heavily written deconstruction of the traditional werewolf mythos, this book is not for the faint hearted, nor for the casual reader.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I keep telling myself I’m just an outmoded idea. But you know, you find yourself ripping a child open and swallowing its heart, it’s tough not to be overwhelmed by… the concrete reality of yourself.’
I honestly couldn’t decide whether to post a review of this book or not. I loved it so much, but it’s so hard to explain why I loved it that I felt I couldn’t do it justice. In the end, I decided to just do it anyway. If I convince someone else to read this book, I’ll have done it a service. If you would like a copy, give Pulp Fiction Booksellers a call on (07) 3236-2750.
Incidentally, my copy of the sequel to The Last Werewolf, Tallula Rising, should arrive on Tuesday. To say that I am impatient would be a gross understatement.